Skip to main content

Record Store Day 2020: how to choose the right record player

How to choose the right record player (and set it up)
(Image credit: Future)

Your record player really should be the star of your system. Its beating heart might be the amplifier, and the speakers are its face, but your source is why you built the system in the first place. It is dictated by how you want to consume music, and you’ll interact with no other component as much as you do a turntable.

That puts quite a bit of pressure on choosing the right one, however, and with so many variables and so much choice it can help to have a hand to hold through the process. That’s what we’ll try to provide here.

We’ll talk you through how to budget and all the items you’ll need to consider, what your options are in terms of features, and how to set it up for the best-possible sound.

So whether you’re in the market for a first record player, or you’re looking to upgrade from something that just isn’t doing it for you anymore, read on for our complete guide to buying a turntable.

Budget

(Image credit: Future)

If you’ve done any sort of research before arriving at this page, you’ll likely have encountered a huge number of all-in-one, briefcase-style record players with enticingly low prices to match their basic straightforwardness. If this is what you’re after, then we’d only ask you to check the tracking weight of the cartridge – many of them can track at around 10g, which is four or five times heavier than ideal and extremely capable of ripping your vinyl to shreds

All the ones we’ve heard sound poor, too, but the point here is that unless you’ve really set your heart on an all-in-one vinyl system, then your turntable budget will also have to stretch to at least a speaker of some sort (and maybe some stands).

If you’re starting from scratch and want a traditional set-up, you’ also need an amplifier, speaker cables and interconnects, and – unless there’s one built in to either your turntable or amplifier – a phono stage.

Of all this, the record player itself shouldn’t really be much more than a quarter of your overall budget. Your system is still going to work even if you have a deck that the speakers and amp can’t justify, but it’s going to be severely hampered; there’s no point overspending on one component when you could have better spent the money on another.

There are many variations of this traditional set-up that can sound great with fewer components, too, of course. As we mentioned above, a phono stage is often built in to turntables and amplifiers – in which case you can worry about getting an outboard one when you want to upgrade later on – and you can even strip things back to only a turntable and a pair of active speakers (and no cables, if they’re both capable of playing wirelessly).

Even if you already have the rest of your system, and you have a wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket, it’s worth thinking about how a turntable costing that much would complement what you have.

Is it going to be hamstrung by your amp or cabling – in which case you’ll need some budget for another upgrade elsewhere – or are you in fact not spending enough to hear a huge difference over the record player you already have? You can always save up for another few months, or make a number of less costly changes that can upgrade your sound more than you’d think.

Your local hi-fi shop can of course help you with the specifics of the equipment you have and your personal needs, but the key is to remember your budget for any audio component is rarely just all the money at your disposal – think about the whole system.

Features

(Image credit: Future)

Setting an early budget will at least pare down your list of turntables for which you’ll want to read the reviews and, ideally, hear for yourself. The other thing that will help this trimming is to make a list of the features you desire in your new deck.

An easy one to begin with is how many speeds you need it to spin. Every turntable we test can play at both 33⅓rpm and 45pm, but 78rpm is especially rare in budget to midrange decks. Only the most wilful artists and labels are likely to release any 78rpm discs these days – even the few 10-inch records released are unlikely to go at that speed – but it might be imperative if you have an old collection or are thinking of spending a fortune on Discogs for old rarities.

On a related note, you’ll likely be keen to avoid manually changing the speed if you have a diverse collection. The term ‘automatic’ when it comes to turntables can mean a few things these days – right up to the tonearm doing all its own work at the push of a button – but it certainly isn’t too much to ask to have a switch for speed change.

The only time you won’t have that is on certain belt-driven decks. You can read all about the difference between belt-driven and direct drive turntables on our dedicated page, though it is more of a concern for engineers about how to create the best-sounding record player; the only time it ought really affect your search is if you want to DJ – in which case you will ideally need direct drive – or if the particular belt-driven turntable you’re going for has manual speed change. 

Far more important are the features that dictate what you need in the rest of your system, such as phono amplification and wireless capabilities. The former is most common, and there are plenty of great-sounding record players that have n integrated phono stage. 

Audio-Technica AT-LP7 Turntable

(Image credit: Audio-Technica)

The physical limitations of vinyl mean that the original signal has to be altered before it can be recorded – low frequencies are reduced in level and the highs are boosted.

The curve that governs this equalisation was set by the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) years ago. If you’ve ever plugged a turntable directly into a line-level input you know you get a very quiet sound – and also one that is thin and bright, with no bass frequencies to speak of.

Every phono stage has the reverse response built into it – one that boosts bass and flattens treble to exactly the right degree. The result should be a tonally even presentation. A phono stage is also an amplifier. Cartridge signals can be as low as a thousandth of a volt (CD’s output is specified at 2V) so the signal has to be amplified massively before the line-level stage of an amplifier can take over.

Having the phono stage built in to your turntable can be handy as it’ll free up a bit of cash if you don’t need an outboard unit, but leaves you free to upgrade later on – as long as the deck you choose can bypass its own amplifier, which most can.

Over the past couple of years, you’ve also been able to get an Award-winning turntable without the need for any extra amplification at all, thanks to the Pro-Ject Juke Box E. It has preamp and power amp built-in, making it a true, just-add-speakers system. The only issue with units like this is that future upgrades are going to be more tricky – as with any all-in-one component – but its performance is so adept that you’re unlikely to find a group of separates that sounds hugely better for the price anyway.

You can also stream to the Juke Box E, but the more common form of wireless record player is one that can send the signal to a pair of wireless speakers. Good-sounding Bluetooth turntables are available for very little money, but you can go right up to a four-figure unit such as the Cambridge Audio Alva TT for a more high-end wireless system. It’s a great space-saving solution that’ll also avoid the need for cables running around your room.

Another way the turntable industry has moved into the 21st century is with the ability to rip your vinyl to digital files. It’s a bit of a niche – unless your collection is full of rarities, it’s likely most will already be on the major streaming services – but it does save you having to buy music twice in order to have it on your smartphone or portable music player. Decks such as the Sony PS-HX500 can even record your vinyl in hi-res quality, meaning you don’t have to put up with sub-par files, either.

The cartridge

(Image credit: Rega)

The cartridge isn’t perhaps something you need to worry about straight away – pretty much all budget and mid-range turntables come with one fitted, so you only really need to find a package you like the sound of as a whole – but it’s a good budget-friendly future upgrade, and it’s good to understand anyway.

It’s the job of the cartridge to track the groove. More specifically, it is the job of the stylus tip to do so. The tip is made of a very hard substance, normally diamond. But don’t get too excited – it’s industrial diamond rather than the really valuable stuff.

This diamond tip is usually shaped into a small point that sits in the record groove and follows the wiggles as the record turns.

The nature and degree of the stylus’s movement is what translates into the varying frequencies and volume that you hear through the speakers. This movement is carried through the cantilever – the shaft to which the stylus tip is attached – and into the cartridge body.

There are two types of cartridge: moving magnet and moving coil. They both work on the principle of using movement to induce current thanks to magnetic fields.

But, as the names imply, in one the magnet moves to induce current while in the other the coil does so and the magnet is fixed. So, assuming we’re talking about a moving magnet cartridge, in the case of our example a tiny magnet is attached to the hidden end of the cantilever; as the stylus tip moves around, it does too.

The magnet’s varying field causes current to flow in the tiny coils positioned close by, and this is the signal that comes out the back of the cartridge to be fed into your amplifier or phono stage.

Moving-magnet cartridges tend to be consistent in terms of their electrical requirements, so phono stage manufacturers can design a single circuit that will suit (almost) all. Things aren’t so simple with moving coils.

High-output MC designs aren’t far off their MM cousins in terms of level, while low-output variants produce just a fraction of that. This means adjustable gain in the phono stage is desirable to optimise the sound in terms of signal to noise. While 40dB of gain is fine for most moving magnets, MCs will sometimes need anything from around 50dB to 70dB.

Moving coils also vary in their requirements of resistance, capacitance and inductance – all three add up to make the overall impedance.

Generally, it’s easier to find a good-sounding moving magnet cartridge on a budget – so no point switching yours out unless you’re getting a proper upgrade with an MC version, and one your turntable can justify – but either way you’ll need to make sure your phono stage is compatible with the kind of cartridge you choose.

If your cartridge doesn’t come already fixed to your turntable, or if you’re changing from one to another, it’s worth reading our guide on how to fit a new cartridge to your turntable and checking out our list of the best cartridges you can buy.

Pairing

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

System-building always deserves careful thought, but it can be even more significant with a turntable where there are even more components to match.

We’ve written about how to build the perfect hi-fi system before, but it’s worth noting here that many turntable manufacturers like to dial in a bit of what you might term ‘analogue warmth’ – really just emphasising the idea you’re listening to vinyl rather than a digital reproduction. 

That’s fine, if that’s the kind of character you’re after, but it does mean you’ll need to be a bit more careful with the rest of your system – too much emphasis on lower-mid frequencies, for example, can all add up to make a muddy, slovenly sound. If you want to hear precisely what your deck is saying, you’ll want to major on transparency elsewhere in the system. It’s a bit like a relationship, where opposing characteristics can actually be the most complementary.

Whatever you end up deciding, it’s always best practice to test the turntable you’re thinking of buying with the kit you’re going to pair it with. It might be irritating having to take your whole system to a dealership (or asking them to source it), but it’s the only way you can really be sure how a record player will sound once you get it home – and your dealer might well have some good suggestions that you hadn’t considered. 

Setting up

It’s worth visiting our dedicated pages on how to set up your turntable and how to get the best sound from your turntable, but there are a few things you can think about before you even get it home.

Most important is positioning and support. The surface on which you place your record player needs to be perfectly level, low resonance and positioned as far away from sources of vibration as possible – and that includes your speakers.

On a hard concrete floor, a floorstanding support will work fine – but the same support will emphasise footfall on a suspended wooden floor. If you have such a floor construction, we would recommend investing in a dedicated wall shelf. This kind of support avoids the footfall issue totally. Just make sure you use proper heavy-duty mounting screws and fixings, or the consequence could be expensive.

Most decks have some sort of isolation built in. At its simplest, this could be something like rubber feet, or it could go all the way to a fully suspended design. The better the isolation, the less fussy the deck will be about its support. But even the most sophisticated designs will perform better with careful placement and a good support.

As for the actual set-up, a lot of turntables right up to the high-end are now pretty much plug-and-play, with just a few adjustments for tracking weight and bias to be made, and the documentation with your deck should talk you through that sufficiently.

You might want to invest in some dedicated scales, though, which will give you more accurate readings of what you’re tonearm is doing while allowing for easier adjustments in the future. Decent models can be picked up on the cheap, though as with anything in hi-fi, you can end up spending as much as you have in the bank.

As ever when choosing and setting up an audio component, the proof is in the listening. Whether it’s choosing the turntable you like, or fiddling with fractions of grams of tracking weight, it’s the sound you like that really matters.

If you follow the steps above, and in the linked articles, it should just make it a bit easier to arrive at that winning combination.

MORE: