So, it turns out the long-predicted demise of the turntable has been exaggerated. 25 years after the launch of CD, that ol' tradition of listening to music on flawed-yet-fabulous vinyl simply refuses to go away. But are you making sure your deck is performing to its musical best?
The answer may well be no. Part of the charm of a turntable is the fact of its visible moving parts. A CD player may be more basic and convenient to use – there's no turning the disc over halfway through the album, for one thing – and yet the allure of a record deck is that there's just something very real about watching it in action.
But it means all those moving parts need to be correctly calibrated and aligned – and that mean means you need to set it up, thoroughly and carefully.
For starters, turntables are sensitive to placement and environment. Even suspension designs – which have a built-in design to disperse unwanted vibrations from below – sound better when placed with care.
Also, place your turntable as far away from the speakers as you can, to minimise external vibrations to the cartridge. Use a dedicated stand, and keep the arm wires well away from mains leads. This ups clarity and reduces hum.
The next step is perhaps the most important of all: cartridge alignment. Get this step wrong by even a degree, and distortion increases dramatically.
Most turntable manufacturers supply an alignment gauge with their products, so you've got no excuse. Take your time, and make sure the cartridge lines up exactly with the marks. Get it right, and it will optimise the sound and reduce vinyl wear.
The next thing you should consider is tracking force and bias.
All cartridges come with a specified weight that should force the needle onto the record. Too high, and the sound is dull and lifeless. Too low, and it'll be insubstantial and edgy, with the cartridge even jumping the groove on occasion.
Bias is the side-ways force that balances the inward pull of the groove. Get it right, and you'll hear a marked improvement in sound, with less distortion and greater clarity
Another issue worth bearing in mind is tonearm height. This isn't always adjustable on all arms, but where you can, it's well well worth tinkering with. The idea is to adjust the pillar height so that the stylus is sitting upright in the groove, not leaning backwards or forwards.
Get this right and you'll have an even tonal balance. If the tonearm is too high, the treble will be overly (and unrealistically) emphasised. If it's too low, the sound will become dull and leaden, and the rhythmic benefits of listening to vinyl will be significantly lessened. As with all these adjustments, you should experiment a little. You'll learn to hear the exact point at which the arm sounds best.
In general, the most important thing is to take your time when you're making these adjustments. The components on a turntable are extremely delicate and subtle, and the slightest adjustment can make a big difference to the sound.
With the the benefit of hindsight, we can see – and hear – that vinyl has alluring qualities that mean it just won't go away.
While CDs have been a godsend in terms of reliability and robustness (as well as convenience and sound quality), good old-fashioned vinyl offers certain qualities – rhythmic timing and realistic midrange warmth, to take two examples – that CD simply can't do quite as well.
So, whatever turntable you decide to buy, remember that it's a subtle music machine that's capable of great things – if you treat it right. Take your time with these procedures and you'll end up confident in the knowledge that your turntable is performing to the best of its sonic ability.