This was advice originally given to a friend over a series of emails.  Some people like to listen to themselves talk; I like to read what I write. So it got long winded.  Also, I’m a nerd.  My friend suggested I put this somewhere that others might benefit, so I am.  Instead of pouring through audiophile reviews of multi-thousand dollar turntables, cartridges, and preamps, here’s a down-to-earth rundown of what to look for in your first turntable.  It’s all my opinion, but I guarantee that it’s all 100% correct.  I’ll update the content over time and generally organize things a little better, so if you’re reading this sentence, don’t sweat the formatting or typos (natch).

Direct Drive or Belt Drive?

Well [redacted], a direct drive turntable has a motor directly coupled to the platter (which is where you put your record).  Most would say this offers better speed stability, but introduces the possibility of a higher noise floor through vibrations generated by the motor.  A belt drive turntable’s motor is connected to the platter/sub-platter via a rubber drive belt.  This better decouples the motor from the platter/record (potentially reducing noise) but also may have less speed stability.  Speed stability issues result in that wavering note kind of sound on tones that shouldn’t have any vibrato effect (but it’s usually pretty subtle).

I’ve owned both types of turntables, but mine isn’t a fair comparison because my direct drive table was an old crusty thing I bought at a thrift store and my belt drive turntables have been more modern hifi.  You will find that few hifi/audiophile/stereo companies make direct-drive turntables, but that direct drive is common and desirable on DJ decks.  A frequently recommended (and easy to find used) direct drive turntable is the Technics SL1200.  Beyond that, stereo nerds don’t usually recommend, know about or care too much for direct drive.  I suspect it’s more the DJ association than any actual problems with the tables, though.

Because there’s no belt to wear out, a used direct drive table is less likely to need any work to make it run.  That said, belts are cheap and easy to replace on most belt drive tables.  Good bets on modestly priced belt drive turntables would be Music Hall, Pro-Ject, U-Turn and Rega (used).  Thorens, Linn and Dual are also common used and very nice, but they’re more involved to setup and repair if something isn’t working right when you plug it in, so don’t buy one…yet.

MM or MC?

MM is a moving magnet cartridge and MC is moving coil.  It’s a difference in how the cartridge converts the motion of the needle into their tiny electrical signals.  MMs have higher output, but most of the top-of-the-line and most-highly-regarded cartridges are MC.  So, of course, MCs are typically a higher price point and do require some extra hardware to work correctly.  You’d likely spend at least $500 on the cartridge+preamp for an entry level true MC (in addition to the cost of a turntable).

I’ve always used MMs because: a) I’m a poor music salesman and b) the rest of my equipment is probably not good enough to reflect the diminishing returns in super high end cartridges anyways.  In the <$150 cartridge realm, some of the most common easy-to-find recommendations are Grado (Green, Blue or Red), Shure (M97EX or something like that), Ortofon (2m Red), and Denon (DL-110).  The Denon is actually a high output MC, which theoretically doesn’t need extra hardware, but at this price point that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s obviously better.  I have an Ortofon 2m Blue on my turntable right now.

I’d spend about as much on a needle/cartridge as on a turntable if buying them separately (ie used), but either can be changed independently of the other.  If on a limited budget, get the nicer needle and the cheaper turntable.  The sound has more to do with the former than the latter and you can always move a nice needle to your new deck if you upgrade.  Buying a nice table and a crappy needle would just sound crappy and you’d have no choice but to ditch vinyl or buy a new needle to be able to enjoy it.

If you’re looking at new turntables, most companies put something fairly decent on the table to start so you really don’t have to worry about the cartridge until you break the old one doing something drunk/stupid.  True story.

What about the tonearm?

If you’re considering buying a separate plinth/platter/motor and tonearm, you’re a huge dork (and I applaud you).  Because most tables, new and used, will come with the original tonearm installed, you don’t need to worry much about brands or costs of the tonearms individually.  However, there’s some features and factors you want to pay at least some attention to:

Cartridge Mounting

You’ll find both Universal Mount (AKA P-mount) and Standard Mount cartridge tonearms.  Traditionally, like motor-drives, this is a difference between DJ and consumer-style turntables.  Universal Mount is favored by DJs because it allows very quick, on-the-fly cartridge swapping with (usually) no tweaking of any kind.  Standard Mount is a little more involved during the setup process, but it gives the user a lot more leeway to achieve the optimum playback for critical listening (which is more important at home than at the club).

Unless you absolutely, positively cannot spend any time fiddling with your turntable (and who could resist), definitely make sure you can use standard mount cartridges on your tonearm.  To complicate matters, there are adapters to convert Universal to Standard Mount (ironic, isn’t it?), but then you’re spending additional money to make a turntable designed with DJs in mind work in a home setting.  Don’t worry about them unless someone gives you a DJ deck or you find a really good deal on a SL1200.

Cueing, Auto-cueing, Start/Stop

Any tables/tonearms you consider should have a Cue Arm or Arm Lift.  I don’t consider it an optional feature.  You use this to ‘cue’ your tonearm above the track you want to play and then gently lower the arm and needle down onto the record.  The first thing to show the wife is how to use the cue arm.  If you really need to live on the edge, you can lower the arm by hand, but I don’t see any benefit in doing this other than the rush of adrenaline it might provide.

Some turntables will have auto-cueing or automatic start and stop.  It’s not really a necessary feature and just adds to the moving parts on your turntable, so I don’t make it a priority.  I will say though, that auto-stop isn’t bad.  It will keep your needle from spinning endlessly at the end of the record if you leave the room or forget to turn your table off.  Most modern turntables are pretty purist in design, so you’ll see this on used turntables more than new ones.

Tonearm Shape

Don’t worry about it too much.  S-shaped tonearms (usually older and/or DJ) tend to have higher mass, while straight tonearms (more popular these days) are lower mass.  The mass of the tonearm will somewhat dictate what kind of cartridge works best for you, but there’s good designs of both arm shapes out there and hundreds of cartridge options.  If you’re looking for a tonearm with a Standard Mount anyways (and you should be), you’ll probably find more straight tonearms.

Phono Preamp?

If you don’t have one built in to your current receiver/integrated amp, you probably already know you need a phono preamp, so that pretty much sums up that chapter.  Make sure the phono preamp you go with is designed for the appropriate cartridge (MM or MC), though many will do both (with a switchable gain stage for MC).  Pricing is all over the place for these and I’m sure Behringer or someone like that makes something really cheap, but plan on spending at least $100 in order to not compromise the performance of your sweet new rig.  Brands to look for are often the same brands you’ll see on turntables and cartridges (Rega, Pro-Ject, Grado, etc), not that these have to match by any means.  More money usually gets you better sound (and better noise suppression), but the law of diminishing returns applies as always.

Another common budget-minded approach is to buy a vintage receiver with phono built in.  Marantz and Sansui are well respected vintage brand-names, but that also means they’ll carry a certain premium.  There are plenty of other brand options out there to just get some vinyl spinning, but be advised that vintage receivers can be a gamble if they haven’t ever been serviced (ie re-capped).  Some may play another ten years, while others give up the ghost as soon as you push the volume past 3 o’clock (another true story).  Caveat emptor.

 

VTF, VTA, Anti-Skate, RPM, WTF?

The last thing to think about is setup, and while that’s going to depend on your cartridge and turntable choices to a certain extent, here’s some basic terms and guidance:

VTF is Vertical Tracking Force

This one is important.  Depending on what cartridge you use, you’ll need to adjust the weight applied to it by tonearm.  Most often this will be adjusted with a small weight on the end of the arm opposite the cartridge (on the other side of the pivot point).  Think of this as a simple lever, with the cartridge and the counterweight exerting forces at either end of the arm’s pivot point, which acts as a fulcrum.  More than one method for setting your VTF exists, including the use of force-gauges, swapping counter-weights, adding weight at the cartridge, and plenty of other scientific-principle-turned-commercial-products.  But what follows is an explanation that requires no new tools or fancy tonearm modifications.

  • First, partially cue up the tonearm with the arm lift so that it’s prevented from bouncing your expensive needle off of the plinth or platter during the following steps.  Your turntable does not need to be running in order to set the weight, but if it automatically powers on when you cue the arm, it’s ok.
  • If your tonearm has a slider, knob, or lever that sets VTF, set this to zero now.  If it doesn’t, skip this step.
  • Now what you want to do is adjust the weight on the end of the tonearm until the arm is ‘floating’ level.  This typically involves simply turning the weight on the arm so that it inches forwards (towards the pivot point) or backwards (to the end of the tonearm).
  • Is your arm floating?  Great, you’ve now found your zero grams setting!
  • Your cartridge has a range of weights (given in grams) that provide optimum performance.  Check your cartridge manual or the manufacturer’s website to find the recommended tracking force.
  • If your arm is floating, it means you have zero grams of force on the cartridge.  Knowing your cartridge’s recommended tracking force, you now need to adjust the weight to unbalance the arm (and apply a couple of grams on the cartridge end).  Yes, all the finicky back and forth work with the counterweight and the hair you pulled out struggling to make it float just right is going to be undone.  I’m sorry.
  • Depending on your tonearm, this final weight adjustment can work in multiple ways:
    • If your counterweight has progressive numbers and lines around its circumference (or if these are printed on the tonearm itself where the counterweight rides), you use these to know how far to turn it (so that it moves towards the pivot point thereby increasing the weight on the cartridge end).  Add the recommended tracking force to the number or fraction facing upwards with the arm floating and then turn the counterweight until the sum of floating weight and recommended force is shown (eg. if it floats with the weight showing 1.25 and the recommended force is 1.5-2.0, you want to turn the weight until it shows 2.75-3.25).
    • If your counterweight does not have graded numbers and markings (most Regas do not), you have a lever, knob, or slider somewhere else on the table that should be used to set the VTF.  This should have some kind of markings to indicate its setting.  Simply adjust this knob/slider/lever to the recommended VTF after finding the counterweight position that floats the arm.
    • If your turntable does not have markings on the counterweight (or the part of the arm that the weight rides on) and it does not have a separate mechanism that adjusts VTF, you may have to set the VTF with a scale and the position of the counterweight itself.  Check your turntable’s manual because I could be wrong.  There are too many tonearm complications to completely cover here.

VTA or Vertical Tracking Angle

Don’t worry about this on your first turntable.  As long as your tonearm angles SLIGHTLY down towards the record when it’s playing, you’re all good.  VTA is not something to worry about fiddling with until you’ve spent big bucks on a cartridge and you need to squeeze every last micro-gram of performance from it.

Anti-Skate Bias

This is what prevents your tonearm from sliding across the record and making that awesome full-stop-WTF sound effect.  In real life it is not awesome and can damage your needle and record.  Adjust your anti-skate bias to roughly the same number as the recommended tracking force of your cartridge or until your tonearm stops flying all over the place when you try to play a record.

RPM or Speed Adjustment

Turntables with a speed adjustment typically have a small strobe that shines on the edge of the platter.  The edge of the platter has divisions around the circumference.  This isn’t there just to look cool, it’s also used to set the correct speed.  When set to the correct speed (for a 33 1/3), the largest markings on the edge of the platter will appear to stand still due to the strobe effect.  Adjustments are usually made with a knob, wheel, or slider.  This is usually a set-it-and-forget-it adjustment, so don’t worry about fiddling with it once it’s set unless you get a chuckle out of the Chipmunks Sing Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable.

 

Snaps, Crackles, and Pops (and Distortion)

Distortion can be coming from anywhere in the signal chain, but I always start at the source and then work my way to the speakers to track it down.  If it distorts when you turn it up, then I’d guess that the amplifier is at fault because the cartridge and preamp aren’t variable output; they just do what they do no matter how loud the speakers are.  If it distorts only when the recorded music gets loud, it could be anything, but I’d look at the turntable first.  First and foremost, louder music means more needle movement (greater amplitude of the grooves).

Your cartridge picks up the physical modulation of the groove and changes it into a tiny voltage (something like .005 V) and then the preamp amplifies that voltage to line level (1-2 V, several hundred times the cartridge’s signal).  Any distortion that the needle is creating, from grit in the groove or misalignment, is being amplified A LOT by the preamp (in turn amplified by the amplifier).  If the record is clean, double check that your cartridge is aligned well with a protractor before you worry about replacing equipment:

http://www.vinylengine.com/cartridge-alignment-protractors.shtml

If that doesn’t fix the distortion issue, then I’d start trying different preamps.  If that doesn’t work, I’d start switching amplifiers.

Pops, surface noise, and rumble are different than distortion but they can also usually be tracked to the table itself.  Rumble, can be caused by the table if the running of the motor’s mechanicals is coupled to the platter or the tonearm (through the plinth).  Adding dampening to the plinth or decoupling the motor can sometimes fix this issue, so can making sure you have a high-pass filter on your subwoofer.  Or just turn down the bass a bit and live with it.

Surface noise and pops are typically caused by dirt or static on the record.  They are a fact of vinyl life, but they can be minimized:

  • Make sure your records are clean and try an anti-static brush or cleaning solution if you find it unbearable
  • Cartridges with finer styli ride deeper in the groove and help to avoid some of the surface noise that may be caused by dirt or previous needles that chewed up the vinyl
  • Pops are exacerbated by lower-quality phono preamps because it causes them to clip (which causes sudden unpleasant distortion), better preamps don’t eliminate the pops, but they do avoid clipping (or clip ‘softly’) and thus make the pops much less offensive or noticeable

Tube vs Solid State Phono Preamp

A good phono preamp should be designed around the following:

  • multiple gain options to accommodate various carts and/or overall system (approximately 40-50db for MM and 60-70db for MC)
  • the ability to change cartridge loading characteristics to suit the cart
  • enough “headroom” so that clicks and pops do not clip the gain devices
  • low and/or unobjectionable distortion
  • an accurate (or at least consistent) RIAA network
  • low or no noise when in use in a system
  • bonus: low output impedance for easy integration with other components

Tubes present inherent challenges to the last couple of factors:

  • an accurate (or at least consistent) RIAA network
  • low or no noise when in use in a system

Each of these obstacles can be overcome, but addressing them comes at the cost of additional complexity, adding to retail cost and (theoretically) lowering reliability. Tubes age over time and their characteristics slowly change; this makes designing a consistent RIAA network difficult. Replacement tubes will also have slight variations (one could argue that this is part of the fun of a tube device though). Minimizing noise in a tube phono preamp often necessitates DC heaters and a separate (or very large) enclosure to keep the high voltage power supply away from tiny phono signals.

On the other hand, tubes excel at the following:

  • enough “headroom” so that clicks and pops do not clip the gain devices
  • low and/or unobjectionable distortion

Tubes run at high voltage can be very linear voltage amplification devices. High voltage also generally means that designing for plenty of headroom is not a problem. What distortion is generated by tubes (within a reasonable design) is generally even-order harmonics. In a couple of the psychoacoustic studies I’ve read, listeners identify this as a “fuller” sound, not a distorted sound.

The above is all relative, of course, and where tubes fail, solid state often excels. There are exceptions to these generalizations, but I think this important to point out for if/when you begin considering preamps and their relative merits (assuming cost is a factor in your decision).

In my system, I favor discrete no-feedback solid state phono preamps because I feel they give me some of the benefits of tubes (pleasant distortion/overload characteristics) without some of the drawbacks (consistent RIAA, low noise without a large enclosure or complex power supply). Opamp-based preamps can also be very good, though in my (subjective) experience, they sound less organic (sorry for the audiophile vocabulary term).

Finally, far be it from me to try and talk anyone out of a tube anything. TL;DR Tubes are very cool and fun to play with and listen to, but they aren’t without tradeoffs in any application. Denying their weaknesses or considering them the ultimate SQ solution to everything is what leads to silly SS vs tube, objective vs subjective, high-end vs affordable butthurts.

Have fun. Enjoy music.

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