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Turntables: 101



Let’s face it, you can’t hold an MP3, and scrolling through pages of track names isn't nearly as fun as flipping through a pile of records. The physicality of vinyl has a richness of experience that just can't be beat. Moreover, the memories of playing vinyl and the social interaction are without compare. -- your used copy of the Stones Let it Bleed that also served as a coaster at your last great party. The first record you played in your first apartment. The record you played when you invited your soon-to-be-girlfriend/boyfriend over for the first time. Do any of us remember the last time we played a digital album? Moreover, a vinyl collection still inspires lust and admiration and shows more about who you are than any iTunes playlist ever could. With all your favorite artists new and old pressing their works onto vinyl, there has never been a better time to get started. Even a modest collection of 25 or 100 LPs will bring countless hours of enjoyment and deep satisfaction. If you don’t know how to get started on your way to vinyl nirvana, here's a breakdown for you:

Speakers - They make the sound

Every system needs speakers of some kind. They're what converts the electricity from your amp into actual sound. There are two types of speakers – active and passive. Every speaker needs to be amplified. The difference between the two types is that active speakers have their amplifier built-in and passive speakers use an external one. As with all things dedicated, there's usually much higher quality on tap if you use a passive speaker with a dedicated amplifier. Not only can you mix and match exactly the quality and size you want, but down the road you can upgrade one or the other. With active, you're stuck. Active has it's advantages too, mainly low price and compactness. If you're on a tight budget or literally have zero space, there are some good active options too. If you already have some speakers you can check to see whether they're active or passive. If they have a power cable that plugs into the wall, they’re active. Do they have a couple of plugs in the back? Maybe labeled red, black or positive and negative? Then they’re passive. Check out our big list of speakers to see what suits your budget.

Amplifier - It powers the speakers and connects your sources

Mies i100 AmplifierThe amplifier serves a few purposes, whether it's built into the speaker or whether you use a dedicated external unit. The amplifier powers the speakers and acts as a hub for your sources. Your turntable, CD player, Xbox, computer - whatever you’d like to be listening to will need to plug into your amplifier. When selecting an amplifier it’s important to consider what else you’ll be using it for in addition to your turntable. Most active speakers have only 1 or 2 inputs so they're limited in how much of a system you can build. An external amp will almost always have more flexibility. We recommend looking for a nice 2-channel amplifier which is good for 2 speakers, left and right. Some have outputs for 4 speakers, or even surround sound, but the best quality is found in ones optimized for 2 -- pure stereo. Another consideration is whether to buy an amplifier with an internal phono preamp. If you already have an amplifier take a look at the back where the inputs are located. If you see an input labeled “Phono”, you can plug a turntable in there. But, you can often do a lot better with a dedicated external phono preamp.

Phono Preamp - It boosts the signal from a cartridge

Graham Slee CommunicatorThe phono preamplifier, or ‘phono stage’, is one of the most vital components in any turntable system. Without one, your records will be too quiet and will have little to no bass response. A phono preamplifier performs two very important functions:

  1. The signal the cartridge needle creates when it reads a record groove is extremely quiet. A phono preamp boosts this signal about 100x up to a similar level as a CD player so that it's usable for the amplifier. A good phono preamp will perform this amplification with enough finesse to avoid adding any unwanted noise or distortions. A poor one will sound noisy, flat and boring. Because there is such a huge amount of amplifiying the phono preamp is doing, it's really easy to get big improvements in sound if you get a good one.
  2. In addition to this volume boost, the phono preamp has a set equalizer for listening to vinyl. Low bass frequencies physically require more space in a record groove than higher frequencies, so the recording industry has created a standard adjustment known as the RIAA equalization to free up more room on a record by artificially shrinking them in. The phono preamp applies an exactly opposite conversion and expands that bass to how it's supposed to sound. Obviously, the better a phono stage does this, the more accurate, detailed and powerful the bass will be. There are huge differences in the quality between phono preamps in this regard. 
A phono preamp can come in three different forms: built into the turntable, built into your amplifier, or as an external component. If your amplifier does not have an input labeled ‘Phono’ and your table does not have a built-in preamp, you will need an external phono preamp. Choosing a separate phono stage is definitely recommended and it keeps the door open to upgrade down the line if you want to improve your setup.

Turntable - It turns the record and the tonearm holds the cartridge

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC TurntablePerhaps the most obvious part of your vinyl system is the turntable. If you are stuck choosing between an older table or investing in a new one, check out our Old Vs. New buying guide! Not all turntables are created equal and you will almost certainly get better sound, more reliability and more upgrade potential with a new one. There are a huge range of turntables on the market and more than just about any other part of the system, paying more for a turntable will yield huge benefits. Turntables are like any other mechanical machine. Think of sports cars, bikes, mechanical watches, or film cameras. The precision of the mechanisms and the purity of design pays off hugely in performance. You must remember that a turntable is designed to read the infinitestimally small vibrations in a groove no wider than a human hair. Can you imagine what happens if you have a noisy motor, or the tonearm doesn't follow the groove smoothly? You get serverely compromised sound. Consequently, after you've heard a well-designed table, or a top price turntable, it's hard to go back. The direct and lifelike sound they make is so much more enjoyable and enthralling than any type of digital playback. It's addictive. Check out the range of tables we have to offer.

Cartridge/Needle - It reads the groove

Ortofon 2m Red CartridgeMost new turntables will come with a cartridge already mounted and will be ready to enjoy right out of the box. If you are going for an older table we highly recommend replacing the cartridge on it before you play any records. Vinyl is a very sensitive format and needles have a finite lifespan. The cheap ones last about 1500 hours before they start to damage your records. If you've got an old one, it's almost certainly worn out, or worse, damaged. A damaged needle will quickly gouge out your precious records. There are some great beginner cartridges in the $100 range and like with turntables you get what you pay for. The best $200 cartridges are twice as good, and it just keeps doubling from there. If you ever get a chance to hear a $7500 Allaerts cartridge, it will blow your mind. The nuance and colour it can provide combined with the power and dynamics will make you wonder why digital was ever invented. Apart from the quality of the cartridge, an improperly aligned or calibrated cartridge can do some real damage to your albums. You should be especially wary if you are hearing any kind of distortion near the end of the records. This is due to mistracking or improper antiskate setup. Whatever cartridge you go for, allow us to set it up for you using or state of the art alignment tools. It's free with purchase of a cartridge. We want you to hear everything at its very best!

Record Care

If properly treated, your albums will last you a lifetime. Check out our Record Care: 101 here to make sure your records can be enjoyed time and time again!


Now that you've learned the basics from our turntable checklist, why not take a look at our expertly matched systems, or better yet, come down to hear the magic of vinyl yourself. Even a modest turntable system will beat most mega-bucks digital playback and the hands on enjoyment it brings back to music is priceless.

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