If you’re reading this article, you’re probably about to buy a turntable. Congratulations! I’ve been using turntables all my life since I was probably 4 years old. Of course, today they are not really the same, but the main idea is to allow us to enjoy vinyl records. By saying “to enjoy vinyl records”, I mean to enjoy the analog sound. Maybe you’ll be a little surprised, but in these days not all of them can provide us an analog sound on output.
Analog sound can be provided only if a turntable has a phono output, that can be connected to phono input of stereo amplifier. USB output will provide us a digital, that means a compressed sound, only. So at that point you must ask yourself about a real reason of buying a turntable. If your reason is just to digitize your vinyl records, then USB might be a right and not expensive choice for you. But, if you are like me and love to listen to vinyls, then you have to buy one with phono output. Some models have both outputs. BTW, if you buy a turntable with phono output, you still will be able to convert your records into a digital format. For example, my current turntable is Stanton STR-80. It has a phono out, but also has a digital line out. In case of using digital line out, there is a built-in A2D (analog to digital) converter that digitize the sound before it goes out. I tried that several times digitizing my LPs, but did not really like the quality, so even for digitizing I use a phono output and digitize at the computer level. for me that sound much better.
Direct Drive vs Belt Drive
This is the way how the motor is connected to the solid disk. In case of belt drive, a motor and a disk are connected with belt, in other case the disk “sits’ right on a motor. For me direct drive works better, because of its higher torque, that means disk responds much faster to start/stop operations and I can easily place a needle at the preferable location of the record when it’s stopped, to start playing and to hear no distortion caused by slow disk acceleration. Also direct drive is preferable by DJs, that often use a sound reverse effect, so they manually turn the disk fourth and back and that does not affect a belt mechanism.
Tonearm is a very important part of turntable because it’s directly connected to a record and really might damage it. I always prefer a weight adjustable tonearm. That means that you can control the weight of cartridge. The less weight, the less pressure on a record, the less harm is done. In some cases, vinyl might be uneven, so you might consider to increase the weight to prevent a needle from skipping. Also, a record might have some deep scratches, so you can also make a cartridge heavier to force passing through, but the scratch will damage the stylus, so I prefer not to do it.
Some of tonearms have auto lift and auto return features. Mine is fully manual and I think it’s much better. Auto return mechanism might harm a record and a stylus.
Stroboscope will help you to verify your solid disk is turning at the correct speed, and if not, the speed could be adjusted. The modern records a recorded at 33 or 45 rpm. There is also an old format of 78 rpm also supported by some turntables (another point to consider!). Incorrect rotation speed might cause the sound to be kind of wavy. I faced this issue a lot with my old turntables built on belt drive technology and was not able to fix it, and that was really not nice to listen, believe me.
These several things I would consider buying a turntable today unless the laser one is not optional. Laser turntable made by Japanese company ELP is a complete different story. There you do not have to worry about a tonearm, drive type and stroboscope. There is no physical contact with a record, because the technology uses a laser bin, 5 bins, to be more accurate. I never used such turntable and for me it is not an option now because of its price (around $10K), but I’ve heard that it provides a fantastic clear analog sound if you use a non-damaged black vinyl record.