Beginner's guide to Turntables

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This guide is aimed at those who wish to buy a turntable but don't really know where to start. It applies to turntables which need to be connected to an amplifier and speakers to work, rather than 'all in one' stereo systems. I will try to address the most common Frequently Asked Questions...

Will a turntable work with my existing stereo equipment?
  • Most turntables need to be connected to an amplifier with a dedicated turntable or 'phono' input. The most common method is via a pair of RCA plugs (sometimes called phono plugs) attached to a lead from the turntable which plug in to the back of your amplifier or existing stereo system. There may also be an earth wire which connects to the earth terminal or ground terminal on your amplifier.

  • Your amplifier needs to have a 'phono' input because the signal from a turntable is at a lower level than the signal from a CD player, tape deck etc and is equalized differently. If you connect a turntable to an input marked 'CD', 'auxiliary' etc the sound will be weak and thin.
  • If your amplifier or stereo system does not have a 'phono' input, you will need to connect a 'phono pre-amp' between the turntable and the amplifier. These are available  from a variety of audio and electronics shops - expect to pay about $30 - $50. You will of course still need a spare input on your amplifier!
  • Some recent / current turntables have built-in pre-amps - but if a turntable is over 10 years old it is very unlikely that it will have one.
Should I buy Belt Drive or Direct Drive?
  • There is no correct answer here. Direct Drive turntables have no drivebelt to wear out or break, however a belt drive turntable can usually have the belt replaced quickly and cheaply by most good hifi stores or by fitting one yourself. Belts usually last about 10 - 20 years. There are some early exotic turntables (pre-1980) which are getting hard to find belts for, but they are not very common and generally only appear to collectors or hifi buffs who already know what they are dealing with. Almost all Japanese made decks are a safe bet.
  • There may be subtle performance differences between Direct Drive and Belt Drive turntables but ultimately issues of design and build quality play a much greater role in the sound quality.
  • There is a third drive method - Idler Drive (also known as Rim Drive) which is used in most old auto-changer record players as found in a great deal or radiograms and music centres from the 1950s - 1970s. The same drive technique is used by a few 'special interest' decks which also appeal to collectors (such as Garrard 301 / 401, early Lenco etc).
Can I still buy new Styli (needles)?
  • New styli are available for almost all turntables. If a stylus is not available to suit, it is usually an easy job to replace the whole pick-up with a brand new one.
  • It is vital that the stylus on your turntable is in good condition - clean and free of damage. The cantilever (the tiny metal arm that has the stylus mounted at the tip) must be straight. Styli can be chipped or damaged due to misuse, and will eventually wear out. A worn or damages stylus can ruin your records, so if there is any doubt it is worth fitting a new one.
I want to copy my records onto CD. What do I need?
  • Firstly, you should adhere to any copyright issues that may prevent legal copying of copyrighted material.
  • You must, of course, have a computer with a CD burner and suitable audio capture software.
  • Unless you buy a turntable with a built-in phono pre-amp (see above) you will need to connect your turntable to a phono pre-amp, and connect the output from that to the audio inputs on your computer's sound card. You may need an adaptor lead depending on the connections on your computer. If you have an amplifier with a phono input, you can run a lead from the line / tape output from your amplifier, which will then act as the phono pre-amp.
I want to play old 78 rpm records. What should I buy?
  • It gets a bit trickier here... very few hifi turntables will play at the 78 rpm speed. There are a few that do - Early Lencos, a few earlier Thorens, Technics SP10 / SP10 mkII (but not any of the other way more common models...) and early (idler drive) Duals for example. Almost no turntables made after about 1975 will play at 78 rpm. However, most old autochangers will play 78s and can often be found in radiograms and tabletop units from the late 1960s / early 1970s which have built in amplifiers and built in or separate speakers. Not the highest fidelity, but if you find one that is in good condition they are the easiest option to pursue. Some have line outputs for connecting to a tape recorder / computer for copying (copyright pemitting!)
  • You need to have the correct stylus!! 78 rpm styli differ in dimensions to LP styli. Most autochangers above can be fitted with a twin flip-over stylus with one for LPs and one for 78s - again an easy option. If you are happy to spend a little more you can buy a new magnetic cartridge with a dedicated 78 stylus and fit it to a suitable turntable for results which will be far superior... if you want to follow this path it will pay to get some expert advice to ensure you choose a suitable turntable which will be reliable and compatible with what you want to do.
Have fun....

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