Everyone used to know a stereo expert, someone with the full console setup and a 7.1 sound system that made the bass purr, rumble, or pound depending on the song. That was back in the pre-digital era when CDs still reigned supreme and cassettes and turntables played second fiddle. While iPods and Bluetooth define the listening experience of today, turntables and vinyl have made a comeback. Need proof? Besides the block-long lines on Record Store Day events each April and November, the top vinyl selling brick and mortar retailer isn’t some specialty mom & pop shop—it’s Urban Outfitters.
Vinyl records may be a common sight in music stores, but finding the right player at the right price can be a challenge for music fans. With records increasingly popular, used equipment is harder than ever to find. The Needle Doctor, located in St. Louis Park and open since 1979, is an industry leader in technology and hardware, and other stores around town also sell devices. Roadrunner Records will carry used equipment from time to time, Electric Fetus has a selection of new equipment, and even Target and Menards have had options on the shelf.
Not every player, however, is created equal. Just think back to the 1980s plastic “toy players.” They’re basically the worst idea ever, says Patrick Voller, who works at Electric Fetus and sometimes at Needle Doctor, though they probably romanced some musical first love affairs along the way.
So what’s the best player or setup for you? “It all comes down to your budget and how deep into it you are,” says Voller. He’s the stereo guy his friends come to with questions, and he helps sell machines and accessories at his two employing shops.
There are audiophiles looking to work on an existing setup, but there are also plenty of first-time vinyl collectors with whom Voller walks through the basics. A turntable has several different parts. “The turntable and the cartridge are taking the grooves on the record, turning that vibration into electricity, then it’s running electricity through an amplifier into the speakers,” Voller explains. Though the technology is far from cutting edge, getting someone set up with a turntable isn’t as easy as it sounds.
The first trick is ensuring that a record player will play on your home stereo, and that means ensuring you have a preamplifier. New digital receivers often don’t include the analog preamp a turntable uses. Auxiliary preamps can be purchased, but many new turntables have this conversion built into their unit. Buying used, it’s important to verify. Once compatibility has been checked, the parts are nuanced by personal preference.
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“A lot of the flavor of the sound, so to speak, does come from the cartridge,” Voller says, making it an easy method to improve a machine without buying all-new. Cartridges, to which the stylus or needle is attached, also degrade with time, so used equipment may need an update. Cartridges can give warmer, richer sound, or more bass, or clearer channel separation.
There are many options and internet forums or specialty stores that can help you choose the right cartridge. On a low-end player, Voller warns, the cartridge often can’t be replaced. If there are connecting wires or screws visible on the machine, it’s likely that it can be upgraded. DJ Shannon Blowtorch says she finds roughly a turntable per month at garage sales. But, as a professional DJ, she also keeps a supply of ready-to-install cartridges at home for repairs, sometimes utilizing YouTube to fix them. Used equipment comes with risk, and buying new is the easiest way to get a turntable set-up in a matter of minutes.
A turntable with more moving parts is more likely to break, Voller summarizes. Automatic play is a nice feature but it’s almost always built with plastic gears that wear out. King Otto, who has DJed for over 20 years, agrees. His home living room uses a 1970s Technics SL-2000, he says. He prefers this model because fewer parts also means less motor noise. “I want to make sure it’s a solid motor that doesn’t send off any sounds besides what comes through the needle,” he says.
The key to turntables is getting the best sound from record to speaker, which means no interruptions. “External vibrations are the enemy of the turntable,” Voller explains. It’s important to isolate the player on a shelf or with a heavy base. Laundry rumbling in the basement or the bass vibrations of a subwoofer can cause a record to skip, which hurts the sound and can damage the record itself. As turntables go up in price, the unit’s weight typically increases in tandem. “If it’s all plastic, that bugs the hell out of me,” Blowtorch says when she’s looking for gear: it’s more subject to vibrations and less durable.
DJs have unique needs, namely the direct drive motors (versus belt motors), better torque, and suspension. For the listener at home, it’s a matter of fitting the atmosphere, budget, and personal preferences. No player is designed for a specific style of music. A high fidelity system is customized for the listener’s individual ear. “You have to balance your whole system so it all works together. There’s a synergy you can create when you have a well set up hi-fi system that really brings magic to music,” Voller says. It’s made him a dedicated audiophile but he understands not everyone has the time or devotion to do so at home.
“I would say not to start too cheap, but don’t dive in headfirst either,” says DJ King Otto. “Get something that sounds good and is reliable then upgrade later on.” While the full sound system plays a role, “It starts at the source of the sound. If that doesn’t sound good, the rest of it won’t either.”
So a few good rules to remember for turntable shopping include:
- The more convenient the functions, the less durable the machine.
- Look for a solid base, which affects both sound and motor/speed consistency.
- The lowest price options may not be upgradeable.
- As a whole, turntable technology has not significantly changed.
- Used machines can often be upgraded, but verify compatibility first (notably the preamp).
- Many new machines come with built-in preamp and USB ports (for converting records to MP3s).
- The best way to choose a turntable is to test it by listening to familiar music.
Oh, and if that cute plastic player at the church garage sale is still calling your name, just remember that it’s meant as a toy. “I wouldn’t listen to anything with built-in speakers,” King Otto emphasizes. “All in one and the speaker is literally in the same box,” adds Voller, “is the worst possible setup.”