Time for a new Turntable?

 

So… it’s time to take the plunge. CD and digital is easy easy but vinyl just has that magic. It is rather easy to understand as back in the early 1900’s recorded music was under scrutiny too. At that point in society, most family get together’s were saluted or serenaded by actual instruments. Pianos, violins or “fiddles”, zithers, harps etc. Recorded music had a battle to fight.

Of course there were early adapters who purchased these devices “just because they were new”, folks who had no talent or were unable to learn music (most folks “played by ear” rather than with sheet music) were also fans.

We have all seen some of the early formats however it was to be the platter format that won out. Vinyl does sound different, but as mentioned in previous posts, analogue has had over 100 years to perfect the format and recording techniques. Digital has had about half of that time to perfect their format and is doing a pretty good job. Vinyl still has that wonderful warmth.  Okay, I’m waxing on but obviously to me vinyl is king.

OK, so we want a new turntable, what do we look for.  Again when purchasing a turntable we have to remember that we are merging this into an existing system (or maybe purchasing a whole new music system) and we have to make sure that our equipment is capable of running a turntable. In order to hear what is on the vinyl, our amplifier/receiver/pre-amp must have a phono stage.  A phono stage is a special pre-amp that boosts the signal from the turntable to a level that music will be produced from the turntable at approximately the same level as your tuner or CD player. Once it is established that the phono stage is in place (simply look at your amplifier inputs, either on the selector at the front of your amp, or at the back where devices plug in. If any selector says phono – you are good. In most cases the input will be for Moving Magnet cartridges only but some may say MC (Moving Coil) – we’ll cover these at a later date! If phono is not indicated on your system, you will need to budget for a phono pre-amp or stage.

Decent turntables start at approximately $300. CDN + Taxes. For this, you will get a good phono base (plinth), a tone arm that will handle a decent cartridge, and a platter that the record sits on and of course a motor. What do I mean about decent? the base or plinth should have proper feet to isolate it from external noise and vibration, the tonearm  should be made either of some metal (often carbon fibre is used) or special metals, the platter can be made of various materials – not plastic and the supplied cartridge should be from a quality manufacturer like Ortofon, Shure or their ilk.

If knick knacks on tables bounce when you approach a table in the room your listening is done in, plan on purchasing or building a wall mount. Good wall mounts also have the ability to level the shelf, this is important as in most cases the tonearm is very sensitive to “exact level”. Why exact level? the tonearm movies from the outside of the platter to the inside. If the weight is off, the arm will settle the needle or stylus of the cartridge to heavily to one side or the other. This does two things, causes uneven wear on the vinyl and therefore causes uneven sound side to side. 

In one respect Turntables and Vinyl are very much like CDs and CD Players. In order to get satisfaction both sonically and long term, you need to consider quality. I know of many people who pick up turntables at garage or other sales. Often times these tables are mostly plastic including the arm and have a very poor cartridge that looks more like a “nail” for a stylus. The major difference between Turntables and CDs is that usually a CD player will not damage a CD, however a cheap tonearm with a bad cartridge will perform horrors on your vinyl.  Consider this, 500 used albums in good shape will cost between $1000 and $1500. Even if you buy 100 albums, are you prepared to destroy a $200 to $300 investment because you have a poor quality playback device.

Why do these players damage vinyl? Consider the 4 areas that we have spoken about

  1. Base or plinth
  2. Platter
  3. Tonearm
  4. Cartridge

The job of the baseis to support the platter and tonearm assembly. It must disapate any internal energies (vibration from the motor, platter and tonearm) and keep the tonearm rigid at its’ mounting point. It must also try to isolate the whole assembly from outside energies such as footfall or vibrations from the stand or mount.

The job of the platter is to be a support for the vinyl and again limit any resonances. On many of these “bargain tables”, even new ones for  the first thing you will notice is the cheap base and a Platter or Platter mat that has ridges on it. The thought behind this is the fewer points of contact for the album, less wear. Well as my friends from accross the pond say “bollocks”. Between the ridges is this stuff called air which creates vibrations, sound terrible. Also the album needs as much support as possible due to the incredible weight exerted by the tonearm/styles (somewhere in the range 0f 30 tons / sq inch if I recall correctly).  I’m sure at this point you are saying OMG he really is a nut case! – But remember, the stylus/needle is not even tiny but super teeny tinny microbe size (OK I am exaggerating here). If you were to size the tip of the stylus to 1 sq inch, this would be the approximate weight necessary to position the stylus properly in the groove without damaging either the vinyl or stylus itself. Based on this premise, a very solid base equipped with good feet is absolutely essential!

The tonearm is next step, the arm tube itself must remain absolutely rigid during play, neither adding or detracting from the sound. At the pivot end, where the tonearm is connected to the base, extra high quality bearings must be used to insure the arm traces accurately over the groove, the stem that holds the arm must again, be absolutely rigid. The headshell should not be plastic, but either metal or some compound in order to hold the stylus securely in the groove and again be completely rigid. Remember it is holding the arm down with a force of some twenty tons so cannot bend with the force.

Lastly comes the cartridge stylus combo. We will cover this more indepth at a later date but for now it is vital to understand that the needle traces the grooves and sends the information up a shaft called a cantilever which terminates in the cartridge wherein the information is changed from mechanical energy to electrical energy. You should by now realize just how important controlling unwanted energy is. The needle works with mechanical enery. In order for it to do its’ job, all external energies must be eliminated or as much as possible. Another point is the cut of the diamond/ruby/ whatever is important. The two more popular cuts unless you go over $200-400.00 are spherical and ellipical.  These two cuts are the contact points of the needle with the vinyl. Spherical contact points look like 2 little circles at the tip while elliptical looklike ovals when seen under a microscope. Ellipticals have a greater contact area and contact area is what it is all about. Why, the greater the contact area the less wear on your vinyl as instead of two tiny areas, info is picked up using two much larger ovals. The second point is the greater the contact area, the more information you can pick up. Contact area really is important as if a small contact area stylus tip was used, when the change is made to a stylus with greater area of contact, not only will you get more sound but usually surface noise is drastically reduced.

Finally, to sum up a good combination of motor, plinth, tonearm, platter and cartridge are vital. Why? the better the combo, the better your music will sound for a very long time – (One of my turntables is over 30 years old but cartridges are changed every 2-5 years based on use).

Pointers

  1. Check to insure your amplifier has a phono input
  2. Check what that input can support ( MM Moving Magnet or MC Moving Coil or both)
  3. Put a budget together which should include cost of phono stage should you need one ($100 – Big Bucks), cost of cartridge as your turntable may or may not have one, and if your turntable has a cartridge, if the tip is not spherical you may want to budget for an elliptical tip (better sound, less wear). An Ortofon 2M red at $99.00 plus taxes is reputed by most audio reviewers to be a “Best Buy” as an entry elliptical unit.
  4. Buy it from a store that offers proper set-up – this way great sound should be guaranteed.
  5. Look for quality build, no plastic, ask re: bearings and get a thorough demonstration.
  6. Most tables will be completely manual, don’t expect auto lift or automatic.
  7. Proportion your table/cartridge to worrk with your system. Make sure the combo will support better quality cartridges without damaging them. If you have a $1000-2000. system, $200.00 to $500 is reasonable.  Remember – The better the table, the better the sound!
  8. Look at used turntables, used Duals are great as they had excellent bearings and tonearms, Rega and Pro-ject, maybe a Linn Sondek. 

Gimme some brands.

In North America, we have some pretty solid brands that offer better than “good” performance at a reasonable price. Tables from Pro-ject start at 299.00 + taxes it does include a cartridge but I would consider changing it as it has a sperical tip. They also have a great buy in their RPM series called a Genie 1.3. With an Ortofon 2M red included it is only 499. plus taxes.

Brands to consider: Pro-ject, Rega,  are great for both inexpensive and Higher end products, Clear-Audio Concept another winner. In truth, there are many tables out there but as an entry, I think that Pro-ject and Rega are probably best bets and both have a strong stable of products. Please note that turntables can run up to about $200,000 CDN.  Most North American or European especially UK offer great solutions.

Wow… wrote a book here, hope that it makes sense.