If you are on a quest to get a good turntable, read on! I have listed a detailed, but layman friendly guide on how to select your next turntable that I hope you will find useful in your decision process. If you are more interested in simply playing records you should also check out Buying a turntable: If you just want to play records.... There is good solid advice to be had from this guide as well.
A brief forward: After many years of being both an audiophile and a mastering engineer, (and I am still active as both), when the time came for what will most likely be my last turntable, I had to really consider both pros and cons for my prospective choices, and consider my library and the intended application for archiving purposes as well a recreational listening. I have some advantage in that I am very familiar with all sorts of turntables, cartridges, and tonearms in the practical sense, and I am very spec savvy.
When considering just what to buy, it's a good idea to get input from a knowledgable audiophile. But do so with caution. There are some that believe their opinions are gospel, and others that are a bit elitist and insistant that you have to spend thousands of dollars. Beware of these types.
You don't need to have deep pockets. I'm of the opinion that you can have great music reproduction on a minimal budget if you zero in on a turntable that will meet your needs and ear. You can find a good 'classic' table from 20.00 to 100.00 in many cases, or get a really great table for 200.00 to 500.00 or so, here on eBay.
Your turntable choice should hinge on what kind of music you listen to, the intended use for the turntable, (archiving to digital, archiving to tape, casual/general listening, or serious listening), how critical your ear is, and to the features you can't live without. For example, someone that collects bootlegs will need a table with variable pitch, as many of these records are mastered at -5% of 33 1/3, but may not need a real high-end table. For those that collect acoustic recordings that were made before 1926 when there was no real speed standard, they will also need variable pitch, but will want something with very stable speed and low noise for archiving purposes.
If you are the lazy or distracted type, (I'm both), you might want a semi-automatic table that will lift the arm at the end of the record. If you want to use a bunch of different cartridges, make sure you get a table with an arm that can interchange standard headshells.
On the low end of the spectrum, (we're still talkin' quality here tho') I would recommend the Dual 1000 and 1200 series, any of the Elac Miracord tables, BIC 900 series, as well as some of the direct drive tables made for and sold by Radio Shack and even JC Penneys (MCS Series), as many of these were made by Technics and Pioneer. These are great for casual listening, and will give excellent results with the right stylus and cartridge.
The Dual turntables are great for someone that has 78's in addition to LP's and 45's. These are rim driven, but are very quiet and musical, and can be suitable for digitizing your records.
On the upper end, for serious listening or for conserving and archiving, look for old Empire, Thorens, Dual CS series,and Technics.
If you collect 16" radio transcriptions, old Rek-O-Kut, Gates, or Presto rigs are fine, but these are most often sold without a tonearm or plinth (base). Even with an arm, they are often fitted with one for 12" records. Good low-mass transcription tonearms can get pricey, but you may be able to find something like an old Rek-O-Kut Micropoise 160 for about 200.00. Avoid the massive arms from the 40's and 50's unless you plan to use a GE VR cartridge.
On the top of the heap, as far as I'm concerned, are the Technics broadcast tables. A really fine one with a tonearm and plinth goes for 500.00 to 1000.00. Look for the SP15 and SP10MK2, which are able to play practically all record formats with the right arm and cartridge.
Avoid the old pressed metal record changers like V-M (Voice of Music), BSR, or the old lower end Garrard changers that were typically found in portable record players and consoles, unless you like to collect that sort of thing. Fun players, but not for serious listening.
Also avoid newer turntables made of plastic like the ones from Teac, Sony and even (I'm sorry to say) Technics. These are the little turntables that sell new for about 129.00, and are just horrible. I would also avoid the current group of USB turntables from Grace, ION and Crosley. If it isn't equipped with a magnetic cartridge and has a plastic platter, look elsewhere.
Linear Tracking turntables are not among my recommendations. When they work, they're great and when they don't they can't be easily repaired anymore. If you insist on getting one of these, get one of the higher end models by Technics, Revox, or, something like the Harmon Kardon, Kenwood, or other makes equipped with a Rabco linear arm system.
About High end or Boutique turntables: I know that I have not mentioned certain high-end manufacturers such as Linn, Rega,VPI, etc...This was intentional, as many of these tables are of a rather fussy construction, and one really needs experience and knowledge to set up and use them properly, not to mention large wads of cash. Audiophiles know these makes, but I am not addressing audiophiles. I've listened to various models by these manufacturers, and while the units are impressive, you can attain comparable or even surpassing performance from some of the tables I've listed here. These high-end tables should be investigated if you collect audiophile special pressings, and/or classical music. Despite manufacturer claims, these are not 'reference' tables. They don't even provide specs for them!
Out of all of the current generation of high end tables, I'm partial to the VPI Legacy series. But the price is prohibitive to most of us on a shoestring budget.
If you are thinking of starting with a new unit, entry level tables are made by Sota, Pro-ject, and Thorens should be investigated. While these start at just under 300.00, often you can get a complete plug 'n' play package for around 500.00. Technics has a number of tables in the entry level price range, as does Esoteric Sound's resurrected Rek-O-Kut product line.
The difference between drive types: any of these can deliver outstanding performance, it's really a matter of preference.
Rim or Idler-drive tables have superior torque, and with a heavy enough platter they can be as noiseless as a belt drive, and very musical.The primary reason to go this route is 'speed stability and torque'.The perceived downside is higher rumble: because the platter is directly coupled to a high RPM motor via a rubber idler wheel. Rumble figures tend to be higher than a belt or direct drive, but is negligible. High torque is desirable as a record with a heavily modulated groove (usually low frequency) can create enough stylus drag to slow the platter for the duration of the event, causing an audible artifact similar to 'wow' on a table with low torque.
Old EMT reference and broadcast tables, are by far the best, but if you don't have several thousand dollars to spend, look for old Rek-O-Kut, Dual and Elac/Miracord tables, and Garrard tables and changers. There are also old broadcast tables made by Russco, Gates, and others that are fine, provided the idler is good, and a tonearm is thrown in. Or you could spend a bit more and go for a transcription/archive grade table like the Thorens TD124 or Garrard 301 and 401, fitted with an appropriate arm.
The Thorens TD124 is a hybrid of sorts. The idler is driven by a belt from the motor for better isolation, and also has one of the more complex platter/mat systems to enhance isolation. It is common to find this table range from a low of 300.00 without an arm or plinth, or as a complete player for 500.00 to 2,000.00. Yes, it is just that good.
The Garrard 301 and 401tables have been rediscovered and have jumped in value substantially in the last dozen years or so. In the 80's and 90's I could find them in thrift stores for as little as 5.00!! Currently, in good working order they start at around $1200.00, and I've seen them go as complete systems (plinth and tonearm) for as much as $3,000.00! The brand has been revitalized and the company is currently making high end tables based on these original designs, as well as doing restoration on original models. Check out the Garrard website, and see if your high-end dreams reside there.
Vintage Rek-O-Kut tables are currently being rediscovered in the same way. While you can still find a B12 Rondine for as little as 50.00, there have been some that have gone for 300.00 or more. If you have the desire to get an affordable rim drive, this would be where to begin. Solid players that, in my humble opinion, can match the Garrard tables in performance.
Belt Drives have superior rumble figures, but tend not to have a lot of torque. Torque is dependant on the mass of the free-wheeling platter (the heavier the better). The reason to go this route is 'greater isolation of the record from the motor' and other mechanical impulses, thus attaining a quieter playback. Many newer belt drives, particularly those with composite or acrylic platters, tend to have problems with pitch. Rega tables are known to run too fast, ( I can't say that for the latest versions for a certainty), but some people view it as a benefit to the sound, and refer to it as 'the Rega gallop'. Personally, I want to hear the music in the proper pitch and tempo.
Probably the best (in my book anyway) is the old Empire 198, 298, and 398 turntables. These are a rigid frame design table driven by a Pabst 16 pole Hysteresis Synchronis motor. The difference between the models is what tonearm was included. The 398 is the most popular version. This came with a model 980 tonearm, and according to Empire at the time, it could track in a lab setting at 1/10 of a gram. The literature states that for home use not to go below 1/4 of a gram! That's a compliant arm!
Many of these have been bought and modified to accept modern tonearms, with additional insulation tweaks applied to lower sonic feedback or resonance (not a big issue on these). Even without being modified, they can easily rival any of the current 'boutique' tables that sell for many thousands of dollars (while the Empire tonearms look bulky they are actually very compliant). The later 498, 598, and 698 series are excellent tables, but feature a suspended design with a two-piece platter. There are two camps on which is best, but honestly , I don't think most people could tell a difference between the two in an A-B listening situation.
Empire tables have also been rediscovered and as a result are climbing in price, but it is difficult to find them in pristine or even good condition. In poor but complete shape they start at around 150.00. A pristine 398 can easily fetch 1500.00 or higher.
Another good choice is the older Thorens belt drives, particularly the TD140, TD150 and TD160 series. Many of these can still be found for between 100.00 to 400.00, depending on condition, tonearm and cartridge that is included. These make great entry level tables for the price, but many experienced audiophiles still use them as primary tables. Very neutral, musical and quiet.
Keep in mind too, that if you are going to deal with records like bootlegs or acoustic era recordings that do not have standard speeds that most belt drives do not have variable pitch.
Avoid light-weight belt-drives built by Technics, Dual and others. If the platter isn't at least 3 -to-5 lbs, move on. The one exception is the BIC 900 series turntables (940 through 980). These have a light-weight cast platter with a grease bearing on a pressed metal chassis, but despite the lightweight construction they are fairly stable, quiet, and musical. A good starter table. Be advised that these tables are usually sold after sitting for years, and will require cleaning and lubrication to be brought up to operating condition.
Direct Drives have been wrongly vilified by many in the audiophile community. A direct drive with quartz-locked PLL gives you superior speed stability, low rumble, and higher torque, although not as high as a rim drive (negligible in most cases). Plus, there is no need to replace any rubber belts or idlers, ever.
A good direct drive will sound very neutral, and will not add anything to color the sound. I think this is why audiophiles hate them, as tables like those by Rega and Linn, tend to add acoustic coloring. This can be pleasing to the ear, give an impression of 'liveness', but is hardly accurate. The choice is a matter of accuracy over enhancement. To learn more, go to the KAB website and get the straight story (www.kabusa.com is a dealer site, but the info is good). The bottom line in my own humble opinion, is that platter propulsion method does not enhance or detract from the sound on a given turntable; that has more to do with the cartridge and tonearm.
The crystal controlled, very low RPM motor coupled directly to the platter emits no more vibration to the platter than you would find on a belt drive table. However, some old lower end servo controlled DD tables will tend to have fairly low torque, higher rumble figures, and higher wow and flutter issues.
If you collect LP's only, go with a Technics SL1200MK2 or MK5 (-80db, and about 2.2 footpounds of torque), Pioneer PL series, older Sony, Denon, or any quartz-locked PLL type, but avoid buying one that has been used for DJ'ing or scratching.
If you are thinking of getting a new SL1200MK5, check out www.kabusa.com. They offer upgraded and modified versions that will play 78's, as well as upgrades for the tonearm, power supply and some exquisite tweaks. This is not an entry level table by any means. Current price ranges 700.00 to 950.00 new.
The Audio Technica AT-PL120 is a decent entry level table (about 250.00 new) and will also play 78's and is similar to the SL1200MK2 in appearance and operation, but not in spec, (the SL1200 is much better). It comes with a built in preamp and installed cart, ready to use.
To go higher end, look for the Technics SP15 (3.5 footpounds) or, better, the SP10MK2 (6.5 footpounds).
The SP10MK3 (20 footpounds!) seldom comes up for sale, and when one does it will sell for well over 5000.00 typically.
There were also very high end models made by Denon, Sony, JVC and others, intended for either broadcast or archiving applications.
Avoid low-end Direct drive tables that are servo-locked or unregulated. These can be problematic as the speed can be erratic or imprecise, tend to have lower torque, and are unserviceable for the most part. But, if you want to roll the dice for casual listening, provided the table has variable pitch, it may meet the need. These tend to have composite or plastic plinths, usually sell for around 20.00 to 50.00.
Tonearm: Look at the tonearm on these tables too: is there the ability to adjust the vertical tracking alignment (VTA)? Is there an anti-skate adjustment or bias weight? Cartridges and tonearms are not created equal, and you will find that if you want to use more than one cartridge, physical variances will require adjustment to the vertical plane of the tonearm. But if you are only going to play LP's and 45's, one cart may be all you will ever need and the VTA issue may not be critical. A user adjustable VTA is not available on many older tables like the Dual 1200 series, Garrard, Miracord, and not adjustable at all on certain models made by Technics, Pioneer, etc.
Anti-skate or bias weights are used to off-set the inward drag generated by the rotating disc. Different cartridges will be drawn inward to a more or lesser degree, depending on the cartridge mass, and tracking force selected. A simple anti-skate control is usually a dial or slider that has numbers that represent the tracking force in use. Ignore the numbers and just dial it in until there is no inward drag, or, if equipped with a the bias weight, adjust it for the same result. It's handy to have a groove-less disc to check for this. You set the arm down on it while it is rotating, and if your anti-skate or bias is set right, the arm will remain where you set it down.
What kind of records do you own? If you are like me and own everything from 78's, 45's, and LP's, to Edison Diamond Discs and 16" transcriptions, you will need a three speed table with variable pitch, and with enough room for a really long arm.
But if you collect 45's and 33's only, look at Technics, Pioneer, Denon, etc, and some of the newer Audio Technica tables, or some of the classics like old Duals, Elac Miracord, Thorens, Empire, or some of the better Garrard tables (I like the Zero 100 myself).
If you listen mostly to classic rock, blues, pop, or country, or are constructing a vintage system, one of the above mentioned tables will do just swell.
If you collect high end audiophile pressings, the classics, jazz, or want to seriously archive and conserve, the more you spend, the better your results will be. You don't have to spend thousands for accurate reproduction, but think of 500.00 as a median point on the used turntable market.
An Example: I have a good friend that bought a Dual 1219 on eBay for about 50.00, with a new Audio Technica cartridge fitted with an elliptical stylus, and it sounds great on his vintage system. His tastes are largely classic rock and oldies, and this old table does justice to those recordings. He often dubs to open reel tape, but mostly pounds CCR and other classics though his Dad's old Kenwood amp, into a pair of large vintage Wharfedale speakers. Nice!
78's, 45's and LP's can be easily handled with something like a Dual 1219 , Elac, or similar table. But if you really want to pull all of the audio out of them with increased resolution and detail, consider a transcription table like the Technics SP15 with a transcription arm, Rek-O-Kut Rondine and similar models with a Micropoise or better arm, an Empire 398, or Thorens TD124 with a transcription type arm like the SME 3012.
ASK Lots of questions before you Buy a turntable on eBay:
The seller may not be knowledgable, but some pertinent questions can be answered without a technical background. Like:
-Does the unit function completely?
-If it is an automatic or semi-automatic, does the stylus set down and pick up as it should, or in the case of a changer, does the automatic cycle work smoothly?
- Does it come with a cartridge and stylus? Is the stylus good?
- In the case of belt or rim drive tables: is the rubber good? Is it readily available?
-Has it been thoroughly tested ? How many hours did the seller play it?
-Does the seller guarantee against DOA?
Be careful of AS-IS, As Found listings. Sometimes you can score a really nice piece, but there is usually some repair or restoration involved. These are often sold by a seller with no background in audio that just wants to move inventory. Many will not take time to plug in an item to look for signs of life, send you more photos, or answer simple questions.
Just because the turntable being sold for 10.00 looks really clean in the photos doesn't indicate it's real condition. If you're the handy type, these listings can be a real boon, but should be avoided if you want something you can plug 'n' play.
If you have to buy a cartridge for your newly acquired turntable, I would recommend starting out with either an Audio Technica or Ortofon OM series cart. Both companies make carts that can be upgraded by replacing the existing stylus with a better one. For LP's and 45's, be sure to get an elliptical tip as opposed to conical, as this provides better high frequency tracing. (Never back-cue with an elliptical!) For 78's, both AT and Ortofon make a 2.8 mil conical tip that will fit many of their cartridges. Ortofon also makes a 1.1 mil tip conical for use with older monaural LP's and 45's, (mono records have a 1 mil groove, while stereo record grooves are .7 mil).
Other brands to consider are Pickering and Shure. Pickering has been resurrected by the Stanton company, (also good carts), and they are making pretty much the complete line as well as DJ carts. The Pickering carts have an openness to them, and are ideal for 78's and 16" transcriptions, and are very warm and revealing with LP's.
Shure offers a 78 rpm monaural cartridge which I have heard mixed reviews on. The stylus (2.5 mil) can be purchased seperately, and will retrofit any of their current stereo cartridge line. Shure does not offer much selection anymore, except for DJ carts and styli, although, the M44-7 is a good cart for use with records that are too beat up to play with a fine elliptical, and there are many 3rd party manufacturers of styli for this cart.
Some good sources for carts and styli are www.kabusa.com, www.esotericsound.com, and www.needledoctor.com, and for turntables, tonearms, cleaners and other accessories too.
The turntable of my dreams...
...when I was a kid was the Empire 398; it is a 3 speed belt drive that can track as low as 1/4 of a gram, and has a rumble figure of -90 db! I wouldn't mind having one now to set in my turntable line up. It is still considered one of the finest turntables of all time.
In the end, I wanted to eliminate the three or four turntables I was using, and have one table to play and archive all of my records, so I chose, as did the Library of Congress, the Technics SP15. It has the factory plinth, and Audio Technica AT12P tonearm. With a rumble figure of -78db, I figured that it would be more than adequate, as most vinyl records have a noise figure from lathe rumble and / or hum at around -60db. Whatever the actual measurement, I can tell you that the turntable is totally invisible in the soundstage, as a good turntable should be. The only improvement I could make to it would be to get my hands on an SME 3012 series II tonearm. Someday! (sigh!)
I use it mostly to transfer my records into digital, and what this table reveals in even my oldest records is unbelievable! I have owned many tables, but this has got to be the finest one yet.
Some of my favorite tables are:
Garrard 301 grease bearing
Exploding the analog-to-digital myth
LP Records, for the most part, have a dynamic range of about 60db with a few exceptions, while a CD's dynamic range is 90db. I've talked to and heard from many audiophiles who believe that records and analog tape does not transfer well to digital. BULL COOKIES!!
It has a lot to do with what software and hardware is used, who's doing the mastering, as well as your playback equipment. 44.1kHz 16 bit resolution is sufficient for most audio, and will exceed an analog source as far as resolution is concerned. I have proven this time and again by example.
If I record an LP or analog tape to digital audio, I make sure that there is no difference between the source and the target; no coloring in the sound, no loss of resolution, no diminished dynamics, no loss of fast transients, or twists in the frequency spectrum. I usually get an improved depth-of field, wider soundstage, and greater detail.
I've played vinyl and CD's simultaneously in A-B comparisons for some of the best ears that I know, and they can't tell the difference, or much to their chagrin, identify the CD as being the vinyl! If I record using tube gain stages for the phono, the digital capture gets all that nice warm tube-ness, and the CD I output will sound identical. Digital is a truly blank canvas, and if you want coloration, you'll have to add it.
I have several gain stages (pre-amp) that I use, and interface to an M-Audio Delta Audiophile 2496 internal audio card. Any processors or noise reduction devices are all software based. I am currently creating DVD audio discs from my LP's recorded at 96kHz 24bit! Astounding quality!
NEWS: 03/06/13 Technics SFWO010 platter bearing lubricant for the SL1200, SP15, SP10 and others discontinued! The good news is that Technics revealed it is Anderol 465, commonly used for pellet stove blower motors, and available through vendors here on eBay. SFWO010 sold for 12.95 for a 6cc vial. Anderol 465 sells for about 8.00 per ounce!
If you need a manual or technical specs for a particular turntable, try www.vinylengine.com. Great site and lots of free manuals.
Just be careful when buying a table on eBay, and make sure that the seller knows how to pack it, (I have another guide posted on this subject). Remember; you are the one you have to please in the end, and I believe you can get there, even on a shoestring budget. If it sounds good, do it, Cheers!