So you’re considering taking the plunge into the deep end of physical music media: vinyl records. But beginning the journey isn’t quite as simple as plonking down a turntable, hooking it up to a smart home assistant and pouring yourself a drink – the reality can be mind-bendingly frustrating.
Can’t tell your preamps from your power amps? Your 45s from 12 inches? Have no clue what a “cartridge” is? Here’s the right place to start.
The components you’ll need are: a turntable, a phono stage or phono preamp, a power amplifier, speakers or headphones, and all the necessary cables. And your favourite albums on wax, of course.
You’ll have to decide if you’d rather get integrated components – which combine several functions into one device – or standalone units, also called ‘separates’. Going down the separates route is fussier and more expensive, but the individual components are usually of higher quality and you can easily swap them out to upgrade. On the other hand, more integrated setups are easier to put together and cost less but aren’t nearly as future-proof.
What about the individual parts?
Audiophiles refer to turntables, CD players, cassette decks, radio, streaming devices and so on as ‘sources’ – the very start of the signal chain that outputs the actual audio, whether analogue or digital. And if your source isn’t great, nothing else that comes after will save it.
When you’re shopping for record players, there are a number of things to bear in mind:
The vast majority of turntables can run at both 33 ⅓ and 45rpm, for LPs and 12-inch singles/7-inches, respectively. If you have old-timey singles from the mid-century or earlier, you’ll need a player that can run at 78rpm.
“Belt-drive” and “direct-drive” are words you’ll see on any turntable – they refer to the mechanism used to spin the platter. In belt-drive tables, the motor is slightly askew of centre on the plinth; it torques an elastic ‘belt’, which in turn spins a centrally positioned disc on which the platter sits. So, in order: motor, belt, disc, platter.
The motor in a direct-drive player, in comparison, sits directly beneath the platter and torques the platter directly. No belts needed.
Audiophiles claim belt-drives offer more isolation between motor and platter, resulting in less extraneous noise in playback. But DJs pretty much exclusively use direct-drives as they get up to speed quicker, are far more robust and let you scratch records.
Cartridge and stylus
These may be the smallest bits of a record player, but they can be the priciest; some styli alone go for thousands of dollars. As the stylus (or needle) traces along the record grooves, it picks up vibrations and sends that to the cartridge, which then converts the vibrations into electrical signals ready to be amplified.
Both cartridges and styli are massive factors in the player’s sound quality, so many vinyl enthusiasts swap these around to experiment. There are two types of cartridges, Moving Coil and Moving Magnet, but the latter is more common and accessible.
Tonearms are there to keep the cartridge steady as the stylus drags along the grooves of the record. This is the most delicate component of a turntable, so make sure yours is reliable and easily replaceable.
A turntable is, essentially, a solid block (the ‘plinth’) on top of which almost everything else sits. Common plinth materials include wood, medium-density fibreboard and carbon fibre – but they don’t exert a big influence on audio quality. What you’re looking for are stability, ruggedness and aesthetics.
That’s a lot to take in. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, a player like the Crosley Gig has everything you need in one package: a turntable, phono preamp, power amp and a pair of speakers. It even has Bluetooth and auxiliary inputs so you can switch over to other sources like an iPhone or a tape deck. Note, however, that you’ll be locked into the Crosley’s in-built phono preamp when spinning records.
For something more upgradeable, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB is a great starter turntable. Although it’s equipped with an in-built phono preamp, it lets you switch to a line-level output – more on this below – if you’re thinking of hooking up your own stereo amp or powered speakers.
In a nutshell, a phono preamp (also called the phono stage) alters the source signal, brings it up to ‘line level’ and sends it to the power amp. The power amp’s sole duty is to then amplify the line signal to a level that can drive your speakers. But why can’t you connect a turntable directly to a pair of powered speakers and hit play?
On its own, a turntable’s output is too low, and the way a vinyl record is pressed omits a bunch of bass frequencies. So in addition to raising the signal strength, a phono stage adds what’s known as ‘RIAA equalisation’. This ‘corrects’ the inherent frequencies of a vinyl – to compensate for its physical nature – and brings them back up to something listenable.
As a separate bit of kit, the Pro-Ject Phono Box S is a straightforward, audiophile-grade standalone phono preamp made by a brand renowned for its turntables and related gear.
There are, however, many devices known as integrated stereo amplifiers that can serve as the engines of your entire setup as you can connect speakers and an array of sources – CD players, cassette decks, iPhones – to it. And given the resurgence of vinyl, many contemporary models now come with phono stages. Among the more popular makers of such amps are brands such as NAD, Marantz, NAIM, Yamaha and Cambridge Audio.
Ask any experienced stereo hi-fi user, and the answer is likely to be the same: speakers influence overall sound quality more than any other component in the chain.
You’ve got two main types to choose from: active and passive. Passive speakers don’t require a wall outlet; instead, they rely on the power amp to drive them. Active models have a built-in power amp, and so need to be plugged in. Don’t run a standalone power amp into active speakers – something will blow up.
We can go into the nitty-gritty, like signal-to-noise ratios, voltages and impedances, but no number on a spec sheet can translate into the subjective nature of experiencing sound. Do you listen to more dance music or hip-hop? You’ll want more bass. More pop? Then something with more pronounced middle frequencies might work best.
Powered bookshelf speakers such as the Audioengine A5+ are better suited for those who prefer versatility. Suitable for most living rooms, these sober-looking units can be connected to a TV, turntable, phone and other sources – just not all at once. It also doesn’t have a phono stage, though. Which means you have to get something like the Crosley Discovery – and a pair of RCA cables – to use the Audioengine’s.
And if you’re thinking about it: nope, Bluetooth speakers like the Bose SoundLink Mini II will not work unless you have a transmitter. (The Bluetooth capabilities touted by some integrated turntable/speaker sets typically refer to receivers – you connect a source/transmitter to it.)
Back on cables, passive speakers use a very different type. They’re really all just wires made of conductive metals like silver and copper, and terminated at both ends with connectors such as spades, banana plugs and pins. There’s a deluge of snake oil when it comes to these wires – the truth is, even a clothes hanger will work – so you should just worry about the length and having the right connectors for both your amp and speakers.
Alternatively, there are always cans. The Audio-Technica ATH-M50x headphones have been industry stalwarts for years – and the latest version comes with detachable cables of differing lengths, so you can throw them on when you’re out and about, too.