Buying records is easy. You can find them by the milk crate at yard sales, for a few dollars apiece in used record stores, and there are new, special pressings by contemporary musicians like Shelby Lynne, whose “Just a Little Lovin’” album, at $30, is a top seller. But buying the instrument needed to listen to them, a turntable, is a different matter.
“Young people didn’t grow up with turntables,” said Kenny Bowers, manager at Needle Doctor, a Minnesota store specializing in turntables. “It seems mysterious and complicated because you don’t just push a button and have it play for you.”
There are advantages to old-fashioned analog music, according to some audiophiles. “There is a fuller sound to it, and more depth to the sound,” said Ryan Holiday, the New Orleans-based marketing director for American Apparel. He’s a new devotee of jazz and David Bowie, thanks to LPs. (For the youngsters, that stands for long playing, as in long-playing record; there were also small records called 45s). “I could hear hands going up and down the frets, and stuff that they probably didn’t want you to hear. Which is a nice little surprise,” he said.
Mr. Holiday is not alone in his appreciation. Record sales have climbed for five years. Now turntable sales are growing. They were up 50 percent in January over January last year.
Hi-fi elitists may debate competing technologies of moving coil versus moving magnet cartridges as if Middle East peace depended on the answer, but turntables are really simple machines. It doesn’t cost a great deal to get a good one, and today’s turntables give you more for your money than they did when vinyl ruled. The celebrated Thorens 125 MKII, with tonearm, cost about $500 in 1975. (That’s about $2,000 in today’s dollars.) A comparable one in performance today, like the Music Hall MMF-2.2 or the Pro-Ject Debut III Esprit, costs $300 to $500.
Nevertheless, some turntables, like the Clearaudio Master Reference at $28,000, cost as much as a Toyota Camry hybrid.
You are paying for two things, precision and craftsmanship. So here’s a guide to some of the costs. (It was just as confusing back in the 1960s, kids.) A turntable is basically three assemblies: the revolving platform the record sits on, called the platter, and the motor and drive; the tonearm, which moves across the record as it plays; and the cartridge and needle, which sit on the end of the tonearm and pick up the vibrations recorded in a record’s grooves.
Turntables are machines that read vibrations, but they often can’t distinguish a good vibration from a Beach Boys album and a bad one from your stomping across the room. A good turntable is designed to isolate it from the real world.
The motor needs to provide noiseless, consistent speed. A heavy platter helps to keep the speed from varying. But it’s an engineering game of Whac-A-Mole. Heavier platters need bigger motors, which may be noisier (and they cost more). Light platters can more easily transmit vibrations that can cause a ringing sound. The rule of thumb is make sure the table weighs at least 10 pounds. “If not, it’s made of plastic compound. It will sing along with music,” said Harry Weisfeld, the owner of the turntable maker VPI, based in Cliffwood, N.J. He advocates metal platters.
You can also buy mats and special feet to isolate the turntable from outside vibrations.
The kind of motor is even more hotly debated. One way the motor drives the platter is with a belt; the other is to mount the platter directly on the motor. Direct-drive mounting is preferred by some people because there is less chance the speed will vary. Rubber belts can stretch and loosen over time. But a direct-drive turntable is more likely to transmit noise, whereas rubber belts absorb motor vibrations.
The crazy thing is that the least and most expensive turntables tend to be belt-driven. It’s really a personal preference. Trust your ears. The tonearm needs to keep the needle where it picks the most vibrations from the record without so much pressure that it damages the grooves. “The main thing is the weight,” said Scott Shaw, audio solutions specialist for Audio-Technica, an audio equipment maker. “Lighter tracking forces tend to provide better audio quality,” he said.
With some exceptions, the better tonearms are machined in one piece of lightweight steel, not cast or pressed. There are more exotic tonearms of carbon fiber, composites, even wood, but you are going to find that only on turntables that cost more than $1,000, said Mr. Shaw.
The cartridge is mounted on the end of the tonearm and holds the stylus, or needle. “The stylus is where everything happens,” said Michael Pettersen, director of applications engineering for Shure, which makes cartridges. “When you buy a $100 cartridge,” he said, “the needle is $90 of the cost.”
Needles are either elliptical or spherical, with no significant price difference. Elliptical tends to be better at reproducing high-pitched sounds, said Mr. Pettersen. Spherical does a better job riding over flaws in vinyl, though, and may be better for 45s and worn records. (An even older form of record, the 78, require a special, larger stylus.) “If I have a very nasty record, I’ll use the spherical,” Mr. Shaw said.
There are also two kinds of cartridges, moving magnet and moving coil. Most cartridges are moving magnet. While they tend to be heavier than moving coil, you can change the stylus yourself, which you may want to do to adjust to the condition of your vinyl or change the sound you get.
Moving coil is the type often favored by audiophiles because it has less weight, but changing a stylus requires a trip to the manufacturer. Both types typically wear out in 600 to 800 hours of use.
Although the sky is the limit on price, a very good cartridge costs $75 to $100, said Mr. Pettersen.
Getting the most from a turntable requires careful setup, although maybe not as careful as people who sell calibration equipment would have you believe. “Setting up the turntable doesn’t have to be as complicated as they make it,” said Mr. Shaw. There can be leeway from the exact specifications, he said, adding, “Set it up fairly close, it will be fine. My point is, don’t obsess.”
One additional piece of gear Mr. Shaw recommends is a stylus gauge to measure the weight the cartridge is putting on the record. “Don’t rely on the little numbers on the back of the tonearm,” he said. “They are very inaccurate.” Mr. Bowers of Needle Doctor recommends the Shure scale, the SFG-2, available online for $20 to $40.
It may also be worthwhile to buy a tool to make sure the cartridge is lined up properly. Mr. Bowers recommended the Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc, which is $50 to $80.
Finally, you can check some of your work with a test record, like the Cardas Frequency Sweep and Burn-In Record ($15 to $30), which plays tones that help confirm that the setup is correct.
You may find that what sounds best is not the recommended settings, or what the gauges and protractors dictate. In the end, it’s as much art as science.
And isn’t that the beauty of analog?