How To Play Vinyl Records - Successfully!
Vinyl is now cool!
Predictions of the death of vinyl after the advent of the compact disc were greatly exaggerated, and the wheel has gone full circle for a lot of people who want more of a connection with their music. A connection that digital playback – from discs, files or streaming – sometimes fails to provide.
This guide is for those who fancy dipping their toes – or more – into the world of vinyl but don’t know where to start. For those returning to vinyl after a long gap it may serve as a refresher . . .
Buying a turntable (or record deck) just got very confusing. In the rush to take your cash manufacturers and retailers forgot to explain how it all works - I mean, you don't want all that techno-jargon do you? You just want to buy and go!
OK, but unless you understand the basics you might just find it doesn't work when you get it home - or at least, not as you'd like!
A turntable has a seemingly simple task – spin the record at the right speed, and allow the stylus to track the groove in the right way by having the cartridge swing across the record in the right place while applying the right amount of pressure on the stylus. There are four basic types of record player turntable:
Direct cartridge output
Line-out (with a built in phono stage)
Retro record player (with integrated speakers – and maybe CD player/cassette deck)
If you want the best results you need the first item - direct cartridge output. All the rest limit performance! Line-out turntables limit you to the performance of the built-in phono stage.
USB turntables need a computer and this type usually has lower quality components.
A retro record player is great if you don't want quality, and portability is a must.
OK, USB decks let you "rip" your vinyl to digital files... usually very badly, because the low cost limits the quality of both vinyl playback and digital conversion.
So having decided on a direct cartridge output turntable which one do you buy?
If you're a vinyl newbie you could be shocked at some of the prices. If you remember, I said the tasks of a turntable were simple; they are, but getting good performance means quality bearings, motors, plinths, platters, tonearms, isolating supports (‘feet’ to you and me!) etc. – none of which come cheap. The following list, though, keeps within the realms of sanity...
There are two basic types of pickup cartridge – Moving Magnet and Moving Coil. All lower priced cartridges are Moving Magnet types.
Ortofon 2M Red
Good examples of moving magnet cartridges are Ortofon 2M Red; Nagaoka MP110; Goldring 2100 - these cartridges fall into the £80 - £130 bracket and will deliver a fine sound. As they’re moving magnets, replacement styli are available.
Cartridges need to be accurately aligned in the headshell of the tonearm. If buying both turntable and cartridge from a dealer ask them to do this for you. But it’s not hard – just a bit fiddly. You use a protractor that fits over the platter spindle with markings on it that you align the cartridge to. There are YouTube videos showing how to do this, and our forum members are always on hand to give useful advice.
The Phono Stage
Nowadays few amps have an input for a direct cartridge output turntable, so you need a box of electronics to go between the turntable and the amplifier. This is the Phono Stage, sometimes called a Phono Preamp, or a Phono Amp, or RIAA Stage, amp, preamp - so confusing!
We refer to them to them as phono preamps or phono stages.
The phono stage takes the direct cartridge output, which is quite weedy, and tinny sounding (that's what you'll find by plugging your turntable directly into an amplifier's line input) and gives it lots of "gain" whilst making the sound full-bodied so the bass, mid and treble are the correct loudness (they sound good too!).
Some of our phono stages suitable for the cartridges listed above (and many, many others) are listed below.