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Turntable and Cartridge Buying Guide

by Product Specialist

Turntable and Cartridge Buying Guide

Choosing The Best Record Player

Who knew that turntables and vinyl would still be around more than a century after they were invented? Not only are record player sales churning along, they seem to be thriving. Perhaps it’s the organic feel to the vinyl, the physical act of dropping the tonearm onto the record or the warm, rich sound quality that digital media simply can’t replicate.

Whether you’re new to analog audio or a true veteran, you may have some questions on replacement parts or need information on which new turntable is right for you. Here are a few tips to get your records spinning.


Does your receiver have a "phono" input?

First you need to check your receiver to see if it has a "phono" input. A phono input looks like any other RCA type of input but the input is specifically designed for turntables. This is a high impedance input and will not work with any other type of device. Most RCA inputs on your receiver are known as “low impedance” and designed for analog sources like CD players, tape cassette players, or VCRs.

If your receiver does not have a phono input all is not lost. You can purchase a separate phono stage pre-amp that will allow you to use an input on your receiver to connect the turntable properly. If your turntable is a newer model it may already have a phono stage pre-amp built in, you can check the owner’s manual for the turntable to find out if this is the case. If the turntable does have the pre-amp built in there will be a switch this gives you the ability to turn the pre-amp on or off.


Phono Cartridge Mounting

Once you have your turntable connected, the next thing to check is the turntable cartridge. Most turntables use one of two types of cartridges; a “P” mount style and a “.5 inch Standard Mount” style. The “P” mount has four terminals or pins on the rear of the cartridge and inserts into the end of the tone arm. This type of cartridge is secured by a single horizontal screw.

The standard mount (also known as a .5" mount) also has four pins at the rear of the cartridge. On this style you’ll see four wire leads coming out of the headshell that connect to the pins. The headshell is the part that attaches to the tonearm and holds the .5 inch cartridge in place via two vertical screws.

Cartridges do not last forever and will periodically need to be replaced, so if you have not replaced your cartridge in a few years it may be time to do so. This is because cartridges lose their sensitivity over time, and though the cartridge still works it is not giving you the best performance your turntable can produce.

Cartridges vary in price, how much you spend on the cartridge can depend on how much you spent on the turntable. It does not benefit you to put a very expensive cartridge on an inexpensive turntable, a moderately price cartridge will work fine. If you have a higher end turntable then you would benefit to invest in a more expensive cartridge to ensure you are getting the best quality performance from your turntable.


Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil Phono Cartridges

Once you determine the mounting style of your turntable cartridge, you may decide to replace it or upgrade. If you decide your phono cartridge needs to be replaced, there are two major varieties to choose from: Moving magnet and moving coil. Both varieties have advantages and disadvantages.


Moving Magnet Cartridges

Moving magnet cartridges (MM) are perhaps the most common cartridge on the market. With this design, a magnet is permanently attached to the end of the cantilever and is positioned between two sets of fixed coils. This configuration creates a very tiny electromagnetic generator. As the stylus tracks the groove of the record, the movement travels up the cantilever, moves the magnet between the coils, and thus generates a current. These types of cartridges are simpler mechanically, tend to be less expensive and only require a single phono pre-amp to get the proper sound output. MM cartridges are a bit heavier than other designs, however, which causes them to exert more tracking pressure on the record and may cause increased wear on the vinyl. In addition, some listeners find this increased pressure can negatively influence the sonic quality of the vinyl.


Moving Coil Cartridges

Moving coil cartridges (MC) have a design that is a bit more complicated. This variety has coils attached to the cantilever while the magnet is permanently fixed nearby. As the stylus tracks the groove of the record, the movement travels up the cantilever, moves the coils by the magnet and creates the current. This design is preferred by some because the cartridge is lighter, causes less wear on the vinyl, and is widely considered the most sonically accurate. This complicated design is a bit harder to manufacture and subsequently costs more. In addition, the lightweight coil has an extremely low output and may require an additional amplifier stage. They are also susceptible to hum and noise.


Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Turntables

For individuals in the market for a new record player, there are two mainstream design options to choose from: direct drive or belt drive. Each design has its advantages and it’s helpful to know what they are before you buy.


Belt Drive

This is the most common design turntable and is very popular for home use. Inside the record player, the motor is offset and is connected to the platter with a belt. The belt acts as a shock absorber for vibration or other noise created by the motor resulting in a cleaner, smoother sound. Over time, however, the belt can get old and wear out. Loose or slipping belts can sometimes cause inconsistent speeds and wow or flutter when playing back your vinyl. Replacing the belt is a minor inconvenience and will immediately solve this issue. Although entry level turntables often have a belt drive design, there are many high end and premium models available which include a higher quality cartridge or tonearm.


Direct Drive

As indicated by its name, the motor on a direct drive turntable is connected directly to the platter. With no belts to slip, this design insures a very consistent speed and accurate sound for listeners with no wow or flutter to interfere. Most professional DJs prefer this design which allows them to effortlessly back spin and scratch their vinyl.


USB Turntables

There are many reasons to transfer older vinyl albums to a digital format, but the most common one is portability. Digitizing analog records makes it easy to take your favorite music everywhere you go and still allows you to experience the original analog performance when you’re at home. Some record players feature a USB output which makes connecting your turntable to a computer very simple. These components often come with software that easily allows users to transfer any album or song to the computer for archiving. Some models even allow high-resolution sampling which more accurately captures playback for a near perfect duplication.


Record Care

Now that your turntable is ready to go, you'll want to be sure your records are in good shape. A top-of-the-line phono cartridge will make little difference if your records are dirty or dusty. Be sure to invest in some vinyl cleaning products to optimize the sound quality and minimize hissing or crackling.