It’s been suggested to me that I should create a guide for how to build a decent turntable setup. I thought it sounded like a good idea since I’ve noticed a lot of especially younger people getting interested in vinyl records via video game music soundtracks released on vinyl.
This is not a guide about how to get the most bad ass audiophile setup for thousands of dollars, but rather a guide about how to get started while not blowing your money on poor equipment. This is a guide for newcomers and not for veteran record collectors.
If you want a longer and more detailed guide that covers a bit more, then I can recommend browsing through iamthejeff’s Ultimate Turntable Guide.
- The anatomy of a turntable
- Terminology and equipment types
- The setup
- Buying new vs. used
The anatomy of a turntable
Instead of going through all the different parts of a turntable myself, I’d highly recommend you check out this interactive guide to the anatomy of a turntable The Vinyl Factory.
It’s important to remember that not all good turntables come with all these features. In my opinion some features are essential while some are simply nice and convenient, but not a necessity as such.
For instance, I’d recommend against any turntable that does not come with an adjustable counterweight. However, I’d recommend getting a table that comes with anti-skate and a cue arm, which are both very nice features (although there are some fine tables that come without either of them).
A lot of new turntable companies know that many young people without much disposable income are getting interested in vinyl records, and these companies are not afraid to exploit that by releasing cheap equipment that sounds poor, is poorly constructed and some will even harm your records.
That brings me to rule number 1. If you want to buy a new turntable do NOT buy a briefcase/turntable, a turntable with built-in speakers or an all-in-one unit with turntable, CD, radio, etc.. None of these are good – there’s no exceptions. They might be cheap and look cute and “retro”, but they are poorly built in cheap Chinese factories and will play as such. Also, there are no more rules – it’s pretty easy to remember.
Terminology and equipment types
Before getting started with the actual setup I’d like to write a little about some of the equipment commonly used in turntable setups, their role, as well as answering some commonly asked questions about equipment.
Belt drive vs. direct drive turntables
If you’re new to the record collecting this is one discussion you don’t want to enter on audio forums as each side practically has their own religious followers. My advice is to not take these too seriously and make your pick based on your own preference as either drive type has its pros and cons and I don’t personally find that one outweighs the other. I’ll briefly address some of the differences and if you want to know more, a quick Google search should give you a lot of information.
There’s also a third type called an idler-wheel drive, but these are not as common, so I won’t be adressing them here.
If you’d like some specific examples and images of the two, I’d suggest skimming this short and simple guide from The Limited Press.
A belt drive table has a motor that’s located away from the center of the turntable platter. Instead a belt is connected to the motor and placed around the platter. This way the motor will rotate the turntable platter by spinning the belt.
The advantages to this is that the belt will absorb vibrations from the motor preventing these vibrations from being picked up by the stylus.
One disadvantage is that the rubber belts will be worn down over time in which case they’ll start to play at inaccurate speed. These belts are often easy to replace, though, and the exact belt size can often be found in the turntable’s instruction manual or from the manufacturer’s website.
A direct drive table will have the motor attached to the platter and rotate it directly.
The advantages to this is that they are better at holding the exact speed and the platter is less susceptible to external forces like touching it with a hand or even just the force of the stylus. For these reasons direct drives are generally preferred over belt drives for DJ use.
One disadvantage is that motor rumble might cause vibrations that can be picked up by the stylus during play. This can often be negated by the use of a turntable mat, though.
When buying a turntable you’re mostly likely to only come across two kinds of cartridges – standard mounts (also known as half-inch mounts) and p-mounts. There are other types of proprietary cartridges but these are less common and can often be difficult to deal with.
It’s important to learn the difference between cartridge types as one type will not be compatible with a tonearm meant for the other.
For a more detailed explanation of the relationship between cartridge and stylus, differences betweend standard and p-mount, and the difference between MM and MC cartridges, I’d recommend reading this short FAQ from Needle Doctor.
Standard / ½” mount
This is the most common cartridge type and is also the one considered to allow for the best quality sound (although this does also depend on the specific cartridge and stylus used). Today almost all new turntables will use these types of cartridges (with the exception of cheaper models with proprietary cartridges that are better left alone).
While these have the potential to deliver some great quality sound they also require some initial adjustments to get the best results and are generally a little more difficult to install than p-mounts.
A p-mount cartridge uses a much simpler design with four pins on its back which can simply be plugged into the tonearm. Essentially it’s a plug and play cartridge.
While very simple to install it doesn’t allow for additional adjustments and as such it’s generally assumed that a similarly priced standard mount cartridge will allow for better quality playback.
Turntables produce a phono output signal, which is a weak signal compared to the line level/aux signals of more modern digital equipment like CD players. Most modern amplifiers or receivers will only properly amplifiy line level/aux signals and in order to use a turntable in your setup you will need something that can convert the phono output signal into a line level signal. This is what the phono preamplifier (also known as a phono stage) does.
It should be noted that some newer turntables come with a built-in phono preamp in which case an external phono preamp won’t be necessary. Additionally, many older receivers and integrated amplifiers also have one built in. If there’s a phono input on the rear of the receiver/amp then you’re good to go.
Power amp vs. Receiver
The difference between the two is a commonly asked question and because I’m already at it I’d like to throw the integrated amplifier into the mix as well. The differences between these are actuall fairly simple.
Also commonly just called an amplifier. It is pretty much what the name says – it will amplify low-power audio signals to a level that’s suitable for driving passive speakers.
This is probably the most common amplifier seen on the market today. It has the same function as the power amplifier but also features a preamplifier which adds a volume control into the mix. Note that a preamplifier doesn’t mean that is also features a phono preamplifier – some units do while others don’t.
A receiver is quite simply an integrated amplifier that also has a radio tuner built into it. Again, some of units will have a built in phono preamplifier, but not all.
Passive vs. active speakers
If you’ve been looking at speakers for a stereo system before then this is probably a distinction you’ve come across previously. Again, the actual difference between the two is quite simple, but the type of speakers you chose decides what equipment you’ll need in your final setup. Generally speaking, passive isn’t better than active and vice versa.
These are the most common in home stereo setups and when looking for speakers there’s generally a bigger selection to choose between when it comes to passive speakers. The reason they are called passive is because it needs to be connected to a power amplifier via some speaker wire in order to produce sound.
These are also known as powered speakers. Active speakers differ from passive speakers by having a power amplifier built into them so an external power amp isn’t needed when using active speakers. They will need to be plugged into a power outlet, though. They can typically be connected directly to a phono preamplifier via RCA cables.
Well, there’s a series of different ways you can build a turntable setup and I’ll give a brief walkthrough of the most common ones here. Please note that one way of doing the setup isn’t necessarily better than the others. It all comes down to the equipment involved.
The classic turntable setup will look something like this:
Turntable -> Phono preamp -> Amplifier or Receiver -> Passive speakers
However, if you’re are using an integrated amplifier or receiver with a built-in phono preamp the setup would look like this:
Turntable -> Integrated amplifier or Receiver w/ phono preamp -> Passive speakers
If you’ve chosen to use active speakers instead of passive, which is quite common if you have limited space, a setup could look like this:
Turntable -> Phono preamplifier -> Active speakers
If you want a super compact setup using a turntable with a built-in phono preamp and active speakers it can be as simple as this:
Turntable w/ phono preamp -> Active speakers
These aren’t the only combinations for a turntable setup, but they are likely the most popular – especially for people who are new to the world of vinyl records.
If you prefer using headphones over speakers you could also consider getting a headphone amplifier. You can still connect headphones to most regular amps or receivers, but headphone amps are made specifically to get you the best sound for headphones.
Is one setup better than the other? No, not by definition. How good a setup is greatly depends on the quality of each piece of equipment and you could say that a setup is only as good as its weakest link.
Buying new vs. used
It’s commonly debated between new record collectors whether they should buy new or used equipment. Again, one isn’t necessarily better than the other and each have pros and cons. Most importantly – just because you buy one piece of equipment used doesn’t mean that the other can’t be new. Here’s some pros and cons as well as some tips on getting new vs. used.
Buying new equipment
The issue here is that buying brand new equipment will be more expensive than buying used (compared to what you’re getting for your money). However, you also get warranty on new equipment which is also worth considering. Personally, I would say that if you’re looking to get a brand new and decent turntable setup you will be looking at spending at least $300.
I’d like to give some examples of some affordable and good pieces of equipment that can be used for starter setups. Please remember that this not a definitive list – there are many other fine pieces of equipment out there that are just as valid for a new setup as the ones listed below. Also these are based on US prices – prices vary greatly around the world so the prices might not be representative for each piece of equipment where you live.
- U-Turn Orbit Basic – $180
- Pro-Ject Elemental – $250
- Audio Technica LP-120 – $250 (has built-in preamp)
- Music Hall MMF 2.2 – $300
- Denon DP-300F – $320
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC – $400
- Rega RP1 – $450
- Behringer PP400 – $25
- Rolls VP29 – $50
- Art DJPre II – $50
- Pro-Ject Phono Box MM – $80
- Music Hall Mini MM – $90
- U-Turn Pluto – $90
- Cambridge Audio Azur 551P – $100
- Emotiva Audio XPS-1 – $110
Amplifiers and receivers:
- Lepai LP-2020A+ Tripath Integrated Amp – $25
- SMSL SA50 Integrated Amp – $75
- Sherwood RX4508 Receiver – $150 (w/ phono input)
- Yamaha R-S201BL Receiver – $150
- Onkyo TX-8020 Receiver – $180 (w/ phono input)
- Onkyo A-9010 Integrated Amp – $350 (w/ phono input)
- Micca MB42X Passive Speakers – $90
- Pioneer SP-BS22 Passive Speakers – $100
- Micca PB42X Active Speakers – $110
- Audioengine A2+ Active Speakers – $250
- Audioengine P4 Passive Speakers – $250
- Polk Audio RTI A1 Passive Speakers – $300
- Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 Passive Speakers – $300
- Dali Zensor 1 Passive Speakers – $400
(Prices last updated on February 12, 2016)
For clarification – none of the above links are affiliate links. They are linked to Amazon Smile, though, which means that Amazon will donate a small amount to charity based on how much you buy for (at no extra expense to you of course).
Buying used equipment
Why on Earth would you go looking for old equipment when you can get something flashy and new? Well, used audio equipment is often where you will get the best equipment for a lower price. There are some fantastic turntables from the 70s and 80s that still play very well to this day and can even be found for less than the cheapest decent new turntables (such as those listed above).
So you can get something better for less money? It’s likely, yes. But it often also requires a bit more effort than just clicking “Buy” on Amazon.
To find used equipment you’d generally want to be looking on marketplace sites (Craigslist, Kijiji, Gumtree, etc.), in thrift stores, at garage sales, pawn shops, used audio stores, flea markets, and so on.
So what are you looking for exactly? Well, this is the disadvantage of buying used. You need patience and you need to do some research. What I do is to browse marketplace sites and when I find something that looks interesting and within my budget I will Google the specific equipment model (turntable, speakers, receivers, etc.) and look for forum posts about it. The Audiokarma forums in particular is a good place for info and discussion on many types of different audio equipment.
The availability of good vintage audio equipment varies greatly from place to place so you might not find anything of interest on day one. That’s why it’s important to keep checking the places mentioned above. Some day the right deal might pop up and then you want to be the first one to respond to said deal.
Remember – when buying used equipment you will want to try it out before making the purchase as you don’t want to bring home something that doesn’t work. If the seller won’t let you try the equipment out it’s likely not worth it.
You might have wondered why I did mention a place like eBay above. While there are many good tables to be found on eBay it’s often not the best place to be looking for a series of reasons.
First of all, you can’t test it before buying. eBay Buyer Protection should have you covered but going through all the hassles of getting a refund and returning the item is not particularly enjoyable.
Secondly, you might be finding a good price on a piece of equipment. A lot of audio equipment is fairly big and heavy, though, and the added shipping costs might suddenly make a good deal into a less desirable one.
Finally, on the topic of shipping. The vast majority of people selling audio equipments – and turntables in particular – don’t know how to properly package this. This increases the risk of getting your nice vintage turntable or speakers wrecked by a couple of disgruntled postal workers before it even gets to you.
Of course these warnings don’t apply to all sellers and equipment, but it’s good to be aware of it. If you find a reputable seller with reasonable shipping costs and good-looking equipment you could still end up with a great deal. Just remember to apply some common sense when looking into these things and you’ll most likely do just fine.
If you bought a used turntable I’d suggest checking out its page on Vinyl Engine turntable database. Here you can sign up for a free account and get access to a large variety of instruction manuals and documents on both new and vintage turntables, which could be useful for setting it up correctly or just for general information.
A final note on used tables – unless the seller clearly states that the attached stylus is new, it’s a good idea to buy one as you do not know how worn it us (unless expecting it with a microscope). A worn stylus will sound muddy and distorted and can harm the grooves on your records.
There are many adjustments that can be performed on different kinds of turntables. However, some are more important than others and for newcomers I would like to focus on these three very important types of adjustments that you should familiarize yourself with.
If you’ve bought a new turntable most of these adjustments will likely be detailed in the instructions manual. If that is the case I would suggest following those as they are tailored for your specific turntable model.
The counterweight is an important part of your turntable and is what decides the pressure with which your stylus will make contact with the grooves on a record. This pressure is also known as the vertical tracking force (or simply VTF).
To adjust it you first want to turn the counterweight to the point where the tonearm is “floating”, ie, the point where it’s neither forced down by gravity nor pulled up in the air by the counterweight. If your turntable have an anti-skate dial you might want to set that to 0 (and read the guide on anti-skate adjustment below later as you will want to adjust that as well).
Once you’ve found this “sweet spot” you will hold the onto the counterweight itself and turn the dial on the front up to 0 WITHOUT turning the actual weight. By doing this we’re stating that the tonearm in this floating state is tracking with a force of 0 gram (so not really tracking at all).
When this is done you want to turn the counterweight to the recommended tracking force for your cartridge. This number can typically be found on the instructions for your cartridge (or if you bought a brand new turntable it should be in the instruction manual for that). Often the number can also be found on the manufacturer’s website.
Generally, most hifi cartridges have a recommended weight between 1-2 grams (although some higher), while DJ cartridges will be between 3-5 grams. If you want it to be as accurate as possible you can buy dedicated tracking force gauges that will accurately measure your tracking force.
While it’s also completely valid to play around with the counterweight in order to find the tracking force that sounds best to you, it’s worth keeping in mind that a too low tracking force will increase the risk of your stylus skipping on your records, while a too high tracking force will wear down your stylus and record grooves faster.
This only applies to standard mount (aka. half inch mount) cartridges.
In order for your stylus to track the grooves as good as possible your cartridge should be aligned properly otherwise you can get distorted sound or sibilance when playing your records.
The next steps are not as easy to describe in words, so I would rather suggest that you check out this ~4 minute video by Jordan Pier who explains how to properly align your cartridge using a protractor.
As mentioned in the video you’ll need a protractor. You can find some free downloadable protractors on Vinyl Engine that simply needs to be printed. They also have a user guide that I will recommend quickly skimming through.
Most new turntables will have this pre-adjusted, but it can still be a good idea to double-check that it’s properly set. A poorly set anti-skate can cause your stylus to skip when playing records.
There appears to be two ways in which you can set the anti-skate adjustment. One is simply to set the anti-skate dial to the same weight as your tracking force. Some say that setting the anti-skate a quarter of a gram less is preferable, but you should decide for yourself which you think sounds best.
The other one requires a little more work and it requires that you either own a blank record (without grooves) or a single-sided record where you can use the blank side. Instead of explaining that in great detail I’ve added another video. This one is ~8 minutes long and by viperfrank who goes into great detail about how to accurately adjust your anti-skate and what exactly this does.