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Person putting a record on a turntable

Turntable Buying Guide

Turntables are making a comeback, with record-breaking sales that rose 61% to over $1 billion—the biggest increase since 1986, according to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). If you're hoping to build your own system complete with speakers, amplifier and more, discover all you'll need to know below.
Turntable Buying Guide For Beginners Video
Turntable Buying Guide For Beginners
Turntable Buying Guide For Beginners Video Turntable Buying Guide For Beginners Video
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Getting Started

A huge boost in last year's sales has audio lovers excited about the boost in those new to the vinyl scene. While this surge indicates a trend that continues to grow among young as well as more "seasoned" music fans, it also means there are a lot of people who don’t know where to start. Can I play my old albums? Do I need speakers for my setup? Can I still get a needle for dad's college turntable, now freed from its 30-year attic sabbatical?
While there are many options when it comes to vinyl playback, the basics remain more or less the same regardless of which brand, model or style of turntable you choose. This guide will provide you with those basics and make the world of turntables, the electronics used with them and even records easy to understand and get you spinning vinyl quickly and confidently.

Turntable Basics

Turntables are the playback device for records, and have been in use for well over 100 years; the first gramophone patent was granted in 1887. These early models were powered by a hand crank, included an oversized megaphone as a speaker and used different materials (sometimes cactus needles) for the styli. The first iteration of records were also made of glass rather than plastic or shellac. Technology moved quickly once the product was commercialized and made available at a reasonable price, and sales soared. The automatic and record-changing models made the product a convenient form of entertainment and it became as ubiquitous as the radio in homes around the world.
The basic parts of a turntable include the plinth (base), tonearm, cartridge, stylus (needle), platter and controls (on/off, speed, etc). There are plenty of others, but these are what you will interact with when using the table itself. Here are some details about these items:
  • Plinth
  • Tonearm
  • Cartridge
  • Stylus
  • Platter
  • Controls


This is the base of the turntable, generally made of plastic on lower priced turntables and wood, exotic or otherwise, on higher priced models. A solid foundation is important not only to the longevity of the turntable, but the material used can also influence the sound quality greatly.


This is the device that holds the cartridge and needle on the record. It is generally either straight or in a curved ("J" or"S") shape and can vary in length from 9 to 12". As you move to turntables in the higher performance (and price) range, the tonearm can be upgraded to further customize and tweak sound quality.


This is connected to the end of the tonearm and holds the stylus (needle) in place on the record's surface. There are two types of cartridges, moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) (technically there are more but for the sake of brevity and reason, we’ll keep it to the two that are found in 99.99% of products). A moving magnet cartridge is generally heavier and has higher output (volume, for the sake of argument) than a moving coil, which is lighter and quieter. Each technology has benefits and drawbacks, but the main are:

Moving Magnet Pros:

  • Higher output (volume)
  • Often allows for stylus replacement
  • More universally compatible with receivers/preamps
  • Lower cost

Moving Magnet Cons:

  • Heavier
  • Extra weight (presumably) doesn't allow the same agility as a moving coil and therefore doesn't retrieve finer musical details

Moving Coil Pros:

  • Finer detail retrieval capabilities
  • Reduced mass allows it to move more quickly

Moving Coil Cons:

  • Nearly always non-replaceable styli (sometimes replaced by manufacturer
  • Higher cost
  • Requires a more specialized phono preamp
Turntable Playing Music beside a wireless speaker


This is where the proverbial "rubber hits the road" when it comes to vinyl playback. The stylus, often called "needle" and sometimes "pickup" is the device that literally tracks the grooves of a record. The groove is a valley in the vinyl which has a left and right "wall" that varies in depth and width, which alters the frequency (pitch) and amplitude (volume) of the signal. The stylus vibrates according to those variations as it "rides" in the groove. The wall that is closer to the inside (label) edge of the record is the left channel and the "outside" wall is the right channel. The goal is to get the stylus to ride that groove equally on both sides in order to relay a believable stereo signal. There are different styli types, the most common (in order of price) being spherical (cone-shaped), elliptical, shibata (also called "fine line" or "hyperelliptical"), and micro-ridge. As you move up through the different types, the sound quality generally gets better, with more extended high frequencies as well as low frequency (bass) impact. Other benefits as one moves up the line is longer stylus life and lower record wear and tear.


This is the device on which the record is placed for playback. It is generally made from plastic, aluminum or some other metal, acrylic or in some cases exotic materials that are known for their inert properties (such as Delrin). In many cases, especially as performance and price increase, the platter is designed to be more massive to control vibration as well as stabilize speed.


These allow control and proper operation of the turntable. Their placement is not standardized and we recommend you read the manual carefully as some might be under the plinth or in a spot that wouldn't be obvious to the first-time user. The controls generally include a power button, a speed control button, and in the case of automatic turntables, a play/stop (or similar) control. Most records are manufactured to play back at 33 1/3 RPM (revolutions per minute) or 45 RPM. The long play (LP) record was first introduced and widely accepted in 1948, before that, nearly every record was at 78 RPMs, which meant there was room for a bit less than 5 minutes per side. This meant that a long orchestral work would have to be "broken down" into literally dozens of sides of different albums, and enjoying an uninterrupted musical composition was nearly impossible, unless you could afford to go to the symphony in person. The new long-playing technology of 33 RPM records meant each side could now contain about 22 minutes per side, and improvements in the manufacturing material and recording techniques improved along with the new format.

Setting up a Turntable for Playback

Turntables are not standalone components in most cases. This means other electronic devices must be used in conjunction with them for playback. There are some examples of standalone turntables, but they are generally manufactured for convenience, not performance (there are a few exceptions). The most basic items that will be required will be amplification and some form of speaker(s).

Amplification (and Pre-Amplification)

Amplification is needed to boost the signal created by the turntable, which has a very low output compared to most other front-end components (CD players, tuners, etc). This is done with what is called a phono preamplifier (also called a phono stage). This component is often included in lower-priced turntable options and allows the user to plug directly into a receiver or powered speakers without using any other electronics. As one moves up the performance (and price) scale, a separate, or "outboard" phono preamplifier is required. Some (not all) receivers, integrated amplifiers, and/or preamplifiers include a phono stage as one of the inputs on the back of the component. Just as there are MM and MC cartridges, there are also the same type of phono stages available. When these are included on components, they are generally the moving magnet type as that is the more popular cartridge style. If a separate phono stage is needed, there are many different choices available, depending on the requirements of the cartridge as well as the listener's expectations regarding sound quality. This brings us to the RIAA curve. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) established the curve standardization, which is in effect an equalization filter that "corrects" the low and high-frequency range of the information encoded on the record. When the music (or content) is recorded, the low frequencies (bass) are lowered while the high frequencies (treble) are increased. The RIAA equalization presents the inverse of this relationship: bass is boosted while high frequency is limited. This is all done in real-time and is not perceived as a "process" by the listener. This equalization is the second "duty" performed by the phono stage, and is as important as the first. High-quality parts, product design, and wiring layout all contribute to the efficacy of the phono preamp, and it contributes heavily to the overall presentation of your system.


In the simplest terms, a speaker, in effect, does the inverse of the stylus' job. While the stylus "translates" mechanical information into an electronic signal to be processed and amplified, the speaker is turning those electronic signals back into mechanical information (the movement of the speakers transducers, or "drivers") that can be experienced as music (or spoken word, or whatever content is embedded on the record itself). The speaker's importance cannot be overstated, as it has a very difficult task; making sounds that fall in (and often beyond) the range of human hearing seem realistic and lifelike. From the lowest pipe organ note to a piccolo solo and through the range of human voices from Johnny Cash and Tom Waits to Maria Callas and Cécile McLorin Salvant, a speaker is designed to do a credible job of recreating sounds from 20hz to 20khz, even though conventional speakers can't produce frequencies lower than around 40hz without some distortion and/or lower output (more energy is required for low-frequency reproduction). More and more manufacturers are now making powered speakers, which incorporate an amplifier into the speaker cabinet. This eliminates the need to purchase or use a separate amplifier, but keep in mind you still might well need a phono preamplifier (unless that specific component is built into the speaker as well). You can choose between both wired and completely wireless speakers with certain devices, too.


When choosing a spot for your turntable, try to use a level, solid foundation; the more massive and "permanent" a table or cabinet is, the better suited to turntable placement it is. This is because a turntable is susceptible to outside vibrations, which can translate into "rumble" at worst and basic distortion at best. Because the stylus is similar in function to a microphone, it can pick up these external vibrations and amplify them in the same manner as the grooves that it is designed to track. The result is additional sound that is not signal (this is called "noise" whereas the music is termed as "signal") and it is the sonic equivalent of adding a translucent screen in front of a photo; you can still see the picture but it is not as clear or easy to perceive as it would be if the screen was removed. Eliminating and/or controlling these vibrations is very important, and will greatly affect your experience. Another important factor is ensuring the turntable is on a level surface. Many turntables include adjustable-height feet which allow this to be done relatively easily.
A turntable is connected to an amplifier and/or powered speakers via an analog phono cable (generally referred to as RCA connections). This consists of a single, two-pronged cable. Each end includes a left and right connector, which are generally color-coded black and red (sometimes red and white). The color is arbitrary, but care should be taken when plugging these in—you want the cords to "match up" on both the turntable and the component you are connecting it to. So if you use the black cable on the "right" output on the turntable, connect the other end of that line to the "right" input on the receiver, powered speaker, or phono stage (whichever is appropriate) and repeat the process with the left as well. There is a third line that is often attached to this double-ended cable, it is used to ground the turntable. Analog devices are susceptible to magnetic field disturbances, as well as grounding issues in the wiring; this can originate from either interconnects between components or the A/C power (from your wall outlet). If you hear any kind of hum emanating from your system, in most cases connecting the ground wire will eliminate it. Care should also be taken to keep connections between the different components (turntable, phono stage, receiver) as short as possible while still allowing enough slack to easily plug things in – each interconnect functions as an ersatz antenna for stray noise.

Plug In & Play

Once everything is connected, you are ready to play records. How you treat, handle, and condition your records will have a significant impact on your enjoyment of vinyl, both in the short and long term. Keeping your record collection as clean as possible is key, as is storage; records prefer cool, dry spaces that are out of the path of sunlight. They should be stored vertically, not horizontally, and not leaning one way or the other. Don't overpack your shelves; you should be able to easily remove and replace a record without pulling other records with it or having to struggle to get it back in place when finished. There are multiple products for record cleaning, from basic dry brushes to advanced multi-step processes involving different cleaning and rinsing products as well as machines specifically designed for deep vinyl cleaning. Avoid playing dusty/dirty/grungy records—your record, stylus, and attention won't last long if you do. Even new records benefit from cleaning because of the compounds used during the manufacturing process. A stylus brush is a must, it allows you to ensure the needle is completely free of dust, lint, or any other debris it might have picked up during its most recent revolution. Once the record is clean, we also recommend storing it in an archival quality sleeve which is made from high density polyethylene (HDPE) rather than the paper sleeves that most records are packaged with. Paper sleeves are the most economical for the manufacturers, but it's like storing your records in a very fine sandpaper sleeve—paper is made from wood pulp and as such scratches your record every single time you remove it or return it to one of those sleeves.
Finally, have fun! Record shops are a great resource for both new and exciting releases from current artists as well as great bargains on old favorites. Check out the album art and lyric sheet if included (large enough to actually read!) Listen to an entire "concept" album, or get into a genre that you haven't tried yet; it's addictive and will broaden your musical horizons. Best of all, it might very well help you meet some new vinyl enthusiasts like yourself.