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How to choose a turntable

13 min. read
Juraj Haruštiak
Listening to records has become popular again, and every vinyl record plants a seed of a future collection. To become an audiophile, you need to get yourself a proper turntable. What are today's record players capable of, how to avoid getting lost in their types and functions? Do you know how to set up the turntable, which device can digitize vinyl records, and why the most expensive models offer just a handful of features? Keep reading and you will explore everything you need to know about turntables.
How to choose a turntable

Will it be my first turntable, or do I want something better?

Are you excited about the idea of your collection of vinyl records, but you are still a timid greenhorn in the world of vinyl media? You already have a few records at home from the past, but the old turntable is useless? You are uncertain if listening to vinyls will become your hobby or you will return to streaming music from the internet?

All-in-one turntable

You can get decent basic equipment for as little as €200. The most practical solution is an all-in-one turntable. It may come as a surprise that these compact cabinet or suitcase-type devices additionally feature extras like radio, Bluetooth or USB port, beside playing vinyl records.

If you are one of those who often travel or live temporarily in a dorm or student flat, or you just want to occasionally play music at the parties, you should choose from portable record players. This device usually has in-built speakers, but most typically it offers an option to connect external speakers or external amplifier.

Suitcase turntables have a built-in amplifier and speakers, just press play and listen. Compact dimensions and strong case guarantee easy transport.

Similar features within the same price range are offered by vintage record players, that mimic the authentic period style of each era. Fans of vintage design that evokes familiarity from the “good old times” of the pre-digital era, as well as true young hipsters, will find something to their liking. Although vintage pieces are indistinguishable from the characteristic designs of the 50s, 60s, 70s or even 30s, inside they hide modern functions such as FM radio, wireless Bluetooth connection, headphone output and in some cases they even serve as a kind of multimedia device that can play CD or a cassette tape. Even with retro record players, you will not need any additional equipment because everything you need, including speakers, is built into the body of the device.

Turntable and speaker combos are a kind of crossover in the assortment. They represent a good trade-off between compact all-in-one turntables and home or Hi-Fi turntables with more ambitious sound. The design of the models themselves clearly refers to audiophile home turntables. These sets are based on the concept of simple Hi-Fi sets and the individual components only need to connect with each other without any further investment and just press play. You can expect the built-in amplifier and connectable speakers in acceptable quality for the price. A practical choice for someone who has a little higher demands on sound, but the budget will not allow him to invest any more in expensive amplifiers and speakers.

Home turntable

Home turntables are an evergreen classic of the segment. In this category, there are people who would like to peek into the magical world of audiophiles with more courage than the complete beginners. They anticipate that they will extend their collection of records from times long past with new vinyl records, and they are looking for an acceptable trade-off between fair price, sound quality and representative design. The quality of the design and materials of the hardware is decisive for the sound quality. The paradox is that the fewer functions a turntable offers, the higher quality of the features that have a major impact on controls and sound is – i.e. tonearm, motor, cartridge or stylus-needle.

In terms of quality and design, they are reminiscent of Hi-Fi turntables. Some models need to be connected to a preamplifier, others just need to be connected to speakers. Models with USB output allow you to connect to a computer and import the recording into a digital format.

Home turntables do not play “on their own”, they must be connected to another device. The range of options is wide. Some models already have a built-in turntable preamplifier, and you just need to connect the amplifier or directly to the speakers or headphones. In addition to traditional cable connections, some models also offer Bluetooth wireless connectivity.

Hi-Fi turntables

It is no coincidence that the highest quality devices are explicitly poor in any extra features. Real audiophiles focus on the very essence—high-quality material, design, but especially the perfect sound. They know how to tell the difference and are immune to tricks that distract from what is essential when choosing. They are aesthetes who insist on the classic ritual of inserting the stylus into a groove manually. The Hi-Fi turntable is not an ordinary music player, but a great stylish accessory that captivates attention in every living room. The glitter of the aluminium plate, the minimalist base made of valuable material or perfectly processed wood, the precisely clean lines of the tonearm – no additions – every detail literally tunes in.

High-end turntables have no ambition to be people's common item. They are among the most expensive that the Hi-Fi technology offers. The investment in a perfect audio player does not end with the purchase of the turntable itself. It will not play without an amplifier and speakers, and in most cases you will also need to get a special phono preamp.

Do I need a phono preamp?

You do not need a preamplifier for all-in-one or simpler home turntables. It is a common standard part of the device and many models come even with integrated basic speakers.

Do you want to get deeper and expect more from listening experience? Rather focus on premium home or Hi-Fi turntables. In this category, the preamplifier is usually not a part of the turntable. If the preamplifier is missing from the turntable, make sure that it is at least part of the power amplifier. If you had connected such a turntable to a power amplifier that does not have an integrated turntable preamplifier, instead of music, only a soft growl would have been heard from the speakers.

You can also buy a basic phono preamp for up to €100, but premium models offer much more: individual amplification, input impedance settings, protection against vibrations or electromagnetic interference.

A moving magnet turntable cartridge (MM type) or a moving coil turntable cartridge (MC type) used by this type of turntable has only a weak output voltage. Therefore, the signal must be amplified before sent to the speakers. Some models of power amplifiers are capable of this as well, and they can be identified by the “phono”, “MC” or “MM” label. But be aware, you will not find such label on most of modern amplifiers because their manufacturers still believe the idea that no one is listening to the vinyl records. In that case, you need to reach for an external phono preamp.

When choosing a preamplifier, make sure that it is compatible with the MM or MC cartridge and has the same cable connector as your turntable. You can also buy a basic preamplifier for up to €100, but premium phono preamp models offer much more than that: they allow individual amplification settings, offer variety input impedance settings and include protection against vibration or electromagnetic interference.

Most essential parameters

Manual vs. automatic turntable

Manual turntable: The tonearm must be manually positioned at the beginning of the record and put back to its resting position once the record is over. It may come as a surprise that top-class turntables are mostly manual. Manual handling of the arm is the privilege of real audiophiles.

Semi-automatic turntable: After the record is done, the device automatically lifts the tonearm, puts it back into resting position and switches itself off.

Automatic turntable: The fully automatic device will do everything for you. Just place the record on the platter and press the button. The turntable places the tonearm on the record and when it is done, it lifts the tonearm, puts it in the resting position and switches itself off.


Low-quality or incorrectly adjusted tonearm will definitely affect the overall sound quality. The tonearm allows the cartridge with a stylus to move between the grooves of the vinyl record and since every micrometer matters here, the perfect sound experience requires an exact setting. The factory setting of the tonearm “de-tunes” over time or while being transported, and even the smallest shift can wreck the listening experience. Therefore, not only the listener's ear but also the record itself suffers due to the buggy tonearm.

Turntable cartridge

The phono cartridge is located at the end of the tonearm and resembles a small cassette. It includes a stylus that moves between the grooves of the vinyl record and scans the analogue signal – oscillations. The cartridge's job is to transform these oscillations into an electrical impulse, so it probably has the greatest impact on how the record sounds. The signal is then sent to the phono preamp, where it is amplified to the desired level and converted into an acoustic signal, which we hear from the speakers.

While cheaper turntables have to make do with cheaper piezoelectric cartridges with lower sound quality, more expensive ones come with either an electromagnetic cartridge with a moving magnet (MM type) or an electrodynamic moving coil (MC type).

The MM cartridge is more commonly equipped in turntables. The reason is simple. Thanks to the higher input voltage, it is less demanding on the preamplifier and is more affordable. MC cartridge can be found rarely, even though it guarantees the highest possible quality of the sound. That is why it can show its full potential only when used with a special MC preamplifier; it is much more expensive and when the stylus is worn out, it is not possible to replace just the stylus itself, but it is necessary to replace the entire cartridge.

Turntable stylus

The turntable stylus (also known as needle) wears out over time and needs to be replaced. You will notice worn out stylus by declining sound quality. The highest quality turntable needles made of diamond can handle up to 1 000 hours of playing, lower quality materials are done after about 100 hours. According to the shape, we differ between elliptical, conical and shibata stylus.

In the category of DJ turntables, we most often find conical stylus. It fits better in the groove of the record, so the DJs don't have to restrain themselves even during the “scratching”, which puts tremendous pressure on the record

Among the turntables designed for listening to music, most common is the elliptical stylus with a slightly oval tip, which can scan the signal even if put in much shallower position within the groove. Its qualities are especially evident at high and low frequencies, hence why the higher price must be expected than of the conical needle. Shibata-shaped turntable needle is the category of its own. It was invented by Norio Shibata, and it is a kind of combination of an elliptical and a conical stylus. The specific shape allows deeper penetration into the groove of the record with a relatively low risk of damage.

A lower quality stylus needs to be changed after 100 hours, a higher quality needle can handle 1 000 hours of playing.

Turntable platter

When choosing a turntable, focus on the material from which the turntable platter is made of. Unlike other parts of the turntable, this moving part cannot be easily replaced. A typical material is medium-density fibreboard wood (MDF), glass or acrylic. However, aluminium is considered to be the most suitable material. The platter made of cast aluminium has an optimal weight and low resonance.

A respectable platter must be able to play Long-Play (LP) records at 33 1/3 rpm, as well as smaller singles (SP records) at 45 rpm. High-end devices also allow manual fine speed tuning using the “strobe disc”.

Cast aluminium is considered to be the ideal material for turntable platters.

Belt-drive vs. direct-drive turntables

Turntables designed for ordinary listening are commonly equipped with belt drive. The motor is installed aside and transmits its torque to the platter through a rubber belt. The advantage is smooth running, but the belt will eventually wear out after some time and will need to be replaced. Even relatively low torque does not discourage audiophiles.

Direct-drive turntables have a motor structurally connected directly to the platter, which allows them to achieve very high torque. Direct drive is especially useful for DJ turntables. It is ideal for “scratching”. When the drive is switched off, DJs like to use free kinetic energy and stir the platter in the opposite direction without the risk of damaging the motor. The trade-off between less smooth movement of the platter is the lower wear rate and free rpm adjustment.

Do I want to listen to records only, or do I also want to digitize and mix them?

Even the most affordable models can no longer do without a USB port. Manufacturers are aiming with this feature not only at vinyl beginners, but also at anyone who wants to switch from analogue retro to the more comfortable world of digital music whenever they want.

The idea of old records being easily digitized also attracts listeners who are not really into digital formats. To digitize the collection into MP3, MP4 or wave formats, besides USB connection you will also need suitable software that can edit the recording and get rid of any noise or cracking. You can also download some software for free on the Internet. Do not expect USB port on any Hi-Fi model. These models appeal especially to people who gave up the comfort of digital music consciously.

How to set up turntable

Every device deters sound quality over time, components wear out and the original setting is “de-tuned”. However, a handful of right tips can do the trick and even the older turntable will return to its original shape. When buying a new one, it is also necessary to consider that the transport effects to all fine factory settings. It is an analogue technology in which the resulting sound is literally determined by micrometers.

The right position of the device

After unboxing the turntable, put it on a flat and firm surface. It must not be placed tilted! The pad should not resonate. You can check the optimal position with a spirit level, which you place on a platter. A standard spirit level will also work well, but specialists opt for special bubble levels for turntables.

Tonearm fitting

The new device is usually delivered without a tonearm attached so that it is not damaged during the transport. According to the instructions, put it in its place carefully and attach the counterweight. You will need this weight to set the correct tracking force on the stylus. If the tracking force posing on the tip is too strong, the needle will sink too deep into the groove of the plate and the vinyl could be easily damaged. If the tonearm has insufficient tacking force, the needle may not work properly in the groove and may even fall out. In both cases, there is a risk of damaging the record.

First, set the tonearm to a balanced position relative to the record so that the needle hovers a few millimetres above the record, but so that the tonearm can return to its resting position on its own. While in this position, set the basic value of the tracking force on the revolving wheel with numbers – to zero – so it corresponds with the position of the guideline. Now it's time to adjust the pressure itself. Values of 1.4 to 2 grams should be the optimal range. You can also use the exact stylus pressure gauge to fine-tune the tonearm tracking force.

Setting up the vertical tracking angle

If you already have the turntable cartridge correctly attached to the tonearm and the cables are plugged exactly according to the instructions, you can start adjusting the vertical angle of the cartridge. The tonearm must be adjusted so that it is parallel to the platter. The imaginary extension of the cartridge towards the platter should therefore be precisely perpendicular. The tip of the stylus is slightly inclined towards the axis of the tonearm and should form an angle of 20° with the perpendicular.

Setting up the azimuth

Check that the needle tip is perpendicular to the groove of the plate when viewed from the front. You can also use a geometric triangle ruler or a guiding rule, which is usually part of some models, to help you.


When playing the record, various lateral forces act on the cartridge, causing the stylus' tip to exert more pressure on the inner side of the record's groove than on the outer one. The result is one-sided wear of the groove and distorted sound. It can be notified, when the mono recording sounds louder from the left channel of the speaker or headphones than from the right channel, for example.

However, the lateral forces posing on the cartridge can be adjusted by adequate counter pressure. Current models of turntables are standardly equipped with a device called Antiskating or Bias, on which it is possible to regulate the counter pressure manually. The adjustment is also closely related to the adjustment of the tonearm tracking force on the needle. Make sure that the value of the Antiskating force in grams is not greater than the tracking force that the cartridge poses on stylus.

Have a look at all tips and tricks how to set up a turntable and get the best sound possible.