Vinyl is back! People have been saying it for a while now, but the evidence this year has been stronger than ever, with profits from vinyl sales outstripping those of free streaming services.
It isn't just old-timers and hipsters enjoying their grooved black discs, and the variety of vinyl-spinning hardware on the market right now is immense compared to only a few years ago. But which turntable is best for you?
Beware of cheap, retro-styled record players such as the Crosley Cruiser and Dansette Bermuda. They look chic, but they really won’t do your records justice and could even damage them in the long term. That doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune to get started, though.
If you have a rough idea of what you need and want to delve straight into the best options, click on the dropdown menu above and start browsing. But if you’re not totally clued up on the intricacies of vinyl playback, you should probably read on. First, let’s get some technical terms out of the way…
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Stylus – The needle. It’s usually tipped with a tiny diamond, but that diamond can be shaped in various ways. More exotic, costlier shapes track better around the record grooves, increasing the detail retrieved and reducing wear. This is the most delicate point on the turntable, so keep it away from prying fingers.
Cartridge – This is the little box that houses the stylus and the magnets, which produce the audio signal that’s sent back to your amplification. There are two main types of cartridge: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). The latter tends to offer better sound quality, but costs more and requires greater care with setup to get the best from it.
Tonearm – This is the wand that the cartridge is attached to, pivoting around to enable the stylus to track across the record. Tonearms come in a few different shapes, sizes, weights and pivoting styles. It’s vital that your cartridge has decent synergy with your tonearm. Some cheap turntables put too much pressure on the record, which will absolutely wreck your collection.
Platter – The round area upon which your record sits and spins, held in place by the spindle. These can be made of metal, resin, glass, acrylic, ceramic or vinyl-coated MDF, and often come with a rubber or wool mat.
Belt drive/Direct drive – Most modern hi-fi turntables are belt-driven, with a rubber band running around the motor pulley and the platter or sub-platter. This approach helps to stop vibrations from the motor being picked up by the stylus. With direct drive the motor is connected to the spindle, right under the platter, and has the advantage of ensuring more consistent rotational speed.
Phono stage/pre-amp – The audio signal that comes direct from the cartridge is very faint, so a phono pre-amp is required to amplify that signal before sending it to a line input. Cheaper standalone phono stages will often only work with MM cartridges, while more expensive MC-compatible models can offer a bewildering number of options for perfectly matching with a particular cartridge. Plug-and-play turntables have a phono pre-amp built in.
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If you’re totally new to the vinyl waters, or just dipping your toe back in, you might be safest looking for a plug-and-play turntable. These not only have a tonearm and cartridge pre-fitted, but they also have their own phono stage so they can be hooked up directly to your hi-fi or speaker system. Some even have a USB output for connecting to your computer and ripping records to digital files.
Fancy stepping it up a little? Many mid-price decks are available as a package with a suitable cartridge, so all you need to do is add a phono stage. That freedom to upgrade your phono stage also brings greater freedom to upgrade your cartridge, and suddenly you could be looking at a whole new level of sound.
For the proper tinkerers (and those with cash to spare), there’s the rather more high-end option of picking the turntable, tonearm, cartridge and phono pre-amp separately in an effort to create a combination that sounds best to you. High-end doesn’t have to mean mix-and-match, though – there are plenty of flagship record players offered with complementary arms and carts.
There’s a huge variety of accessories available to vinyl addicts. Some are invaluable, while others you may use only once for setup and never need again.
Personally, I’d ensure you at least have a stylus brush and some form of record cleaner. Oh, and an adapter for 45rpm record centres, if you intend to play a load of ex-jukebox discs.
A tracking-force gauge will be necessary if you intend upgrading cartridges, or if your tonearm doesn’t have some kind of useful scale for setting the force. A mechanical gauge and combined cartridge-alignment tool costs less than a tenner.
Many record players these days are supplied with a record clamp, which not only helps reduce resonance but can also flatten warped vinyl. If your turntable doesn’t have one, you can always buy one separately.
You can seriously be as obsessive as your budget allows (cartridge energiser, anyone?), but ultimately your best friend may be a spirit level, yours for a fiver from your local hardware shop. The most important element in any turntable set up is a properly level and stable surface for your turntable to sit on. It doesn't matter what accessories you have if your vinyl spinning on a beanbag.