One of the side-effects of the so-called "vinyl revival" is the proliferation of "budget" turntables from high street and online retailers. Brands such as Crosley, Steepletone, and Ion produce turntables for less than £100 (often much less), styled in a vintage manner, often including speakers, volume control, and maybe even a headphone jack. What's not to love?
The answer is simple: These turntables will destroy your records
In the arcade where my shop, Expressive Audio, is found, there's also an excellent record shop. There's a steady stream of collectors, old and new, often spending twenty or thirty pounds a week on records - easily £100 a month. Sometimes these same people are carrying HMV bags, and have bought new records for £15 a time, as well.
Sometimes they pop down to my shop, and I ask them what turntable they use. An alarmingly common answer is one of these budget turntables, bought from HMV, or Amazon. When I point out to them that their turntable is permanently damaging the most valuable part of their hobby - the records themselves - they appear shocked. Sometimes they seem skeptical - surely I would say that! I want to sell them an "expensive" turntable.
Well, let me explain precisely how these turntables damage your records, and then do a little economics to see whether it makes sense to invest in something a little better.
Vinyl Replay is a Contact Sport
In my article on phono stages I gave an overview of how the sound picked up from the grooves of a record is converted to electrical signals, and amplified, so we can hear them. The key thing to understand in this context is that this is a mechanical, contact-based technology. At all times that a record is being played, a hard thing (the stylus of the record player) is rubbing against a soft thing (the vinyl of the record). So to a certain degree, the record will always be subject to degradation over time. However, with a correctly set up turntable, with quality components, this wear is negligible - undetectable after thousands of plays. On a budget one, however, the level of wear is exponentially greater, and real damage is inflicted in a very short space of time.
To understand how and why this happens, we need to look first at the record itself. As Man memorably wrote - a record is 12oz of plastic with a hole in the middle, fashioned into a flat disk. Upon the surface of plastic is a spiral, roughly half the width of a human hair, which, if unravelled, would stretch for over a mile.
This groove is like a v-shaped valley, but with notches in, created by a cutting lathe, in proportion to the sounds captured when the initial performance was recorded.
The depth of the impressions engraved on either side of the groove will be proportional to the amplitude of the signal, and the frequency of cuts will be proportional to the pitch of the sound. This the groove represents a 3d representation of the sound of the original recording.
Extracting information from these grooves is a precision task, achieved by tracking the grooves with the record 'needle'. This needle needs to be in physical contact with this spiral groove, for the duration of the playback.
With respect to the contact between the record player and the record itself, there are four aspects to consider.
Stylus type and quality
The tip of a stylus is under a huge amount of pressure - twenty six tonnes of pressure per square inch, and travels a remarkably long way - over two miles for a single two-sided LP.
When a brand new stylus is used to play on a brand new disks, initially the point of contact with the record is very slight, but with time the stylus is worn down, and more of the stylus is in contact with the record.
The more contact there is with the record, the more the record grooves themselves become worn. As the grooves wear, they become contaminated with abrasive materials from the listening environment, which cause the stylus to wear down even further.
Counter-intuitively, softer materials do not result in less wear. Softer styluses themselves wear rapidly - studies have shown sapphire cartridges can become severely degraded after fewer than 6 hours of playback. The same study showed a clear correlation between stylus wear and record wear - the more worn the stylus, the more worn the record becomes.
As the stylus becomes more worn it starts to take on the characteristics of a cutting tool, like a chisel, rather than a tool for retrieving the detail from the grooves.
The best solution, therefore, is to fashion a stylus out of pure diamond, with a profile optimised for detail retrieval and minimal wearing.
This is what the best quality cartridges achieve. Cheaper cartridges opt for compromises - elliptical or spherical profiles which are cheaper to produce, and at the cheapest end, tipping a metal shank with a bit of diamond.
In order to keep the stylus in the groove, there needs to be some downward pressure. As the stylus tracks the grooves, it vibrates really quite a lot, and sometimes this can cause the record to 'jump'. A high quality tonearm will be designed to allow the user to fine-tune the downward pressure. A tracking weight of between 1.5 and 2g is typical, and will result in optimal performance without exerting too much pressure on the record.
To allow downward pressure to be adjusted, most arms have a threaded weight on the far end, which can be dialed forwards or backwards, providing a counter-balance to the weight of the cartridge itself.
If you consider that a cartridge needs to have some kind of body to protect the internals, and also contains magnets, suspension, and coils of wire, it can quickly start to weight several grams or more. To ensure that this weight isn't just gouging out the grooves, a counter-weight at the other end of the arm balances it out, and allows an optimal tracking weight to be applied.
Because the grooves are concentric, and are wider at the outside of the record than the inside, pressures are applied which pull the stylus (and the arm) towards the middle of the record. This is called 'skating'. We want to minimise or compensate for this. Because the left and right channels of a stereo record are on the two sides of the groove, if the stylus is being pulled in one direction more than the other, the sound balance will be impacted, which means the stereo image will degrade, and, importantly for our discussion, the grooves will wear unevenly.
Most arms have a way to counteract this pressure - sometimes with a spring, sometimes with a magnet, sometimes with a weight on a string.
The final consideration is the alignment of the needle in the groove. Remembering that vinyl reproduction is an exercise in trying to reverse the process by which the record was made, in an ideal world, we could exactly replicate the cutting angle, and equipment that was used to create the record in the first place. Of course this is impossible, so all of hifi reproduction is a series of educated guesses and compromises, backed by science.
There are four variables to consider when thinking about aligning a cartridge:
This is the distance the playing tip extends over the centre of the spindle. This is set by moving the cartridge forwards and backwards in the headshell, or part of the arm where the cartridge is mounted.
Given the ever changing nature of a record groove, it isn't possible for statically fixed cartridge to even be at right-angles to the groove at all times. Mathematically, with normal pivoted tonearm, as a cartridge traces an arc across a record, there will only be two points at which the stylus is at a neutral angle. The cartridge needs to be aligned to achieve this. If this isn't done, the cartridge could well never be truly tangential to the groove.
The next plane in which we need to align our cartridge is with respect to the surface of the record. Again, we're looking for the cartridge to be parallel to the record. To achieve that we need to be able to rotate the cartridge or arm to ensure the headshell is parallel to the record. This includes compensating for the imperfect playing conditions, in which the turntable is not level when installed.
Vertical Tracking Angle
The final plane to consider is the angle of the cantilever with respect to the record surface. Typically this will be around 20 degrees, if the tonearm is parallel to the record. The angle can affect the tonal balance. In general, if the sound tends to be bright and bass light, base of the arm can be lowered to compensate, or the treble tends to be dull, raising the base of the arm. will correct this. This is based on 'average' width records.
Very thin records and very thick records will naturally alter this angle, so if you have a tendency to listen mostly to new 180g pressings, you might need to adjust your setup, similarly, if you listen to late Columbia releases, which tend to be very thin, you might also need to compensate.
How does a cheap turntable meet these requirements
Even without scratching the surface (no pun intended) of the degree of sophistication required to reproduce stereo sound from a record groove, it's apparent that this is a precise and delicate operation. For best results we need to make very fine adjustments, with very high tolerances. But at the other end of the spectrum, if we don't get these basic things right, we're actually doing harm, not just limiting our ability to reproduce the sound faithfully.
A budget turntable approaches these precise challenges in one of two ways. Very crudely, or not at all.
Tracking weight on a cheap turntable is not adjustable, and the tonearms rarely ever have any counterweight, so the weight is simply a function of the mass of the cartridge itself, and gravity. I've measured tracking weights in excess of 7g, which is massive massively too heavy.
Stylus design and profile is very crude indeed. Rarely are styluses even diamond - the cheaper sapphire is often used. If diamond is used, it's of very poor quality, attached to a metal shank. The cut of the stone is rough, not well polished, and the profile will most likely be spherical, leading to sustained pressure on the record grooves. The cantilevers are unforgiving - all in all - if you were to design something to give maximum chance of causing damage to a spinning disk, this is close to the perfect design.
Budget turntables frequently have no anti-skate or bias control at all. The ones I've investigated appear simply to ignore it altogether. This means your records are always unevenly played, and the grooves wear on the inside more than the outside, and on one channel more than the other. Of course, they'll also sound much more distorted on the inner grooves too.
Budget turntables have absolutely no way to change alignment. You're left with whatever best compromise was designed into the product, and implemented with a degree of quality control you'd expect from a product that costs a few pounds at most to create.
Tests have been done on brand new records, with budget turntables like I'm describing, and audible and visible damage was observable within fifty plays. That's absolutely shocking.
Given the degree of configuration needed to minimise damage to the records, and to maximise the chance of extracting the music faithfully, when the approach to these challenges taken by the designers and manufacturers of these turntables is considered, I'm afraid it's simply beyond doubt that these budget turntables ruin records, and sound terrible.
But I can't afford the alternative
The kinds of machines I'm describing are selling in the shops this Christmas for just short of £100. It's an appealing plug and play solution, at an affordable price.
Or is it?
The average record collection I encounter is 100-200 records. I have customers with thousands, and some just starting, but even at a rate of a couple of records a month, a brand new collector will have more than twice the value of a budget turntable in physical media within one year. A more enthusiastic collector could easily have a collection five to tens times the value.
Now consider that tests have shown that in just fifty plays, a record is audibly, visibly, and irrecoverably damaged. Let's suppose we listen to a couple of records a day, on average. That's getting on for 800 plays - so in a year you'll have destroyed 40 records. Even at £3 a record from the bargain bin, that's the cost of the turntable gone already.
Suddenly this doesn't sound like good economics.
Our entry level turntable costs £200, has a high quality, and upgradeable cartridge, has a removable headshell, can be accurately aligned, and tracks at 1.5g. It won't damage your records, and it sounds spectacular.
What it lacks, that these 'plug and play' systems sometimes provide, is an amplifier and speakers.
At this point, it makes sense to think a little bit about the cost of manufacture, and the margins involved. A manufacturer makes a product, sells it to a distributor, who stores in, markets it, and sells it to a retails, who sells it to a customer. At each stage in the chain, a margin is made. Working backwards, a £100 record player would have cost more like £30 to make. Now consider this includes speakers, amplifier, and turntable. That's £10 each. It simply isn't possible to make a good quality product at this price.
The problem we face in the 21st century is that we're used to thinking that music is close to free. Streaming services, youtube, radio, mobile phones, all of these conveniences provide music on tap. Look at the number of people walking around with their earphones plugged in. Music is cheap and ubiquitous. The quality is also terrible - people have forgotten what good music sounds like. They've forgotten that recorded music can sound exceptionally good - remarkably close to a live performance. Sometimes better. As such, they struggle to attribute value to it.
About 25 years ago I bought a "midi system" from the local electronics retailer. I think it was £300. This was a cheap system. The quality was poor, by comparison with decent separates. But it wasn't terrible. Compared to Spotify coming out of an iPhone it would have been incredible. Even compared to a Sonos system in someone's kitchen, it would have sounded pretty great. And that was 25 years ago.
Now, people will pay £600 for a mobile phone, but think £100 should get them a hifi system. They wince at the idea of spending the equivalent on a music system that will give them pleasure for decades. It's a lost luxury, but one which I hope will be rediscovered.
So, a good record player costs about £200. But we need an amplifier and some speakers.
The simplest and cheapest way to achieve this is to buy a record player that can transmit bluetooth to a soundbar or speaker. The quality won't be as good as a wired system with dedicated and separate amplifier and speaker, but it will be much better than a cheap all-in-one, and allows you to get the most important thing right - the bit that touches your records.
The next step up is to purchase a set of good quality loudspeakers that have an amplifier built in. This way you can connect your turntable (with built-in phono stage) directly to the speakers. These cost about £350, and will sound pretty good, and can also be used with bluetooth, so you can stream your phone music to the speakers too.
The best performance will come from separate speakers and amplifier. Speakers start at about £150 and amplifiers start at about £300, although we often have pre-loved bargains which make the barrier to entry even lower.
All of these options will sound massively better than a cheap, plasticy all-in-one system, will last you for years, and as your record collection grows be a source of tremendous joy.
Sure, it's an investment. Sure, it's a lot more than £100. But, the way I see it, for the price of a mobile phone, or a cheap round of drinks a week, you can treat yourself and your records kindly, and get yourself a quality system up front, and look after the real investment - your growing record collection. It's sound economic sense, and the musical rewards will be far greater...
Stephen Nelson-Smith is founder and principal consultant at Expressive Audio, in Chichester, West Sussex. He would love to help you get rid of your record-destroying turntables, and set you on the journey to damage-free musical bliss.