Priceonomics

Greetings audiophiles and turntable aficionados! At Priceonomics you can lookup the fair market value for any used turntable. Just search for the model name and we'll instantly give you a price estimate for the turntable you desire. To kick things off, Priceonomics contributor Greg Hunsaker has put together a basic primer on buying a turntable below.

Image credit: vinylengine.

Turntables 101

Thomas Alva Edison undoubtedly never considered the 21st century outcome when he invented the grammaphone in 1877. Encoded messages revealed by playing albums backwards, rappers and DJs scratching for sound effects, or the turntable that plugs into your computer were likely beyond his comprehension.

The advances and advents of technology would seem to have rendered the lowly LP (long play) album a thing of the past, as many said in 1980. And 1990. And 2000. But the keener ears seem to respond more favorably to the playback tonality and timbre of the music recorded to the vinyl album. In Europe and Asia there is a movement to secure and collect American recordings on vinyl. American disc-jockeys on nationally and internationally syndicated stations are playing vinyl recordings on the air, on the x-air, and on the internet.

Whither Vinyl?

If CD recording technology, pioneered in the late 1970s, and the more recent development of MP3, WAV files, FLAC, and ipods is not preferable to the sound of old albums played on turntables, then what went wrong?

Perhaps this can be answered by the word, “convenience.” Few things are more convenient than clicking on itunes, or sequencing a track on an ipod or other MP3 player, but there is a determined population that will repeatedly move the heavy album collections, procure expensive turntables, amplifiers and speakers, and listen, captivated, to the space between the notes.

Definitions of the components of a turntable

If you're going to buy a turntable, make sure you know what the following terms mean otherwise you'll be in for a world of confusion:

Needle/Stylus: The actual sensor on the cartridge that “hears” the sounds created by the grooves etched in a record.

Cartridge: The electromagnetic pickup that encompasses the needle and converts the vibrations to amplified sounds.

Tonearm: The mechanism that transports the needle and cartridge across the grooves in a record.

Platter: The revolving disc that rotates the record for reading by the needle.

Motor: The mechanism that rotates the platter.

 

Why do people like the sound of vinyl and turntables?

Various audiophile reviews preferring the sound of vinyl cite the “warmth,” “accessibility,” or “depth” attained by analog recordings, while the CD industry has long claimed greater “accuracy,” “clarity,” or greater “dynamics” are to be found in digital recording.

The whole concept of a moving kit of parts, where the needle of the cartridge actually touches the vinyl medium, which spins clockwise creating centrifugal force, would seem to be anachronistic compared to a laser reader that translates music from coded ones and zeros. How could a tonearm with a needle on a cartridge, spinning not only through grooves in a vinyl album, but the various maladies of time, ashes, mold, dirt, deteriorating cardboard or plastic packing materials, create a more pleasant listening experience than the spic and span crystal-clean quality of lasers and converters?

Nuances.

Many audiophiles claim they can hear subtle passages in classical or jazz recordings more clearly on vinyl than on a digital recording. There is a tempering of the dynamic spikes in tonality and volume that occurs with albums which is not addressed in the latter. Have you ever had the impulse to take off headphones or turn down the volume when the sound of a cymbal crash makes you wince on a digital recording? The increased dynamic capacity of a digital recording fails to temper the highs and lows and creates a certain cacophony in the terrain of the sound.

Availability.

As the music industry undergoes sweeping changes, and music reproduction as an industry gives way to live performance, the availability of archives of recorded music in the digital age becomes market-driven. Many of the lesser known or less-selling recording are not viable for reproduction in a sales model. Thus, collectors of more obscure releases find them only available on vinyl.

Appearances.

Then there is a societal stigma, wherein we pride ourselves on the sheer contemporaneity of our gear. We don’t want to go camping in an old army tent, no, or ride a ten-speed bicycle. We want to flaunt the chromatically correct aerodynamic purity of our new Outdoors Recreational System or 28-speed titanium-alloy mountain bike. So why, oh why, would we consider a return to the moldering technology from the days of disco, Hee-haw and John Denver?

What kind of turntable should I buy?

Turntable aficionados speak of being able to hear the room in a recording, the shape of the recording space articulated in the music, or the spaces between the louder passages transitioning more gracefully than provided by their digital counterparts. Some take this very seriously: People are reporting that with a modern turntable, linked to a computer, they can make superior recordings to those that are commercially available.

The new generation of turntables comes with a USB port, which links the analog player to the potential of digital reproduction, with the parameters of the recording at the fingertips of the user.

Sony makes an affordable USB-equipped turntable (PS-LX300USB) with fully-automatic functions, belt-driven, capable of playing at 33-1/3 or 45 rpms, that can play directly through a stereo in a conventional configuration, via RCA cables, into an amplifier or receiver, or via USB into whatever playback or recording software is at the discretion of the user. It has an integral EQ switch, and phono preamp. Product reviews of this turntable are generally positive, citing flexibility, though there are critiques of the product literature and software protocol instructions.

Stanton makes an entry-level turntable (T62B-NA) with USB output, direct-drive, 2 speeds and a straight tonearm. Again this machine garners generally positive reviews while positing the question of what are the advantages of direct-drive vs. belt-driven?

Direct-drive turntables versus belt-drive turntables

It is a question that has long reigned over turntable technology, and again can be explained in terms of convenience versus perfection. Direct-drive turntables are simpler, lacking a belt, which many see as something that can stretch or break, with belt-driven turntables requiring potentially more maintenance than their direct-driven counterpart. More importantly, to sound purists, is the fact that a direct drive turntable, which has a direct physical connection between the motor and the revolving platter, can telegraph microvibrations from the motor that are subsequently picked up by the needle, amplified by the cartridge and ultimately introduce noise that corrupts the recording playback.

Another factor in deciding between belt and direct-drive is the intended use. If one is listening to quiet passages in Shostakovich, Debussy, or Mingus, it may be imperative to minimize potential corruption of the quiet, delicate passages. If one is a DJ at a noisy party, alternating between music sources and using the turntable for an instrument, scratching back and forth, the potential for corrupting the sound is negligible, and the belt might be compromised by being jerked back and forth.

Manual versus automatic turntables

Selecting a manual or an automatic turntable is similar in terms of convenience versus fidelity. The automatic turntable will play through an LP with the push of a single button, which drops the tonearm down to seat the needle in the groove at the beginning of the recording, withdrawing it at the end. Audiophiles, however, feel the degree of control provided by a manual turntable, where one raises the tonearm with a cueing lever and sets the tonearm down where desired, gives not only greater indexing capability, but that the simpler design is more precise and provides superior sonic fidelity.



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