The primary reason that retro record players are making a dramatic comeback in today’s market is quite simple: they produce a natural acoustic sound that no cassette, CD player, or even portable MP3 player can match. But any team that generates winning results has several key players working together in complex ways. And record players are no exception.
Read on for an in-depth overview of the many parts of the record player, what their respective roles are, and how it all comes together for unrivaled sound.
With DJ’s becoming such a nightclub staple (not to mention a career path that continues to disappoint an increasing number of parents), many people mistakenly understand “turntable” to be simply an alternate word for record player. But technically, the turntable is merely the circular part of the record player where the record is placed.
Sometimes referred to as a “revolving platter,” the turntable is composed of two parts:
- Plate – This is the part that spins so that records rested on top spin with it. Plates are usually made of metal. Aluminum plates, though more expensive, are ideal because they provide sturdier balance, keep vibrations to a minimum, and maintain more consistent motor speeds. Cheaper plates are made from steel. Because they are so light, they have much lower inertia, which makes them more prone to motor speed instability. Most plates are covered in either rubber or plastic to prevent record surfaces from getting scratched.
- Metal Rod – At the center of the turntable is the metal rod. Its purpose is to hold the record in place as it rotates.
Belt-Drive vs. Direct-Drive Systems: The Great Debate
The turntable’s ability to rotate is propelled by the record player’s drive system. There are two types of drive systems: belt-drive and the (more current) direct-drive. The debate as to which one is better is nearly as old as the record player itself. And the answer isn’t necessarily a simple one.
Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each:
- Belt-Drive – A belt-drive record player features a belt that gets the plate spinning. This belt is powered by a motor—generally located off to the side of the belt—and wraps around part or all of the turntable’s outer perimeter. In addition to making it easier to isolate the motor from the turntable, belts are better able to absorb vibrations and other low-frequency sounds emitted by the motor than their direct-drive counterparts.
But belt-drives do come with two inconveniences, albeit relatively minor ones. First, since the plate is driven by a belt it causes the turntable to need a few extra seconds to reach full speed. Secondly, the wear and tear the belt endures requires it to be replaced occasionally. Thankfully, belt replacements are a relatively quick and inexpensive process.
- Direct-Drive – Instead of being located to the side, motors on direct-drive record players are positioned directly beneath the turntable. This makes it much tougher to mask sound coming from the motors, which puts direct-drive players at an obvious disadvantage in the sound quality department. But direct-drive players aren’t without their upsides. First of all, direct-drive motors reach maximum speeds virtually instantaneously. And when you turn a direct-drive player off, the plate continues to spin freely with no resistance.
Because direct-drive turntables are easy to spin, direct-drive systems are pretty much the unanimous choice of DJ’s. But if your goal is simply to purchase a record player that produces the best possible sound, you’ll most likely want to go with a belt-drive system.
“Stylus” is record player lingo for the cone-shaped object that makes contact with the vinyl surface, gliding up and down its grooves to take you from track to track. Ideal styli (yes, that’s the plural of stylus) are composed of diamond or sapphire for optimal durability.
The tip of the stylus will fall into one of the following four categories:
- Spherical – Resembling the tip of a ballpoint pen, spherical styli are the most common and least expensive type. Because spherical styli possess the largest radii of the four options, they are less capable of tracing the intricacies of vinyl grooves.
- Elliptical – The runner up, elliptical styli come equipped with dual radii. This enables them to capture vinyl grooves with greater precision. Additionally, they respond well to higher frequencies, resulting in less distortion. The downside with styli is that they tend to wear down faster.
- Hyperelliptical – As the name suggests, hyperelliptical styli are an improved version of the elliptical prototype. Their sharper tip allows for even greater groove tracking and frequency response and, inversely, less distortion. They also have a longer tip life than their elliptical counterparts. But these next-level improvements cost extra money.
- Microline – If you’re willing to shell out top dollar, you won’t find better quality than a microline stylus. Their computer-designed ridge shape makes them the toughest type of stylus to manufacture, but also maximizes their performance in tracking, frequency response, lifespan, and distortion.
Depending on the quality of your stylus, it will need to be replaced somewhere between 1,000 and 2,500 record plays.
Tonearm and Cartridge
Like cookies and cream or Timon and Pumbaa, the tonearm and cartridge work together in tandem, rendering it difficult to mention one without the other. It’s the intricate teamwork between the two that ultimately creates the sound coming from the record player.
How the Tonearm Works
The tonearm is the mechanical arm that holds the stylus in place by connecting it with a piece of metal, called the cantilever. The flexibility of this cantilever enables the stylus to trace the grooves of the vinyl.
Tonearms come in two varieties:
- Straight arms, which are preferred by DJ’s because they’re easier to scratch with
- Curved arms, which tend to produce higher quality sound
How the Cartridge Works
The stylus’s tracing of vinyl grooves results in vibrations that travel through the inner wiring of the tonearm to the cartridge. Once these vibrations hit the cartridge’s magnetic coil, they’re transformed into electrical signals that are sent to your speakers as the music that you hear.
Speaking of which...
Preamplifiers and Amplifiers
Another important tandem in the record player listening experience is the preamplifiers and amplifiers. If the electrical signals captured by your record player’s cartridge are the goods, your preamps and amps are essentially the mailmen that deliver them from the cartridge to your speakers, which will either be built into the record player or connected by cable. The combined effort of preamps and amps also determine various sound frequencies like treble and bass.
Older record player audio receivers often include preamps in the form of phonos, i.e. the horn-shaped contraption on gramophones. Most newer receivers don’t have this feature. Some recent receivers, however, compensate for this by including a built-in preamp.
Whether your record player comes with a built-in preamp or not, most record player enthusiasts will insist that you treat yourself to an external preamp for the best sound quality.
What do Preamps do?
The electrical signals that your turntable cartridges absorb are marked by several different sources of audio input. And some of these sources are much weaker than others.
The preamps boost the weaker incoming signals to ensure that all sound input reaches line level, i.e. a level loud enough to be heard at a normal volume.
What do Amps do?
Once the weaker audio signals are brought up to par, amplifiers boost the line level—in essence, raising the overall volume—before the final sound is sent through the speakers.
But that’s not all amps can do. They’re also responsible for other key sound manipulations such as:
- Modifying the balance between different audio channels
- Imbuing the sound with additional filters that further modify the output
- Muting electrical signals
Like a tarp you spread over a car you want to keep in mint condition, your record player’s dust cover can be folded over its components in order to help prevent the accumulation of dust, dirt and other gunk.
This might not seem like a big deal. But dust can lead to swift, permanent damage to both your vinyl records and record player in a multitude of ways, such as:
- Wrecking the stylus
- Settling into the grooves of the vinyl, which causes irritating slips and pauses
- Sound distortion stemming from the buildup of dust in the magnetic cartridge
- Hindering the steady movement of the tonearm
- Cracking your record or leaving a scratch on it that you won’t be able to clean
Not all record player parts are created equal. Look for the best available components that suit both your goals and your budget, and make sure to continue taking good care of them over time in order to keep playing your vinyl collection.
Your ears will thank you for it.
1) “What is the Difference Between Preamplifier and Amplifier?” by Camila Rabin
2) “The Different Types of Turntable Styli (and Which is Right for You) by Discogs Blog contributor https://blog.discogs.com/en/different-types-turntable-styli/