The vinyl renaissance is an exciting time to be alive. Music has never sounded better. But with over a hundred years of history to catch up on, vinyl culture can be overwhelming and downright confusing. The terminologies themselves can seem a mystery, with some people calling record players “turntables.” Because these words are sometimes used interchangeably, you might be left wondering if you should invest in a record player or turntable, or may be wondering, is there a difference between turntables and record players? The short answer is, yes there is a significant difference.
Turn Table vs. Record Player - Apples and Oranges
In the current vernacular, turntables are associated with DJs spinning records — this cultural link that many people, especially younger crowds, share, has seeped into common parlance. The result is that turntables are thought of as newer and more high-end record players. In contrast, the term "record player" brings to mind older, low-end gear.
The truth is, entertaining the comparison is misguided. The differentiation has to do with function, not sound quality. The turntable is, in fact, part of the record player. As the platter on which you place a record, turntables play a dominant role in the workings of a record player. Indeed, a record player needs a turntable to operate. However, the same can be said of the turntable, which cannot function without additional equipment.
To fully grasp how the turntable works, we need to take a step back and look at the basics of audio equipment engineering. A turntable is a circular surface that is flat. It rotates at a given, regular speed.
Depending on the requirements of a particular record, turntables can be programmed to play at a speed of:
- 33 1/3RPM
How Do Turntables Work?
Generally speaking, a turntable is a revolving platter. As such, they are useful in many mediums. A turntable can be used by potters and sculptors, who, placing a lump of unrefined clay on the table, shape the crude material as it spins under their skilled hands.
In the context of audio replay, a turntable is a flat surface on which a listener places a record. Rotating at a regular pace, the record passes under a needle that reads the grooves carved into the record. The sound vibrations are formed as the needle engages with the grooves. They are sent up the metal arm that houses a cartridge. The coils that make up this cartridge operate within a magnetic field, which transforms the vibrations on the record into electric signals that can be amplified and heard by a speaker.
Without an amplifier and speaker, the signal is too quiet to be heard by human ears. So, to make a turntable work, you would need two RCA male plugs to carry the low phono cartridge output to an RIAA equalizer, EQ for short. A preamplifier, or "preamp," would then boost the electronic signal to a frequency that can be heard, also known as "line level." After making the proper adjustments at line level, the electronic signal would be fed to a power amplifier. Thanks to this amp, the signal could be picked up and boosted by speakers or headphones.
Equalizers either increase or attenuate frequencies of sound to fit the range of the human ear (20-20,000 Hz). The Recording Industry Association of America gave its name to the industry's global standard in the mid-1950s. The RIAA Equalizer changed recording history.
Before the RIAA standard was established, record companies and labels released their own versions. The diversity in equalizer manufacturing resulted in imperfect recording replay. Different and imperfect reproductions of the same song were common because the playback filters did not always match the record’s requirements.
The RIAA equalizer allowed for more consistency in the audio replay experience. By improving the quality of the sound and shrinking the width of each groove on the record, the RIAA equalizer made for longer recordings. It also saved vinyl records from premature wear.
Record Players 101
Does turntable technology sound too complicated? The great thing about record players is that they perform all of those functions behind the scenes and they only require one thing to get the party going- a power cord.
Nowadays, record players combine in one unit:
- A turntable
- A pick-up arm
- A cartridge, located inside the metallic arm
- An amplifier and/or set of speakers
It all started back in 1877, and the technology has not changed all that much since. Record players essentially give body to sound in such a way that it can be played back. Like water, sound has a physical quality that can be invisible to the naked eye. But just because you cannot see it does not mean it is not there. A shattering glass may reveal sound's physical form: it breaks when a sound matches its resonant frequency. These vibrations per second that animate every object in the world.
Sound is thus a natural occurrence, whether we hear it or not. Capturing sound to play it back, however, is the activity of humans, and more specifically, a man by the name of Thomas Edison. With the invention of the groundbreaking phonograph, Edison is credited with being the first to have successfully recorded and replayed sound.
Where Record Players Come From
Thomas Edison developed a receiver for the sound currents using a cylinder covered in tin foil and the thinnest membrane he could find to make up a diaphragm, which he strapped to a needle. Sound waves came into contact with the diaphragm. With the help of a hand crank, the cylinder turned as the needle carved into the tinfoil to give voice to the vibrations that the diaphragm was interpreting.
The recording portion was done. What was needed next was a method to amplify this recorded sound when it was played back. This was done by connecting a horn to the diaphragm. So was born the phonograph, ancestor of the record player.
The Turntable, A Key Replacement
Ten years later, another man living in the United States made a breakthrough in the history of sound reproduction. The German Emile Berliner traded out Edison's cylinder for a flat table that could turn and became known as—you guessed it—the turntable. The device was christened the gramophone. It played Berliner’s next invention, the rubber record.
Like the phonograph before it, the gramophone was not perfect. It could not record as Edison's phonograph did, but it did boast better audio quality and durability.
The Birth of the Recording Industry
Imperfect was better than nonexistent. For the first time in history, people were able to listen to music or recordings they would not have access to in person. The recording industry was born. Interest grew and with it, the technology and engineering that made it possible. The turntable became automatized, no longer animated by a hand crank. Rather, two revolutionary mechanisms to spin the table were patented:
- The direct-drive
- The belt-drive
Created in 1906 in Camden, New Jersey, Victrola introduced the record player to the American public. With a background in engineering gramophones that played Berliner’s records, Eldridge R. Johnson founded the Victor Talking Machine Company. Unparalleled in quality and accessibility, the company quickly became the most substantial and successful manufacturer of the era.
But as most of us know, the record player was eventually eclipsed by newer devices. Considered bulky and obsolete, the record player took a backseat to the compact disc, commonly referred to as the “CD,” with the machine named CD player. Next came the age of digitized content, when physical recordings came to the brink of extinction, except for DJs spinning records on a DJ turntable. Hence the historical confusion of the terms "record player" and "turntable," as we mentioned before.
Record Player vs. Turntable
When it comes down to it, the choice between purchasing a simple turntable or a full-on record player depends on:
- Your budget, as record players will typically be more expensive than turntables.
- What you expect from the machine you are buying, knowing that a turntable on its own will not play music.
- Whether you own or are willing to purchase an amplifier and set of speakers, a consideration that brings us back to the earlier two, namely budget and intent.
How to Choose a Record Player
The fun part begins once you have made your decision about whether to buy a record player or a turntable. The possibilities are endless! Pick an established company with a good reputation, and you will be sure to find a great machine.
Victrola offers the widest range, from new-wave record players to retro-style music centers that combine:
- A turntable
- A radio
- A cassette player, able to record both radio and vinyl
- An amplifier
Modern Record Players
You will want to match your expectations of the machine with the features it has to offer. Modern record players can make the conversion to the digital sphere easy. Recordings are either:
- Directly saved onto data cards that live in the turntable itself, or
- Fed through a USB connection to a PC.
Classic Record Players
Boasting a wide range of aesthetics and functions, Victrola record players have it all. The choice is yours. Retro record players come in all shapes and sizes. They can be:
- Portable suitcase record player
- With radio and cassette players included
At the end of the day, whether you buy a turntable or a record player depends on what you want to get out of the device and your level of involvement in making it work. Some people seek out the opportunity to mix and match their equipment, preferring to buy separate pieces they will enjoy assembling. Others just want to sit back, relax, and enjoy that sweet, sweet music from their vinyl collection.
Library of Congress. “History of the Cylinder Phonograph” retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/collections/edison-company-motion-pictures-and-sound-recordings/articles-and-essays/history-of-edison-sound-recordings/history-of-the-cylinder-phonograph/
Quora. “What is the Difference Between a Turntable and a Record Player?” retrieved from https://www.quora.com/Whats-the-difference-between-a-turntable-and-record-player
Wikipedia. “Belt-drive Turntable” retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belt-drive_turntable