Exploring Record Players, Part By Part


Beginning in 2008, sale of records nearly doubled in the US from one million to 1.9 million, and then from 2009 on sales continued to grow by leaps and bounds until hitting 14.3 records sold in 2017. Sales of record playing devices, of necessity, also saw strong growth.

Few realize how long the record player has been with us – nearly as long as the radio. Phonographs, used in the late 1800’s, for example, were really just a type of early record player under a different name and with a horn-like projector device attached instead of an amplifier built in.

But record players, against all odds and most predictions, have stood the test of time and made a comeback decades after newer sound recording mediums, like the CD, were introduced. Many people love the way they sound and prefer them over all other options.

But if you do decide to buy a record player, you’ll find that modern versions vary widely in both quality and price. How do you find the best record player for your budget? One way to start is by understanding the major parts of a record player and how they affect the way a unit will work.

The Turntable or “Platter”

The entire record player unit is sometimes referred to as a “turntable,” but so is the wheel on which the record is placed. The turning table is also, however, commonly called a “platter.”

The plate may be made out of metal or plastic, but either way, it will normally have a rubber mat that intervenes between it and your precious records to prevent scratching. Occasionally, the platter itself will be rubber and will need, therefore, no protective mat.

In the middle of the turntable will be a metal rod over which the hole in a record slips so as to hold it steady while it spins.

Steel platters tend to be cheaper, and they also have the benefit of being lightweight. But they also react easier to any inconsistency in your motor speed. Aluminum is more stable. It’s heavier, which means it can resist vibrations better to protect the sound quality. In general, you want a totally flat, even surface for your turntable, but if you are playing certain records that have curved outer lips, you need a turntable that will match it to keep the record lying flat-to-plate.

With direct drive models, the motor powers the bearing, which rotates the turntable and helps keep it level. With belt drive models, the motor pulls a belt which wraps around the turntable’s outer edge.

This kind of indirect method of turning the foundation on which your records rest helps to reduce vibration interference because the belt absorbs most of the vibrations. However, direct drive costs less and avoids complex gears and the need for a tougher engine to handle pulling the belt.

The Tone Arm

The tone arm, also spelled tonearm, holds the stylus that makes contact with the record to read it and “translates” the grooved messages encoded in vinyl in a way that the cartridge (more on that below) can understand.

While you might not think this simply armlike connecting part matters much, in fact it does, and there are several different types. Radial and pivotal arms work about the same, but for a little extra you can get a linear/parallel tone arm that will ride in the grooves at the same angle at which they were cut – which is optimal for avoiding wear.

Note that most tone arms have a counterbalancing weight that controls pressure put on the record by the stylus – in technical terms, it regulates “tracking force.” Too much force can cause a build up of heat and pressure, but a far greater danger is too little force so that the stylus slips out of the groove and goes on a wild trip over the surface of the record, scratching away as it goes.

This explains why only the cheapest, most basic record players lack an adjustable counterweight and a “bias adjustment” that helps prevent “skating.”

The Cartridge & Amplifier

Connected to the end of the tone arm of a record player is a cartridge, which is responsible for converting the vibrations picked up by the stylus-tonearm contraption into electrical energy. The amplifier, in turn, converts electrical impulses into “hearable sound.”

Speakers are often built right into the record player these days, but you can get external ones too – including wireless. And many models allow the use of headphones as well.

There are four major types of cartridges:

  • Ceramic
  • Moving magnet (MM)
  • Moving iron (MI)
  • Moving coil (MC)

Ceramic gets a high output voltage and is the least expensive option. But it also results in heavier wear to record grooves and may have trouble getting the best bass sound. The other three options all correct the shortcomings of ceramic cartridges, but it comes at an increased price tag. So you just have to balance your budget with what’s most important to you as to sound quality and durability.

The Stylus

The stylus, or “needle,” rests inside the grooves cut into the record’s vinyl surface, picking up vibrations that conform to the irregularities of the inner sides of the V-shaped grooves through which it passes.

Most styluses are cone-shaped, but there are variations in their exact proportions. More narrow-nosed “elliptical” styluses will sit deeper in the grooves, which will reduce the amount of tracking pressure needed and help with more faithful reproduction of higher frequencies. And elliptical doesn’t really cost a lot more than cone-shaped either.

Note that it’s not the tip but the sides of the stylus that make contact with the record grooves in such a way as to create the vibrations. So you don’t really need to inspect the stylus’ tip too closely.

The material of almost all styluses is either diamond or sapphire. Diamond-tips are usually preferred because it gives you longer play time before needing replacement, but sapphire is certainly adequate and is less expensive. We’ve gone over the most important components of a record player, and we’ve seen that variations in the way these parts are made in different record players can affect the price of a machine, the quality of the sound produced, and the longevity of the records played or of the parts themselves. You can find good record players for around $100 on today’s market, and that’s not a bad decision if you need to stick to a tight budget. But buying a higher-end model or a mid-range model that allows you to upgrade it piece by piece later, also clearly has its benefits.

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