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5 Questions to Ask Before Buying a Turntable

Are you shopping for a turntable for the first? It can be daunting and, well, you likely have a lot of questions. We're here to answer them.

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Henry Phillips

Are you shopping for a turntable for the first time? It can be daunting and, well, you likely have a lot of questions. That's where we come in — here's where to start.

Should I get a direct-drive or belt-drive turntable?

This one's easy. You want a belt drive! Here's why.

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There are two primary types of turntables: belt drive vs direct drive. Direct-drive turntables are generally the more affordable option. They have a motor that's positioned directly underneath the platter. This allows the turntable to start up quicker and also makes it easier for the platter to spin (or be spun) in either direction, which is why direct-drive turntables, like the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB, are so popular among DJs. The downside of having the motor directly under the platter is that it's more prone to causing vibrations and, as a result, distortion.

Belt-drive turntables have a motor, but it's located away from the platter. The motor is connected to belt, which wraps around the platter causing it to spin. The isolated motor and belt mean help belt-drive turntables create less vibrations, but they're a little slower to start up and fragile. But if you're getting into vinyl as a hobby, it is worth investing so that the cornerstone of your new project is up to snuff.

Should I get manual or automatic turntable?

When talking about a "manual" or "automatic" turntable, it's referring to the way the turntable lowers the tonearm and the stylus onto the record. A manual turntable is is a little more work because you have to manually lower the tonearm onto the record in order to start playing. You also have to lift the tonearm back into its resting position when the record is over.

On the other hand, an automatic turntable does pretty much all the work for you. After you place the record, all you have to do is press a button (or lever) and the tonearm will automatically lower onto the record. Then when the record is over, the tonearm with automatically lift and return back to its resting position. This turns your player into more of a press-and-play machine.

There's basically no difference in sound quality between the two but a manual turntable forces you to pay more attention to record, which many vinyl enthusiasts believe is actually the point of playing records. You have pick out where to place the stylus yourself, which can be tedious and a little bit of a science, and you be aware when the record is over, otherwise it'll keep spinning, playing that crackling end-of-the-record noise. Just make sure you don't leave it like that -- it's bad for the record and the stylus.

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Is this it, or am I going to want to upgrade?

One of the biggest decisions you'll have to make is whether or not to buy an integrated turntable, or a turntable that has a built-in phono preamp. These integrated turntables have become incredibly popular of late because they eliminate the need to buy an external phono preamplifier. So you're effectively paying for two components for the price of one.

A phono preamp is a vital component of any turntable system. It takes the the phono output signal created by the turntable and converts it into a "line level" or an "AUX" signal that audio equipment (like stereo systems, computers and speakers) can actually play. A good phono preamp is able to amplify and equalize the signal so that the record sounds as true as possible to the original recording.

The problem is that most integrated turntables don't have high-quality phono preamps, so you may find yourself wanting to upgrade. A lot of integrated turntables actually have switchable phono preamps, meaning you can turn them on or off in favor of an external upgrade. These are great because, down the road, if you decide you want to upgrade your hi-fi system, you can get a high-quality external phono preamp without having to a get a completely new turntable.

However, some integrated turntables don't allow you to turn off their built-in phono preamps, which puts a damper on your future upgrade -- so make sure to check beforehand.

Do I want to stream to my sound system, or is this is a pure analog experience?

It's 2020 and a true analog system just isn't in the cards for a lot of people -- and that's totally understandable. Sometimes you just want to stream music from your smartphone or computer and if your sound system can only handle vinyl, that is going to be annoying.

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Fortunately, a lot of turntables these days are super versatile and have a number of built-in connectivity options. It's pretty common for entry-level turntables to have built-in Bluetooth. This allows you to stream music directly to your turntable (and therefore your speakers), so you don't absolutely have play records if you don't want to. The Pro-Ject Essential III Bluetooth turntable is a perfect example of this.

The other thing to note is that you can get a true analog turntable with a built-in phono preamp and connect it directly to a powered speaker that can stream music. The Sonos Five (or old Play:5) is a perfect example. It has a line-in (aux) port, so you hook it up directly to a turntable with a phono preamp. Then, when you're not playing vinyl, you can stream music directly from your smartphone to the speaker, bypassing the turntable altogether.

How much do I want to spend?

The overriding concern for what turntable to get, though, is how much you're willing to pay. You can buy a great entry-level turntable with a built-in phono preamp for less than $300, like the Fluance RT81. Or you can spend a lot more than that and get, well, a way better turntable.

So, what are you paying extra for when you're buying a more expensive turntable? The simple answer is everything. You're for better quality components, like the stylus, phono cartridge, tonearm, phono preamp (if it has one), as well as better quality materials. All these things contribute to helping the turntable minimize distortion and read the record as accurately as possible.

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