Turntable 101: Needles, Arms, Motors, and Grooves

Happy Record Store Day. Go out and buy some vinyl to support the real industry of music. Right now, then come back. Okay. You’re back now with your copy of “The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends,” or something equally awesome. You pull out the twelve inch slab, spin it around, and admire the vinyl microgrooves. You head over to your turntable, which you call a record player, that appears to be made my Fisher Price. It’s got some rad knobs, a sweet plastic housing, and you’re pretty sure you saw a DJ with something like in a movie from the 90s. It’s connected to a receiver that belonged to your parents, and that’s connected to speakers that your Grandpa owned before your Dad spilled beer on them every weekend he was at college. You pop the record on, sit back, and comment to your girl/boyfriend (or maybe just to yourself) how much better vinyl sounds than digital. You immediately drown in the sludge of your own smugness.

What you’re listening to doesn’t sound better than a digital file. I 93 percent guarantee that. Your turntable is cheap, light, and imprecise in every possible way. Your speakers likely have diaphragm issues and need to have some rotten foam gaskets replaced depending on when they were made. Your amp might be okay. (They age well and the technology hasn’t really changed much in the last 40 years. In fact, older amps are better because newer ones are over-priced and plasticized to support ridiculous home theatre set-ups—the increase in component quantity at a fixed price brings the quality down) But it’s not your fault your set-up is awful. You’re trying your hardest with your limited resources and understanding of the technology. Rest assured, the rumors of vinyl sounding better than CD, Tape, MP3, and FLAC are completely true. You can earn your sense of entitlement.

Vinyl provides a fuller sound with more depth because of the scientific principles behind the technology. Just buying a turntable at Wal-Mart for 99 dollars won’t provide you what you want because you’re overlooking what makes vinyl sound great. There are three integral systems that make a turntable function well. If all three of these systems meet a precision threshold, the signal sent from table to the amplifier will be impeccable. If one of the systems is found wanting, the entire ecosystem breaks apart.

A turntable is made of the drive train and platter, the tone arm, and the cartridge and stylus (or needle). These three assemblies balance themselves to pick up vibrations on the stylus from the record. It is the goal of the system to isolate the stylus and the record from the rest of the world.

The vinyl sits on the platter, the platter is connected to the motor, and the motor makes the disc go around. Very simple concept but for two things: the speed of rotation has to be perfectly even, and no vibration from the motor can be transferred to the record. To offset these issues, platters are made out of dense and heavy materials which will absorb any transferred vibrations without passing them off to the stylus. If you have a cheap plastic platter, it will pass along vibrations and distort your sound. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your table weighs at least eight pounds.

As the platter gets heavier, a more powerful motor is needed to make it spin at a constant rate. Motors can either be attached directly to the platter (direct drive) or to a belt system connected to the platter (belt drive). Direct drive systems are more likely to be consistent in speed but also pass off vibrations with more ease. Belt drive systems can wear down as the belt solidifies or stretches, but the motor is easily separated from the system greatly reducing the vibrations transferred. For accurate listening pleasure, a good belt drive system is almost always preferred. I say good because the cheapest tables often use awful belt drive systems and the most expensive tables use exceptional belt drive systems. The quality of belt and motor make all the differences.

The tonearm balances the pressure and position of the cartridge and stylus on the record. It must be light enough to pick up all the nuance from the record, but heavy enough not to damage the record or stylus by applying too much pressure. The best tone arms are straight and made from materials like wood, carbon fiber, or other composite materials. Most reasonably well performing tonearms are made from machined steel.

The cartridge holds the stylus and the essential components needed to transfer vibrations to electricity. It is mounted at the end of the tone arm and the stylus makes direct contact with the grooves in the vinyl record. The stylus is the heart and soul of the entire turntable. With a lousy, broken, or mistreated stylus the entire sound of the system will be altered. Styli are either spherical or elliptical. There isn’t a massive difference between the two although the spherical stylus will pull out sound from a damaged or flawed record. Cartridges come in two forms: moving magnet, and moving coil. In a moving magnet cartridge, the stylus is attached to a small magnet which sits between two fixed coils in the cartridge. As the stylus vibrates it creates an electromagnetic generator which induces a current down the tonearm and back to the amp or pre-amp. In a moving coil cartridge, a small coil of wire is attached to the stylus which vibrates between a permanent magnetic field.

Any vibration present within the cartridge will be converted to an electrical impulse and converted to sound. Scientifically it’s an incredible thing that physical movement can be transfered into electricity. It’s one of the purest forms of natural science we are witness to on a regular basis. It’s the reason vinyl can sound so great. The quest for flawless sound is found by purifying the space between stylus and coil. There’s an art to getting it right, and most of the adjustments you make can be fine tuned to the preferences of your ears. It takes patience, knowledge, understanding, and practice to get there. You’re not just pushing a button and letting machinery make the music for you. With a turntable, your actions, equipment, and adjustments are part of the sound.

Picking up a paintbrush doesn’t make you a painter. Buying a turntable doesn’t make you an audiophile. Vinyl sales have doubled in the last couple of years, which is an indication of the changing feel in the public’s relationship with music. Collecting vinyl has become trendy and hip. Lo-Fi is in the spotlight of most trends. Psycho-acoustically vinyl is anything but lo-fi. Do it for the love of sound, not for the love of a look. Buy the disc; take the ride.

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