GETING STARTED - All of the turntables we are discussing here must be used with an amplifier. Here's the tricky part, not just any amp will do. You will need an amplifier with inputs labeled "PHONO" (...NOT "AUX", "CD", "TAPE" or "PHONO/AUX"!!!). Because the signal created by the cartridge is very small, it requires more amplification than any other type of home stereo equipment. This is called a two-stage amplifier which consists of your main amp plus a small pre-amp. Most modern amplifiers do not come equipped to operate a turntable, so if you are buying new gear and you wish to use a turntable be certain the amp you are buying will accept a turntable.
BUYING TIPS - Buying a turntable that fits your needs can be a confusing task. With dozens of different models being offered by dozens of different makers it seems like there are really too many choices. We here at Sound Exchange have been buying used tables for several years now and in that time have had experience with most types you are likely to encounter. If you disregard non-functional attributes like size, shape, brand and color,you can concentrate on the nuts and bolts that seperate bad from good.
Any turntable consists of basically three parts, the platter (the thing the record sits on), a tonearm (the thing with the needle) and a motor (to spin the platter). Additionally, there two types of drive systems which to this day are a source of bitter debate among audiophiles, belt drive and direct drive. Let's examine each part individually, shall we?
Among the things we look for when buying a turntable are adjustable counterweights and removeable headshells. An adjustable counterweight allows you the user to pick almost any type of cartridge and still use it properly by rebalancing the tonearm to the proper specifications (See "Repair and Maintainance" below). Some good quality tables don't have counterweights, so don't just look at that alone. These tables usually use the "P-Mount" type cartridge and their tracking weight is set at the factory which is possible only because all p-mount cartridges weigh roughly the same.
The headshell is the part at the end of the tonearm. This is the part that the cartridge attaches to. We usually prefer the headshell to be removable, mostly because that makes it much easier to replace the cartridge and also allows the buyer to upgrade headshells. This feature is important to some because it also allows you to change the cart/headshell combination very quickly. Soooooo...in summation, adjustable counterweights good, unadjustable bad. Removeable headshell good, non-removeable headshell, bad.
And now... a word about linear tracking. A linear tracking table has a tonearm that moves in a straight line across the surface of the record. It does not have a pivot and relies totally on mechanical devices to operate. Why is this design important? Because it does one thing that no pivoting tonearm can do, it plays the record exactly the same way it was made. If you have ever seen how a master disc is cut, it is done on a very expensive machine with a linear tracking cutter head, so a linear tracking table theoretically should be the best sounding one. Problem is, it is very expensive to make a good l.t. table, so unless you are willing to drop a load ($700 - $1000) I advise avoiding them. One exception is TECHNICS linear tracking tables. I own one and love it.
A belt drive turtable uses a rubber belt to spin the platter. The biggest advantage here is that the platter is almost completely isolated from unwanted vibrations, mostly coming from the motor. It is also easier to manufacture a belt drive table, meaning you can buy a good quality belt drive for a lot less than a comparable direct drive. The disadvantages with belt drive are :
A direct drive turntable means the platter sits right on top of the motor, eliminating the need for a drive belt. This is the type favored by DJ's because they are usually strong and reliable and maintain a very steady speed even when changing from 33 to 45 and back. These tables are usually more expensive to manufacture, but many people, including us, swear by them. The only disadvantage to a direct drive table is the possibility of motor vibrations making their way to the tonearm, but even that is usually a very small amount of noise.
REPAIR AND MAINTAINANCE - There are a few things the average person can do to maintain a turntable. The one problem I encounter most, aside from bent stylii, is a mis-balanced tonearm. To properly play a record, the stylus must contact the record with a specific amount of weight, called the "tracking force". If you just bought a used table you will want to make sure the tonearm is balanced. If the tracking force is too light, you will not get good groove contact, too heavy and you will gouge your records. Here is a simple, step-by-step procedure for balancing almost any tonearm with an adjustable counterweight.
The other thing you may wish to check is the mysterious "Anti Skate". What is "skating" and why would we want to "anti" it? It's simple really. Since the only thing pulling the needle and tonearm across the record is the groove, the needle will tend to ride one groove wall harder than the other. As it turns out, this is the groove wall closest to the label. The anti-skate is a simple device, usually a small spring, that pulls in the opposite direction, bringing the needle back into the center of the groove. There is usually a small dial near the base of the tonearm and it is properly set when it reads the same as the tonearm counterweight. For example, if you just set your tracking force at 1.5 grams, set the anti-skate at 1.5 also. These two things may seem small, but if kept properly adjusted will make a world of difference in the sound of your table.
The only other maintainance I would call routine is to make sure your needle is in good shape and kept clean. If you do not own a stylus cleaner I would highly recommend getting one. Used in conjunction with routine record cleaning it is the simplest way to extend the life of both your stylus and records. If all the cleaning in the world still doesn't make your table sound better, it might be time for a new stylus. If you have something expensive or exotic there are a number of places on the web to get replacemant parts. See the "Links" section below. If you have a "p-mount" or a "standard mount" type of cartridge, we offer inexpensive replacements, just see the section below labeled "Replacement Parts". Aside from just keeping the table generally clean and dry, there is not much more maintainance the average person can do. If you think your table is really screwed up you may wish to seek the advice of a pro.
REPLACEMENT PARTS - Contrary to popular belief, there are many parts still available for both vintage and modern turntables. See our LINKS section below for sources for exotic supplies you didn't even know existed!
We carry two basic kinds of replacemant catridge & stylus, the standard mount @ $39.99 includes fasteners and a wrench and p-mount also @ $39.99 pictured below.
MAKE OUR OWN STROBE - What the hell is a strobe and why would I want to make one? Unless you live somewhere without electricity, you have probably experienced the "strobe effect".
A strobe is a bright flashing light which seems to freeze motion.A strobe disc takes advantage of the strobe effect to help you tune your turntable. Simply print out the strobe disc on WHITE paper. Print it on heavy card stock if your printer will accept it, or you can cut it out and paste it onto some card stock if you like. If you don't care to do that, don't worry - it will still work fine. Once you have printed the disc, poke a hole in the center with a sharp pencil and place the disc on your turntable as though it were a record. If your platter is spinning at the correct speed the little lines on the disc will seem to stand still. This works best under a fluorescent light. It is supposed to work under any bright electric light source, but it is really difficult to see under incandescent light. It will not work under sunlight, so don't try that. Even if your table has a built in strobe this will allow you to verify it's accuracy. It is standard equipment in the table mechanic's toolbox.