Choosing the right record player comes down to a few different things, but we wouldn't make the type of record player a deciding factor. If you're worried about the process of placing the needle, don't be, it's easier than you think, and we'll give you a little step-by-step guide below.
Define your Budget
As with anything, you should work with a sensible budget, and that doesn't just mean as much as you can afford. You don't have to break the bank for your very first record player, even if you can afford it. You wouldn't buy a vintage Strat before your first guitar lesson, or at least you shouldn't. So, work within a budget that is both affordable and sensible. While we never advocate needlessly over-spending, you don't want to cut every corner either.
An ideal starting point for a beginner is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB. The Fluance RT81 is an excellent alternative. As an extension of budget planning, you should think about the features that you need most.
With or without speakers?
Most budget-friendly record players have built-in speakers, so it wouldn't be wise to max out on a mid-level unit and be left without sound. It's worth noting that turntables without a built-in speaker may require an external preamp, too, as they may lack the power to drive speakers. The more extras you need to buy, the harder it is to stick to the budget.
Speed (33⅓ / 45 / 78 rpm)
Just about every record player will spin records at speeds of 33 1/3 and 45 rpm, but if you want to spin 78 rpm records, you'll have to find a suitable player. This function is more sought after by people who have older records in their collection since 78 rpm records are a thing of the past.
USB & Bluethooth connectivity
Features like USB and Bluetooth connectivity are common in many record players. Bluetooth allows you to connect to wireless speakers, and so on. USB lets you record the playback of your vinyl in real-time, complete with crackle. That makes USB an excellent feature for any music producer looking to sample vinyl quickly and easily.
Use of the record player
There are different reasons for buying a record player, and your reason will play a massive part in your decision. Whether you need a record player for practical use, like sampling, or you want the complete audiophile listening experience should give you an idea of which units will suit you.
Direct-drive or Belt-drive?
If you're new to record players, you'd be forgiven for asking what the difference between the two is. Luckily, the answer isn't full of technical jargon; it's rather simple. A direct-Drive record player employs a motor underneath the platter, which rotates it directly. A Belt-Drive record player offsets the motor and uses a thin rubber belt wrapped around the spindle to rotate the platter. That's it; there's not much else to it.
Having said that, both systems have pros and cons that you should consider before buying. There's no definitive answer to which is better; it depends entirely on how you plan to use your record player. If we had to simplify the decision, you could say Direct-Drive is best for performance, and Belt-Drive is best for overall playback quality. But, those stereotypes can change slightly from one record player to the next.
• Faster start-up time (consistency)
• Great for DJs
• More prone to distortion
• Less prone to vibration and distortion
• Potentially higher playback quality
• Slower start-up speed
• Needs to be replaced
DJs often favor Direct-Drive systems because they can reach the correct speed faster than a Belt-Drive system. The faster start-up time means DJs can stop, rewind, and manipulate playback with more confidence. Being directly connected to the platter means the motor generates more torque, and that's why the start-up speed is so reliable. The downside is that more vibrations are transferred from the motor to the platter to the cartridge, resulting in distortion.
One of the immediate benefits of a Belt-Drive system is that the rubber belt dampens the vibrations to some extent, avoiding unwanted distortion. Although, if any part of the mechanism, like the belt itself, the spindle, or the platter, isn't perfectly made, it can throw the system off a little and reduce playback quality.
The obvious disadvantage is that a belt can't produce the same speedy start-up time and consistency of a Direct-Drive system. Some Belt-Drive record players will use two motors to improve performance in this area. Another downside is that you should expect to replace the belt every couple of years.
Some factors play a big part in how either drive system performs, none more so than the main bearing. A loose bearing will decrease accuracy, increase noise, and potentially lead to significant damage whether you go Direct-Drive or Belt-Drive.
What Is a Preamp, and Do I Need One?
Preamps are often misunderstood and sometimes over-complicated. So, we will keep this explanation as simple as possible. The first thing you have to understand is line level. Line level refers to the standard signal strength/amplitude for consumer and professional audio equipment. There are two types of line level; -10 dBV for consumer audio gear and +4 dBu (1.23 volts or higher) for pro-audio gear.
In simple terms, for an amplifier or speaker system to process the incoming signal, it has to be at line level; otherwise, it's too weak. A record player cartridge produces a phono output, which is far weaker than line level. If you connect a phono output directly to a line level input, you'd have almost no volume at all. The sound you can hear would also be dramatically lacking in bass frequencies. So, a preamp is a step that converts (boosts) the phono signal to a line level signal. It's that simple, and that's why you need a preamp.
A preamp also applies some EQ that delivers the same flat frequency curve as a line level signal. When a record is cut, the bass frequencies are reduced, and the treble is boosted. Without going into too much detail, the main reason for this is that the bass frequencies have wider grooves that take up more space on the vinyl record. The EQ applied to counter this issue is known as RIAA equalization. The result is that the bass is boosted, the treble is decreased, and a flat frequency curve is achieved.
Many record players, especially modern budget units, have a built-in preamp. A built-in preamp is often referred to as the phono stage. If a record player has a line output or USB, it has a built-in preamp. Technically, it means you do not need an external preamp, but you could still add one if you feel it offers higher quality than the built-in option.
You tend to find built-in preamps in cheaper units and not in high-end record players because high-end options focus purely on the optimal audio quality. In most cases, the optimal audio quality is achieved via dedicated devices rather than built-in add-ons.