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The ultimate guide to buying a vinyl record player

If you’re in the market for a turntable (or vinyl record player) and start doing some research, you’ll be bombarded with hundreds or different kind of players.

In this guide, I will try to provide objective advice, combined with some of my own experience.

Determine how and where you’re going to listen

You’ll need to find out if you want to dedicate a room to listening to music, if you want a turntable in the corner of a room or something in between.

If you have a room that you’d like to dedicate to listening to music, you’ll have the room to get a turntable, a separate amplifier and some nice speakers. This is the scenario where you, aside from budget, don’t have to compromise anything.

Don’t have any room available? You’ll have to give up something and it’ll probably in the loudness department. I suggest finding a turntable with a built-in pre-amplifier, so you don’t need to worry about yet another box to put somewhere. Kanto has great, small bookshelf speakers that have the pre-amp built into the speakers, so if you’re going to buy a working, vintage turntable without a pre-amp, these speakers might fit the bill and with a range of different colours, they go well with any decor.

Although there are several record players with built-in speakers, I wouldn’t recommend any of those, due to the fact that the vibrations of the speakers will likely feed back into the needle. Have you ever heard a microphone squeal because the presenter is too close to a speaker? This is exactly like that.

There’s also the scenario that sits in between the previous 2, where people have their turntable as part of their living room entertainment system. Record players with a built-in pre-amp can be usually be connected to a home entertainment system.

What’s the real reason you want a record player?

The reason why you’re buying a record player or turntable can help determine what kind of player you’re going to get.

Are you buying records because they look cool and don’t really care about how they sound? Your best choice might be a cheap record player from a big-box store (really, any brand the 16-year old, part time sales rep recommends will do).

Looking for excellent sound quality and you want to hear every detail of every guitar pluck and every snare of a drum? You’ll need to invest into a high(er) end turntable. Brands like VPI, Clearaudio and Michell are probably the ones to look for. These are also the turntables you don’t buy online or at a big box retailer. You’ll need to go see your local hifi dealer and do some serious research, because additions to systems like this are often very costly. It doesn’t stop at buying a turntable, plug it in and ready to go. You’re probably going to be looking at items like power conditioners, high-end speaker cable, a vibration dampening cabinet etc.

If you’re going for the nostalgia or the “sit down on a Friday night, put on some Pink Floyd, Miles Davis or Etta James with a fine glass of scotch after a long, hard week at work” kind of system, there is a wide variety of turntables available to fill that need.

Think about models like the Fluance RT80, Audio Technica LP120, Pro-Ject Debut Carbon or Rega RP1 (in no particular order).

How much are you going to spend on records?

Frank, over at Channel 33RPM made a great analogy about this. You’re not throwing premium gas in a $250 car, so why would you buy a $99 record player if you’re going to play $50 records on it?

This goes back to why you’re buying a record player in the first place. Are you in it for the nostalgia and do you have old, scratched up records that you found at Value Village? You’re probably not interested in spending lots and you can get away with a cheap vinyl record player from a big box store.

Going to spend $80 on John Coltrane’s limited edition, 45RPM, Blue Note release of Blue Train? You’re likely also in the market for a higher end system.

Vintage vs. new

There are a massive amount of options when it comes to new record players but vintage turntables is a whole other can of worms. Be prepared to spend countless hours on Kijiji and Facebook buy-and-sell pages, sifting through the incredible amount of available turntable models.

That said, if you’re looking for a vintage setup, you’re likely to find and/or make a great deal on a full setup.

You will need: The turntable, a pre-amp, a receiver and speakers.

Here’s a pro-tip (and this is from my own experience): When looking for a vintage turntable and you find something you might like, do a Google search that starts with “Audiokarma”. For example, my turntable is a Yamaha YP-D6, so I Googled “Audiokarma Yamaha YP D6” to find reviews, user experience and things I might need to keep in mind.

 Audiokarma research

So, how much do you want to spend?

walker audio turntableKeep in mind, that if you’re catching the “vinyl bug”, your system will never be complete or finished. You will always want to upgrade somehow, no matter the system you have.

Here’s a list of what a turntable generally costs:

  • High end turntables:
    Brands like Clearaudio, Inspire, Origin Live, Michell, Roksan, Wilson and VPI usually start pricing their turntables at about CA$1500.
  • Mid-range turntables:
    Brands like Pro-Ject, Rega and Thorens start their models at around the $600-mark.
  • Budget turntables:
    Pro-ject and Rega also have budget turntables, as well as Fluance, TEAC and Audio Technica. The budget for these is around the CA$300-mark
  • Cheap vinyl record players:
    I wouldn’t recommend these to anyone, except for people that don’t actually care about the sound quality OR people that just want to get their feet wet and are willing to upgrade within a couple of months. These brands are something like Crosley, Pyle Pro, Victrola and Innovative Technology.
    These record players start at about CA$80.
  • Vintage turntables:
    You can get vintage turntables in various conditions for around the $100-mark.

What to look for in a good turntable

The characteristics of a good turntable can be found in a few, key parts of the players.

1) Does it have a counterweight?
2) Does it have a removable headshell/cartridge?
3) Does it have anti skate control?

If your answer to these 3 questions is "yes", you're generally speaking on your way to buying a decent turntable.

What else do you need?

As mentioned earlier in this post, there are a few additional items you’ll need to complete your audio setup.

The key elements of a turntable setup are:

  • Turntable
  • Pre-Amp
  • Amplifier
  • Speakers

Turntable (vinyl record player)

The obvious start. This is the source of the music. ‘Nuf said.

Pre-amp

Due to the low volume output of the needle and cartridge, the sound coming from the record needs to be amplified before it goes into the regular amplifier (hence the name “PRE-amp”). If you connect a turntable directly into a regular amplifier, you’ll hear the music, but you’d have to turn up the sound all the way to get it to a decent level. When you do that, you’ll hear all sorts of static and it might actually damage your amp.

On vintage amplifiers, the pre-amp is often built in (the “phono” stage). Modern turntables often have a pre-amp built in, but if you have a vintage turntable, you’ll either need an external pre-amp (like a DJPRE II preamp, if you’re on a budget) or you can choose the Kanto YU4 or YU6 speakers, which have the pre-amp built in.

Amplifier

This is the stage between the pre-amp and the speakers. An amplifier can be found in various shapes and sizes and it all comes down to functionality and sound quality. Some people connect their pre-amp to their home theater system. Others have a dedicated receiver for the smooth, vintage sound.

Speakers

Speakers are the final stage in the system. These are the ones that will connect to your ears. Do you want it loud? Get some floor-standing towers. Don’t have much room? You guessed it: Kanto YU4 or YU6.

My advice when buying vintage speakers: audition them with the seller there. Before you visit, ask them to keep them hooked up to a system, preferably with a turntable and bring one of your records. Take your time to listen. It’s OK to tell the seller to stop talking about how awesome they are. Just. Listen. Check out the video below (NSFW language).

Some of the common pre-sales questions for turntable owners are:

Belt drive or Direct drive?

There’s no real difference in quality. It’s more of a preference. Direct drive turntables obviously don't have a belt that will need to be replaced eventually and generally, direct drive turntables are stronger and are more speed-accurate, however, direct drive turntables can produce more vibration from the motor. These vibrations are dampened by the belt in belt-driven turntables.

How often should I replace my needle and/or cartridge?

This will depend on your cartridge and what kind of records you play. $2 records from Value Village that are all scratched up will wear your stylus quicker than pristine condition records, but a general rule of thumb is to replace your stylus (or whole cartridge) after about 1000 hours of playback, including the time it spends in the run-out groove after you pass out in the middle of listening to “Wheels of confusion” by Black Sabbath, eating someone else’s left-overs you found in the fridge (Read that story here).

Which accessories do I need?

We have an excellent blog post by Chad about the most common accessories to go with your turntable here.

Conclusion

I hope the article makes sense and will get you on your way in choosing the right vinyl record player/turntable. If you have any questions or additional comments to help someone out, please drop them in the comments below!

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