The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips (June 1998)
Part 4: Turntable 101
Admit it. By now I've got you thinking.
I've got you thinking about the fact that not everyone bought into the 'perfect sound forever' hype by the record companies about CD's. I've got you thinking about the fact that you don't listen to music as much as you used to, and more often than not you're busy doing other things while you're listening to music. I've got you thinking that it's been too long since you clamped on some big bulky sweaty headphones and zoned out to Dark Side Of The Moon. Or Monster Walks The Winter Lake. Or Fear Of Music. Or Kind Of Blue. Or The Four Seasons, the really cool one by the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble where they use period instruments and everything is played a half-tone lower than what you're used to hearing.
And I've got you thinking about the fact that if you wanted to right now, you could buy almost any piece of music you so desired on warm, breathing, luxurious vinyl LP's. It's scary, isn't it?
But there's something stopping you. Something you can't quite put your finger on... something missing... something preventing you from wallowing in the fervid glow of the Vinyl Renaissance I've been preaching about for the last three months. As you stroll on over to your stereo system, you suddenly remember what the problem is.
Duh. You sold your turntable ten years ago. They didn't even give you enough for it to buy The Wall on CD.
So what do you do? Christ, they don't even make turntables anymore, do they? You'll probably have to start hitting the garage sales and the flea markets and the classifieds and the dumpster behind the basement of the science building where all of us analog junkies are hiding, cranking our musty Victrolas and ooohing and aahhing to the wonderful sound of mono.
Wrong. What if I told you that you could buy a brand new turntable today? What if I told you that not only could you buy a new turntable, but that new models are being introduced nearly every week? What if I told you that not only are companies introducing new turntables weekly, but that new companies are being started all the time just to manufacture turntables? Would you believe me? By now, I hope that you probably would.
There is a downside to all of this, however. Remember that I told you there were two prerequisites to extracting better sound from LP's than from CD's? The first thing is that you have to take care of your records better through record cleaning machines, a little elbow grease, and a little responsibility. The second thing is that you had to spend about $500 to get a turntable that would out-perform nearly every mass-market CD player out there. Well, when I talk about all these new models appearing on the scene, they are seldom priced at that $500 point. For instance, Rockport Technologies, which has been spending years producing state-of-the-art analog rigs, has just introduced their new reference, the Sirius III. It is gorgeous, it weighs at least a couple of hundred pounds, and you will not hear music reproduced anywhere that will sound as close to live. The price for this little slice of analog heaven? $53,000. And that doesn't even include the phono cartridge.
This may sound discouraging for someone hoping to re-introduce themselves to the magic of vinyl, but that's not the point. If you have the scratch, and you are a true vinyl enthusiast, there is a relatively huge market out there waiting to swallow up your kid's trust funds. If you are someone of more modest means, the options aren't as unlimited, but you can still walk away with something that'll blow your mind, something that'll make you head to the attic and hand-wash every last one of your old Cowsills records.
Ok, so what constitutes a good turntable? This is a very good question. As Stereophile magazine states twice a year in their 'Recommended Components' listings, 'underachievers are more common in turntables than in any other area of hi-fi.' I think all of this goes back to the mid-seventies, when most turntable manufacturers stopped making their products with wood and metal, and they started using lots and lots of plastic to keep costs down. I can remember some weird innovations to turntables back then... tonearms with two tubes, turntables that sat up vertically like a reel-to-reel, and even linear- tracking, which still carries on to this day with mixed success. All of these manufacturers thought this was the way to extract even better sound from vinyl. And all these new-fangled parts they stuck on their rigs were, more often than not, made of plastic.
A Scottish company named Linn came up with a heretical idea at the time. Why not make the turntable solid, with parts that didn't vibrate? Why not eliminate the plastic? Let's take our traditional ideas of what a turntable should be and merely refine them to the point where the turntable is not a gadget, but a well-machined precision instrument?
People laughed. 'The turntable itself doesn't affect the sound!' they said. 'All it does is spin the record!' Then they listened to the Linn LP-12, and they were shocked. It sounded much better than anything else on the market. And an industry was re-born, and great turntables started popping up everywhere.
Back then, a Linn LP-12 cost $795, which was very expensive in 1973. I wish I could get one for that now, although I could probably find a used one in good condition for about a grand. A new Linn, with all of the upgrades, mated with a Linn tonearm and cartridge, could set you back $6000 - $7000.
I know, I know. We're not even getting close to what you consider an acceptable price for a new turntable. But stick with me... we're getting there.
So your first decision in purchasing a turntable is not to buy one made of plastic! Remember, plastic vibrates like a mofo. All those vibrations travel throughout the turntable, up the spindle, onto the platter, through the record itself, and right to the stylus. To illustrate this further, listen to a turntable. Then listen to a turntable while driving in a car. Which sounds better? Okay, then.
Next, don't buy a direct-drive turntable. This was a big "advance" in the seventies also. What direct-drive means is that the motor which spins the platter is directly coupled to the spindle. The advantages to such a design is that speed variation is reduced dramatically, which is a good thing. The disadvantage is that the motor vibrates, and the vibrations go right up the spindle, onto the platter, through the record itself, and right to the stylus. No one really makes direct-drive turntables anymore because we all know they suck. All of you who still think records are noisy, and that they pop and click too much... you were probably listening on a direct-drive turntable.
What you want is a good old-fashioned belt-drive turntable, where a big rubber band is connected from the motor to a pulley somehow attached to the spindle. That rubber band doesn't vibrate!!! The best-sounding stereo gear is always the simplest--this is a recurring theme I'll mention quite often--and belt- drive is as simple as it gets!!! My Rega turntable, for example, is belt- drive, and I can almost completely take the whole rig apart and put it back together in under a half-hour, and I am almost completely worthless when it comes to being mechanically inclined. (Incidentally, that Rockport Sirius III I mentioned before set the audio community on its ears last year because yes, it's direct-drive. But trust me, a significant chunk of that $53,000 is spent on isolating that motor from the rest of the turntable.)
Finally, I must tell you another thing about your search for a new turntable that really will sound like a royal pain in the ass: the better turntables are sold without tonearms and phono cartridges. You see, we audiophiles are tweakers, and we love to mix-and-match. I think it's amazing that I can spend a couple of hundred dollars on a new cartridge, slap it on my Rega, and get a completely different sound out of it. You, however, may find this to be annoying. So what I recommend to you is... MAKE THE DEALER DO EVERYTHING FOR YOU. Don't even think about mounting a new tonearm in your turntable if you haven't done it before. It's a bitch. So is mounting a new cartridge. Those tiny little screws that always fall in to the carpet just when you have everything lined up... AAARRRGGGHHH. My two sons, aged three and four, know every cuss word in the book because they happened to be hanging around the last time I bought a new cartridge.
So now that you have the basics, and you know what to look for, where do you go? This is the easy part. The same rules that apply to finding new LP's for sale also apply to buying turntables. Open up your Yellow Pages and look under 'Stereo Equipment' or something like that. Look for the shop that lists the names you've never heard of. That is The High End, what we audiophiles lovingly call our hobby. You see, unless you're an audiophile, or are the significant other of an audiophile, you probably don't know it exists. We're a very secretive bunch, but at the same time, we complain that no one understands us.
But trust me, The High End is a healthy industry (financially, not emotionally), and much of The High End believes that yes, you got it... LP's still sound better than CDs. And at least half of these stores sell turntables. They sell expensive ones, that's a given. But many also carry the bargains I've been telling you about. The $500 tables. The $299 tables. The really good used ones that someone traded in to buy one of the expensive ones, because they're completely hooked on the sound of analog, as you will be.
If you're interested in buying used specifically, you can probably locate that in the Yellow Pages also. I further recommend buying some of the magazines I listed in last month's article... Stereophile, Fi, The Absolute Sound, The Tracking Angle, and Listener. These magazines are valuable resources in terms of dealers, reviews, and just general advice.
Finally, if you just can't seem to find a turntable that suits your needs... financially, emotionally, or if you just live in East Jesus and can't find a place that doesn't laugh at you whenever you suggest that turntables can be purchased in a place that doesn't also sell used communion dresses, e- mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I'll try to steer you right. I would like nothing better than to go back to my friends in the basement of the science building and tell them... no, boast to them, that I did my part for the cause.
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