THE EVOLUTION OF REVOLUTION: TODAY’S TURNTABLES & HOW THEY’VE CHANGED
Through the years, recording industry “experts” have regularly sounded the death knell for the turntable. Despite countless threats to the vinyl format—whether it be cassette tapes, compact discs or MP3’s—LPs, and the machines that play them, have not only survived, they’re thriving.
Millennials are easily embracing and buying turntables, perhaps blissfully unaware of the performance baggage associated with turntables decades ago. And many also think the ritual associated with playing records is actually retro cool, unlike some baby boomers who are weary of once again spinning their favorite songs. But looking solely at the quality of the music-listening experience associated with vinyl, many older skeptics are usually unaware of how much turntables have improved since the days when that old Sansui deck sitting in the back of the garage was rocking the dorm halls.
Lets take a look at how turntables have evolved – in plain English.
Despite what Brian Wilson may have taught you, not all vibrations are good. In fact, when it comes to turntables, vibrations are a feared and despised enemy standing in the way of high performance. Turntables require high levels of precision in order to effectively track the grooves of a record. Internal vibrations can derail your turntable’s stylus (needle) from collecting lots of the rich musical information within a record, or muddy the sound that is collected and played back.
As part of the battle against vibration, many of today’s turntable designs have the motor separated from the platter and run the platter via a belt. Anything that will allow the motor to operate smoother, and with less vibration, will make a turntable sound better.
The trend toward smooth “belt drive” operation has also spurred turntables to be built with low resonance platters, low resonance plinths (bases), and less vibration-prone tonearms, to which the cartridge and stylus are attached. Today’s upscale turntables often use “carbon fiber” tonearms instead of the steel or aluminum ones used for decades, because carbon’s greater rigidity allows less vibration, leading to more accurately reproduced music with a greater dynamic range.
And the better turntables out there have separate “outboard” power supplies that minimize electrical noise. In addition to keeping the power distanced from the turntable, most external power supplies driving turntables provide DC current, known to be “quieter” than AC current.
Direct drive turntables -- popular in the 70’s, but making a comeback -- often have the platter in direct contact with the motor, which results in more rumble being introduced into the audio signal. An advantage for direct drive design is that the variation in a turntable’s speed is reduced dramatically, which is a good thing. The disadvantage is that the motor vibrates, and the vibrations can go right up the spindle, onto the platter, through the record, and right to the stylus. Out of an obligation to fairness, I’ll mention that in recent years, shock-absorbing materials are often placed between the motor and platter to cut down vibrations.
But, If your general impression is that records are noisy, and they snap, crackle and pop too much ... you probably were used to listening to music on a direct-drive turntable.
It's really the mechanical aspects of vinyl playback that a) cause the most problems; and b) define the overall sound, dynamics and character of your vinyl playback rig.
There are scads of different ideas in the marketplace about what's the best and most effective way to deal with the mechanical challenges of vinyl playback. And, as a result, turntables with different types of approaches tend to have pretty different sonic footprints from one another.
Everything from what material the belt or tonearm is made from, to the type of “feet” the turntable rests on, can have an impact on what internal vibrations will or won’t do. But the growing use of better materials in a turntable’s key operational areas has resulted in a higher level of performance that older “vine-o-philes” used to dream of.
If you want vinyl sound that's competitive with (or better than) digital sound, you need to set a budget for a turntable that’s well-isolated from vibration, keeps its own motor noise out of the playback system, and inhibits resonances emanating from the records being played. If you focus on those attributes first, you'll get the best out of whatever matching cartridge/stylus you put on your deck.
You can begin knocking on the ground floor door to analog heaven for about $300, with some studious turntable shopping. Go cheap on the cartridge to start -- if you're on a tight budget. It's the easiest component to upgrade, and there are some pretty good-sounding budget cartridges out there – but not nearly as many good-sounding budget turntables and tonearms out there.