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Beginner’s guide to record players

Everything you need to look out for to kickstart your crate-digging journey…

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So, you’ve been thinking about starting a record collection. If you’re passionate about music, owning that favourite album on vinyl is probably the most satisfying way to hear it. The warmth and richness that’s naturally built into the format (with just a bit of crackle) and the amazing artwork, hidden tracks and lovely aesthetic are just a few of the perks. Even the novelty of holding physical music in the digital age - after all, you can’t hold an MP3 file in your hands.

No doubt you’ve already got a few records on your wishlist, but do you know what kind of record players you’re looking for? Have you asked yourself: “Which record player is right for me?

There are tons of turntables out there to suit every budget and they all have different features worth keeping an eye out for, whether you’re adding a record player to an amp and speaker set up, or you’re looking for a standalone turntables with speakers.

So if you’re taking the plunge and are about to begin your vinyl journey, here’s what you should know…

Direct drive or belt drive?

Every record player works in one of two ways. In a direct drive turntable, the motor sits underneath the platter to directly rotate it. In belt drive turntables, the motor is offset with a rotating spindle. A rubber belt is then wrapped around both the side of the spindle and the platter to pull it along. So, how does that affect your vinyl sessions?

Direct drive turntables start up faster and are less likely to skip if you accidentally knock the unit. That’s why they’re the only option if you’re planning to DJ with records. However, the vibrations from the motor can travel through the platter and cause a little distortion.

Belt drive record players are a little different. The belt absorbs most of the vibration to make the sound a bit clearer, but the offset motor means the speed of the platter may be a tiny bit more inconsistent than the direct option. While they’re incredibly easy to set up and make for awesome sound, they’re a much better choice for home listening than mixing tunes.

Automatic or manual?

This is more about the kind of listener you are. Do you like to dive into a full album beginning to end, or would you rather chop and change? Are you comfortable dropping a needle onto your LP, or are you worried about damaging your precious vinyl?

If you love popping on an album, and letting it run, an automatic turntable is a solid choice. Just hit play and the tonearm will move the needle to the beginning of the record. It’ll also lift the needle and return it back to base once it’s reached the end – ideal if you like to drift off to jazz, or simply don’t want to manually lift the needle every time you’re finished listening.

Manual means you’re fully in control, from placing the needle down onto the record to returning the tonearm. That’s great if you’re DJing or simply like to skip to certain tracks within an album. If you’re not confident about lining up the needle at the right point, look out for a manual turntable with a pop-up light (or ‘cueing lamp’). With this, you can see between the grooves in the vinyl and find the perfect point to drop the needle.

Automatic record players can be more expensive than manual, and some vinyl enthusiasts feel that they take away from the hands-on pleasure of playing a record. And, because there’s added machinery in there, some LP fans say sound quality can be impacted by more mechanical noise.

But there are obviously benefits too. Vinyl is expensive and some people might be worried about damaging their records - which they wouldn’t be with an automatic record player. Plus, if you use a manual record player and forget to return the tonearm to its resting place at the end of the record, the needle can continue to spin in the groove, causing unnecessary wear on records and the stylus.

Key turntable terminology explained

Cartridge

The cartridge is a tiny device that houses the stylus and contains the electrical components necessary for transmitting the sound.

Stylus

The stylus, also known as the needle, is the part of the cartridge that comes into contact with the record and traces the grooves to produce sound.

Platter

The platter is the rotating platform that holds the record while it's being played.

Tonearm

The tonearm is the component that holds the cartridge and stylus, and it is responsible for guiding the stylus as it moves across the record.

Anti-skate

Anti-skate is a mechanism that helps keep the tonearm from being pulled inward toward the center of the record.

Two-speed or three-speed?

Got any pre-1960s albums or EPs? Then you’ll want a three-speed turntable.

All modern records are either designed to play at 33 1/3 RPM or 45 RPM (Revolutions per minute), and all record players and turntables cater for both speeds. However, up until the late 50s, many records were made to be played at a much faster 78 RPM. So, if you’re looking to dig out the classics in your collection and get reacquainted, you’ll need a record player that can play at all three speeds.

45 adapters

Many 7” singles that play at 45 RPM feature a wider circle cut-out in the centre of the vinyl, so they don’t hug the centre spindle. If your collection features this kind of record, you’ll need a 45 adapter. It’s a circular tool that’s placed over the spindle to keep that record firmly in place and prevent skipping. Plenty of turntables come with one right out of the box. Perfect!

Look out for a built-in pre-amp

This bit is important – what does your music centre look like? Do you have a hi-fi system or AV receiver with passive speakers attached, or do you just want to plug a record player straight into speakers and get listening?

If you’ve already got your hi-fi system sorted, you don’t need to be that fussy about built-in pre-amps – you’ll be able to listen clearly whichever type you go for. Or, if you plan on listening to CDs, radio and streamed music as well, a stereo receiver makes the perfect music hub. However, for a space-saving ‘plug-and-play’ setup, a turntable with a pre-amp is essential. It’ll let you plug directly into the speakers without the need for a go-between.

Some record players have a Bluetooth transmitter built-in too, so you can connect to compatible speakers without wires. That’s great for music centres with limited space, but not the best option for sound quality. A wired connection will always be best for crisp audio but may not be for everyone, so be sure to plan your setup before taking the plunge.

Transfer music to mp3/download codes

Digitising your records. Sounds like you’d need a factory worth of machinery, right? In fact, it couldn’t be easier. Plenty of record players can help you convert your tunes to MP3 files and feed directly to your laptop. These record players come with a USB cable to plug into your PC and software, like Audacity, to help write the music as digital MP3 files. That’s especially useful if you’ve got a vinyl only release you want to hear in your playlist on the go.

Some LPs even feature a download code sticker on the outside cover. With this, you can head to the website, enter your unique code, and download the full album in MP3 format in one go. Easy.

Setting up your first turntable

So, you’ve taken the plunge! Before you get the platter spinning and music playing, here are some things you should take care of…

1. Choose a good location

Find a stable surface that's free from vibrations and away from extreme temperatures and direct sunlight.

2. Balance your tonearm

Balancing your tonearm helps ensure that the stylus is applying the correct amount of pressure to the record. Lots of record players won’t need this, but if your tonearm comes with a counterweight, you can adjust it so that the tonearm sits perfectly level, hovering freely in position.

3. Set the tracking force

Your cartridge manufacturer will provide you with a recommended tracking force, which you can set using the counterweight located on the backside of the tonearm. All you have to do is set the number to 0 - which will keep everything balanced. Otherwise, set it to the recommended number.

4. Level your turntable

Use a spirit level to ensure that your turntable is sitting evenly.

5. Connect your cables

Connect the cables to your turntable according to the manufacturer's instructions. If you’re using an amp, you’ll only need to connect your turntable to that. Then as long as your speakers are hooked up to your amp (and everything’s powered) you’ll be good to go.

Turntable maintenance and care tips

Keep it clean

Regularly wipe your turntable's platter and tonearm to prevent dirt and dust buildup that can affect sound quality. You can also clean your stylus too, but you’ll need a very soft brush. It’s best to use one that’s specially designed for your stylus.

Store your records properly

Store your records vertically, as opposed to stacking them, to prevent warping and other damage. Keep them out of directly sunlight, which will both keep the vinyl in good shape and stop the colour from leaching out of your albums.

Keep your cartridge and stylus in good condition

Replace your stylus as needed and make sure your cartridge is properly aligned and secured in the tonearm. One needle will give you about 1,000 hours of playing time. If you listen to records regularly, then changing in annually should be fine. Otherwise, you can just keep visually inspect it and see if your records sound good. If quality starts to dip[, your stylus is the likely culprit.

Turn it off when not in use

Turn off your turntable when you're not using it to prevent unnecessary wear and tear and to save energy.

Now you can choose your new record player below, or, if you need help, you can always ask one of our colleagues on ShopLive or get more info on all things audio from our Audio Buying Guide.

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