By Chuck Hawks
There seems to be a lot of interest in turntables among audiophiles these days. Vinyl LP records are definitely making a comeback with music lovers. I find this surprising, considering that it is now a quarter century after the introduction of the compact disc and the digital revolution that has put a computer in every home and digital music downloads (MP3 and others) in cell phones, e-books and every sort of portable device, as well as gigantic capacity music servers at home.
As a music source transport, even the best turntable is clearly inferior in many ways to a CD player. Turntables have always been plagued by low frequency rumble (from their motors and bearings) and speed variations called "wow" (cyclical, long term) and "flutter" (short term). Their pick-ups (cartridges), compared to CD playback, have an uneven frequency response and compressed dynamic range. Their signal to noise ratio is grossly inferior; there is clearly audible background hiss and noise caused by the physical contact of the stylus with the record surface.
Vinyl records themselves are heat sensitive and prone to warping (ordinary sunlight will ruin records) and they develop a static charge that literally draws dust from the air to their playing surface. Ticks and pops result from flaws in the pressing process, tiny scratches from handling and storage and a less than perfectly clean playing surface. Naturally, the tiny, very hard, diamond stylus point measurably wears the much softer vinyl record grooves as it plays. The vinyl record is far from an archival music storage medium. In fact, it is probably the least durable, most damage prone music storage system still in use.
Despite all this, there is no doubt that the LP record and its associated turntable can be a high fidelity sound source. Many audiophiles maintain that, as an analog program source, LP records allow more natural sounding recordings than any digital music source. Music, indeed all sound, is an analog waveform. To be stored digitally, as on a CD, the analog signal must be digitized (converted to digital code). To play back music stored as a digital code, it must be converted back into an analog signal. It is this A/D and D/A conversion process that draws the most criticism from analog partisans.
Of course, there is also ample opportunity for error in the typical analog LP recording process. A simplified description would be that the music played by a musician (sound pressure waves in the air) is captured by a microphone that converts the mechanical energy of its moving diaphragm to an electrical signal. This is fed to the magnetic head of a 16-track tape recorder that uses the incoming electrical music signal to magnetize 2" recording tape for storage and manipulation. When the recording process for a song is complete (usually meaning that multiple instrumental and vocal tracks have been mixed down to a stereo master tape), the magnetic signal on the master tape is converted to an electrical signal that drives the cutting head of a lathe that converts the electrical signal into mechanical energy, cutting the physical grooves in a lacquer coated aluminum record master. The finished master is replicated in reverse (negative) by depositing silver, copper, nickel and perhaps other elements in a complicated plating process to form a single metal stamping die. This is separated from the lacquer master (which is ruined by the plating process and discarded) and used to create a metal "mother" disc (a "positive"--it can be played). The metal mother disc is durable and it is in turn plated numerous times to make multiple negative "stampers." These second generation stampers are used to press the vinyl records sold to consumers. Direct to disc recordings eliminate the tape recorder part of the process, at a huge increase in selling price, but are otherwise made in a similar manner. The foregoing description is abbreviated, but you get the idea.
When played on a stereo system, the record's grooves impart mechanical motion to the stylus that traces them. This mechanical energy is converted into an electrical signal and sent to a phono pre-amplifier, where the tiny electrical output of the cartridge is increased to around two volts, where it becomes a "high level" signal. From there it is handled like the signal from a CD player or tuner, going through a power amplifier and eventually reaching the loudspeakers, where the electrical signal is converted back into mechanical movement of the speaker cones that create sound waves you can hear. It is all analog, but there is a lot of conversion going on, from sound wave to mechanical to electrical to magnetic, to electrical, to mechanical (replicated positive to negative several times), to electrical again to mechanical again and finally back to a sound pressure wave for your ears. Pure, the process certainly is not.
Good turntables and their associated parts have a ton of mechanical appeal. This is perhaps their greatest attribute. They are precision devices and they are usually produced in relatively small numbers. (A low volume, niche market does that.) They work very smoothly and the ingenuity applied to their tonearms and cartridges is impressive. Tracking, cueing, speed adjustment and other turntable functions are smooth and a tactile pleasure to operate.
I finally gave away my LP record collection and my turntable a couple of years ago. I don't miss the records or the hassle of cleaning and playing them, because I think the compact disc is a superior music storage format, but I do miss the turntable. I've kind of been longing for another turntable. I figure I could buy a half dozen audiophile quality LP's, just to give me an excuse to get a new turntable to play them on. Turntables are simply neat devices!
Although there are far fewer inexpensive turntables today than there were before the digital revolution, there are probably as many interesting, high quality turntables available in 2011 as there ever have been. This is because most modern turntables are aimed at the audiophile market; the general public is not interested in playing LP records. We are in what might be called a second "Happy Time" for the vinyl record and turntable aficionado.
The trends in modern turntables seem to be toward belt drive, low resonance platters (often acrylic or glass), low resonance plinths (bases), isolated motor drive systems and very low mass radial tonearms. Aluminum and carbon fiber tubes are popular for the latter and they tend to be straight or with a single bend, as "S" curve pivoted tonearms (although they track a bit more accurately) mean more mass for a given length. Outboard power supplies that minimize electrical noise are another new wrinkle for upscale turntables.
Cartridges are still mostly of the moving magnet (MM) type, but very low output moving coil (MC) cartridges seem to be gaining in popularity. These normally require a special pre-amp to elevate their output to a level that a normal (MM cartridge) phono pre-amplifier can then amplify to the 1.5-2.0 volts required before it can be sent along to a power amplifier. In many cases, cartridges appear to be less compliant, as evidenced by heavier stylus pressures. Premium cartridges of a couple of decades ago, such the top line Shure, Empire, B&O and Pickering models, commonly tracked at about 1.0-1.5 grams; two to three grams is not uncommon for premium cartridges now.
The analog music lover looking for a turntable can often find real bargains in used equipment. Many fine turntables from the pre-digital era can be had inexpensively. See the article "Vintage Turntables" for some suggestions.
On the other hand, any 25 year old (or older) turntable is likely to need some TLC before it can perform to its original specification. If reconditioning a used turntable is not your thing, all is not lost. Here are some examples of new turntables at a variety of price points from the USA, Japan, Germany, Switzerland and the UK.
Even for the music lover on a tight budget, there are new turntable alternatives. Sony, for example, offers their automatic, single play, belt drive PS-LX300USB stereo turntable for only $149. (All prices quoted are 2011 retail.) It has an onboard phono pre-amp so it can be connected to a receiver's Aux (high level) input and comes with a magnetic cartridge. Pioneer sells their Model PL990 automatic, single play, stereo turntable with a moving magnet cartridge for only $129. Denon offers three single play, automatic turntables. These are the entry level DP-29F ($149), the USB capable DP-200USB ($250) and the DP-300F ($329). The latter comes with a better tonearm, MM cartridge and a heavier base to dampen vibration and resonances. All are supplied with onboard phono pre-amplifiers. These are not audiophile turntables, but they will do a satisfactory job of playing your classic vinyl record collection at minimal cost.
Far superior to these entry-level turntables are the offerings from legendary audio electronics manufacturers Marantz and McIntosh. The new Marantz Reference Series TT-15S1 ($1500) is a manual, belt drive model boasting a low-resonance acrylic chassis and platter. It is supplied with an anodized aluminum, counterbalanced tonearm, friction free magnetic anti-skate mechanism and a MM cartridge. The cartridge is pre-aligned at the factory and ready to use. The basic TT-15S1 turntable weighs 19.6 pounds without tonearm or motor.
McIntosh's belt drive, manual MT10 turntable is even more exotic and expensive ($9500). It features a McIntosh black glass front panel with a tracking speed meter and comes with a Dural-Aluminum tube, gimbaled tonearm. (See photo at the top of this page.) The MT10 spins the most massive (12 pound, 2.5" thick), CNC machined, silicone acrylic platter I have ever seen. This monster platter rotates on a magnetic bearing, suspended on a cushion of air. The unit's net weight is 62 pounds. Tracking force (2.4 grams), cartridge alignment and anti-skate are all pre-set at the factory in New York; just unpack the MT10 and use.
Rega Research claims their turntable line is engineered to provide top value and fidelity for the dollar. Rega offers models from the minimalist RP1 ($395 with tonearm and Ortofon MM cartridge), an entry-level "serious" turntable, to the cost no object P9 (around $6200 with cartridge). The latter has a unique ceramic platter and outboard power supply. Rega's belt drive turntables are designed and built in the UK.
Also from the UK are the renowned Linn turntables. The Linn Sondek LP12 has been a reference standard transcription turntable since 1972 and continuously improved. The Sondek LP12 is available with a choice of Linn tonearms, cartridges and a host of accessories to further increase system performance. An LP12 system is not cheap. The LP12 table with tonearm, cartridge, power supply and phono stage pre-amp runs about $11,700.
Dual turntables, an iconic brand, are still made in Germany. These belt drive, single play turntables are produced by Alfred Fehrenbacher GmbH. The modern Dual line encompasses four basic models, with the top of the line being the Model CS 455, available in several variations. This is an automatic, single play turntable with an integral gimbaled tonearm and floating sub-chassis. The platter is aluminum and the weight of the top CS 455-1M version with a solid wood console is approximately 17.2 pounds (7.8 kg); price is $845, with other CS 455 versions starting at $596. The entry level Dual model is the CS 420 (approx. $400).
Also made in Germany is the Ayre/Bauer dps turntable. This high-tech, manual, belt drive table incorporates a multi-layered plinth of cork and birch plywood, granite base, zero-clearance spindle bearing, thick acrylic platter and comes with an external Ayre 3-phase zero-feedback analog power supply. The Ayre/Bauer dps is supplied with tonearm and weighs 50 pounds. The price is a lofty $9250.
Another trusted name in turntables is Thorens, of Switzerland. Their TD-124/TD-125 series are vintage turntable classics. The current Thorens line of single play, belt driven turntables includes the entry level Mini manual ($449), TD-158 ($530), TD-170 ($630), TD-190 ($730), TD-240 ($1000), TD-295 Mk. IV ($1100) and TD-309 Tri-Balance ($2000). The latter includes high-zoot features such as an external plug-in power supply, aluminum sub platter with single line contact fused silica (glass) platter, three-point suspension and a suspended sub-chassis. The supplied tonearm is a low resonance TD-92 with an AT-95E cartridge and magnetic anti-skate. System weight is a reasonable 6.5 kg (about 14.3 pounds).
The foregoing is not intended as a buyer's guide to turntables. There are many other good turntables available today. As you can see, the price range of modern turntables varies widely and some are considerably more expensive than any table mentioned here.
Serious turntables are expensive and should come with performance specifications that let you compare the various models before you begin auditioning the specific turntables in which you are interested. Here, for example, are the specifications supplied for the McIntosh MT10:
MCC10 Cartridge Specifications
Output Level: 0.5 mV at 5 cm/s
Load Impedance: Greater than 200 ohms, 500 ohms recommended
Frequency Response: 20Hz to 50,000Hz
Compliance: 6 x 10-6 cm/dyne
Recommended Tracking Force: 2.4 g
Channel Difference: Less than 0.3 dB
Total Mass: 11 g
Stylus: Elliptical Diamond
Cantilever Material: Aluminum
Body: Ebony wood tone
MT10 Tonearm Specifications
Bearing: Sapphire and Ceramic
Arm Tube: Dural-Aluminum
Adjustments: VTA, Antiskate, Azimuth
MT10 Turntable Specifications
Playback Speeds: 33-1/3 rpm, 45 rpm and 78rpm
Motor Type: DC Brushless
Speed Control: Electronic w/ braking feature
Platter: Silicon Acrylic
Platter Bearing: Magnetic
MT10 External Power Supply Specifications
Output Voltage: 24 Volts, 625ma
100 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
110 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
120 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
220 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
230 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
240 Volts, 50/60Hz at 400ma
Width is 17-1/2 inches (44.45cm)
Height is 8-13/16 inches (22.38cm)
Depth is 21 inches (53.34cm)
Weight: 62 lbs. net
Different manufacturers may specify different performance aspects, but I would be suspicious of any turntable for which the manufacturer offered only advertising copy. Features, such as automatic tonearm operation, are only important if you appreciate them. If you would rather cue your tonearm manually, get a turntable that allows you to do so. If you need a dust cover, make sure one is available for your turntable of choice. If your pre-amplifier incorporates a good MM phono pre-amp, you don't need one with your turntable, unless you choose a MC cartridge. In that event, you will probably need a pre-pre-amp.
Of course, it is never a mistake to buy quality. Turntables are mechanical devices and they must be built to last for many years or they are a bad investment, no matter how cheap the initial purchase price. A $250 table that lasts three years is no bargain compared to a $1000 table that serves for 15 years.
How much an individual should spend for a turntable depends on their wants, needs and financial constraints. When you get into the higher price classes, personal expectations play a large role in customer satisfaction. One correspondent, for example, reported that a Linn Sondek LP12 revolutionized his vinyl listening, bringing his record collection to life as never before. Another owner expressed disappointment, claiming that the LP12 is the most over priced, over rated component he had ever purchased. The difference is not in the performance of these particular LP12's, but in the expectations of the two consumers.
Common sense should dictate that if you critically audition a $1000 turntable and a $10,000 table and you honestly cannot hear any difference (or you find any audible difference minor and unimportant), you will probably be happier with the less expensive model. Spend the difference expanding your record collection, so you have more music to play on your new turntable.
Copyright 2011 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.