Can cheap turntables damage records?

The short answer is, yes they can. Some cheaper turntables feature a low-quality stylus that might last only 40 playing hours and can start damaging your records. However, in general, it is quite easy to prevent by picking the correct stylus or turntable that is made from higher quality materials. Cheap turntables can still be worthwhile in some user cases. In this article, we look at how to prevent damaging your precious vinyl and will look into what to look for when going for a budget turntable.

The impact of the Stylus

Regarding the impact of turntable parts on your vinyl records, let’s first talk about the needle or the term that most vinyl enthusiast use, the stylus. The stylus has to spend all of its time in the grooves of the record and, therefore, it needs to be the right type, which includes the right material and the right weight. If you think the stylus isn’t under tremendous pressure, think again. Whenever you play a record album, your stylus experiences 26 tons of pressure per square inch, so it is working hard to help you enjoy your music. It also travels a long way; for instance, if you play both sides of a typical LP, the stylus has to travel a total of two miles.

The more you use the stylus, the more worn down it gets. It not only erodes over time, but it also has to contend with minute pieces of debris from the environment, and together these two things can cause the stylus to become too damaged to do your records any good. This is but one of the reasons why replacing the stylus on time is so important.

There are also different types of styluses to consider. In terms of materials, sapphire styluses can sound really good after buying, but the general consensus is that they can start to wear down pretty fast. Some styluses only last up to 40 hours! 

The material that is used in almost all high-quality needle is Diamond. Being one of the strongest materials known to mankind it can last a lot longer. Reputable brands like Ortofan or Audio Technica will always go with diamond styluses that can last up to 1000 playing hours or more. Therefore it is important to consider the material, cost and brand when buying a turntable, especially in the lower price range.

Lastly, the shape of the stylus can also have its effect on the wear although this factor can be considered rather small. 

Elliptical or spherical styluses are popular due to their low price, but these are terrible for your record albums. If you want the absolute best type of stylus, choose a pure diamond stylus. Are they expensive? Yes, but you’ll be surprised at how well they take care of your records.

Tonearm and Counterweight, and Anti Skating

Besides the stylus, there are some other parts to look out for when it comes to preventing damage to your vinyl records. For example, the tonearm and counterweight are also a factor to consider. These two components allow you to further fine-tune the pressure of the stylus as it moves along the grooves of the record album. This means you can make counterweight adjustments so that the stylus is neither too heavy nor too light. As a general rule, you want the tracking weight to be between 1.5 g and 2 g, and you can easily make the adjustment by looking at the end of the tonearm (the opposite end from the stylus) and turning the dial until it reaches that number.

Between the weight of the stylus itself and the weight you’ve set on the tonearm, your stylus should be all set to do what it is there to do. If there’s too much weight on the stylus, it works almost like a chisel and therefore starts to wear down the record. After a while, neither the stylus nor the record album will be any good. This is why it is so important for the weights to be just right. Often a turntable will come adjusted out of the box or the manual will describe the optimal weight for the stylus included.

Much like the downward pressure, the inward pressure of the stylus also matters. The grooves in a record album are concentric, which means they are wider on the outside of the record than they are on the inside. Because of this, records have a natural tendency to move toward the center, which is called skating. Naturally, you want to minimize the skating effect, but most high-quality tonearms will do this with either a spring, a weight on a string, or even a magnet, this feature is called Anti Skating and is often mentioned in the specifications.

What About Alignment?

As mentioned in the last paragraph not only components matter when preventing possible damage but also the alignment can make big difference. Four variables can directly affect the needle’s alignment, and they are:

  • Azimuth: This simply refers to the fact that the stylus needs to be flat against the record grooves at all times.
  • Stylus overhang: This refers to how far the playing tip extends over the center of the spindle; it can be set by moving the cartridge forward or backward.
  • Tangency: Sometimes, the cartridge needs to be aligned correctly to remain in a neutral part of the grooves.
  • Vertical tracking angle: If the tonearm is parallel to the record, the angle of the cantilever should be around 20 degrees.

What all this means in less-technical terms is this: Most cheap turntables will not give you the options to alter any of these alignment facets, which means they aren’t fully equipped to provide the angles and weights your stylus and tonearm need to protect your records for a longer time. Inexpensive turntables tend to have no height adjustment or anti-skate. While this does not have to cause problems directly audiophiles prefer to control almost all factors of the audio setup.

Some tests show that really cheap turntables. made from low-quality materials can cause damage to your records after only 100 plays. Let’s face it, it doesn’t take long for most of us to listen to 100 record albums. Therefore it is important to carefully choose your turntable if you are looking in the lower budget range.

What are the budget options?

So, if you want a high-quality turntable and stylus but you’re on a budget, what can you do? Fortunately, you do not have to spend thousands of dollars just to get a good turntable. For roughly $150 to $300, you can get a turntable that has an upgradeable cartridge, can be aligned accurately, comes with a removable head-shell, tracks at 1.5g, and most importantly, sounds terrific. Oh, and don’t forget the pure-diamond stylus. If the turntable doesn’t come with one – don’t even consider it!

Think about it this way: You’re probably more than willing to spend up to $1,000 on a new cellphone, which you’ll likely be replacing in a few years. Therefore, why not spend $250 on a good turntable that you can keep around for longer than that? It’s a matter of priorities, and if you want a high-quality turntable that won’t damage your record, you’ll have to fork out some dough in the beginning, but it will be well worth it in the end.

Below are three guides that mention low budget turntables that offer all the aspects mentioned above. They are from reputable brands such as Audio Technica, U-Turn, Pro-Ject and Sony. They all include a diamond stylus, counter-weight and some even anti-skating. So if you are considering diving into the hobby of vinyl or just want a new turntable we are happy to guide you along this journey.

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