Turntables have been out of fashion for a few decades, but in the last few years we’ve seen a revival of the vinyl trend because of that the turntable has come back in fashion. Why? The reason is very simple: in a digital age people are craving material arty covers, vintage designs and last but not least, that good old analogic sound.
But what is a turntable exactly? Is it the same as a record player?
In the simplest terms, a turntable is a device for playing vinyl records. It used to only refer to the parts of a record player that turns the record and the tonearm and cartridge picking up the sound. However, in modern times the term turntable has become almost interchangeable with the term record player. A side note is that the term record player is more often used (but not always) for a device that comes with a preamp, amplifier, and speakers built-in.
A little bit of history
When 2-channel stereo systems took over the place of mono music systems at the end of the ‘50s, the most popular turntables were automatic record changers. They were devices that could play several records in a row (up to 4 or 5) allowing for about an hour of uninterrupted music.
In the early ‘60s, serious audiophiles started using belt-driven turntables systems that played one record at a time but with improved sound quality. Read more here about the whole revolution of the record player.
In 1972, Panasonic introduced a new direct-driven system that was basically maintenance-free (while belt-driven systems require the user to replace the belt every once in a while). There’s still a debate to this day whether a belt driven system or a direct driven system is better.
In more recent, times with the advent of digital technologies, turntables and vinyl have lost a lot of popularity even though they were not forgotten by audiophiles, DJs and music lovers.
Today, vinyl and turntables are living a new youth and this is mainly due to the overall vintage trend, a counter-movement against digitalization, and of course the enhanced sound quality they can provide. So, turntables are on the market again and manufacturers have started providing systems with different features, for different prices, suitable for different categories of people. If you want to know more of the reason behind the vinyl revival you can do so here.
Differences within turntables
Today you can find turntables at really affordable prices. What makes the price go up and down are the materials utilized, the complexity of the design, and the additional features of the device you purchase. No matter the brand and price range you pick, the following are the features any turntable should be provided with:
- Quality materials: the plinth, for example, has to isolate the record from motor vibrations as much as possible since vibrations would result in a distorted sound. Belt-driven turntables are less prone to these vibrations as the motor is not directly under the platter but the materials of the casing, platter, and feet remain important. Wooden plinths actually remain one of the best materials which is why we made a list of what we consider the best wooden turntables.
- A decent record needle also called the stylus. The stylus is placed inside a cartridge that picks up the initial soundwaves. As you can imagine might be the most important component of a record player since it’s the source of the sound and any component after that has to work with this sound. It is also important to mention that cheap styluses, almost always in suitcase-like turntables, can wear out very quickly (in 40 hours) and damage your records, so pick wisely.
- A decent platter and tonearm: People often think a crackling or skipping sound is part of the charm of vinyl, however that should not be the case. A decent platter that has no wobble and a decent tonearm can be adjusted to help prevent this. Stronger materials in the platter and the weight of the platter matter. In the case of the tonearm, the counterweight and alignment with the record can help to create a continuous sound.
The DJ scene started with the classic turntable, where DJ’s would play, mix and scratch records. And for a small part of the industry, this is still the case, however modern DJ setup consisted of controllers that can play digital files and still allow some form of scratching. A lot of people see this as the lazy form of DJ’ing and value the old record turntable DJ higer as it requires practice, a good ear and an excellent sense of rhythm to control pitch and tempo.
The DJ turntable often has a direct drive system as it allows for immediate speed changes or scratching. It also features an s-shaped tonearm that perfectly aligns the record and an antislip mat that helps with scratching.
Audiophiles are simply going for the best sound. And to get the best sound you need two things quality components and quality materials. In terms of materials, Hifi turntables will often go for a plinth that is made of one piece as it offers the best build quality and the least amount of resonance. Other materials that are quiet premium are an acrylic platter or a carbon tonearm, again the biggest reason is sturdiness and reducing resonance.
In terms of components, the cartridge is often seen as the most important part as it has a big influence on the sound a lot. Audiophiles look for branded cartridges such as from Ortofan or Audio Technica. Often you can also replace your cartridge with a more premium one. What is also important is the preamp, HiFi enthusiasts prefer to have an external preamp since it allows them to have more influence on their record player setup. Also, external preamps are almost always an upgrade over a built-in one. We have listed our favorite affordable preamps here.
What is a turntable and what is a record player?
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, there was actually a distinct difference between turntables and record players.
A turntable is a device that includes a plinth with a rotating platter. The platter spins the record while the tonearm and cartridge “read” the music carved into the record and transform it into an electrical signal. A turntable needs to be connected to a phono pre-amp, an amplifier and speakers to play music.
On the other hand, a record player can be considered like an all-in-one device, where turntable, phono pre-amp, amplifier, and speakers are all included in the same unit.
Since both terms are often used for the same device it is hard to know exactly what the device includes, therefore I just recommend looking at the description and specifics. But if the terms are used correctly by shops and manufacturers then these are the pros and cons which help you decide depending on your needs and habits.
Pros and Cons of a Turntable
Since they require additional features such as pre-amp, amplifier, and speakers, turntables aren’t exactly portable. Also, they often require a more elaborate assembly and set up, then again this is one the best learning experiences to know. On the other hand, turntables have some advantages over record players:
- They are often better constructed – therefore, they are better isolated and have less resonance. This simply because they have fewer components.
- It offers more customization since your can choose the other components within your setups.
Pros and Cons of a Record Player
A record player would be cheaper than a turntable, especially considering that all you need to purchase is the record player, while with a turntable you’d also need to buy all the extra components (otherwise you won’t be listening to any music!).
Also, record players can be portable, having all the components (Phono pre-amp, amplifier, and speakers) built-in in the device. The main drawback of a record player, when compared to a turntable, would generally be the lower quality of the sound. Since they are built-in, for example, the speakers must be small and therefore hardly reproduce the lower frequencies.
Those who need to make a choice between these two devices should consider their needs and listing habits: audiophile and vinyl enthusiast should opt for a turntable, while those who are just curious about what the old records they found in the garret are about can opt for a cheaper and portable record player. If you want to know more about the hobby of vinyl collecting and don’t know where to start, then take a look at our guide on what to look for when buying a record player. Or dive directly into one of our guides below.
Ready to find your turntable?
If you are looking for a turntable within a certain budget or with a specific feature you can take look at one of guides below.