Past columns from The Entry Level are also available.
I became involved with audio late enough that I missed the days when vinyl was the only real choice for serious reproduction. My initial music collecting was all on compact disc, and based on the limited exposure to the turntable I did have, I didn't miss it. Recently I've been digging into old records again, not because I like them better, but because I keep coming across recordings that are only available on that format. The result is that I've had to learn quite a bit about the rituals of the phonograph, during a period when the knowledge has become somewhat scarce. This month, I thought I'd share what I've picked up so far.
Some background. The original record player I ever dealt with was a Dual 1228. I was told by the vinyl evangelist segment of the audiophile community that this turntable, if updated a bit, was a unit that would be far more enjoyable to listen to than any CD player. I figured it was worth a shot, so I grabbed the Grado ZTE1 cartridge that is usually recommended for this older player, hooked it up to the phono section of an Adcom GTP-400 (it's a decent phono stage for a budget unit), and started listening to some LPs. Did I immediately become entranced with the gorgeous sound of vinyl, throw out all my CDs, and start rooting around in record shops? Hardly. To put it mildly, that turntable sucked. The speed control was poor enough that there was an audible wobbling to the sound, the tracking was marginal at best, and there was so much hum that I could barely stand to listen to the thing. Even when it was performing at its best, the channel separation was poor and the dynamic range pathetic, even compared with the cheapest of CD players. Admittedly, it's probably possible to set this player up to sound better than what I got out of it. But I couldn't imagine anything but a major overhaul of this unit improving it enough that it was worth listening to. At the end of round one, the score was LP enthusiasts 0, CD backers 1.
I might have remained of that opinion forever, if it weren't for the availability of affordable CD recording. I had accumulated a couple of precious LPs that will never be popular enough to get released again, and I wanted to record them onto CD before I put any more wear on them than they had when I acquired them. At the same time, I had been hanging around with audiophiles who had serious vinyl gear, and gained enough information about the medium that I decided to take another shot at putting together a reasonable budget vinyl playback setup. I picked up a used turntable from a friend who abandoned his a few weeks after purchasing a CD player; thus, his Denon DP-23F was practically new, and already had a decent Signet cartridge loaded in it. My first record spun on this table made it obvious that this is a far more capable unit than the older Dual it was replacing. With that as a start, I first started picking brains.
If you're unfamiliar with LP playback, before you start looking at products you should first find at least one expert to lean on. Much of the vinyl ritual is barely documented, and word of mouth is the only way to find out some of the details. If possible, you should track down someone locally to help you out. It used to be that you could rely on your dealer for help like this. I found that all the stores I visit have relegated vinyl playback to "convenience" status for their customers; they still can order some of the gear if you need it, but the equipment available in the store is minimal, and setup help is hard to come by. I can hardly get mad at them for moving their operations toward CDs, home theater, and all the other things that actually pay the rent. You may be lucky enough to find a local dealer who still traffics in turntables heavily enough to be useful, but I wasn't.
Moving away from the local scene, I contacted fellow SoundStage! author Doug Blackburn. He offered many generic suggestions, but his ability to help me out was limited by the fact that he didn't know the particular turntable I had picked up. There are so many variable factors involved here that it's impossible for someone to know all the details involved with a particular unit unless they've worked with it before. Ultimately, I ended up getting lots of help from Jerry Raskin's Needle Doctor. They seemed a logical place to contact, as they carry the particular Denon model I bought. The people there I spoke with were very helpful, and I would certainly recommend them as a place for the novice vinyl buyer to deal with, if you too find your local dealers can't support you as well as you'd like. Why all the complications, you might ask? You'll see.
There are two basic types of turntable mechanisms available: direct drive and belt drive. The direct drive unit has a motor attached to the platter itself. The advantage of this is strictly cost based; there are less parts involved. One problem with this technique is that keeping the motor speed accurate and constant is fairly difficult. Some of the better direct drive units use complicated systems, like computer controlled speed governed by a quartz crystal, in order to keep the speed stable. Belt drive units cost more, but almost invariably sound better, too. Essentially, this choice turns into a budget one--if you don't want to spend much, you're probably going to have to settle for direct drive.
Upscale turntables let you purchase the arm separately from the table. This involves more knowledge of how such things fit together than the entry level buyer is likely to have, and poor matching in this regard can work out very badly. Unless you really know what you're doing, stick with tables that include a matched arm.
The main thing that distinguishes different arms from each other is their adjustability. There are tons of things to fool with here. The one you'll find on even the least expensive units is tracking force, which is the amount of downward pressure the cartridge will exert on the record. The adjustment is usually a little dial, with a range of something like 0.5g-2g of force. The cartridge you purchase will give a recommendation on how much force is required for it to track correctly; you should start at the top of the range given and work your way down if it isn't tracking correctly. Minor errors in tracking force shouldn't kill you; even a variation of as much as 0.3g from optimal won't cause serious problems. Watch out that you're not using an older unit that has some outrageous tracking force, like 5g; this will destroy your records quickly. If you want to check the actual force involved, you can purchase something like the Shure Stylus Force Gauge for under $15 to measure the force directly as a check on what the dial reads. A related adjustment is anti-skating force. While normally equal to tracking force, some cartridges may require a slight modification; a unit that isn't aligned correctly will have the stylus (and the housing it's in, called the cantilever) dragged toward the inside or outside of the record, instead of being perpendicular to the groove. Many turntables don't have an adjustment for anti-skate.
Another adjustment that some units allow is control over the vertical tracking angle (VTA). You control this by raising or lowering the pivot point where the arm attaches to the table, thus altering the angle at which the stylus hits the record surface. When viewing the cartridge from the side, cartridge mounting plate should be approximately parallel to the record surface. Some variation from this may actually sound better with your particular setup, so using that as a starting point you can experiment with the height to find what works for you. Even on arms that don't have a vertical adjustment at the pivot, you may be able to fudge one by putting a small shim in (a washer seems to work for some), or changing your record mat to a thicker or thinner one.
Azimuth is the angle at which the cartridge tilts when looking at it from the front. Some arms let you control the rotation so that you can keep the cartridge perpendicular to the surface of the record. Setting this is usually done by eye, but there a variety of techniques you can use to try and automate the procedure. They range from using an oscilloscope with a special test record to reversing the polarity on one channel and getting mono signals to cancel out best.
Ideally, then, we'd like to find an affordable table with a belt-driven mechanism that, in addition to the tracking force control that every table offers, also has anti-skate, VTA, and azimuth adjustments. I'm certain that there is no such animal; the fine controls for cartridge alignment are rarely found on budget equipment. And that's probably a good thing, anyway, because those of us buying from the less expensive part of the turntable marketplace are probably better served by a unit that we can't screw up as badly with incorrectly done adjustments.
There are some other factors that enter into what you'll get for your money when buying a table. Units with automated features generally don't sound as good as ones with simpler mechanisms. The Denon DP-23F I picked up has all sorts of features that make it seem like a CD player at times--it's got start and stop buttons, buttons to change speed. You name it, it's got a button for it. As you might expect, a good size portion of this table's $425 price is paying for this automation instead of getting the best quality playback. Now, the Denon unit isn't as bad as some cheap ones for stuff like this--the Needle Doctor informs me that at least they use separate motors for the turntable and the tonearm. But this is a direct drive unit with no height or angle adjustments available. If you were buying a new one, you could do better at this price. The king of the budget tables is the Rega Planar 2; one of these goes for $450, and while it may not have every control in the world, it does have a solid belt drive motor. Other tables in this price range I know of that you might want to consider include those from Thorens, Rotel, and Sumiko. The Denon DP-23F is a good unit for those who don't want to fuss with their turntables and want convenience.
Finding a cartridge that matches the rest of your equipment is its own adventure. You need one that will fit well into your arm, and certain cartridges really require particular types of adjustment you may or may not have; some are really not suited for arms that don't have a vertical adjustment, for example. This is another area where some help from someone who knows your table well is invaluable. Usually you get a cartridge included with the rest of the system, and these units tend to be on the low-end of suitable units to match with your table.
The two basic types of cartridge are the moving magnet (MM) and the moving coil (MC). MM components are what you'll find on inexpensive equipment. They are less breakable, and more tolerant of poor alignment. MC cartridges are made of materials that give them better transient response, but often this also makes them more prone to damage. Entry level buyers should probably start with a MM unit because of their better resiliency to abuse and incorrect setup, especially because the more costly MC interface usually requires better associated equipment to properly utilize it. There are some inexpensive MC cartridges from companies like Benz or Sumiko that are no more fragile than similarly priced MM ones. Generally, the more expensive a cartridge is, the more fragile it is as well no matter what type it is.
A related issue is that of output level. A typical MM cartridge will output from 2 to 8mV of current. This requires around 30 or 40dB of gain in the phono preamp to amplify into a line-level signal. Normal MC cartridges output in the 0.15 to 2.5mV range, which means they need considerably higher gain. Lately high-output MC cartridges that are in the 1 to 3mV output range have been becoming more popular, which means they need much less gain than the traditional low-output versions that run around 0.15 to 0.6mV of signal. More on this subject when we get to phono preamps.
Even the least expensive turntable needs a bit of alignment. Overhang is the most common thing to adjust; this is how far out the cartridge is toward the end of the arm. Many units come with some sort of small gauge to get this configured correctly; these gauges may or may not be good. You can get alternate alignment tools from a number of other places. There is a free alignment protractor and a speed adjustment strobe available for download from Enjoy the Music. Commercial strobe discs to make sure your table is spinning at the right speed can be bought from companies like VPI for around $20. Mobile Fidelity sells the Geo-disc for $30, which lets you do all kinds of geometric alignment on your table. I wouldn't recommend buying one for most budget tables, as you don't have enough control over the factors involved to utilize it fully.
Another thing to investigate is getting a test record. I picked up the Hi-Fi News & Record Review album for $25. Not only does it include a protractor like the one from Enjoy the Music (printed on cardboard so it's sturdier), there are 16 tracks of test material. You get channel identification and balance, pink noise, tracks to check the anti-skate and azimuth, and a set of tracks to determine your arm's resonant frequency. There's a little tutorial on what these adjustments all mean, but it's a little tough to follow at point for the beginner. I'd say that the test record is more useful than the Geo-disc for those with budget turntables lacking the full range of tonearm adjustments.
Even records right from the factory need to be cleaned. They usually have sleeve dust on them, and there are often mold-release chemicals that are better gotten rid of. I've got a separate article on the cleaning method I ended up using available, the Disc Doctor's Miracle Record Cleaner.
Keeping your records clean helps with another thing you'll have to deal with: your stylus will accumulate junk on it. Discwasher has a cheap stylus cleaner that was all I ever felt the need for. Better cleaners are available, like the one from LAST.
Another inexpensive cleaning accessory is getting an anti- static gun to blast your records, record brush, and turntable mat with. Cutting down on the static means that everything will accumulate less dust. A related concern is what type of sleeves you are storing your records in. The cheap ones that come with most records not only attract lots of dust, they can potentially scratch your records. I bought some of the Mobile Fidelity Rice Paper sleeves, which run around $0.80/record. Almost as nice, and carried for considerably less at some dealers, are the Discwasher VRP sleeves. If you need to buy a lot of them, you can get poly-lined paper sleeves that may be just as good for closer to $0.15/record. Also consider getting a clear plastic outer sleeve to keep the album artwork from wearing away or rubbing off on other records. You can clean the outside of the jacket off with Windex if there is already some ink or dust you'd like to remove.
Records are cut with some frequency response aberrations in them. Bass frequencies take up lots of space in the groove, so these are cut down in level. And the treble is boosted. The curve applied is referred to as the Recording Industry Association of America or RIAA curve. When you play back records, your need a phono preamp to reverse these alterations and get flat frequency response back; the bass is boosted and the treble cut. The drop in treble has the desirable side-effect of dropping the amount of surface noise as well.
Phono preamps have another function in addition to the equalization. They dramatically increase the signal from the small (0.15 to 8mV) level that comes out of the cartridge to the approximately 1V that is appropriate for a line-level input, which works out to being 30-60dB of gain. The "standard" gain is 40dB, so if there's no marking on your phono preamp, it's probably around there. This is appropriate for cartridges with output levels around 2mV; go much higher or much lower, and you may end up either overloading your input stage or getting a signal so low that you need to turn the volume way up, increasing the noise.
Better phono preamps let you adjust the cartridge loading as well. This adjusts the electrical load the cartridge is driving its signal through, usually by varying the amount of capacitance and resistance the phono preamp has in its input. You normally won't see this adjustment on inexpensive units, so I won't go into how you figure out what loading is appropriate for your system here.
It used to be that every preamp came with a built-in phono input, with a phono preamp attached internally. This is not the case anymore, since the phono stage is in little demand nowadays. There are even some turntables, aimed at the bottom end of the market, that include the phono stage before their output; these are usually of poor quality, though. It is possible to get an outboard phono stage for a reasonable amount of money that adds phono capability. Even if you have a phono input, you might want to investigate this anyway, as the outboard units usually have better sound quality. Creek and Music Hall sell units worth checking out, with both a MM and a MC version available; I've seen these for under $100 at J&R Music World. Rotel has a unit for $200 that I believe is adjustable for both types of cartridge.
What I ended up getting was the Parasound P/PH-100 phono preamp. This comes in a small box styled just like their larger equipment, making me think "Honey, I Shrunk the Parasound". The retail price is $120, and it claims to be compatible with MM and high-output MC cartridges; essentially, anything that outputs around 2mV. While I can't verify the compatibility claims, I can state that the sound quality with the MM cartridges I tried was certainly superior to the phono stages on all the budget equipment I have. There are no frills here; you get a power cord, two gold-plated RCA jacks and a ground lug for input, and two RCA plugs for output; that's it. Not even a power LED or switch. Even considering that, I'm impressed that they can sell this unit for the price they do. It sounds good, looks good, and is put together well.
After you get everything else working, there are endless other things you can do to improve the performance of your turntable. At the inexpensive end of the scale, you can get a record clamp. These come in two basic types. One fits tightly over the spindle at the center to apply pressure to hold the record down. The second type uses a heavy material to sit on top of the record label. This requires that your turntable spin a heavier load, which may be a problem, especially for less expensive units. I ended up getting The Pig clamp, which is a small piece of rubber that clamps on the center without adding much weight. The Pig goes for $12, is appropriate for just about any table, and unfortunately is discontinued. There are still some floating around. All the other clamps I found run closer to $30, you should consult your turntable expert to find out which of these might be appropriate for your unit.
It may be possible for you to improve your record performance by changing the record mat you use, altering the damping of the rotating surface. Discwasher has a $12 mat that probably isn't much better than the one that came with your table. The noticeably better damping products start at $60, like the AudioQuest Sorbothane mat, and go up from there. The replacement mats tend to be taller than your stock mat, which can cause problems if your arm doesn't have a vertical adjustment on it. Some tables are better served by using less damping rather than more, usually done by replacing the rubber with felt. Sumiko sells their Analog Survival Kit for around $50; this includes an especially thin fiber mat that goes on top of a rubber one to reduce the amount of damping. You also get a wrap to place on the tonearm to stabilize it with that package.
These little tweaks are exactly that--little. Plus, their effectiveness is dependent on the system you apply them to. The really big improvements in LP sound are to be found by properly isolating your turntable from the rest of the world. Make sure your table is in a level surface, and that the surface is as sturdy as possible. The world of vibration isolation is far beyond the scope of what I'm willing to take on as part of this article. Common techniques use big MDF contraptions, inflatable tubes, things filled with sand, you name it. If you want to get serious about vinyl, you will need to get serious about vibration control as well.
Let me summarize my own experience. I started with the Denon DP-23F table; decided after some listening that the Signet cartridge the former owner installed sounded good enough that it didn't need replacing. I contacted the experts at the Needle Doctor to get detailed information about that particular table's adjustment capabilities. I found that overhang and tracking force were pretty much it. I couldn't utilize a tracking force gauge because the mechanism on the table automatically started rotating when I moved the arm over the playing surface; turning the table off wouldn't help, because the arm suspension controls that I'd be measuring are all electronic. Getting a new mat was out because the cartridge height wasn't adjustable. I did get the Pig clamp, because it's light enough to not effect the table motion. I picked up a Mo-Fi Geo Disc and Hi-Fi News Test record, but found that neither was really necessary with a table having so little adjustability; the freebie stuff from Enjoy the Music would have been sufficient, although it is nice to have the extra tests should I upgrade in the future. There was no need for me to get a speed strobe because all the fancy microprocessor controls in the Denon table keep that extremely accurate; of course, those same fancy controls meant that the table's quality isn't as good as comparably priced units that put the production cost toward better sounding but less automated mechanisms. I cleaned my records with chemicals from the Disc Doctor and stored them all in new Mo-Fi sleeves. Finally, when actually getting around to playing records, the Parasound phono preamp proved to be a significant improvement over the phono stages inside any of my budget equipment.
How happy was I with the final outcome from all this work? Very. I've gained a lot of respect for the vinyl LP as a good carrier for music. Now I can enjoy the playback I get from records. Was I successfully converted to analog playback as being superior to digital, as all the vinyl pundits said I would be? Not a chance. While better equipment certainly serves to reduce the amount of noise and make things more dynamic and alive, I'm still not sold on the medium.
Yes, I have heard some very expensive and meticulously maintained LP setups with music I know well while visiting people lately. Some of these may even have sounded better than my modest CD playback; invariably, though, these same people had big ticket digital gear, too, and that playback was always better. I've come to a number of conclusions. First, well done vinyl is better than badly mastered digital. I think this constitutes a lot of why some consider their analog setups superior, because it's only in the last few years that really good digital masters have been appearing. I've run into this myself; one of the records I picked up at the local used record store for $1 was a copy of Rush: Permanent Waves. Playing this back actually sounds as good as the CD does at points. This is only because the CD mastering on that particular recording is crummy; do the same comparison with, say, the Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc with GAIN remaster of their Signals CD and a Signals LP, and the digital is way better.
No matter how good the LP playback I hear is, it still sounds compressed in dynamic range, is noisier, and has less impressive performance at the frequency extremes than similarly priced digital equipment. That doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable or musically involving, but my adventures in vinyl have left me certain that staying with digital as my primary playback mechanism is the right move. Vinyl is certainly worth trying out, though, and the plethora of inexpensive records available makes it an attractive platform for some listeners to follow.