In the age of digital streaming, vinyl has made a comeback. Over the last decade we’ve seen a steady revival of the physical medium, which managed to hit a major high last year when records outsold CDs in the United States for the first time since the 1980s.
There’s never been a better time to make the dive into the world of record players and vinyl. This is everything you need to know when it comes to buying and maintaining a record player.
Vinyl can be an expensive hobby – both in terms of collecting individual records and your general audio setup. And for better or worse, you get what you pay for. So if you’re not willing to spend the money, you might be better off sticking with a Spotify subscription.
The different kinds of record players
Automatic players will raise and lower the turntable’s tone arm – both when you start playing the album and once it reaches the end. Semi-automatic players will require you to place the stylus down manually, but will automatically lift the needle once the album has finished.
Manual players are, well, manual. You’ll need to gently place the needle onto the record to start playing it, which can be a problem depending on how steady your hand is. You’ll also need to lift the needle up once the record ends.
If this is your first time with a turntable, an automatic player is probably your best bet. That way you won’t have to worry about potentially damaging the vinyl or the needle because you didn’t place the tone arm down perfectly.
You also need to consider what kind of drive the record player will use – is it a belt-drive or direct? The former uses an offset motor that connects to the platter (what you put the record on) via a belt to create the necessary motion to spin your records, while the latter uses a motor that connects directly into the platter.
Record players that use belt-drives are usually much cheaper than direct-drives, but they take a minute for the platter to hit the desired speed. Belt-drives can also slip or wear down over time, which will effect playback.
While direct-drives are more robust, since they’re attached directly to the motor it’s not uncommon for vibrations to travel through the platter into the needle, slightly distorting the sound.
What record players are the best to start out with?
As a rule of thumb, unless something is on sale, I’d avoid most record players under $200. While you can easily pick up a record player for $100 or less from most electronic and audio retailers, it isn’t worth it.
By saving yourself a few dollars you’ll be sacrificing audio quality and running the risk of your vinyl being ruined by the cheap parts. For example, all of those plastic suitcase players with built-in speakers with very cheap needles.
Audio Technica’s AT-LP60XBT is a great beginner’s record player. It’s fully-automatic and belt-driven, with the option to play at two speeds – 33 1/3 and 45 RPM.
It has a pre-amp built into it, so you can plug the RCA output cables directly into any receiver, amplifier or speaker. It also has Bluetooth support, giving you the option of hooking it up to speakers that aren’t tethered to a singular location by its cables.
Denon’s DP-29FA record player is a good beginner’s pick too. It also comes with a pre-amp built into it, so you can plug it straight into an amp via the stereo RCA cable. Plus, it’s fully automatic, so all you need to do is carefully whack your record onto the slip mat, hit play and the player will take care of everything for you.
Sony’s PS-LX310BT is another solid belt-driven, automatic record player for beginners. As far as home audio brands go, Sony are one of the more respected names in the game and this turntable is no exception. Like the other record players listed here, it has a phono pre-amp built-in, so setting this turntable up is a breeze.
If aesthetics are your vibe, the LX310 has cool, minimalist design. You can pair this Sony turntable to Bluetooth speakers or headphones, and it can maintain a strong, consistent connection. So if you’ve already got a decent home theatre set up in place you can make good use of it.
Are there any other essentials?
A slip mat is absolutely necessary. It’ll stop the album from sliding around and you won’t have to worry about the platter damaging the vinyl either. They can also bring a fun aesthetic change to your record player.
Obviously, speakers are a must. What speakers you pick up will definitely depend on your budget, but there are few decent options there.
But, again, you get what you pay for. Spending a couple hundred dollars on a turntable and then plugging it into some cheap, dinky speakers is a bit of a waste.
If your record player doesn’t have a pre-amp built into it, you’ll need one before you connect it to a speaker. This can really balloon your costs, so if you’re working to a budget, you’re probably best grabbing a turntable with a built-in pre-amp.
A good cleaning kit will also help to prolong the life of your player and your records.
The location of your record player is also important. Make sure it’s sitting on something sturdy, preferably in an area where there aren’t a lot of vibrations, as those vibrations will effect the playback quality of your vinyl.
Do you need to replace parts?
Yes, as certain parts will wear out over time – especially the needle. However, this does depend on how regularly you use your record player. The more frequently you listen to music, the faster you’ll need to replace the needle or belt-drive.
It’s recommended that most entry and mid-level needles should be changed every 300 hours of play, or at least once a year.
The good news is that most audio brands sell replacement parts specifically designed for their record players. So if you grab the AT-LP60XBT and wear down your needle or belt, you can grab a new one from Audio Technica.
Is there a correct way to play vinyl?
Absolutely. Record players work by tracking a needle through the various grooves etched into the vinyl. If those grooves aren’t clear or are warped in any way, this can result in the needle being damaged, which in turn can scratch up your favourite album.
The easiest way to avoid this is to never touch the grooves of a record. You’ll put pressure on the grooves, along with whatever gunk is your fingers. When you pull the LP out of its sleeve, make sure you’re only touching the edges.
If you leave a vinyl out uncovered, make sure you give it a wipe down before playing it or putting it away, as the grooves will now have dust in them.
If you don’t want to listen to me, then take Henry Rollins’ advice in this short video about maintaining your records.