It's always interesting to discover shared passion with co-workers - the hobby kind. Many of us at Spend Matters are vinyl record snobs, and we somehow evolved a side board email thread about turntables last week. If you're thinking "You mean the ones where you actually have to stop a record and turn it over to hear the other side?" - yes. In the course of our dialogue, I was accused of possessing "a wealth of knowledge about all this" and encouraged to write a few diversionary Friday posts. So here goes.
If you're not an audiophile and have grown up listening to data compressed music from CDs, MP3 players and downloads, only read on at the risk of discovering a new fascination that could drain your discretionary hard earned cash at the same level as owning a boat. Despite the apparent technological "advances" of the past few decades for storing music for playback, we are among increasingly millions of music lovers who have either re-discovered the sonic analog superiority of vinyl records or never stopped listening in the first place. There are many components to feeding this passion - pre-amps, amplifiers, xovers, record cleaning machines, speakers etc. - but let's just look at the humble turntable (TT) today.
It's possible to buy a new or used vintage TT for about $150 bucks, but it's not a good idea. Cheap turntables transfer vibration (low frequency hum) to the listening experience and typically track - involving the tone arm that holds the needle that runs between the grooves of a record - at an imprecise angle with too much weight, both of which dramatically reduce playback quality and damage the vinyl record.
Exceedingly high end TTs can cost over $100K (that's not a typo) though they are, of course, poster examples of the law of diminishing returns. A very good turntable can be had in both the new and vintage used markets (Craigslist & Ebay) for between $500 and $1,000, and while either may come with a reasonably good cartridge and needle (the combo device that directly contacts the record and transfers the sound) it's also worthwhile to invest in the best quality cartridge & needle ("cartridges" for the sake of discussion) that's affordable, usually $200 to $300. Having said that, cartridges that cost upwards to $1,000 in $50 increments yield significantly increased fidelity and are not as subject to diminishing ROI. And yes, the sky is the limit here as well. I've compared $500 cartridges with $5,000 cartridges. While the latter is not 10x superior, the variance produces an extremely dramatic listening experience. In fact, a reasonable rule of thumb is to spend a roughly similar amount on the cartridge as you spend on a TT to yield full composite value.
I could wax (npi) on for hours, but I'll wrap up this primer with a brief review of two turntable styles: Traditional pivoting tone arms vs. tangential tracking tone arms. The pivoting tone arm is most common and traverses the vinyl record on a slight arc from its fulcrum. Tangential tracking tone arms traverse the record in a straight line the way the record mold master was cut at the factory.
Here is a Thorens tangential tracker:
I believe the debate as to which is best goes back to the mid 70's when both Thorens and Bang & Olufsen came out with tangential tracking models. I bought the B&O back then, loved it and still do, but I honestly can't hear the difference between my comparably priced pivot and tangential tracking tables. The majority of high-end tables today are designed for pivotal arc tracking - even those at the very high end. I've listened to almost every high-end table that's been produced over the past 50 years and my take is that the most important elements are (in rank order) the low mass of the tone arm, the vibration isolation of the table drive mechanism, and last but not least, the quality of the cartridge and diamond stylus. Of course the phono pre-amp section, whether a separate component or built into the overall preamp circuitry, is equally important, as are all the components. But let's save that for another day.
If you like this thread, please let me know. I'll be happy to continue in the weeks to follow. And if you're an audiophile or just happen to have a turntable that you use, I recently experimentally purchased a vibration absorbing table mat on Ebay for $17.00. It looks like cheap carpet padding but it noticeably works. I also suggest placing a thin felt mat on top of it. Passion aside, some parts look better covered.
Have a very musical weekend!