Phono stage pre-amps? 180 gram vinyl? Who can make sense of it all? No sweat, fam. Here’s everything you need to know about record players.
Look, vinyl records aren’t that serious. Limited edition colored vinyl, anti-static turntable mats and gold plated, audiophile-quality this or that or the other... a bunch of nonsense, mostly. Vinyl nerds can be nearly as bad as Star Wars geeks, honestly. (And you can tell them I said that.)
Sure, you can spend a lot of money and get a great sounding stereo. But listening to records should be less about studying specs or fiddling with knobs and more about just having a good time.
The goal of this guide is to give you everything you could possibly need to know about vinyl. We'll address some philosophical questions about why people listen to vinyl, despite it's shortcomings; we'll demystify the process of getting sound out of vinyl; and we'll tell you what equipment we like at different price points. But most importantly, we'll focus on how to have a good time without letting the specs and jargon and pretension get in the way.
That’s a good question. What's behind this resurgence in popularity? How has this format, which is actually the most expensive and inconvenient of all modern formats, endured for a century and a half, outlasting the CD and fending off streaming?
Well, people will tell you vinyl has a certain warmth—a characteristic sound. And that’s true in many circumstances, but there’s also a dirty little secret that goes along with it: if at any point in the production process (recording, mixing, and mastering) the audio is converted to digital, the analog magic is stripped out. In other words, once digital, always digital, even if it’s later pressed to vinyl. And nearly all recordings are made digitally these days.
When CDs were first invented, the packaging included a 3-letter SPARS code that would describe whether the recording, mixing, and mastering processes were performed on analog or digital equipment. (ADA, for instance, would mean analog recording, digital mixing, and analog mastering.) The idea was that an album mixed or mastered digitally would sound better on CD (a digital format) than on vinyl or cassette (the analog formats), and an analog album would sound better on vinyl or cassette. But sometime in the '90s, CDs began to dominate the market and digital recording equipment became standard, making the SPARS codes pointless. So while vintage records do have an apparent analog quality, the same can’t be said for most albums recorded over the past 30 years.
But if it’s not about the sound, then what is it about Romanticism. Vinyl demands intention. You must select a record by thumbing through a crate or a shelf, and you must handle it with care. An then a delicately balanced tone arm must guide a needle through the record's groove to reproduce the sound. And all of this intention and ritual leave you hyper-focused on the music.
In other words, the turntable won’t pick songs for you. It’s not like setting and forgetting a playlist. The convenience of digital music can easily lull you into passive listening, but the inconvenience of vinyl forces you to listen actively. This ritual is irreplaceable. And that is the enduring quality of vinyl—the experience. The physical, tangible representation of the music, and our relationship with it. The notion that if you can see the groove, you can see the song. And that it’s not lost in some incomprehensible jumble of 0s and 1s, pulled forth with lasers by wizards inside of our digital equipment. It’s just there. On the outside.
And this is why, despite the protestations of naysaying editorialists, vinyl’s not going anywhere. (In fact, vinyl will outpace CDs this year for the first time since 1986.)
A home stereo, for our purposes, consists of the following components: 1 a turntable, 2 a phono stage pre-amplifier, 3 a receiver, and 4 a pair of speakers. These components can exist individually or they can be combined. For instance, a pair of powered speakers would include an amplifier, eliminating the need for a receiver. Or an all-in-one suitcase stereo might include all of these in one package. So not all stereos look the same, but they all included these basic components.
I’m so glad you asked! When you play a record, a stylus (or needle) sits in the record's groove while the platter underneath it spins. This causes the stylus to vibrate horizontally, creating sound, which is barely audible without amplification. The sound is then converted to an analog signal sent down the turntable’s tonearm and into a phono stage preamplifier, which amplifies and equalizes the signal. This is needed because, in order to create thinner grooves and allow more playing time per side, bass frequencies (which require wider grooves than treble frequencies) are reduced and high frequencies boosted during the vinyl mastering process.
The preamp reverses these changes during playback, boosting the bass frequencies and suppressing the treble along the RIAA curve, producing “normal” sounding audio, and then sends it to the receiver to be processed and amplified. The signal is then sent on to the speakers, causing the cones to vibrate and creating the audio that you then hear.
In a suitcase stereo, these same processes take place. They're simply all housed in the same box.
TL;DR: It’s all magic!
Vinyl is for everyone. And you can get in on the fun at almost any budget. It can be daunting, sure. And it might not be as simple as just grabbing something off the shelf at Urban Outfitters or Target. But it really doesn’t have to be all that hard to get something that sounds nice, looks great, and ain’t gonna ruin your records. Below are four stereo setups that illustrate what’s out there and what it might cost you.
Lo-fi doesn’t necessarily mean lesser-than. In fact, it almost seems strange to listen to Meet the Beatles! or A Date With the Everly Brothers on anything other than a lo-fi stereo. That was the common mode of listening in the '60s, anyhow. So sometimes it’s best to avoid all that pretension and focus on the fun, maybe cross-legged on a rug with your LPs spread out across the floor. It’s easier on the pocket, anyhow.
Be warned, though: a cheap turntable with a heavy, ceramic needle can inflict serious damage to your records. Thankfully, the Crosley Nomad comes equipped with a moving magnet Audio Technica stylus and a counterweight that will keep it from digging into your grooves. If you’re looking for some cheap thrills, this is a great place to start.
If you’re looking to save some dough, but still get those mid-fi sounds, one option is to cut down on components. This is a tricky proposition as a lot of integrated equipment is total crap. But if you do the research, you can find a turntable with an integrated phono pre-amp and a pair of powered speakers with an integrated amplifier that strike a fair balance between cost and quality. Enter the Audio Technica AT-LP3 turntable (phono pre-amp equipped) and AudioEngine A5+ powered speakers. For $600, this is a great sounding little starter stereo that’ll find room in even the smallest apartments.
There’s no denying that stereos can get expensive. But if you’ve got a small apartment and you’re wanting to find out what the hi-fi fuss is all about, this is a great little entry-level audiophile setup that should satisfy you for quite some time while still allowing room for upgrades, should the nerdy bug bite. The Pro-ject Debut is a no frills turntable that sounds as great as it looks and will last for years. The Onkyo is a solid, award-winning amplifier with integrated phono pre-amp. And the Spekter 2 speakers are best in class. This little stereo punches well above its weight class.
Full-on audiophilia is largely the privilege of the wealthy, and boy is there ridiculously expensive hi-fi equipment out there. But the sad truth is that you can’t buy good ears. And just like Air Jordans don’t make you jump higher, spending your child’s college tuition savings on a stereo is unlikely to yield you a college degree worth of sonic detail. But three grand... three grand is reasonable, right?
This setup is pretty much all you’d ever need in an apartment, and will provide lasting sonic clarity for even your grandkids to enjoy, not to mention your neighbors.
It’s true: vintage gear yields the best bang for your buck, plus reuse is great for the environment. But thanks to its sustained resurgence in popularity, finding well-maintained, premium stereo equipment in the wild isn’t as easy as it was a few years ago. Your best bet is to find a reputable dealer of reconditioned vintage stuff, like the Sound Gallery in Austin or Audio Archaeology in Chicago, who can help you piece together a system and will guarantee its working order.
The list of available nonsense and snake oil among hifi accessories is practically endless and can be tough to sort through. These accessories, however, are worth your hard earned dough.View all accessories
Wait, I thought you were going to explain 180 gram vinyl?
Heavy vinyl is nice. It’s more resistant to warping and, theoretically, it lasts longer. But it doesn’t sound any different than standard 140 gram vinyl. And unless you’re listening to the same couple of records over and over again, wearing out vinyl isn't likely to be an issue. More than anything, it’s just a marketing gimmick or excuse to charge you more money. (“I sat right here and said I didn’t want no TruCoat!” —Bucky)
It’s not to be avoided, necessarily, but it shouldn’t be sought out, either.
What about colored vinyl?
Colored vinyl is a dumb marketing trick.
What’s with belt-driven versus direct-drive?
Belt-driven turntables have a rubber belt connecting the motor to the platter, whereas a direct-drive turntable has a motor directly attached to the platter. DJs prefer direct-drive turntables because they have more torque (spinning force), which keeps the platter spinning underneath the record while they’re scratching. Conventionally, the belt on a belt-driven turntable is supposed to be better for listening, as it's said to absorb vibrations from the motor that would otherwise produce unwanted noise. The truth is that as long as you get a decent turntable, it doesn’t matter if it’s belt-driven or direct-drive. Mostly it’s just something for nerds to debate.
What is 45 and 33 RPM?
Revolutions per minute describes the speed at which the platter turns. A 45 RPM record spins ~35% faster than a 33 RPM record, so it needs a groove carved ~35% longer, allowing for ~35% more sonic detail to be carved into the record. Generally, 7” records are 45 RPM and 12” records are 33 RPM, but some higher fidelity 12” records are 45 RPM.
All that really matters is that you match your turntable speed setting to the speed of the record, or else your vinyl will sound like chipmunks or ghosts.
Does speaker placement matter?
Yes and no. Generally, you don’t want your speakers directly against the wall because physics stuff. But you’re better off just getting better speakers than rearranging your living room furniture to get the perfect sound. (That's a pretty nerdy thing to do.) More than anything, you just want to make sure your speakers are in phase. (You want the receiver's positive outputs going into the positive inputs in the speaker, and vice versa.)
What is the loudness button for?
The human ear naturally exaggerates the highest (around 20kHz) and lowest frequencies (around 20Hz) at high volume, meaning sounds become more dynamic according to loudness. Records are mixed and mastered to sound best when played loud, so the loudness button replicates these inner-ear dynamics at low volume by boosting the highs and lows. If you always listen at low or normal volume, you should leave the loudness setting on.
What about the bass and treble settings?
Records are mixed and mastered to represent the artist’s intentions. Extra equalizing usually isn’t necessary except to correct for sonic abnormalities created by a room (absorbing specific frequencies, for instance) or to correct inferior equipment. In short, if you buy decent stereo equipment, you can generally leave the bass and treble alone.
Was digital audio created by Satan himself or by one of his demons?
Digital audio gets a bad rap, actually. The reality is that you have to really invest in a turntable stereo before you’re going to see any advantages over digital. Digital costs much less to sound great, and is worlds more convenient. So there’s not really a competition between the two formats the way some nerds make it seem. The formats actually compliment one another.
Yeah, but what about maintenance?
Store your records upright (to avoid pressure damage), face the sleeve opening towards the spine (to lock out dust), hold records by their outer edge (to avoid skin oil) and keep them alphabetized on your shelf.
You’re gonna need some tunes to play on that dope-ass stereo, fam. And we have some serious recommendations.View all vinyl