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Manual and Automatic Turntables Explained

Manual and Automatic Turntables Explained

In this guide, we’ll take a detailed look at the difference between manual and automatic turntables. 

I will do my best to answer any question can possibly have about manual and automatic turntables. 

Personally, I have both automatic and manual turntables. And both options definitely have their advantages.

So, what is the fundamental difference between manual and automatic turntables?  

On a manual turntable, you have to manually place the tonearm at the beginning of the record and manually return the tonearm when the record is over. An automatic turntable automatically places the tonearm at the beginning of the record and automatically returns the tonearm when the record is over.

We’ll dig much deeper into the differences in the coming sections. 

We’ll also discuss the pros and cons of direct manual and automatic. We’ll look at which one is better and which one to choose. And we’ll review some of the most popular manual and automatic turntables. 

Manual and automatic turntables explained 

Let’s take a detailed look at manual and automatic turntables.

Manual Turntables

With a manual turntable you have to do all the work yourself.

You have to turn on the turntable, visually line up the stylus at the beginning of the record and manually lower the tonearm.

Illustration of Manual Turntable Operated

When the record is over, you have to manually return the tonearm to its resting position and manually turn off the turntable.

If you get distracted and forget about the record that is being played, the stylus will keep spinning in the inner grooves until you eventually turn it off.

It is not the end of the world if that happens once or twice, but as the stylus gets worn with time, it is not ideal to have it spinning in the inner grooves for a long time over and over again.

Automatic Turntables

With an automatic turntable, you only have to push a button and the turntable will start and automatically place the tonearm at the beginning of the record.

Illustration of Automatic Turntable Operated

When the record is over, the turntable will automatically lift the tonearm and move it back to its resting position. And turn itself off.

So you only have to push a button ones to play a record. If you get distracted and forget about the record playing, the turntable will safely return the tonearm and shut off when the record is over.

Semi-Automatic Turntables

There is also a hybrid variant, the semi-automatic turntable.

With semi-automatic turntables, you’ll have to manually start the turntable and place the tonearm at the beginning of the record.

But when the record is over, the turntable will automatically return the tonearm and shut off.

There are not many new semi-automatic turntables to choose from these days. If you are looking for one, you might have to buy vintage to find one that fits your budget and preferences.

Are manual or automatic turntables better? 

A quality turntable is a fine-tuned machine designed to deal efficiently with vibrations and resonances. It is also crucial that the tonearm deals well with resonance and moves freely.

For this reason, modern high-quality turntables are often very simplistic in their design.

The extra parts and mechanics needed to make a turntable fully automatic might reduce a turntables ability to deal perfectly with vibrations and resonances. It might also compromise the design of the tonearm.

Because of this, manual turntables are considered the better option if you are looking for high-fidelity sound.

All the extra parts needed for a turntable to be fully automatic also adds cost to the design. Cost that could be spent on parts that increase the sound quality, like a higher quality cartridge.

But, if high-fidelity sound is not the ultimate priority for you, then an automatic turntable could be a very good alternative.

I think many casual vinyl spinners will prefer the convenience of an automatic turntable over the potential sound-quality advantage of a manual turntable.

Pros and cons of manual turntables

Here are the main pros and cons of manual turntables.  

PROS

  • Generally the best sounding option
  • More turntables to choose from
  • Fewer parts that can break
  • No cost added for automatic functionality

CONS

  • Records will keep spinning at the inner grooves if you forget it
  • If you mis-align and drop the stylus outside the record, the stylus can be damaged
  • Takes more effort to play records

Pros and cons of automatic turntables 

Here are the main pros and cons of automatic turntables.

PROS

  • Convenient
  • Starts and stops automatically
  • Reduced chance by damaging stylus by misplacing it outside the record
  • Stylus won’t keep spinning in the inner grooves if you forget it

CONS

  • Adds cost
  • Reduce sound quality (potentially)
  • More parts that can break
  • Not too many turntable options to choose from

Great automatic turntables 

Below are three great affordable automatic turntables.

Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT

The Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT is probably the most popular entry-level turntable on the market today. It is high on the best affordable turntables lists of every turntable expert I know of and gives a lot of bang for your buck.

I recently bought an AT-LP60XBT myself. As a turntable enthusiast that write a lot about turntables, it is one of those turntables I just had to include in my collection. And it is definitely awesome.

FEATURES

  • Fully automatic
  • Built-in preamp
  • Bluetooth wireless
  • Plays 33 and 45 RPM
  • Belt drive
  • Replaceable diamond stylus (fixed cartridge)

If you are looking for a fully automatic turntable that gives very high value for your money, then you won’t go wrong with the AT-LP60XBT.

Click here to check prize on Amazon (Bluetooth version).

Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK

Another great fully automatic turntable from Audio-Technica is the AT-LP3BK. It doesn’t feature Bluetooth wireless, but it comes stock with a 1/2″ mount universal headshell and AT91R Dual Moving Magnet phono cartridge.

The Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK will sound good out of the box, but the option to replace the cartridge gives the opportunity to upgrade to a higher quality cartridge for even better sound down the line.

FEATURES

  • Fully automatic
  • Built-in preamp
  • Plays 33 and 45 RPM
  • Belt drive
  • Replaceable cartridge
  • Supports both MM and MC cartridges

The Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK is a great and affordable fully automatic turntable from one of the world’s leading turntable manufacturers.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Denon DP-200USB

Denon has a long turntable heritage, and the fully automatic Denon DP-200USB is one of their most popular entry-level models.

The DP-200USB comes with an internal MP3 encoder and a front panel USB port. This feature lets you play your favorite LPs and create MP3 tracks easily and automatically.

FEATURES

  • Fully automatic
  • Built-in preamp
  • MP3 encoder
  • Plays 33 and 45 RPM
  • Belt drive
  • Replaceable stylus

Denon really know how to make great turntables and the DP-200USB is a great affordable fully automatic turntable that is great for a straight forward and worry free vinyl spinning experience.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Great manual turntables

Below are 3 great and super popular manually operated turntables.

Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB

The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB was the first turntable I bought when I got tired of digital music and restarted my vinyl journey.

It is a super popular DJ-style turntable that mimics the legendary Technics 1200 that has been (and still is) the go-to turntable for many of the world-class DJs.

If you want a beginner DJ-style turntable that doesn’t break the bank, the AT-LP120XUSB is probably an obvious choice.

FEATURES

  • Manually operated
  • Built-in phono preamp
  • USB output
  • 33RPM, 45RPM and 78RPM
  • Pitch control
  • Forward and reverse play
  • Replaceable AT95E cartridge

The AT-LP120XUSB comes with a built-in preamp, the option to digitize records via USB, and all the popular DJ features like direct-drive and pitch control.

And it is a great project turntable to upgrade for better sound down the line. You will find lots of tips on AT-LP120 upgrades on this site.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

U-Turn Orbit Plus with Preamp

I can’t think of a better affordable music listening style manually operated turntable than the US made U-Turn Orbit Plus with preamp. It is definitely one of my favorite affordable to midrange turntables. Very high value for money and awesome design.

Designed and manufactured in Massachusetts by real and authentic turntable enthusiasts, the Orbit Plus has become a huge success since it was launched in 2012. And it is well reviewed by Hi-Fi critics and owners.

FEATURES

  • Manually operated
  • Built-in phono preamp (also available without)
  • Belt drive
  • 33RPM and 45RPM
  • Replaceable cartridge

If you want a very good, but still affordable and manually operated turntable, you will not go wrong with the U-Turn Orbit Plus with preamp.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Rega Planar 2

The Rega Planar 2 is probably the best sounding manually operated turntable under $1000. And the best looking in my opinion!

The Rega Planar 2 is the turntable I bought to use as my main turntable after spending lots of time researching and testing different models.

And I love everything about it.

If you fancy even better sound quality at some point, then the Rega Planar 2 is a great foundation to upgrade with one of the higher-end cartridges from Rega’s own cartridge line or with a cartridge from any of the other major brand.

FEATURES

  • Manually operated
  • Belt Drive
  • 33RPM and 45RPM
  • No built-in phono preamp (NB!)
  • Replaceable Rega Carbon Cartridge

The Rega Planar 2 is a real purist turntable. It is manually operated, it doesn’t have a built-in preamp, and it is very simple and elegantly designed. A great manually operated turntable you can enjoy for life.

Click here to check price on Amazon.

Should you choose a manual or automatic turntable?

If you prefer a turntable that is convenient, safe and easy to use, then an automatic turntable, like the super-popular AT-LP60XBT, might be the best option for you.

If you don’t worry about operating the tonearm yourself, and prefer a purist turntable that is more focused on sound quality, then a manual turntable like the U-Turn Orbit Plus with Preamp is a great choice.

How to tell if a turntable is manual or automatic?

A manual turntable won’t have a button you can press to automatically play a record.

Instead, there will be a tonearm that has to be positioned manually, and (usually) a cue lever to manually lover the tonearm when you have positioned it at the edge of the record.

An automatic turntable will have a start button that takes care of all this for you.

Related questions

What is a phono preamp?

The audio signal that is outputted by a turntable cartridge is much smaller than the audio signal that is outputted by other music sources like CD players, DVD players, tuners, digital streamers, mobile phones and computers.

So the audio signal from the turntable cartridge needs an extra stage of amplification to reach a standard audio signal level.

This extra stage of amplification is provided by a phono preamp.

A phono preamp can be built into the turntable, built into the amplifier/receiver and built into powered speakers.

If a phono preamp isn’t built into any of your stereo components, then you will need a separate phono preamp that connects after the turntable.

What is the difference between direct drive and belt drive turntables?

On a direct drive turntable, the motor is mounted directly under the platter and connects directly to the platter.

On a belt drive turntable, the motor is mounted to the side of the platter and drives the platter through a rubber belt.