In this article, we’ll look at the four essential criteria that make a good turntable good.
Furthermore, we’ll look at how we can achieve good vinyl sound and I will share my experience with mods and upgrades that have made a huge positive impact on the sound of my turntables.
I will also share my thoughts on how much it is necessary to spend on a turntable to get a good one.
So, what is it that makes a good turntable good?
The essence of a good turntable is that it reads the record grooves accurately and reproduces the recorded music identical to its original sound without adding noise and distortion.
To reproduce recorded music with high fidelity, a turntable needs to meet four essential criteria:
- Low vibration chassis and motor
- Motor/drive with stable speed and low noise
- Low resonance tonearm that moves freely
- High-quality phono cartridge
The key is to give the cartridge ideal working conditions so it can read the record grooves accurately. When the cartridge is given ideal working conditions, it is mainly up to the quality of the cartridge itself to determine the quality of the sound that is reproduced by the turntable.
The Four Essentials of a Good Turntable
Let’s look at the four essential criteria in more detail.
1. Low vibration chassis and motor
Making a turntable that sounds good is to a large degree about dealing effectively with vibrations. The grooves that is carved into the record are super tiny, so the needle and cartridge are designed to register the smallest of movements. Hence, the cartridge is very capable of picking up vibrations and transform them to unwanted noise and distortion.
To reduce vibrations to a minimum, good turntable designs use a chassis/plinth that consist of low vibration materials together with sophisticated low vibration design techniques. Furthermore, they use motors, bearings and drives that have low vibrations. And a design that, furthermore, transfer very little vibrations from the motor and drive to the tonearm and record.
2. Motor/drive with stable speed and low noise
The human ear is very sensitive to frequency wobble caused by turntable speed fluctuations. This is often refereed to as wow and flutter (Wikipedia link). Wow and flutter basically mean slow and fast speed fluctuations.
So, stable rotation speed is crucial for a turntable to sound good.
If we ignore the very low-cost options, new turntables usually have very little wow and flutter today. Motor technology has improved a lot compared to the 1960s and 1970s when this was a much bigger problem.
Another important factor for a good sounding turntable is that the motor and power supply produce little noise and that the turntable is designed so that very little electromagnetic noise is transferred from the motor and power supply to the cartridge and signal wires.
3. Low resonance tonearm that moves freely
There are two main factors that determine whether a tonearm is of high quality or not.
The first is resonance. A quality tonearm has very little resonance, which is critical to give the cartridge stable and good working conditions.
The other main factor is that the tonearm moves freely in all directions. To achieve this, good sounding turntables use high-quality bearings with tight tolerances and very little friction.
4. High-quality phono cartridge
I often say that the phono cartridge is the “heart and soul” of the turntable. It is the device that transforms the physical grooves in the records to an electrical music signal. That is, needless to say, an extremely critical task for good sound.
I high-quality cartridge will reproduce sound with higher fidelity, more details, better channel separations and better dynamics than a not so high-quality cartridge.
One critical factor that determines the quality of the cartridge is the amount of moving mass. Moving Coil cartridges have less moving mass than Moving Magnet cartridges and are therefore considered better sounding and most suitable for very high-end turntable applications.
Why Do Expensive Turntables Sound Better?
Expensive turntables use expensive materials, expensive parts and sophisticated design methodologies.
Because of this, expensive turntables score higher on all four essential criteria compared to cheaper turntables. And therefore, sound better.
There are usually many times more hours spent on research and design on expensive turntables compared to inexpensive ones. This to tweak the design for optimal sound.
As an example, Rega has spent 35 years tweeting their highest performing and most expensive tonearms. 35 years on continuous improvement. And also, 35 years of costly engineering hours that they have to charge their customers for.
Expensive turntables use parts (motor, bearings, tonearm, etc.) with much tighter tolerances and higher performance than inexpensive turntables. These parts are expensive to source from suppliers and expensive to manufacture in-house.
So when you pay premium money for a high-end turntable made by an acknowledged manufacturer, you definitely get a higher-quality product that is more expensive to develop and build in return.
If paying the extra money is worth it is, of course, up to each individual vinyl spinner to decide.
How to get the Best Sound from Your Turntable?
If you don’t have a turntable already, my fist tip is to buy new. Buying vintage might be the way to go if you are an expert, but if you are new to turntables, you are much better off buying new.
My second tip is to place the turntable on a stable foundation. As we already learned, vibrations is a killer for good vinyl sound. Also, make sure the turntable is 100% level. And don’t place the speakers on the same shelf as the turntable. As that might cause vibration issues as well.
Also, make sure that the tonearm is set up with correct tracking force and that the cartridge is aligned correctly.
When all the basics covered above is taken care of, a great way to increase the sonic performance of your turntable is to upgrade the cartridge to one of higher quality. The cartridges that are fitted to mainstream turntables are often of mediocre quality and there is usually a lot of sonic performance left on the table that can be tapped into with a higher quality cartridge.
I have upgraded the cartridges on both of my turntables and I was amazed by how much better and more engaging it made the turntables sound. You can read about my Audio-Technica AT-LP120 cartridge upgrade experience in this article and about my Rega Planar 2 cartridge upgrade experience in this article.
I strongly believe that upgrading the cartridge should be the first upgrade to consider when you start on a journey to make your turntable sound better.
Buying records that are good quality pressings and making sure your records are perfectly cleaned also make a huge difference. Little will make your turntable sound worse than dirty records and bad pressings. And trust me, there are some really bad vinyl pressings out there. Unfortunately.
My last tip is to be aware of the impact room acoustics have on your turntable and stereo’s sonic performance. The best and most expensive stereo in the world will sound average (at best) in a nasty sounding room. It is beyond the scope of this article to go deep into acoustic treatments, but if you are interested in good sound, it is a topic I definitely recommend that you make yourself familiar with.
How Much Should You Spend on a Turntable?
We all have different budgets and needs. So the amount of money we would like to spend on a turntable naturally varies a lot.
Even if you are on a tight budget, I strongly recommend putting up at least $100 when buying a new turntable. Turntables under $100 are often reported to destroy records and to be of questionable build quality.
The sweet-spot for a great turntable that will sound good and last for many years is probably between $300 and $500. Here we find the great Orbit-U-Turn Plus and the (even greater) Rega Planar 1 Plus.
If you are really serious about good sound, you can consider a Rega Planar 2. If you do that you will definitely have an awesome turntable for life. This one doesn’t come with a built-in preamp, so you might need a separate preamp if there isn’t one built into you receiver.
Personally, I started with an Audio-Technica AT-LP120 that I paid about $300 for. I later upgraded to a Rega Planar 2 that I paid about $650 for at the time. I am very happy with my Rega Planar 2 and I don’t plan to upgrade it anytime soon.