Buying your first turntable? Upgrading from your old man's hand-me-down? Well heres our run down on how to deal with it like a pro...
Choose The Right Store
This sounds like a bit of a no-brainer and you may well be temped to just buy something online. Don't. At least not until you've checked it out in the flesh first. This may feel somewhat daunting, especially if you don't possess a vast array of hifi knowledge or you're not too au fait with the audiophile lingo.
I wont lie, I've walked into many a store wearing tatty jeans and some kind of faded band t-shirt, only to be either ignored or met with a torrent of condescension. But not every store is like this, and unless you're strutting into some super high-end place where all the middle-age employees are wearing turtlenecks and/or look like german architects you should be fine. Have a bit of a swat up on the terminologies online and have a think about what to ask. Don't be worried about asking questions, we all had to start somewhere!
• Choose The Right Brand & Table For You
As you'll find further on, here is where your vast array of choices will begin. There are affectively two kinds of turntable - direct drive and belt drive. With direct drive tables the spindle (where the record sits) is attached directly to the motor. Most vintage and DJ tables use this method. The other choice, belt drive, sees the motor either partly or entirely isolated from the spindle. Instead the platter is spun using a rubber belt attached to the motor. This is widely considered the better method.
As for the different manufacturers... There's an absolute plethora out there to choose from, and like with everything some are better than others. Pick one with a solid history and you can't go too wrong. The same goes with name's you've heard of before. After all, you've heard of them for a reason. Rega and Pro-ject are prime examples of this logic. Rega have been around since the early 70's and have deservedly forged a name for themselves, where as Pro-Ject may not have been around for quite as long, but seldom a year goes by when they don't produce at least 2 or 3 award winning products - See the RP range and Essential range respectively.
Truth be told, for around the entry level price of a table there wont be a vast difference in the sound quality, and when it comes to the afore mentioned brands (and a good few others) you will get what you pay for. That being said, aesthetics will, nay, should play a part in your decision. After all, you're going to be spending a lot of time with this thing. Check out the best options within your budget and go for what really grabs your eye.
Choose The Right Cartridge
If you're new to all this you may not be aware that most tables don't come with a cartridge (aka needle, phono cart, stylus). Yup, once you get past a certain price bracket you'll find that you now have to make a decision on a cartridge. This can no doubt be a hell of a daunting task for even the most seasoned vinyl aficionado.
With prices ranging from a mere £25 all the way up to an eye watering £15000+. So have a think about how much exactly you want to spend. But do think about this carefully. Sure, this is ultimately the smallest part of any turntable's setup, but remember, this is what is going to be a the forefront of reproducing the record's sound.
Firstly you have make one of two choices - Moving magnet or moving coil. The former, most commonly abbreviated to MM is the cheaper and arguably most user friendly option. Sometimes you may see this labeled as Moving Iron or MI cartridge. The 'needle' or 'stylus' is often user replaceable and for the best part will set you back a fraction of the cost of the aforementioned alternative. On the flip side, a moving coil or MC cart will cost a bit more but is widely regarded as producing a more faithful sound. MC cart's don't have a user replaceable stylus so as a result they will have to be returned to the manufacturer to be refurbished. Most companies now implement a scheme where you can return your cartridge to a store and pick up a brand new one for a fraction of the cost of a new one. Helpful as this is, it can naturally prove to still be quite costly, depending on the model and manufacturer.
There has always been somewhat of a debate on the merits of each style, with both having their pros and cons. I would personally argue for example, that Ortofon's top end MM cart, the 2M Black blows their lower end Cadenza Red MC cart well out of the water. But ultimately its down to the listeners own personal preference, so with that in mind, don't be scared to ask to hear your options in store.
• Choose A Phono Stage
Yeah, heres another little expenditure you may not have anticipated - a phono stage. This is basically a miniature amplifier, of sorts. Back in the day most amps would boast a dedicated 'phono' output alongside the usual Aux, Tape, etc etc. As vinyl sales dwindled and CD's took their place manufacturers stopped catering for turntables. So now you need to pick up something to fill that gap, and that gap can cost you anywhere from £15 to £10000. Don't worry though, there are plenty of choices at the lower end of that scale.
Just like your cartridge choice you once again have a couple of options. Some phono amps will cater for just MM carts and some will accommodate MC carts. Generally speaking those that deal with moving coil cartridges will also extend the same courtesy for moving magnet cartridges (but always check). If you feel like you'd like to start with a MM cart with the view to possibly upgrade to a MC cart in the future I would highly recommend picking yourself up something that can deal with the two. This is where the likes of Pro-Ject play a blinder (do a really good job - for all our non-English readers). As they have an excellent selection of choices from their 'Box range' and I highly recommend pretty much all of them. Don't forget to bare in mind that your table will attach to the phono stage, THEN your amp. This means that you may well need to also pick up another (albeit) short pair of phono cables.
Once you have all the pieces to your HiFi jigsaw puzzle, it's now time to get them home and set them up. This may go without saying, but for God's sake take your time! Unpack everything slowly and gently, you're not throwing together an Ikea wardrobe for crying out loud.
Certain things like the cartridge alinement, which can take a delicate and patient hand can be done in-store by a seasoned pro. Don't be afraid to ask! They should have all the necessary tools to their disposal and this option should be extended to everyone whether they're forking out £50000 or £500. If however you are feeling especially bold and want to do this yourself then knock yourself out. I'd personally advise against this for a first time buyer, but y'know, some folk don't listen to reason. If you are intending on going down this route at least Google it first and pick up the right tools to do the job.
If you did listen to reason and get the chap to set up your cartridge in-store then you're already insight of the finishing line. Unpack your table - carefully and follow its set up instructions diligently. Once you've got the thing in place, connect the phono leads from it to your phono stage, then from there attach another set of phono leads to your amp. Then you're just about ready to roll.
• Other Peripherals
Once you've got your basic setup laid down you can now tinker, and let's face it what red blooded male doesn't like to tinker? This is where you have a positive smorgasbord of options at your disposal, some more essential that others.
My suggestion would be to pick yourself up some miniature bubble levels to keep an eye on how your table is sitting. If budget allows kill two birds with one stone and grab yourself a record weight (aka record puck) with one built in. Secondly pick up a stylus gauge. This is used to to check how much downforce the cartridge is applying to the record. Each cartridge will have a different ideal weight stated in its manual in grams. This is important and shouldn't be flouted. These aren't arbitrary values, and will range from cartridge to cartridge. Even if you got this set up by someone in store it's well worth having one to hand incase you ever end up knocking the tonearm's counter weight. Finally, if you went for a belt driven table it may be worth your time checking out a potential power supply that lets your adjust the tables rpm speed. This is admittedly least essential than the others, but supremely helpful should you like to play 7"'s and 12"s in equal measure.
There we have it. Now go forth and spin some wax!