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The Ultimate Guide To Buying A Vintage Turntable

Posted By

Mar 26, 2019

Category: Tech

We don’t think there’s any doubt that vinyl is back in tremendous fashion. Granted, we wouldn’t call it the standard audio format by any stretch, but it’s grown more popular every year, with sales rising as much as 51% year after year. If you’re not already onboard, it might be time to start thinking about picking up your own turntable. That way, you can see for yourself exactly what it means when people tell you that vinyl “just sounds better.”

Of course, you could probably head down to your local electronics store and get yourself a solid record player with all the modern conveniences available. But if you consider yourself a true audiophile, brand-spanking-new might not be the best path to take. If you want a real, classic vinyl experience, you might just be better off buying a vintage turntable from one of the many resale outlets — both online and in person. Of course, that path also comes with a number of potential pitfalls. But we’re here to help you circumvent them with our ultimate guide to buying a vintage turntable.

Why Buy Vintage

Pros & Cons

There are many arguments to be made for buying vintage versus buying brand new, but a lot of them come down to a combination of personal preference and common sense. The biggest defense against buying new is that, especially on the more budget-friendly end of the spectrum, modern turntables can be made very cheaply. Brands like Crosley are not in the business of preserving your vintage vinyl. Rather, they’re trying to turn a profit by creating affordable, passable turntables. As such, many of their offerings are made with a tight budget in mind. They might function but the cost is compromised sound, cheap components, and even the potential that you could do harm to your records.There’s something about the craftsmanship and character that results in an indefinably better sound. Not all modern budget turntables are inherently bad, but the majority are probably worth avoiding.

That being said, once you get above a certain price point — for the sake of argument, we’ll say $100+ — those issues tend to dwindle and the conversation changes from tangible detractions to more personal ones. Modern turntables made with premium materials can be superb record players and have a lot to offer those vintage ones don’t — like USB connectivity or Bluetooth compatibility. The same can be said in reverse, however, as many modern turntables don’t come with features like auto-return (a technology that allows the tonearm to lift off the record and return to its rest at the end of playback). At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to what features you want or need and which ones you couldn’t care less about.

Finally, the biggest argument for buying vintage rather than new is also the most intangible. As is the case with other old technologies (tube guitar amps come to mind), fanatics are apt to make the claim that vintage turntables sound better, or “warmer,” than new ones. That there’s something about the craftsmanship and character that results in an indefinably better sound. Unfortunately, this is not exactly a provable metric, so you’ll have to take the experts’ word for it. Like the other features you require, this is something you’ll have to decide upon for yourself.

Set A Budget

Plan to Purchase

Before you’ve ever even glanced at available vintage turntables, figure out how much you are willing to spend on one.As is the case with buying any type of gear, new or used, it’s very easy to find yourself well outside of your budgetary range — especially if you haven’t set one. Do yourself a favor and, before you’ve ever even glanced at available vintage turntables, figure out how much you are willing to spend on one. Not only with this help relieve sticker shock (always check the price before you sell yourself on a turntable), but it will allow you to better determine the features you want versus the features you can afford. You might just discover that you’re not in the market for a vintage turntable at all and would do better buying a new one with a few other compromises. Just remember: purchasing a vintage turntable is not for the faint of heart. Especially if you want something in excellent condition, you should be prepared to spend at least a few hundred dollars — likely more. Like many electric guitars and vintage vehicles, turntables can go up in price as they get older based on quality, rarity, and demand.

Construction

Make Or Break Materials

The best craftsman in the world can’t help you if the materials out of which your turntable is made are below par.Obviously, if you’re looking for a quality vintage turntable, you want to make sure it’s made with quality craftsmanship. But the best craftsman in the world can’t help you if the materials out of which your turntable is made are below par. And while we’d not expect anyone (except for a few fanatical and extremely-knowledgeable experts) to have an in-depth knowledge of everything that goes into the many options out there, there are a few specific materials you can look for to give you a better edge.

Steel: Used widely in the earlier days of turntable manufacturing, steel is sturdy, offers a bit of vibration resistance, and stands up well over time. But it was also chosen because it was cheap — meaning there are some downsides to this material, as well. The biggest downside is that the platter (the part of the record player that actually spins) requires quite a bit of energy to turn, which can cause issues with the motor. Namely, their inconsistency can make motor speed instability a good deal more apparent. Still, on the inexpensive end of the spectrum, stainless steel is reliable.

Aluminum: Even today, many high-end turntables are machined from solid aluminum. Chances are that if you find an aluminum vintage turntable, it’s a high-quality build. Aluminum is an excellent material — for both the plinth (the base of the record player) and the platter — for a number of reasons. For starters, it offers up excellent vibration resistance, which helps to improve the overall quality of sound. Aluminum also has better inertial qualities, so it doesn’t accentuate any motor instabilities. If you have the money to afford it, aluminum is probably the overall best option when it comes to getting a vintage turntable.

Plastic: Used heavily beginning in the early-1980s, plastic almost entirely replaced steel as the cheapest material option. That happened because (surprise, surprise) plastic is one of the cheapest materials to manufacture. And with that cheap construction cost comes a lot of downsides. Because it is not particularly dense, plastic makes for terrible vibration resistance. It also doesn’t hold up well over time and can warp or even crack. Truly, plastic should be avoided at all costs.

It’s important to note that, while these materials are not 100% an indication of a good or bad turntable, they can definitely speak to the likelihood of the quality of a turntable’s build. Look for an aluminum construction and you’re likely to find record players that are well-constructed across the board. Settle for plastic and you’re almost definitely going to find yourself disappointed. As a secondary point: these are not the only materials that go into turntables. More modern turntables use things like carbon fiber and acrylic in their construction. If you see a “vintage” turntable with an acrylic platter or touches of carbon fiber (both excellent materials), you’re probably having the wool pulled over your eyes. That being said, we’re not that far away from a time in which those seemingly-modern options are also considered vintage, so pick your battles.

Drive Types

Belt, Direct, or Idler

There are three main types of drives you’ll see in vintage turntables, but only two of them are worth considering. They are belt-driven and direct-drive. Originally the most common option, idler-wheel drives are initially effective but degrade severely over time, causing excess background noise and issues with motor speed (and therefore inconsistencies in the sound of your records). Since you’re already shopping for an older record player, it’s best just to avoid idler-wheel turntables entirely. The other two, however, are both viable options worth considering. Their definitions and differences are outlined as follows:

Belt-Driven: If you’re familiar with motor engines, you should have a pretty good idea as to how belt-driven turntables work, as they’re not dissimilar to belts found under the hood of cars. If not, we’ll break it down in simple terms. Belt-driven turntables feature three main parts: the motor (the device that generates energy to spin the turntable), the belt (a usually-elastic piece that transfers energy between the motor and the platter), and the platter (the circular platform on which your record sits). Relatively inexpensive, this system features replaceable parts that allow for greater longevity. They also do a decent job of resisting vibration and suffer from little background motor noise. If you are buying vintage, it’s probably worth finding a replacement belt for your turntable, as older ones can slip, break, and cause a number of other issues.

Direct-Drive: Definitely the most modern and expensive of the three options, direct-drive turntables have standalone mechanisms that spin the platter without belts or wheels. They also most often have advanced features that allow users to manually alter the speed of the platter and they tend to be very durable. Combined, these features make direct-drive tables very popular amongst DJs — who use them for scratching — but they’re also susceptible to greater vibrations — a big negative in the audiophile community. They’re also rare, expensive, and rarely made in the modern era. If you’re not seeking a vintage turntable for the purposes of performing or making music, you’re probably better off with a belt-driven one. That being said, direct-drive is still better than any idler-wheel option.

Tonearms

Reaching For Sound

Tonearms are more about shape or format.Whereas many of the other factors in picking out the perfect vintage turntable rely on material quality, tonearms are more about shape or format. A lot of the time, especially with older models, the tonearm will be made from lightweight metal or synthetic materials — though there have also been ones made from things like wood and modern ones are often made from carbon fiber. Regardless — and according to many experts — the overall shape is a direr factor. And while you could take or leave those arguments, they’re still worth considering.

The shape of tonearms can be broken down into two larger categories: straight and curved. Straight tonearms are widely favored by DJs, as they’re easier for scratching. But some experts argue that, for audiophiles looking to preserve their record collection, straight tonearms can damage your records faster over time — though this is a hotly-contested claim. Similarly contested is the claim that curved tonearms create a better sound and don’t wear on your records as badly as their straight counterparts, but they’re also more prone to skipping. Neither side has been proven 100% correct and, therefore, this metric comes down to your personal preference.

Cartridges

The Signal Transmitter

There are two big reasons that the cartridge — the unit connected to the end of the tonearm — is one of the most important pieces of any turntable. First, the cartridge contains the electronic bits that transform the vibrations from the record and needle into an electrical signal, which in turn becomes amplifiable sound. Second, this device houses the stylus (or needle), which is the piece that connects directly with the grooves of a given record and picks up the vibrations. It’s generally recommended that you replace the stylus every 1,000 to 1,200 hours of playtime. As such, when picking up a vintage turntable, you’re probably better off replacing the needle entirely and starting from scratch. Luckily and thanks to clever engineering, changing out a needle is often a plug-and-play scenario and is, therefore, very easy — so long as you find an appropriate compatible unit.

Of course, this isn’t always the case. There are some cartridges — especially amongst modern options — which do not have separate needle housing. In this case, you’ll have to replace the cartridge entirely each time the needle wears out. Luckily, there are a lot of manufacturers that build these, as well. You’ll just have to make sure you search for compatible options when the time comes. The benefit of cartridges that have separate stylus housings is that they’re easier to replace. However, those without tend to offer a better signal and, therefore, sound better. Whatever the case, you might just want to go ahead and swap the cartridge entirely, as older technology doesn’t hold up well over time and there could already be some degradation of your vintage turntable’s vintage cartridge. Thankfully, there are a lot of online tutorials that can show you how to do this quickly and correctly.

Exercise Caution

A Final Note

Whether you’re looking for vintage turntables at your local pawn shop, purchasing from a re-seller online, or picking one up from a friend of a friend, you should always exercise caution in your purchasing. Especially if you’re not an expert yourself, there exists the possibility that the vintage turntable is not as advertised. Do yourself a favor and do a bit of research on your own to make certain the record player you’re considering is legit. Experts online and in forums are a great tool you can use to help aid you in this endeavor. It’s also a good idea to look into the person or business from whom you’re purchasing. If they’re online and reputable, you should be able to verify that through reviews and the like. If you can’t, get in touch with them directly, request photos, and see how you feel about whether they’re being honest or not. We’d like to think nobody is trying to get the better of us, but it does happen sometimes. Trust your gut, do your research, and use the tools available to you. If you do, you’ll be just fine.

The Complete Guide To Cleaning & Maintaining Vinyl

The best record player in the world isn’t going to do you any good if your albums are dusty, dirty, or warped. Learn everything you need to know about taking care of them in our complete guide on how to clean and maintain vinyl records.

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