FAQs - Records and Turntables
Q. Is it true that records are making a comeback?
A. That depends on how you define the word “comeback”. It is true that a lot of people are rediscovering their old record collections, and the music contained in them. As popular as CDs or digital downloads have become, it is a practical impossibility for newer mediums to duplicate the staggering volume of recordings that were produced over the previous century. Quite a lot of music history only exists on analog disc. Nevertheless, interest is vinyl LPs is growing and there are more new ones being produced than there were just a few years ago. It’s a niche market, and will remain so, but it’s a very viable niche.
Q. Don’t some people think that records sound better than CDs?
A. A full answer to this is beyond the scope of this FAQ, but either medium is capable of very high quality sound reproduction. The differences relate more to practical issues such as resistance to wear, portability, or cost of playback equipment. I will state that in my opinion, the concept that digital recording is inherently flawed compared to analog recording does not hold up to unbiased scrutiny. The CD’s main limitation is that for compatibility’s sake it is saddled with what is now an older, medium-definition digital format.
Q. Then why not improve the digital format?
A. The industry attempted to do just that, with formats such as the SACD and DVD-A (DVD Audio). The reaction of the general public was massive indifference and these formats are now all but dead. Fortunately, most professional studio recordings are now mastered and archived in very high-quality digital formats offering 24 bit resolution and 96 KHz or higher sampling rates.
Q. Why do so many CDs sound so bad if the medium is as good as a vinyl record sonically?
A. For the same, simple reason so many vinyl records sound bad-- they are badly recorded or manufactured. This is particularly true for a lot of popular music releases, which are often issued literally by the millions. High volume production often leads to crappy sound, it’s that simple.
Q. Shouldn’t CDs be more resistant to sloppy production than records?
A. One would think so-- after all, the refrain is “bits is bits” among digital fans. But in reality physical playback and decoding errors in digital systems tend to produce more obnoxious forms of distortion than similar lapses in analog recordings. Another way to phrase this is to say that analog errors are often forgiving and sometimes even euphonic, and digital errors are nearly always harsh and discordant. So, it is far more critical to make a “clean” digital recording.
Q. Can the quality of the CD or record player help with these errors?
A. Yes, but less so for the CD player. Modern CD players are about as good as they will ever get, at least at a reasonable cost. Differences between low cost players and high end players are real, but very subtle, and the cost differential is high. For example, a decent middle of the line CD player might sell for about $150 to $300. To make a subtle but noticeable improvement in sound quality, the price quickly jumps to about $1500 or higher.
Q. And for record players?
A. Record players that are reasonably well made and can produce quality sound can be obtained for $300 to $600. However, unlike CD players, the difference in sound quality and mechanical longevity between these machines and entry-level turntables at $100 to $200 is huge and well worth the extra investment.
Q. How important is the phono cartridge part of the turntable?
A. The cartridge is a critical element, equivalent to the importance of the speaker system. The cartridge is the device that takes the vibrations recorded in the record groove and converts them to electrical signals that can be amplified and used to drive your speakers.
If you want better sound from your records, purchase the best cartridge you can afford, as long as the cartridge is not way better than the record player. A top of the line cartridge requires a top of the line turntable. The reverse is not true, although spending, say, $1500.00 on a turntable and fitting it with a $35.00 cartridge is sort of pointless, like a Ferrari fitted with bicycle tires.
Q. Isn’t the needle the part that plays the groove?
A. The needle, or more accurately “stylus”, is part of the cartridge. The stylus is part of the mechanical system, but it needs to be coupled to the electrical generator part of the cartridge to actually be useful.
Q. How long should a stylus last?
A. If your turntable has been set up correctly by a technician with the proper test equipment, the stylus should last for at least 200 to 400 hours of playing time. With high quality cartridges and turntables, this can go even higher, to 500 hours or more.
Q. So I should replace the stylus as soon as I hear the sound start to get bad?
A. Please don’t wait that long! By the time you can hear significant distortion from stylus wear*, you are already damaging your records. Estimate the number of hours of record playing time you have on your system, and when you get to around 200 hours or so take the stylus to a turntable service shop where it can be checked under a microscope. This check takes only a few minutes and is often free. If you’re not good at estimating playing hours, just stop in once a year if you use your record player regularly.
* However, in the very early stages of wear, if your hearing is very sensitive, you may notice that the high notes of the music take on a kind of sibilant quality—a slight harshness or rough-edged sound. If you hear this and didn’t before, try a couple of different records to verify it’s there all the time. If it is, get the stylus checked fairly soon.
Q. Why would the stylus damage the records?
A. While the term “needle” is the common usage, in reality the stylus hasn’t been a true needle since the early days of the last century, when cactus needles were used for playback of 78 RPM discs and still earlier formats. The cactus needle was soft enough that it didn’t damage the record groove very much, but it also made for really poor sound. Later on, steel, osmium, sapphire and finally diamond styli were used, which offered much better sound, but they weren’t sharp or pointy-- the ends were deliberately rounded, much like the tip of a ball-point pen. The rounded end greatly reduces friction between the stylus tip and the record groove, keeping wear to a minimum.
A stylus starts to damage records when the tip wears to the point where it does resemble a needle-- it gets sharp edges on it, like a knife. At this point, it begins to re-cut the record groove instead of simply tracing along it. It takes a long time to wear an edge, or “flat”, on the rounded tip of a diamond stylus, but once it starts, it wears more and more rapidly.
Q. But couldn’t I hear that?
A. You might, but the groove damage increases slowly with each replay-- the wear doesn’t occur all at once. By the time you finally notice the record sounds really poor, it’s too late.
Q. You said earlier that a higher quality stylus lasts longer-- is one kind of diamond better than another?
A. No, a diamond is a diamond as far as the material itself is concerned. What really matters is the shape and finish of the diamond’s tip, where it contacts the record groove, and even more importantly, that the tonearm and cartridge are adjusted correctly. If this is not done, the tip will wear prematurely and record wear will increase, no matter what the stylus tip is made of. Stylus life will also be improved if the cartridge design allows very accurate tracking of the record groove, and better cartridges generally do this.
Q. Which sounds better, a moving magnet or moving coil cartridge design?
A. Neither is inherently better, despite manufacturer’s claims to the contrary, if you limit the evaluation to potential sound quality. Otherwise, there are a number of trade-offs to consider, and which way you go becomes a matter of personal preference. However, for the majority of turntable users, a moving magnet design has several practical advantages, among them higher voltage output levels and replaceable stylus assemblies.
Q. I want to copy my records onto recordable CDs, and a friend told me I could do this with my computer. But when I connected my turntable to my PC there was hardly any volume and the sound was very tinny.
A. You have the same problem that would occur if you connected your turntable to a CD or AUX input on your home theater receiver or amplifier-- the lack of a critical extra circuit known as a phono preamplifier.Older stereo and home theater amplifiers had this device built in, but because only a small percentage of the current public listens to records, they are usually missing from newer units. You may need to purchase one of these before you can copy records to your PC or listen to them through your home theater system.
Q. How can I tell in advance if I will need one of these phono preamplifiers? Do any newer turntables have them built in?
A. Yes, some newer turntables have them built in; you will have to check with your dealer or read through the manufacturers’ specifications to see if such is the case. Be aware that most of these built-in preamps have very modest performance, and that if you own many records that are in very good condition, you may want to buy something better.
As to how to tell need in advance, we’ll assume for now that your current turntable or one you purchase does not have a built-in phono preamp. If you are transferring records to your computer (or a standalone CD recorder) you must have one. Your computer will also require a connecting cable that has two standard audio-type RCA plugs on one end and the typical 1/8” stereo mini-phone plug on the other.
If you are connecting your turntable to a stereo or home theater amplifier or receiver, check on the back panel to see if there is a pair of input jacks labeled “PHONO”. If there are jacks with this label, you do not need an external phono preamplifier. Simply connect your turntable directly to this input.
Q. Besides the power cord and the audio connectors, there is a third wire coming out of my turntable. What is this for and where does it go?
A. The third wire is usually a ground wire, and is used to reduce background hum created by your cartridge and tonearm wiring. It connects to the metal chassis of your amplifier or receiver. On older amplifiers and receivers, there usually was an actual metal binding post or screw right next to the phono input jacks. If there is no specific post or screw, locate a screw that goes into the metal case of the amplifer, such as a cover fastening screw. Attach the ground wire to this instead.
Q. I attached the ground wire to the chassis as you said, and the hum level got louder.
A. This is rare, but it does happen. Use the method that produces the least background hum-- ground wire connected or disconnected. There are no safety issues involved, unlike with power line grounds such as those on your 120 volt AC wall outlets.
By the way, never connect the turntable’s ground wire directly to any AC power line ground-- only to an amplifier chassis.
Q. I still get quite a lot of background hum, whether the ground wire is connected or not.
A. Then there is a service problem with something, most likely the wiring between the phono cartridge and the amplifier. Try substituting a new set of connecting cables between the turntable and the amplifier if possible. If this does not correct the problem, take the turntable to a service shop for further testing.
Q. If I turn the volume up really high on my audio system when playing records I often get a horrible feedback noise in the speakers. What is wrong with my system? It doesn’t do this when I’m playing CDs or the radio at the same volume setting.
A. Recall that the way a phono cartridge works is by changing the vibrations encoded in the record groove into electrical signals that are amplified and eventually emerge from your speakers as sound. And sound, by its very nature, is vibration in the air. If the vibration in the air-- the sound-- gets intense enough, it will actually physically vibrate the turntable, tonearm and cartridge. The cartridge cannot distinguish this external vibration from the music vibration in the groove, and the signal gets fed back into the amplifier as-- well, feedback. It is all but impossible to vibrate a CD player or radio in this way, and even then only if vacuum tubes or a faulty electronic component are involved somewhere.
Q. But I want to play my records as loud as I do my CDs. How do I fix this problem?
A. You must isolate your record player from the unwanted vibration. This can be achieved in a variety of ways:
1. Keep the turntable physically away from the speakers.
Q. I’ve already tried all that stuff, and it hasn’t worked. A technician at a nearby audio shop said that my turntable is a very lightweight, direct drive model and that these designs are “inherently feedback-prone”. He recommended I upgrade the turntable to a much heavier, belt drive model, but I don’t have the money to do that.
A. The technician’s advice is correct, but if you can’t spring for the upgrade, here are three fairly effective alternatives:
1. Physically remove the turntable from your main listening room and use longer connecting cables. You must use high quality cables, however, if you do not want losses in sound quality over long cable runs, so be careful with this option.
Q. What is the best way to store my record collection?
A. Records should be stored in a room with only modest temperature swings and moderate humidity levels. Basements are usually cool, which is good, but often very humid, which is bad-- it is actually possible for records to get moldy, and such damage is usually permanent. Attic storage is extremely bad if the temperature can rise above 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which probably describes about 90% of the attics out there.
So, store your records where you live, or would be willing to live. Keep temperatures between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity between 40 and 60%. Store the records vertically and pressed lightly together-- don’t allow them to lean, or they may warp. Keep the record in its paper or plastic inner sleeve, with the sleeve turned so that the opening is up-- in other words, the way it was when you first got it new.
Some vinylphiles argue that the record jacket’s outer plastic shrink wrap is bad for long term storage and should be removed as soon as the record if first opened. The fear is that the wrap will slowly keep shrinking, and eventually cause the record to warp. Technically this may be true, but if the records are stored as described above the shrinkage is very minimal and unlikely to cause any damage to the record or record jacket, and the jacket will stay cleaner. Collectors get around any ambiguity in this matter by purchasing heavy plastic sleeves to slide the jacket into that apply no pressure to the jacket. Whether to go to this extra expense is your call.
Q. How can I maximize the longevity of my record collection?
A. In order of importance:
1. Store your records as described above. Make sure the stylus (needle) is kept from getting worn.
Keep in mind as a matter of perspective that if you own, say, 500 LPs, that’s about a 500 x $10.00 or $5,000.00 investment setting there on your library shelves. Is a $500 or even $1000 turntable out of line for an existing investment like that?
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