How have record players modernized?

Illustration of Thomas Edison's 1877 phonograph
Most people wouldn't even recognize this illustration of Edison's 1877 phonograph as a record player.
©Dorling Kindersley RF/Thinkstock

Modern record players can trace their roots all the way back to the phonograph, invented by Thomas Edison more than a century ago in 1877. As with most pieces of technology that have been around since the 19th century, we already have a pretty good idea of how they work. We put albums on them -- flat pieces of vinyl that are cut with grooves that represent sound -- and the record player uses a needle to pick up sound vibrations and play back recorded music.

That's the gist of how record players work. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. There's a reason that top-of-the-line players cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars: They're really complicated, filled with an array of sophisticated tech. Every record player on the market can spin an old Beatles album and treat you to fond memories of Strawberry Fields, but the quality of that listening experience hinges on all sorts of factors. For example, the kind of turntable your album is sitting on matters. Is it belt-driven or direct drive? And do you know the difference?


What kind of needle is in the cartridge? What kind of tonearm does that cartridge sit in? And does that tonearm have a properly calibrated counterweight? Assuming you already know the basics behind how record players work, read on for a more detailed look at turntable technologies.

We'll dig into what separates expensive turntables from cheaper ones and what kinds of equipment DJs rely on to mix music on the fly. Modern turntable technology offers a few new wrinkles of its own: Did you know you can hook up a USB turntable to your computer, or read records with a laser instead of a needle?


Direct Drive and Belt Drive Turntables

Every record player contains a group of standard components, including a turntable, the platform that spins a vinyl album. "Turntable" can be a confusing term because it's often used to describe the entire record player. This is a form of synecdoche, since the rotating turntable can easily represent the most important functionality of the record player. If the record isn't spinning, there's no music!

Turntables turn, turn, turn via two different mechanisms: direct drives and belt drives. Direct drive turntables are a relatively new technology in the world of record players: They were introduced in 1969 by the Technics division of Matsushita Electronics, now known as Panasonic [source: Henry]. The direct drive derives its name from a motor located directly below the turntable platter. That motor powers the platter above it.


Belt drive turntables also have motors, but they're offset from the platter and connected with a belt loop. When the motor is turned on, the belt loop spins and rotates the platter. Does that sound less effective than a direct drive system? In some cases, it is. The advantage of the belt drive is that the motor is isolated from the platter, minimizing the noise and vibration that affects the turntable. But the belts in belt drive turntables are prone to wear, and a loose or stretched belt can lead to uneven rotation speed.

The biggest advantage of the direct drive turntable is torque. Direct motor power means an instant application of thrust to the platter, and no power or time is wasted through fiction with extra moving parts, like the belt in a belt drive system. Higher torque allows direct drive turntables to reliably play at a constant speed and makes them less susceptible to outside sources of friction. That's a key feature for DJs, who need to be able to manipulate records without compromising playback speed.

Direct drive turntables are typically more expensive, and some audiophiles remark that belts absorb some of the vibrations that would otherwise be picked up by the record player needle. Spend enough money on a high quality direct drive, and you'll likely notice the difference. On the next page, we'll get into some other features you likely will notice: USB support and built-in amplification.


USB Record Players and Amplifiers

Record players need amplification. As modern home audio systems gravitated toward audio inputs from CD, DVD and MP3 players, the once-essential phono input used for record players began to disappear. This is a problem for turntable owners with modern audio setups. Those newer devices, like CD players, use line level audio inputs to transmit analog signals, while some devices, like microphones and record players, output at lower levels. Audio receivers with dedicated phono inputs typically include preamplifiers to boost those sound levels up, but newer receivers often don't include phono inputs. Without a preamp, a record player plugged into one of those receivers will sound mighty quiet.

Luckily, many record players include built-in preamps to boost their audio levels before transmitting a signal to an audio receiver or speaker setup. These record players, like the Audio-TechnicaLP120, will advertise a "phono preamplifier" as a selling point. A built-in preamp removes the hassle (and added cost) of buying an independent preamp, but some hi-fi audio fans prefer to have dedicated preamps that don't share a power source with the record player so they can fully customize their setup. Also, as more expensive record players generally offer a greater selection of features than cheaper ones, you may have to buy a pricier player if you care about a built-in preamp.


Modern record players also offer an option that wasn't available during the height of vinyl: USB connectivity. USB turntables can output an analog audio signal like their older counterparts, but they also offer the ability to plug into a computer's USB port and play audio through connected PC speakers. Of course, the major advantage of USB connectivity is audio recording. A USB turntable makes it easy to play an album and record it on the computer. That recording can then be converted into MP3s or burned onto an audio CD.

Aside from those special features, two important record player components -- the tonearm and cartridge -- come in different configurations. You might think one record player needle is like another, but cartridges come in a variety of styles. Picking the right one matters.


Turntable Cartridges and Tone Arms

What's better: a curved tone arm or a straight tone arm? If you've never scrutinized a variety of record players, you may have never noticed that tone arms come in two distinct styles: the basic straight arm and the S-shaped or curved arm. Technics turntables, widely regarded as some of the best record players ever made, are known for having S-shaped tone arms. In fact, Technics introduced the curved tone arm in 1971 with the SL-1200 turntable, which is still popular more than 40 years later [source: Hawks].

If Technics set the bar for high performance record players, S-shaped arms are surely better, right? Well, much like with direct drive and belt drive systems, neither tonearm is the outright winner in all use cases. Discussion forums across the Internet debate the merits of curved and straight arms, with little agreement about which one is the superior system. Some claim the straight arm wears out records more quickly, but is better for DJ scratching, as it holds a groove better. By contrast, some claim S-shaped arms are more prone to skipping but don't wear as hard on the vinyl and produce a cleaner sound.


Regardless of whether you select a straight arm or curved arm, proper setup is key. Many record players, especially high-end models, offer adjustable tracking pressure that, when set perfectly, will cause the tone arm to put the ideal amount of pressure on the surface of a record. Anti-skate mechanisms balance out the natural pull produced by a spinning record; this prevents the tone arm from being pulled towards the center of the record surface and keeps audio output even in both stereo channels.

Tracking pressure has to be adjusted to match the cartridge installed in a record player. Cartridges come in different needle or stylus formats. In fact, the actual shapes of the needles are different. Better styli fit more precisely into a record's groove, and by making contact with more surface area they produce a better sound without putting extra pressure on the vinyl. Cartridge prices reflect the range of stylus options out there: They can be as cheap as $10 or $15 or cost upwards of $300 [source: Turntable Basics]. And some of those cartridges are designed for specific use cases, like DJing.


DJ Turntable Technology

DJ with duo turntable setup
The turntables used by DJs today come with an array of upgrades and features such as speed adjusters and pitch controls.

Not all record players are created equal. And that's a good thing. Want to buy a turntable for home use, just to relive the joy of listening to some old records? Don't break the bank buying a pricey one. Want to DJ in a club? Get ready to spend some money. DJs need direct drive turntables because of their higher torque; records can be manipulated by hand without throwing off playback speed. The adjustable tonearm mentioned on the last page is obviously a must -- alongside performance, DJs need options to adjust playback on the fly.

Speed adjustments, pitch controls, reverse play, adjustable feet and strong anti-skate performance are also important. DJ turntable platters need slipmats, which are made of a smooth material, rather than rubber mats, to allow records to effortlessly glide back and forth. High torque motors are unimportant for regular record playing, but vital for DJs. While it's possible to find an inexpensive entry-level turntable in the $100 range, turntables with the above features required by DJs often cost about $500.


The type of stylus used matters here, too. Elliptical styli -- which have a shape like a knife edge -- are recommended for pure playback, as they supposedly produce a better sound and don't wear on albums as much as other styli. A wider, rounded-edge spherical stylus is recommended for DJ club usage, as they stay in a record groove better. That's important for DJs who are scratching records.

Modern DJs have access to much newer technologies than record players, of course, but those technologies can actually be paired up with turntables to make music. For example, the Vestax PDX-3000mkII Professional Turntable has a mini input that allows the vinyl turntable to be controlled by sounds from a MIDI device. That's just one example of the record player adapting to new technology.

Overall, the vinyl business hasn't changed too much since the height of its popularity decades ago. Technics turntables, now more than 30 years old, are still highly recommended DJ equipment. And as we'll explain on the next page, the production process for vinyl albums hasn't changed too much over the years, either.


How Modern Vinyl Production Has and Hasn't Changed

Candy-colored vinyl records with record player
Even though records now come in an array of candy colors, the production process for pressing records hasn't changed much through the years.

How recently do you think the last vinyl press was manufactured? If you guessed the 2000s or the 1990s, you were way off. New vinyl record pressing machines haven't been created since the early 1980s [source: Soh]. That's right -- vinyl albums are still being produced on 30-year-old machinery.

Despite vinyl's resurgence of popularity in the first decade of the 2000s, it hasn't boomed in a way that merits the manufacture of new pressing equipment. And, obviously, the pressing process hasn't changed much, either, since the machines doing the pressing have been around longer than CDs and MP3 players. Still, there have been some advances in the way vinyl albums are produced. For example, United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tenn., created a split-colorpress using existing press elements in 2010. While it was possible to create multi-color vinyl before, chunks of colored vinyl had to be manually cut and reassembled, then put through a manual press. The split-color press automated that process, making it faster and cheaper.


Modern vinyl albums may be pressed from the same hardware as they always have been, but the audio that gets pressed into those records isn't produced the same way. Albums produced in the 21st century often come from digital masters, meaning music was digitally recorded in a studio and then pressed onto a vinyl master disc that's used to press records. In decades past, music was recorded using analog mastering, and some music fans believe an analog master will sound better than a digital one. That is, after all, one of the reasons vinyl fans prefer the sound of a record to a digital recording -- they like the warmer analog sound missing in the bits and bytes of a digital file.

Some artists still have vinyl albums pressed from analog masters, but ultimately the quality of the mastering equipment and the skill of the audio engineer outweighs the differences between digital and analog. Vinyl produced today can sound just as good, or even better, than albums produced in the 1960s or '70s.


Author's Note

I didn't grow up listening to vinyl. My dad was all about the CD revolution. But in high school, I got the bug. One of my friends had a retro turntable and a small collection of awesome albums, and the first time I heard Led Zeppelin blasted over the turntable's wimpy built-in speakers (complete with some background noise and the occasional pop) I was hooked. Since then, I've built up a small collection of my own (thanks for the abandoned box of 70s records, dad!) and done my fair share of writing and researching record players, from modern USB turntables to classic DJ gear like the Technics line.

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  • "ELP Laser Turntable." (4/10/2012)
  • "DJ BLAZE's Top-10 Best Analog Turntables." (4/8/2012)
  • "Belt Drive vs Direct Drive Turntables." (4/7/2012)
  • "Turntable History." (4/7/2012)
  • Hawks, Chuck. "Vintage Turntables." (4/8/2012)
  • Henry, Alan. "Our Favorite Top-of-the-Food-Chain Tech." Sept. 15, 2009. (4/8/2012)
  • Soh, June. "Vinyl Records Making Comeback." Sept. 3, 2011. (4/8/2012)
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