Mysteries of the Turntable Explained

With all the buzz about the revival of interest in vinyl, you might be surprised to learn that record sales are still little more than a tiny blip on the radar screen when compared to either CDs or digital downloads. But there's no denying that lots of people are getting into vinyl either for the first time or following a lengthy CD-fed hiatus. And this has led many of us to dust off our old turntables and coax them back to life or to go shopping for a new one.

It's easy to forget, however, that turntables aren't plug-and-play like a DVD player or iPod; they require a little care and feeding to perform their best. Playing a record is primarily a mechanical process where you're trying to get a phono cartridge to respond to infinitesimally small squiggles in a piece of plastic. So your turntable needs to be able to extract all of the good vibrations that constitute the recorded signal while rejecting any mechanical energy that isn't coming from the stylus in the groove. Unwanted noise and vibration will mask the subtlest details, and it's these tiny nuances that define the difference between ho-hum sound and appreciating why many people believe that analog can still deliver performance that most digital sources can't match.

The Sweet Spot

You need to think carefully about where you're going to place your record spinner. Obviously, speakers are a prime source of vibrations whenever you crank up your system, so it's a good idea to minimize their effect on the turntable. Putting bookshelf speakers in the same wall unit as the 'table isn't such a hot idea, and try to place the turntable so it's out of the speaker drivers' direct line of fire. For many 'tables, a wall shelf is the best solution, since this also deals with the problem of people stomping around and shaking the floor. There are purpose-built turntable wall shelves that can accommodate most models, and they usually have their mounting holes positioned at the standard 16-inch width so you can screw the shelf into the wall studs.

Wherever you end up putting the turntable, check that its platter is absolutely level. If you don't get this right, neither the 'table nor its arm will ever work as intended. I like to place a small linear bubble level directly on the platter next to the center pin and then check it carefully both side to side and front to back. If the turntable is off-level, the friction in the main bearing will be significantly increased, resulting in both added noise and wear. Also, it will be impossible to set up the tonearm correctly, since gravity will tend to pull an off-level arm to one side or the other.