Buying a Record Player: A Beginner’s Guide
UK record sales hit a 25 year high in 2016, with over three million records sold. Vinyl has officially gone mainstream.
There are plenty of reasons for vinyl’s revival, including the elaborate packaging, the thrill of building a record collection and that elusive, unique vinyl sound.
However, there is one obstacle to getting into vinyl: buying an actual record player.
If you’re new to vinyl, buying a record player is daunting. There are thousands of models to choose from, and a lot of them appear to be the same. They aren’t, of course, as a quick browse of an audiophile forum will tell you. Plus: some of them have speakers and some of them don’t. And what’s this about a pre-amp?
Once you cut through the jargon, buying your first record player is actually pretty simple. Here’s a quick guide.
Record Player vs Turntable
The first major decision you’ll need to make is whether you want an all-in-one record player or just a turntable.
An all-in-one record player (often just referred to as a record player) is by far the easier option. They generally include everything you need to start listening to your records, including a turntable, tone arm and built-in speakers. They’re also fairly cheap, with prices starting from around £50.
However, there is a different cost to that convenience: quality. If you buy an all-in-one record player, you’re stuck with the speakers included. In most cases, these speakers are just ‘okay’; they play music to an acceptable standard, but lack the quality of a high-end vinyl set-up.
That said, they’re ideal for vinyl beginners – especially if you’re only dipping your toe in the water.
If you’re serious about sound, you may just want to buy a turntable instead. This gives you the freedom to pick your own speakers and build your own sound system.
There are few things to keep in mind though. The first is that you may need to buy a pre-amp, which boosts the signal between your turntable and speakers. Look for a slot labelled ‘phono’; if the turntable has one, it has a pre-amp. If not, you’ll need to buy one. You can easily pick one up for under £100, although prices can go up to over £2000 (don’t bother with one of these just yet!).
You’ll also need to buy a receiver to process the signal from your turntable and control tone and volume. There are loads of receivers on the market and some are pretty cheap too.
With all of those components to buy, the cost of putting together your own sound system can stack up pretty quickly. If you want to go this route, set a strict budget before hand and stick to it – the last thing you want is a fancy sound system but no money to buy records to play on it!
Automatic or manual?
You’ll notice that a lot of record players are labelled automatic or manual. This refers to the operation of the tone arm (you don’t have to spin the record yourself on a manual, thankfully).
Automatic tone arms drop onto the record when you start playing and lift at the end, removing the potential for human error and the damage that sometimes arises from it. Manual tone arms require you to drop the needle yourself.
If you’re a true vinyl beginner, we recommend buying an automatic tone arm as dropping a needle in the wrong way can damage a record. If you have your heart set on a manual tone arm though, buy a couple of old records and practise your needle dropping technique first!
Records are played at three different speeds (or revolutions per minute): 33rpm, 45rpm and 78rpm.
Unless you’re listening to really old records, you’ll only need to worry about the first two – and the good news is most record players are capable of playing both. 33rpm is the speed used for albums, while 45rpm is generally used for 7 inch singles. Still, it’s a good idea to check before splashing your hard-earned cash.
To USB or not to USB
A lot of modern record players have a USB port which allows you to transfer your records into a digital format. It’s a handy feature but not essential, as a lot of new records include a digital download code anyway.
Buying Second Hand
Given the retro nature of vinyl, buying a second hand record player seems like an obvious choice. They generally cost a little less too.
However, there are some risks associated with buying a second hand record player. The biggest is that the components will have degraded over time, leading to an inferior listening experience. Although some components can be replaced fairly cheaply, you don’t want to be lumbered with a good looking but ultimately useless retro record player.
Before buying second hand, ask the seller how long they’ve owned the player and how often they’ve used it. If possible, listen to a few records on it before you buy too.
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