Getting into vinyl brings a whole new dimension to enjoying music and is a very fun hobby, but it can be a bit daunting as there is a whole universe of options and accessories to sort through. If you are thinking about starting a vinyl record collection or perhaps have some LPs gathering dust in your basement or attic, this article will guide you through how to set up a turntable and everything you’ll need to start spinning records.
Of course the first thing you’ll need is a turntable and this is where a lot of people get hung up, because there is a huge range of turntables out there. You can get a cheap turntable like this one from Ion for about $55. However, if you want to spend even less, you may want to check out your local Goodwill or other thrift shops as you may be able to get a used one in good shape for under $50. The old adage “they don’t make them like they used to” definitely applies to less expensive turntables. They’re getting harder to come by, but if you can find a 1970s era Pioneer, Sony or Technics vintage turntable, it will serve you well. Now if you can afford a little bit more, the LP60 from Audio Technica is a great value at $99. Moving up to more midrange priced tables, the Music Hall MM 2.2 and Pro-Ject Debut III are both excellent choices and can be had for $299. Then there is the gold standard of DJ tables, the legendary Technics SL-1200. This model has been used by every professional DJ since its launch in the 1970s and the high torque motor and durability of its platter had no small part in the development of hip hop scratching. They are built like tanks, practically indestructible and also come with DJ necessities such as pitch control and feather touch start/stop button. Unfortunately they are no longer produced and in high demand, so a used model will cost you between $300 and $500 depending on condition. Technics has dropped a couple of new versions in the last couple years, but they have both been in the $2000 range. Ready to go all in? Then how about the “Statement” from Clearaudio, it will set you back about $170,000 but perhaps they have a layaway plan?
Choosing a Cartridge/Stylus
The next thing you’ll need is a cartridge, which is what attaches to the headshell at the end of the tonearm of the turntable and also houses the stylus or needle. When you are ready to replace the stylus you won’t need a whole new cartridge, you can just buy a new stylus. Now here there are also an abundance of choices. One nice thing if you do go with the Pro-Ject Debut or Music Hall 2.2 I mentioned, is that they will come with pre-installed cartridges, which is a value of around $75 and also means you won’t have to go through the hassle of attaching it to your headshell. If you go with a turntable that doesn’t come with a cartridge, you’ll need to make sure to get one that is compatible with your headshell. The most common type is a 1/2″ mount, which has screws that attach to the top of the cartridge to the headshell. Another type is a P-mount with screws that attach to the sides, but you will only usually see this style in vintage turntables. As far as 1/2″ cartridges go, the Audio Technica At95e is a very popular budget option and will only cost about $40. It’s reliable and well made, but doesn’t really have stellar sound. For something a little more audiophile quality, the Ortofon Red is an outstanding choice and not outrageous at $100. It’s easy to install and is known for a nice, warm sound. The deluxe version is the Ortofon Bronze which has lower impedance and inductance to improve the signal integrity and a “fine line” stylus that broadens frequency response and lowers wear and tear on your records. All those improved specs will cost about $440 though, so it’s not exactly “affordable”.
Dialing in Turntable Settings
After you’ve gotten a turntable and cartridge, the cartridge needs to be aligned to the tonearm of the turntable, to ensure that the stylus touches the record at the proper position. Most turntables will come with an alignment adapter that is clamped onto the tonearm and will have a mark to line up to the tip of the stylus. If you don’t have an adapter like this, consult the turntable manual and then manually measure the proper distance from the end of the tonearm to the stylus. Then position the two screws that hold the cartridge to the turntable’s headshell so it matches either the adapter or distance spec.
After you’ve done that, recommended adjustments to the turntable need to be made so it matches the specs of the stylus. The two big ones are the tonearm height and tracking pressure, how much downward force the stylus exerts on the record. You can find both recommended values in the specs from the stylus/cartridge manufacturer. If your turntable has an anti-skate knob like the Technics 1200, it can generally be left at zero, but if you are having problems with the needle dragging toward the center of the record you can use this feature. The cartridge specs will also usually have a recommendation for this setting too.
Time to Get Hooked Up
Now that the turntable settings have been adjusted, it’s time to connect the turntable to your receiver or pre-amp. Most turntables will require a connection to a phono type input, which is because the signal from a turntable is much quieter than line level so it needs to be boosted before hitting your main amplifier. Many A/V receivers out there will not have a phono type input, which means a phono pre-amp will be needed. If that’s the case, the wiring scheme will be to connect the turntable to the pre-amp and then pre-amp to any line level input of the receiver. You can find a wide selection of phono pre-amps at Needle Doctor, which is a great site for all things turntable related. If the receiver or pre-amp has an input labeled phono, then you can hook up the RCA cables from the turntable directly to that input. Finally, some turntables, usually lower end ones, have built in pre-amps. In the case of these turntables, they can be hooked up to any line level input. If you are looking for a receiver with a phono input, these receivers from Marantz, with the exception of the NR1607, are excellent choices.
Next, most turntables will have a ground wire to eliminate any ground loop hum generated by the turntable. If the turntable doesn’t have any additional third wire with a spade connector, then it is most likely internally grounded. Connect the ground wire’s spade connector to the connection on the pre-amp or receiver labeled ground or sometimes GND for short. Should the receiver not have one, you can just slightly loosen any screw on the receiver chassis, connect to it and then tighten it back down.
And of course it should go without saying that we think our Aperion speakers will make your vinyl playback sound rich and lifelike, just as the artists intended.
So Fresh and So Clean
After connecting the turntable, you’re just about ready to start rocking some stacks of wax! Just one more thing though, you need to make sure to keep those beautiful slabs of vinyl clean! It’s important to regularly clean records, ideally every time they are played, because if not, any dirt on the record can be ground into the groove by the needle and then is very hard to remove. The simplest way to clean your records is a brush. Back in the day, a Discwasher brush was the standard, but unfortunately the version they are selling today is far inferior and will not clean records very well. However you can still find vintage versions on Ebay for reasonable prices. If you go this route, make sure it is the black and not the brown version. Another option is a carbon fiber brush, which also work very well, and you can check out an example here. A lot of these brushes come with cleaning solutions, but with just a brush, fluid can remain on the record and then dry into a residue. If you want to get your brush wet before cleaning, de-ionized water is the way to go. For something a little more heavy duty than just a brush, there are cleaning systems like this Spin-Clean. It works really well, but it is a little bit a hassle to set up and use, so most folks are going to end up using it for very dirty records and then just a brush for daily use. Now if you really want to go nuts, you can get a VPI record cleaner which is the absolute top of the line record cleaner. These units use fluid and brushes to scrub the record and then a vacuum magically sucks the dirty fluid away. A VPI record cleaner is amazing, but they run about $699 for the entry level model. You can also attach an extra tonearm brush called a Dust Bug to your turntable that will clean the record as it spins. Most people use this in addition to a handheld brush.
That covers everything you’ll need to get started in terms of getting your turntable set up and making sure those records stay nice and shiny. As you can see there is a bit involved to getting everything going initially, but once you are kicking back and listening to the pure analog bliss of your records, the effort will have been more than worthwhile. Happy listening!