Ultimate Guide To Record Players

The Ultimate Guide To Record Players

Published 7th April 2021
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Retro revivals have brought back a lot of weird and wonderful things from the 20th century, but perhaps the most famous is the record player resurgence. Sales of vinyl records and turntables are higher than they’ve been in decades, and they just keep climbing. As the gold standard of audio fidelity, it shouldn’t be surprising to see them return.

If you’re interested in buying vinyl record players for the first time, it can be quite intimidating. As with any hobby, there are a lot of wild claims and competing opinions. With so much data out there, how can you find the best record players for a beginner? That’s just what this buyer’s guide is for!

We’ll start by discussing the very basics of how a record player works and the different types available. This information is vital to finding the right record player for your needs, whether you want a record player that’s easy to set up and can be moved without effort, or a lean precise machine. Next, we’ll suggest a few record players that we think make great choices for a first-time buyer.

How do record players work?

man adjusting record player

Modern record players have two main components: the platter and the tonearm. The platter is a disc roughly the size of a dinner plate that’s turned at a steady speed by a motor. This is where your record sits when you play it. The tonearm is a weighted lever with a stylus cartridge at one end. When you want to play a record, you lower the tonearm onto the record gently. 

At the tip of the cartridge there sits a tiny needle that runs along the grooves of your record and vibrates. These vibrations travel through the tonearm and are converted into electrical signals that power a pair of speakers, which are connected to the record player through a pair of speaker cables (also known as phono cables or RCA cables).

Do record players sound better than digital audio?

listening to record player

There are lots of claims made about high-quality audio, but this one is backed up by real science. In brief, all digital audio files, whether they’re from a streaming service, a downloaded MP3 file or being played from a CD, are converted into a digital file from the recording studio’s original masters in a process known as compression. By the time they’re converted back into analogue audio signals by your speakers, some of the sound quality has been lost. Because vinyl record players are entirely analogue, you don’t have to worry about compression at all. 

Even if you’re not too bothered about audio fidelity, there are other reasons to buy record players. Audiophiles know that vinyl records have a distinctly warm sound that can feel more authentic than the highest quality CD masters, even if compression is at a minimum. And then there’s the tactile pleasure of holding a vinyl in your hands, dropping the needle onto the first groove and listening to a record from front to back without skipping a track. In an era where music is more disposable than ever, vinyl record players make it valuable again.

Direct drive versus belt driven

Direct drive record player

When you’re looking at record players, you’ll generally see two phrases used to describe them: belt driven and direct drive. If you’ve been left confused by this terminology don’t worry, we’ll explain it. It’s all to do with how the platter spins.

Belt driven drives are the most traditional record players. These turntables use an elastic band to connect the motor to the platter. The reason why belt drives are still used is because this mechanism produces less vibration noise than another mechanism would. They’re great for most users, but they’re not always the best choice.

Direct drive turntables use an electric motor to spin the turntable directly. This produces more vibration and so more noise distortion, but it has its benefits for one group: DJs. A belt driven record player takes a moment to spin up to the right speed, and if something touches the belt it’ll slow down. This makes it impossible to beat-match or scratch records effectively. Direct drive turntables don’t have this problem. If you’re looking into vinyl record players specifically because you want to DJ, make sure it has direct drive.

Record speeds

woman looking at records

Just like record players, not all vinyl records are the same. While there have been lots of choices in materials and design over the decades, the one factor that’s important when buying record players is the disc speed. Depending on how big the record is and when it was made, your vinyl is meant to be played at a specific rpm, or revolutions per minute. If you play the record at the wrong speed it’ll sound terribly fast or slow, and you might damage it.

The two common standards are 33rpm and 45rpm. Albums (or LPs - ‘long plays’) are usually played at 33rpm, while smaller singles are played at the faster 45rpm speed (some record collectors refer to 12” singles as ‘45s’ for this reason). Almost all record players have speed settings to change the speed between 33 and 45 revolutions per minute, but some vinyl record players make it harder than others. If you have a record collection split between LPs and singles, make sure to find a turntable that can switch speeds with a single button press.

Before 33rpm and 45rpm speeds became common, most records span at 78rpm. This very fast speed was required because of the limited technology that existed before the 1950s. 78rpm records span so fast that they could often only play a single song on each side! Because they’re such a rarity, 78rpm records aren’t as well supported by record player manufacturers. If you have a collection of truly old records that were pressed in the 1940s or earlier, you’ll need to seek out a record player that can spin at 78rpm speeds.

Are all record players expensive?

expensive record players

As collecting vinyl is an expensive hobby, a lot of people are under the impression that you have to spend thousands of pounds on a record player for it to sound good. In reality, you can get vinyl record players for much less than that. There are some truly low price record players out there that you can buy for less than £50. However, those budget turntables do come with some sacrifices.

For example, many budget turntables have small platters that don’t support the records as much as the standard dinner plate sized design does. This means that the record can warp over time, impacting its playability and its sound quality. 

Another common feature of budget turntables are low cost tonearms without a counter weight or anti-skating weight attachment. Both of these weights help make sure your records play well without suffering damage. The counterweight allows you to adjust the downforce precisely (and you have to be precise: A change of just 0.1g makes a huge difference in record playing). Without an adjustable counterweight, you’ll have to rely on the manufacturer's engineers to have set the record player perfectly as it was made. Anti-skating weights stop the natural tendency for tonearms to drift towards the centre of the turntable platter. Without an anti-skate weight, your records can be put under undue pressure and may wear out faster.

The middle tier of record players counts around £100-£600, and this is the price point where many of the reputable big name record player brands start at. If you’re new to collecting records, this price point is a good place to start.

Anything else I need to know?

Serene man with record player

When you’re shopping around for record players, you’ll often see the terms Bluetooth record players and CD record players, so we’ll explain what those mean. CD record players combine a record player and a CD player into the same body. They’re a very convenient device if you’ve got a large collection of both mediums. Many CD record players have other digital features included as well, like the ability to play MP3 files. Some CD record players are all-in-one devices that include a set of speakers for maximum clarity.

Bluetooth record players have in their bodies a Bluetooth aerial, which they can use to wirelessly ‘pair’ with another device. Some Bluetooth record players can receive music from the paired device, but the best can transmit the sound of your record to a pair of wireless headphones or a wireless speaker. With Bluetooth record players, you can enjoy your records anywhere in your house.

If you’re buying a record player as part of a Hi-Fi setup, you may need an amplifier or preamp to play your music properly. This is because the sounds produced by vinyl record players are often too quiet without the audio being boosted by an amplifier. Many modern record players have an amplifier built in, so look carefully for these.

Drop the needle

Drop the needle

The information above should’ve given you a basic understanding of how vinyl record players work and the various options you can expect, from direct drive to CD record players and beyond. Now let’s get to the really exciting stuff - it’s time to cue up our list of top record players!

As this is a guide for beginners, we’ve left out the most expensive turntables you can buy. These premium record players are the peak of audio performance, but you won’t be able to appreciate them without an equally expensive Hi-Fi system and a lot of mechanical tweaking. Instead, we’ve focused on budget and mid-tier vinyl record players that are suitable for new collectors.

Teac TN-3B

Teac TN-3B

Pros: Variety of built-in features, great sound quality

Cons: Manual operation, exposed drive belt

Our first recommended record player comes from Tokyo-based audio specialists Teac. Teac have been making high quality audio products since the 1950s, and that experience ensures the Teac TN-3B has an exceptionally detailed and classically warm sound. You won’t doubt that your music sounds better played on this record player. We also love that this turntable comes with its own dedicated phono stage preamp. This means that you can connect it straight to your stereo without having to pay extra for an amplifier. 

Teac’s commitment to audio fidelity does mean that this record player isn’t wholly convenient - the tonearm is completely manual. Many tonearms at this price point have an automatic action that lifts the tonearm away from the platter once it reaches the end of the record. Automatic tonearms are known to slightly affect the sound quality of records, so Teac have left it out. Leaving a needle playing at the end of a record wears it out unnecessarily, so you can’t leave this record player switched on for very long once you’ve reached the end of a side. 

Something else you should be aware of is that the Teac TN-3B’s drive belt is wound around the outside of the platter, leaving it exposed. Thanks to the dust protector, it's no more vulnerable to damage than it would be if it were hidden inside the record player’s body. However, if you’re not careful when switching sides on the record, you might knock it out of position and you’ll need to set it back in place by hand. These small quibbles don’t stop the Teac TN-280BT being one of the best record players you can buy today.

DIGITNOW! 3-Speed Suitcase Record Player

DIGITNOW! 3-Speed Suitcase Record Player

Pros: Super portable, can play 78rpm records

Cons: Poor isolation, not the best tonearm or platter

Our first budget record player is this suitcase inspired design from DIGITNOW! The lid of the suitcase can be closed and secured by the buckle at the front, and it has a handy carry handle as well. A pair of stereo speakers set into the record player’s frame allows you to listen to tunes without having to carry an additional set of external speakers. The position of these speakers right under the platter isn’t ideal, though. It means that the platter isn’t well isolated from vibrations, which might interfere with the stylus’ sound. 

This suitcase record player has three speed settings, which can be adjusted with a simple switch. The three speed settings are 33, 45 and 78rpm. It's a pleasant surprise to see a budget record player support 78rpm records.

In order to keep the cost and weight low, DIGITNOW! has had to save on some areas. The tonearm is very basic, and made entirely from plastic, meaning it won’t stand up in quality to the more expensive record players in this guide. Additionally, the platter is also plastic, and has a rough texture on its surface. Your records are protected from scratches with three small pads, but these will wear away with use. Using a platter mat is essential with this turntable. That said, it’s never been easier to take a vinyl record player on the go!

Denver VPL-150BT Record Player

Denver VPL-150BT Record Player

Pros: Built-in legs add stability, attractive look

Cons: Lacks CD functionality, Legs can’t be folded

This record player is from Danish audio company Denver, and is their entry into the portable record player market. Like DIGITNOW!’s record player, this turntable is built into a suitcase. But unlike the DIGITNOW! player, this record player has a set of four legs that make it more stable and helps prevent any vibration from affecting the turntable platter. The legs and silver design give the record player an appealing retro look that isn’t quite as in your face as some of the other record players on this list. 

In terms of features, this Denver record player and the DIGITNOW! suitcase player are very similar. Both have phono out options, a 3.5mm jack for your headphones and can play both 33 and 45rpm records, as well as MP3 files from a USB stick or SD card.

Although you can play MP3 files on this record player setup, it lacks the CD player that many other all-in-one record players come with. It’s also not the most portable record player on this list, as the support legs are made from solid pieces of plastic, so they can’t be collapsed in any way. That said, they can be removed quite easily and carried separately, so this vinyl record player still counts as portable.

Pioneer DJ PLX500

Pioneer DJ PLX500

Pros: Great features for DJs, excellent isolation

Cons: Bright sound won’t be for everyone, budget stylus cartridge

Pioneer is a legend in the DJing world for producing brilliant turntables, mixers and software for professional DJs. If you want to hone your mixing skills, or just want a brilliant direct drive record player, look no further than the PLX500! This powerful and practical machine is among the best vinyl record players for both DJs and home users.

As it's primarily designed for DJs, the design of the Pioneer PLX500 differs from many of the other record players on this list. Rather than going for retro chic, this turntable looks thoroughly modern with its backlit controls. The lights aren’t just for show, they’re here to help DJs operate the turntable in the low light of a nightclub. This Pioneer record player also has a dedicated tempo fader control, a useful addition that lets you tweak the record’s speed as it spins for beat matching. Pair it with a Pioneer multi-channel mixer and you’ll have the whole club bouncing in no time!

So far, these features may only appeal to club disk jockeys, but the superior isolation offered by the Pioneer PLX500 will be loved by all record collectors. Direct drive turntables are known for their poor isolation, but thanks to its high torque motor, dense aluminium platter, and tall rubber-tipped feet, the PLX500 keeps vibrations to a minimum. The PLX500 plays like a dream.

But how does it sound? The superior detail you get from vinyl is all there and, thanks to the isolation, even the most discerning audiophiles will be impressed with its clarity. The Pioneer has a very bright sound though, calibrated for a club atmosphere. The bass is tight, and vocals are forward in the mix, but that nostalgic analogue warmth is a little lacking. 

While the Pioneer has many incredible features, the default stylus isn’t as tough as the motor or the platter - it’s definitely towards the budget end of the stylus spectrum. It’s perfect for listening at home, but if you’re buying a turntable for DJing, we recommend dedicated DJ cartridges, like the Numark CS-1, which can stand up to all the scratching you’ll be doing.

Denver VPL-200 Record Player

Denver VPL-200 Record Player

Pros: Fully automatic, digital recording function

Cons: Poor speaker placement, tonearm can’t be adjusted

Next up is another budget offering from Denver. The VPL-200 is a more traditional Hi-Fi style turntable that’s fully automatic. Even the tonearm will lift up automatically when it reaches the end of a record. You can switch speeds with a single button press and not only are there the standard 33 and 45rpm speed settings, but one for 78rpm records too. 

Another great feature is the Denver’s USB out connection and compatibility with open source audio editing software Audacity. With these two features you can connect this turntable to your PC using a USB cable and create digital backups of your vinyl record.

Please note that creating a digital backup of your vinyl record may violate copyright laws in your country. If the USB connection and Audacity compatibility is what attracts you to this product, please make sure to consult your local laws before purchasing.

While Denver has crammed many premium features into this turntable, the tonearm still marks it out as a budget product. While it looks sturdy enough, it doesn’t have an adjustable counterweight or anti-skating weight attachment. This means that you won’t be able to recalibrate the stylus when you replace it, leading to complications in the long term.

Another thing to note is the speaker placement on this record player. Both speakers face upwards towards the ceiling, rather than towards your ears. This can distort the quality of your music, and it also means you can’t lower the dust protector while you’re playing records, or else the sound will be totally muffled. Thankfully, this record player has a pair of phono out ports, so you can play your music through separate speakers if you don’t like the default sound.

DIGITNOW! Bluetooth Vinyl Record Player and Speakers

DIGITNOW! Bluetooth Vinyl Record Player and Speakers

Pros: Packed with audio playing options, remote control to adjust speaker settings

Cons: Bluetooth only works one way, the speakers aren’t amazing for the price

If you’re looking for a vinyl record player that can do everything on a budget, this second player from DIGITNOW! may be what you’re looking for. It mixes a turntable, CD player, AM/FM radio and even a cassette player into a single set, adds in ports for USB and SD card playback, and comes with a set of independent speakers. It’s much more solidly constructed than some other record players are as well. 

This all-in-one system comes with an infrared remote control. Because of the nature of vinyl record players, you won’t be able to use this remote to control your record playback itself, but you’ll still be able to control the CD player, cassette player and radio, as well as turn down the volume of your speakers, so it’s a useful bonus to have.

You can connect this record player to your phone, PC or tablet using its built-in Bluetooth aerial, although unlike some Bluetooth record players, this connection is only one way. If you have a nice pair of Bluetooth speakers, you won’t be able to use them with this record player.

The speakers included with this record player are fine for basic uses, but they’re by no means exceptional. Most high-quality speakers have at least two vibrating plates, the tweeter and the woofer, which handle different audio frequencies. The speakers in this set from DIGITNOW! have only one. The result is that some music will sound muffled and distorted compared to high-end speaker systems. As with most of the budget turntable systems, these speakers are connected through standard RCA cables, meaning an upgrade is easy.

Getting in the groove

groove of records

We’ve gone over all our suggested vinyl record players in detail, so we’ve reached the final track of our record player guide. Needless to say, you’ll find plenty more exceptional turntables in our record players category. Record players are only one part of the audio and Hi-Fi selection our verified sellers stock. You’ll definitely want to check out our amplifiers and preamps selection, as well as our range of speakers and subwoofers, but there are so many other audio delights to sample too, from jukeboxes to cassette players.

This buyer’s guide has been dedicated to record players only, so we haven’t gone into some of elements of a Hi-Fi setup that you can tweak and improve for an even better sound. For audiophiliac tips and tricks, take a moment to read our blog on how to boost your Hi-Fi setup. In our record players guide selection, you’ll find helpful tips on how to find the best portable record player, a more complete guide to Bluetooth record players and more!

Please note: The information in this buyer’s guide is correct at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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