Q: I have an old Toshiba turntable and am looking to upgrade because I don't like the sound at all. Should I get a new turntable or a new cartridge? I don't understand how the turntable can affect the sound since the phono cartridge generates the electrical signal.
A: The turntable has a profound effect on the sound.
A record player is composed of four parts. The turntable rotates the platter holding the record. The tonearm holds the cartridge as it tracks across the record. The cartridge has a stylus (needle) that rides the record groove, extracting the information and generating an electrical signal. Finally, the phono preamp takes the tiny electrical signal from the cartridge and amplifies and equalizes it so that it can be reproduced by the receiver or amplifier.
Most people consider the turntable and tonearm a single component, because they are usually sold together or the tonearm is permanently mounted to the turntable. Strictly speaking, they are separate items.
It seems logical that because the cartridge generates the electrical signal, it will be responsible for determining the overall sound. This isn't true, and audiophiles have known it for years. It all started in the early 1970s when Scottish entrepreneur Ivor Tiefenbrun started selling his Linn LP12 turntable, which many years later was voted by readers of Stereophile magazine to be the most significant hi-fi product of all time.
In his demonstrations, Tiefenbrun had a modest tonearm and cartridge mounted on his LP12 turntable, and an expensive tonearm and cartridge mounted on an inexpensive turntable. Invariably, listeners preferred the sound of the LP12, and a similar demonstration would yield the same results today.
The information contained in the record grooves is microscopic. The turntable must rotate the record smoothly and without vibration. Any vibration or "false moves" and the cartridge won't be able to retrieve the information from the record groove, and it's lost. If it's lost from the beginning, no amount of good amplification and high-end speakers will be able to reproduce it, and that's the point Tiefenbrun was trying to make.
Today, any audiophile building a record-playing system will start by investing as much as possible in the turntable-tonearm combination and less on the cartridge. The high-quality turntable and tonearm will allow even an inexpensive cartridge to perform its best and sound great. It's easy to upgrade cartridges later.
When building a record-playing system, proper matching is the key. Everything needs to work in harmony, and certain types and brands of products work well together. For example, most moving coil cartridges require a stiff, high-mass tonearm to work their best and will sound horrendous when mounted to an inexpensive turntable. That's why a turntable package with a preinstalled cartridge is a good place for beginners to start.
If you're on a budget, get the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB (www.audio-technica.com). It comes with a good cartridge premounted and sells for $249 online. This should be considered the minimum investment possible for high-quality vinyl record sound.
The Pro-ject Debut Carbon (www.sumikoaudio.net) is a good choice for about $399, and the Pro-ject RM-5.1 SE is outstanding for $999.
I'll have more on high-end turntables in an upcoming column.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.