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This or That: Turntable Edition

A Q&A with the vinyl geeks of World Wide Stereo

Manual vs. Automatic? Belt Drive vs. Direct Drive? Yes, these are all turntable questions we are asked here at World Wide Stereo every day. And there is no right or wrong answer — only well-informed and experienced opinions. So, why put our readers through another one of those formal, but obviously subjective "think-pieces" that you can find on just about any tech blog these days when we can just go right to the source and quote our favorite vinyl heads?  

So that's just what we did: We corralled some of our favorite vinyl-loving-nerdiest-of-the-nerds Turntable Pros and asked them our most popular (and personal) turntable questions. Here's what they had to say:

Vinyl Records or Digital Music Files

Vinyl records or Digital music files?

Andrew: Though I’m experimenting at home with Roon and digital hi-res to see just how good they can get these days, even the highest bitrate hi-res files available won’t match a high quality vinyl and great recording quality that can be found on many classic albums. It’s less convenient, but music comes alive on a record in a way that digital files cannot replace. And... it’s fun to collect things!
Ken: Streaming digital music is great, but there are still a LOT of hardcore music lovers who feel that analog records still sound better when played on a good turntable. I choose not to debate this, but embrace both.  I stream for casual listening and play records when I want to completely immerse myself in the best sound I can.
Ira: LPs provide a very different experience to one who is open to it — much like someone who would still rather hold and read a book or a newspaper, opposed to reading on an ebook or phone. For me, I love the old school sound of vinyl. The album art and text is a very different experience, and the sound quality is just on another level. 
Adam: Aside from the fact that it just sounds better, when you hold a record that you bought, there is pride in ownership. Digital is fleeting and, with vinyl, the experience is special. Like taking the sports car out for a Sunday drive — it’s not your daily driver, but when you drop the needle and go on an analog journey, the experience is special.
Dan: In the majority of cases, an analog recording provides more depth and presence than the majority of compressed digital recordings — so my vote's for analog!

Manual or Automatic

Manual turntables or Automatic turntables?

Ken: Manual turntables have fewer parts to wear or go out of adjustment — and in the “under $500 price range,” leaving out all those parts allows for a better (quieter) motor to be used. So, I usually recommend manual turntables to my clients. On the other hand, I have seen a lot of customers who will only really use their turntables if they are convenient, so that’s where an automatic comes in. An automatic turntable sets the stylus at the beginning of the record itself, and then shuts off at the end of the record… best for someone with shaky hands, poor eyesight, or who might forget to turn off the turntable when the music stops.
Andrew: Manual. It’s a more personal experience since you have to raise and carefully lower the tonearm on the record. Plus, getting rid of extra motors and circuitry will cut down on potential sources of electrical interference or other noise. Why might someone choose one over the other?  Manual is the “audiophile’s” way. The best tables in the world are usually manual — let them lead by example. 
Ira: Auto or semi-auto might be more convenient for some, but I always go for manual since there are less internal mechanics that reduce vibration and improve sound quality.
Dan: Manual all the way. In addition to being quieter, the materials used in the construction of a manual turntable are usually superior (e.g. MDF instead of plastic). Also, manual turntables provide better performance for the money. 

Belt Drive or Direct Drive

Belt drive or Direct drive?

Andrew: Personally, belt drive. Having the motor isolated away from the platter reduces noise and interference that can travel into the stylus and interfere with the signal. (So this is just another way a turntable is constructed to optimize the quality and performance of your vinyls.) Why might someone choose one over the other? Belts wear out over time and need to be replaced. It’s another thing that can break. Direct drive is easier to set up and easier to maintain, so again, it's a matter of convenience.
Ken: Belt drive for the best sound because it has the lowest noise. Direct drive for anyone doing DJ work because it can be stopped quickly and even pushed into reverse.

Built-in Preamp or Separate Preamp

Built-in preamp or Separate preamp?

KenThe signal from a turntable is only about 1/100th as strong as that of other components like CD players, FM tuners, or tape decks, so it needs to be boosted. That’s why ONLY a turntable can plug into the phono inputs on an amplifier or receiver. Some amps and receivers don’t have a dedicated phono input, so that calls for the use of either a dedicated phono preamp or a turntable with a phono preamp built in. Most turntables with built-in phono preamps have a switch to turn it off if you decide to later upgrade to a new amplifier with a great phono preamp inside.
AndrewDetermining which one is a bit subjective. If you want something that's convenient and compact, go with a turntable that has a built-in preamp. If you want to be able to control every factor in your quality, go with a traditional turntable and buy a separate phono preamp. When you’re driving, do you follow your GPS exactly and trust it, or do you sometimes take a different route and let it recalculate because you know a better path? Same idea here. You can let the manufacturer do it for you, or you can decide which preamp is best for your setup.
TommySeparate. This gives you the flexibility to choose a better, more capable preamp that you can grow with.  A turntable + separate preamp also sounds much better, since you're using a dedicated device with its own power supply.

USB or Non USB

Turntable with or without a USB output?

Ken: A turntable with a USB output can be plugged into a computer to archive precious records into digital form and shared with others… while this sounds fun, the reality is that most people give up 10% of the way through their album collection. It’s a lot of work!
Andrew: It depends entirely on what you’re planning to do. If you have a big music collection that you want to take with you on your phone or iPod, then USB all the way. A turntable with a USB port allows you to record your vinyl in a digital form. If you aren’t planning on digitizing, then your budget is going toward tech you won’t use.
Adam: None. You can get outboard phono preamps that have a USB output if you are really going to spend the time digitizing your collection.  But this is becoming sillier and sillier these days with the library from streaming services. Chances are your album is already digitized on Tidal… in really good quality!

Meet the Vinyl Geeks of WWS

Andrew Parfitt

Andrew Parfitt
Andrew Parfitt

The first vinyl record you ever purchased?

I got my first vinyl at Grimey’s while I was living in Nashville, and it was a brand new, still in original shrink wrap copy of Weezer’s Blue Album. Grimey’s is a nationally recognized vinyl shop. Their famed basement venue, known simply as “The Basement,” is where many great bands including Metallica first got their start.

All-time favorite vinyl records?

  • Sonny Rollins - "Saxophone Colossus" (Dan got me hooked, and I’ve loved Sonny ever since.)
  • Rush - "Moving Pictures" (Has the band’s biggest hit, and was one of the most influential albums in my music taste.)
  • Ramones - "Ramones" (The fathers of punk rock; there’s just something that feels weirdly right about dropping a needle onto this.)

At-home turntable setup?

Currently, none. I’m experimenting at home with Roon and digital hi-res to see how great it can get these days.

Dream turntable setup?

1Xpression Carbon Classic. Sleek, clean, and a heavy hitter in performance.

Ken Zelin

Ken Zelin
Ken Zelin

The first vinyl record you ever purchased?

My first record (that I bought with my own money) was a Sheffield Labs Direct to Disc record. They eliminated the usual tape recorder, which eliminated all tape hiss, and the result was amazing. I bought it at Perdue Radio, in NJ (1972?) and they let me play it on a great turntable, and through a McIntosh amplifier and speakers, and I was blown away.

Your all-time favorite vinyl records?

  • Lab III on Sheffield Labs
  • "Carmen" (the Deutche Gramophone recording)
  • The Doobie Brothers - "Toulous Street"

At-home turntable setup?

I’m using a McIntosh MT5 turntable that has a platter that is literally levitated on air by opposing magnetics for complete isolation from vibration, which I need since my right speaker is close to the turntable.

Dream turntable setup?

My McIntosh turntable is as good as I or almost anyone needs, but someday I intend to upgrade to a very high-end Ortofon Low Output Moving Coil cartridge.

Ira Segall

Ira Segall
Ira Segall

The first vinyl record you ever purchased?

I put my first tone arm down on "Meet The Beatles." First purchase might’ve been either the first Doors record or Iron Butterfly’s "Inna-Godda-Da-Vida."

Your all-time favorite vinyl records?

An almost impossible question to answer...

At-home turntable setup?

I own Marty Bartlestone’s rep-sample of the expensive Mission (British manufacturer) turntable with their best arm and a Monster Cable 500 cartridge going into a B&K two-piece preamplifier.

Dream turntable setup?

The Goldmund Reference with a Goldring cartridge or a Sumiko Lapis Lazuli Cartridge. Truth be known, I’m pretty satisfied with the quality of my current set up which is in the $4,500 neck of the woods.

Adam Domurad

Adam D.
Adam D.

The first vinyl record you ever purchased?

The very first record that I ever purchased was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I remember being little and listening to it at home with my dad and loving it and I just knew that when I got my own turntable someday, I had to have this album.

Your all-time favorite vinyl records?

  • Donald Fagen  “The Nightfly”
  • Glenn Gould “The Goldberg variations”
  • 1812 Overture
  • Guns N Roses “Appetite for Destruction”
  • Chris Stapleton “The Traveler”
  • Oscar Peterson “We Get Requests”
  • Led Zeppelin IV

At-home turntable setup?

JVC QLY5F

Dream turntable setup?

I love the Rega Planar 8 Turntable.

Dan Carulli

Dan C.
Dan C.

What was the first vinyl record you ever purchased?

John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers

What are your all-time favorite vinyl records?

  • Sonny Rollins - "Saxaphone Colossus"
  • Van Morrison - "Astrial Weeks"
  • Muddy Waters - "Folk Singer"
  • Johnny Adams - "The Real Me"

What kind of turntable setup do you have at home?

Project Classic.

What is your dream turntable setup?

A Walker turntable.

Tommy Gillanders

Tommy G.
Tommy G.

What was the first vinyl record you ever purchased?

The record was the single  “Funkdafied” by Da Brat.

What are your all-time favorite vinyl records?

Oh man sooo many.  I really love movie scores so just about any Disney movie and my big hair metal albums from Poison and Motley Crue!

What kind of turntable setup do you have at home?

I have a Music Hall MMF7.1 with a Ortofon 2MBlue cartridge.

What is your dream turntable setup?

McIntosh MT10.

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