Will A Cheap Turntable Damage Your Records? 18


If you’re shopping for a turntable, you will have undoubtedly seen the surplus of budget priced models available from high street retailers and online department stores such as Amazon and eBay. Self-contained with an amplifier and speakers in an aesthetically pleasing enclosure (usually resembling a briefcase), and often priced at below £100, these turntables can seem like a great value proposition to the untrained eye, particularly given the price of even the most basic ‘hi-fi’ offerings. However in my recent Guide to Turntables and Vinyl I dedicated an entire section to these turntables and, as many have before me, offered up a few reasons why they should be avoided at all costs.

Wanting to backup my statements with some conclusive evidence and hoping that I may in fact prove myself wrong, I purchased a GPO Stylo – one of Amazon’s best-selling portable turntables. Available in black or red and priced at £39.99, the Stylo incorporates a 3-speed turntable, stereo amplification and speakers into a compact casing for the price of a couple of new records.

The GPO Stylo

GPO Stylo, Red

Out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the Stylo’s compact dimensions. It is truly tiny – smaller than an LP jacket in fact – and as such has cutouts in the lid to enable a 12” LP to protrude from the side, front and back when the lid is closed.

On the front a pair of metal dials serve as both a volume control and power switch, the former surrounded by a semicircular ring of blue LEDs. The lights are clearly present for aesthetics and offer no useful function, as they don’t light consecutively as the volume is raised, nor do they fully surround the control over its available adjustment range. There’s a 3.5MM headphone jack too, which mutes the speakers as you would expect.

On the back you’ll find an auxiliary input jack, again on a 3.5MM connection. Variable output RCA jacks provide an output to extension speakers or an external amplifier. The mains cable is permanently wired to the unit which was a surprise given the obvious portability of the design.

Beneath the lid, its miniature platter is barely larger than a 7” single. It’s mounted on a fixed central spindle and driven via a belt and a small DC motor mounted beneath. The tonearm, and the bearings on which it rides are made entirely of plastic and there is no counterweight. A ceramic cartridge is mounted to one end covered by a stylus protector, and there’s an oil-damped arm lift lever which raises the arm above the record on a small plastic platform. An extremely flimsy clip secures the arm to its rest, with a cable tie securing the arm during shipping. Two switches cater for switching between 33, 45 and 78RPM speeds and disabling the auto stop function. You also get an adapter for records with large centre holes, with a place to store it when not in use.

GPO Stylo, Black, with record

While the casing of the turntable is a solid thick plastic, you can’t expect anything approaching build quality or attention to detail at this price, and the GPO Stylo is certainly no exception. The lid is not spring loaded and there is no dampening as it is lowered, so should you drop it it will fall quickly and likely cause the turntable to jump. It also flexes and creaks as it moves. The platter is no better. There is no true bearing, instead the platter spins around a metal post with only a thin layer of grease preventing the friction between plastic and metal. The platter spins in an uneven motion, made obvious as a 12” Lp spins upon it, rising and falling as it goes.

Perhaps the worst offender is the tonearm. It’s a truly awful design incorporating plastic vertical and horizontal ‘bearings’ and a flexible plastic arm tube with a flimsy headshell supporting the cartridge. There is a large amount of play in the arm bearing, which can be moved up and down, side-to-side and back and forth. This means that the arm is incapable of holding the cartridge still in the vinyl groove, and it audibly shakes during loud passages in tracks where the groove modulations are highest.

The cartridge is the typical ceramic design and includes a stylus designed to play LPs and 45s with a .7 mil conical tip. The Stylo doesn’t include the correct stylus for playing 78s despite the presence of a 78RPM speed option, and given the flimsiness of the arm’s headshell and the cartridge mount I don’t see it surviving many stylus replacements.

The arm provides no counterweight, and as such both the effective mass of the arm and cartridge are placed on the grooves of your records. Tracking force on our example was measured at over 7 grams using an electronic scale which is much too high. Any respectable turntable tracks no higher than 3.5 grams or so with very few exceptions. THere’s no prevision for anti-skate either, which is designed to counteract the centripetal force pulling the stylus in toward the centre of the record as it tracks the groove. This results in excessive pressure being exerted on the inner-most wall of the groove and uneven wear to the record.

The arm lifter worked surprisingly well however, though it lifted the arm so high above the record that cuing the desired track with any degree of accuracy was nigh on impossible

Overall Internal View

Overall Internal View

Inside, the design is simple and typical of such a turntable. At the rear, a small circuit board holds the amplification and power supply components. It sits next to a power transformer which produced a horrendous hum in operation, not to mention enough heat to noticeably warm the case to the touch. The transformer in my example developed a short circuit shortly after my testing, probably assisted by the lack of an obvious protection fuse aside from that in the plug.

Amplification and Power Supply Circuitry

Amplification and Power Supply Circuitry

The DC motor is a typical design. Speed control is electronic, with the motor spinning the platter via a single pulley and a flat belt surrounding a rim beneath the platter. Trimmers on the underside of the motor allow for speed control providing you have a small tool (usually a plastic screwdriver) to access them.

GPO Motor

On the tonearm side, the auto stop is handled by a small plastic lever, which engages a switch in the rest position, and again at the stop position. It’s simple and crude, but it works though the turntable does have a tendency to stop before the record has finished, depending on the location of the lead out groove.

Arm Mechanism

The two speakers sit at either side behind oval-shaped mesh grills. They produce two watts of output power each and get surprisingly loud, even if the sound is extraordinarily tinny with a complete lack of bass.

Internal Speaker

Will a cheap turntable damage your records?

The primary purpose of obtaining this player was to determine whether or not a cheap, low quality turntable will cause excessive and audible damage to a vinyl record after a minimal amount of plays. This is the point where critics and the pedantic will point out that even the most expensive and meticulously setup turntable will cause a certain amount of damage as its stylus tracks the record, and that is of course true. However, vinyl is a pretty elastic material and a record played on such a turntable can last thousands of plays if not more with few if any audible defects.

To test our turntable, I needed a sacrificial record. One of the recent 180 gram reissues of The Beatles’ ‘Abbey Road’, of which I had a copy with a defective side (side A) was chosen, being the only damaged record in my collection. Side B was undamaged, and as the record had seen only a play or 2 on a high-end setup it was the perfect candidate for our tests as aside from the odd pop and click it sounded perfect.

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I began by taking a reference recording of the LP on my Technics 1210, fitted with an LP Gear CF3600LE cartridge. This cartridge was chosen not only because it is a superb tracker, but also because it is extremely revealing and the budget price of its stylus meant that should any physical damage be caused to the LP which could then damage the stylus, it wouldn’t be too expensive to replace.

I would then play the side on the GPO a total of 50 times, stopping after every 10 plays to make another complete transfer on the Technics. Ultimately I’d end up with 56 transfers which I could then compare. As some purists believe that playing the same portion of a record in quick succession accelerates the damage, the vinyl was allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes between each transfer. All recordings were taken in Logic Pro X using a Behringer UCA-200 USB interface.

The GPO was connected via its line outputs, and the Technics connected via the phono stage of a Marantz PM-44SE which I have found to work particularly well with this cartridge. None of the audio has been normalised or altered in any way besides basic cutting and splicing.

Sadly I cannot share all 56 transfers here via this article. Fair Use permits me to use limited examples of a copyrighted work for the purposes of critique or education, though it doesn’t permit me to share the copyrighted work in full. Not only am I wholeheartedly against music piracy, but I don’t fancy a lawsuit and nor do you wish to listen to side 2 of Abbey Road 56 times in quick succession – believe me you don’t. What I can do however is share my observations and offer short clips to backup my claims.

Note, it is recommended that you listen to these recordings through headphones. Firstly, here are a couple of clips from the original reference recording, played on the Technics.

And here are the same clips taken from the GPO itself.

One of the easiest ways to assess record wear is to assess the surface noise. This is the noise that you can hear in the gaps between songs. It is the sound of the stylus tracing the record and can be influenced by background noise recorded onto the record itself, irregularities in the surface of the vinyl, wear to the record and any dirt and grime that is present on the record surface or in its grooves. Surface noise is not the same as rumble, which is the sum of the noise generated by the mechanical parts of the turntable – however rumble does contribute towards overall surface noise. In the below clip we’re comparing the surface noise at the beginning and end grooves of the side, and the silence between tracks from the Technics transfers from the original reference recording and after 20 and 50 plays on the GPO. Notice how the noise becomes slightly louder on each play.

Reference Recording:

After 20 Plays:

After 50 Plays:

The surface noise becomes more audible when we examine the recordings taken from the GPO itself. This is because the cartridge fitted to the Technics has an elliptical stylus profile, which can access parts of the groove untouched by the larger conical profile of the GPO, and thus reproduces less noise. The below recordings demonstrate the surface noise when played by the GPO, which makes the damage far more evident. The first examples are taken from the first playback:

And here is the surface noise, as reproduced by the GPO, after 50 plays.

As you can hear, the damage in this case manifests itself as a harsh scratching sound. This noise is clearly audible during quiet passages too. Take the below recording for example, which compares the introduction to ‘You Never Give Me Your Money’ after 50 plays to the reference recording, played on the Technics. Notice how the reference recording is almost dead quiet besides a couple of small pops.

The same is evident as the track fades into ‘Sun King’. Listen carefully to the distortion on the bass notes in the second play, which appears to be biased towards the left channel. This is caused not only by excessive tracking pressure, but also the complete lack of anti-skating or bias compensation which causes the stylus to exert uneven pressure on the groove walls, causing greater damage to the the inner-most wall of the groove.

Again, the noise is more evident if we play the same clips on the GPO after 50 plays.

Damage to records whereby heavily modulated grooves develop excessive distortion is a particular trait of these turntables. I was therefore surprised at how little effect the GPO had on our record in this area. It is obvious listening to the transfers that the GPO has gradually caused clearly audible damage to the record as shown in the clips above. However the audible damage to the heavily modulated grooves wasn’t quite as much as I had expected.

Not entirely satisfied with my results, I continued to play the record, though stopped making transfers in order to speed up the process. So far the GPO had played the record side 50 times, the equivalent of playing 25 records. I continued until on play 57 the cartridge failed. The arm began to violently shake and rattle and the sound produced was a distorted mess. This it turned out was the final straw for our record, which was audibly damaged as you can hear in the below clip.

The end result was the GPO coming to a grinding holt following failure of the power transformer. Prior to this, the motor itself began to fail under the strain of turning the 180 gram 12” LP which was sitting upon a platter with an uneven bearing. Nevertheless, its work was done. Our record is irreparably damaged after just 57 plays of a single side, the equivalent of playing just over 28 vinyl LPs. There is visual damage to the vinyl too…

Single Deep Scratch
Multiple Scratches

Sadly I do not have a microscope, so am unable to photograph the grooves in detail. I will keep the record and hope to update this article in due course with microscopic photos.

Let’s Talk Prices

Based on current Amazon prices and rounded to the nearest whole figure, the GPO Stylo comes in at £35. It is one of the cheaper models on the market, with the popular Crosley models coming in at anywhere between £50 – £100 though with similar features, components and build quality. The record we used currently retails for £16, with the average price of a new record being £20. Those who purchase such turntables with the intention of building a collection will likely start with new releases or reissues. While most new record prices average out at about £20, many limited edition albums and box sets cost significantly more.

When we look at the cost of a budget turntable, it’s important to consider the cost relative to the collection of records it will be used to play. If you’re starting out and your collection consists of 5 new releases, you’ll have spent an average of £100 on the records. That’s nearly 3 times the cost of the GPO turntable, and almost twice the price of a Crosley. As your collection grows, so does that margin.

A typical hi-fi turntable may seem expensive to the first-time buyer. Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60 currently retails on Amazon for £99.99, with the similar Pioneer PL990 currently selling for £130. Pro-Ject’s Elemental retails for £175, with their Primary model coming in at £189. Rega’s 2016 Planar 1 retails for £248 and so on and so forth.

Of course these turntables are far from portable, and will require ancillary components (a pair of powered speakers at the very least) to function. Speakers are far from expensive; a £30 pair of computer speakers will be more than enough to get you going., It’s possible to purchase a respectable vinyl playback system that won’t ruin your records for around £200, or the average price of just 10 new records.

Vinyl is not a portable medium. The discs are large and fragile, as are the components required to play them. They are also a largely mechanical medium, requiring components built to precise tolerances to play them correctly and without damage. And vinyl is not a cheap hobby. With the relatively high average cost of new records, and the cost of used vinyl on the rise, it makes sense to own a turntable that will protect your investment, rather than destroying it.

In this article my intention was to provide some definitive proof to show beyond reasonable doubt that a cheap turntable will cause excessive damage to the records it plays. Not only do the clips above demonstrate my point, but I can’t help but be surprised at just how durable the vinyl disc is. While it cannot be argued that our test record is not severely damaged, I thought that the level of damage would be greater. However any damage especially caused in such a short space of time is unacceptable when it is clearly audible. In future articles we will explore a range of vinyl-based systems designed to offer vinyl playback on a budget without ruining your records.

Update

Since this article was published, a few people have expressed concerns that there is a lack of a control variable in the experiment. While I do feel the experiment was fair, I do agree that a control in the form of the same record played an identical number of times on a better turntable would have offered a more conclusive result. This is something I am working to achieve, and will produce as soon as I am able to obtain a suitable turntable. In the meantime, This Video offers a similar controlled experiment. It shows two identical 7″ singles being played back 100 times, 1 on a similar turntable to the GPO above and one on a much better machine fitted with the popular Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Sound demos are provided and the waveforms compared, and the results speak for themselves.


About Ashley

I founded Audio Appraisal a few years ago and continue to regularly update it with fresh content. An avid vinyl collector and coffee addict, I can often be found at a workbench tinkering with a faulty electronic device, tweaking a turntable to extract the last bit of detail from those tiny grooves in the plastic stuff, or relaxing in front of the Tannoys with a good album. A musician, occasional producer and sound engineer, other hobbies include software programming, web development, long walks and occasional DIY. Follow @ashleycox2


Share Your Thoughts

18 thoughts on “Will A Cheap Turntable Damage Your Records?

  • lee

    It’s highly possible to ruin records by bad storage & getting them dirty without them going near a turntable warping is one, the crackles can be because of dirty and can often be removed when cleaned by a record cleaning machine moth, nitty gritty & project to name a few.

    These turntables are really a novelty even at the height of record popularity this turntable would stack up badly to any 1960’s or 70’s competition by late 80’s the manufactures were pushing CD’s and the turntable quality dropped. Given that some streaming sites don’t even stream in CD quality this might sound better that’ not really a fair comparison Flac or other lossless files via proper headphones will blow this turntable away.

    Perhaps to a £100 streaming mini system or similar this sounds Ok? but given the cost of records as a total investment this turntable is a poor purchase as it’s incapable of reproducing sound well. If your serious about getting into records they are not cheap and you need to accept £500 as a start depending on budget to gain anywhere near their real sound.

    2nd hand is possible but these a lot of interest and certain models and these cannot be found as cheap as they once could not to mention they may need servicing

    • Ashley Post author

      yes, mishandling and poor record care can cause damage, arguably more damage than any turntable to a collection. I personally think a cleaning machine is an essential for anyone with a growing collection, and wouldn’t be without mine. Yes, these turntables are a novelty; however, the problem is that to many they are the only option that exists because they are sold through almost every outlet that retails electronics. ‘Hi-fi’ brands in general don’t market to a wide audience; in fact, their marketing reach is extremely limited and really only extends to those who are already ‘in the know’. They don’t compare to even the cheapest models from the late 60s through to the 80s, but as you rightly say while plenty such options exist they’ll likely need servicing. While it’s possible for us to provide articles which cover general turntable servicing, we can’t possibly cover every turntable ever made in depth. Turntable quality did drop in the late 80s, though there are some very respectable models from that era and actually a few of the big Japanese firms (Sony, Pioneer and Technics mainly) were still pushing the boundaries of vinyl well into the mid 80s and even after.

      Talking of streaming – some sites don’t stream CD quality, but the reality is that it’s difficult to tell the difference with the compression algorithms that they do use. Regardless any streamed track will sound better than the turntable shown here. You don’t need any expensive hardware to prove that, a basic smartphone and a set of cheap headphones will do. Almost any non-vinyl system from about £30 onwards would walk all over it.
      Ultimately this has nothing to do with sound. You get what you pay for. It’s illogical to believe that you can spend less on a turntable than the cost of some single records and expect it to sound good. This is about damage, and the physical, premature and unnecessary damage caused to somebody’s collection by a device that should either be manufactured in a way that causes an acceptable amount of wear, or removed from the market.

      • lee

        I’ve had my Hi Fi connected to my PC for over 15 years currently running a creative X-FI and I can clearly here the difference between sites and formats but I have nice vintage system and Tannoy SGM too.

  • vwestlife

    These turntables use a spring to set the tracking force rather than a counterweight. Therefore you need to measure the tracking force at the same height as the playing surface of a record, or else you will get an inaccurately high reading due to the increased height of the tonearm (to fit a scale on top of the platter) also increasing the tracking force. Measured correctly, the tracking force will most likely be within spec for the ceramic cartridge these record players use (5 grams +/- 1 gram).

    Also, these inexpensive record players usually come with a sapphire stylus, which will wear out much more quickly than a diamond stylus. Considering that a diamond stylus for these can be purchased for as little as 99 cents on eBay, it is a highly recommended immediate upgrade for anyone who has one of these record players. I would like to see this experiment repeated with a diamond stylus to see how much, if at all, it would cause any audible wear.

    And of course in order to be a valid test it needs a control: a comparison to another example of the same album being played on an “audiophile-approved” turntable to see how it would fare in comparison. Because as-is, the only thing you’re comparing it to is not playing the record at all, which makes no sense to anyone who actually wants to listen to their records!

    • Ashley Post author

      Many of these turntables have no such spring. That is true for the AT-LP60 and a small minority of portable units, but it isn’t the case here nor with any of the other similar ‘tables I’ve seen. Regardless, the tracking force was measured at record height. It’s not simply the tracking force that is an issue, it’s also lack of bias compensation (as evidenced by increased wear on the left channel) and the loose arm, meaning that the stylus cannot hope to track the record correctly. The stylus on this turntable was a diamond stylus. The control is a valid point and is something I’m looking into with a view to finding a suitable turntable.

      • vwestlife

        Normally the ones with a metal tonearm use a spring while the ones with a plastic tonearm do not, because in that case the entire weight of the tonearm and cartridge is about 5 grams, which matches the ceramic cartridge’s design spec for tracking force (5 grams +/- 1 gram).

        And I’m sure you’ve heard of the claim that the stylus on a turntable gets so hot when playing that it causes the vinyl to partially melt, and some people say you should wait 24 hours for the vinyl to re-harden before playing it again. I don’t think anyone has actually been able to prove this, but nonetheless, repeated playback of the same record over and over again in a row may cause more wear than playing it an equal number of times over a period of several months or years. That’s another reason why having a control in this kind of test is important.

  • Kevin

    The problem with this is that there is no control. We all know that records naturally degrade after extensive plays on any set up – that’s just their nature. So you go on about how a cheap player will ruin a record without showing what a good set up would do with the same amount of spinning time.

    • Ashley Post author

      Thanks for your comment Kevin. You’re absolutely right, and this is something I’m working on. I’ve been trying to get a sample of one of the AT turntables to repeat the test on a good entry level option. I also plan to pick up a fresh copy of the record and repeat the same test on my own high end setup for comparison. I’d like to test an entry level option first however, as some may feel that using a setup costing thousands as a control would be unfair.

  • Mike

    I would like to see the same test done on an Audio-Technica LP60. They are currently very popular, and also have a plastic tonearm, no counterweight adjustment, and no anti-skate. I cannot image they perform much better than this turntable.

    • Ashley Post author

      The AT-LP60 uses an AT3600 cartridge tracking at 3 grams or so. While it’s probably not the best of the budget offerings, and was mainly used here to illustrate the true cost of what can be considered a reasonable starter deck, it is likely to do far less damage to the record than the turntable we used here. Nevertheless, I will do my best to obtain an AT-LP60 and repeat the experiment.