In This Series
- 1 How Do Vinyl Records Work?
- 2 Components
- 2.1 The Platter
- 2.2 The Bearing
- 2.3 The Motor
- 2.4 The Tonearm
- 2.5 The Cartridge
- 3 Phono Stages
- 4 Should You Buy an All-In-1 Turntable?
- 5 The Current Market
- 6 How to Setup a Turntable
- 7 How to Install and Align a Turntable Cartridge
- 8 Optimising The Sound
- 9 Purchasing a Used Turntable
- 10 Turntable, Tonearm and Cartridge Specifications
- 10.1 Tonearm Specifications
- 10.2 Turntable Specifications
- 10.3 Cartridge Specifications
- 11 Turntable Drive Systems
- 12 Recommended Tools
- 13 Free Protractors and Strobe Discs
- 14 Conclusions
If you’re on a limited budget or are looking to get more for your money, there are a huge number of turntables and ancillary components on the second hand market from which to choose at almost every price point imaginable. Of course when buying any component used, the usual principle of ‘Caveat Emptor’ (buyer beware) applies, unless you’re buying from a second-hand dealer or from a business seller offering a warranty or complying with the consumer rights act.
That said, purchasing ancillary components such as an amplifier and speakers is usually safe, providing they’re in good physical condition and you can be assured they’re working. Providing a seller takes care when packaging these items or you collect them in person, the chance of an amplifier or speaker system being damaged in transit are minimal. Turntables however are a different beast altogether, and there are several things you should do to ensure not only that you’re getting a good deal but that your new turntable arrives with you in optimal condition.
First off, the physical condition of any item is a great indication of how carefully it was treated during its previous ownership(s). As we’ve already discussed, a turntable is comprised of several delicate mechanics which are easily damaged if treated carelessly. Cracks to the casing, denting and excessive scratching not only make the turntable less aesthetically pleasing but are also a sign that the turntable has been mis-handled. Scratching and cracks to the dust cover are far more common and you shouldn’t immediately dismiss a turntable based on these factors, though they should be taken into consideration depending on the price.
The next thing to consider is whether or not the turntable is supplied with all of its component parts. These may include the platter, mat, counterweight, headshell, power supply, and perhaps even an anti-skate weight or a lateral balance weight. I once purchased a mint condition example of the classic Pioneer PL-12D turntable and gave it a full mechanical restoration, only to discover I was unable to play it due to a couple of missing tonearm weights that had gone unnoticed because I failed to check their presence beforehand.
Is it Mechanically Sound?
Unfortunately the next requirement is harder to ascertain without seeing the item in person. Sadly while the majority of sellers are trustworthy, there are always the odd few who are unhelpful or who are knowingly selling you a faulty product. Nevertheless, attempt to ascertain whether the central spindle turns freely, and whether (if applicable) a belt is present. The latter isn’t a deal-breaker as belts can be readily purchased online, but a present belt is a sign that the turntable has been looked after, especially if it is described as working.
Also, does the turntable run on speed? Does the arm feel solid? If you hold the arm tube where it enters the bearing and apply a very gentle wiggling motion, does the arm rattle within its bearing or is it tight with minimal play? Does the motor and the turntable’s running gear run smoothly and quietly?
If you’re buying a used turntable, it is very likely that the original packaging may have been discarded. If the turntable is to be shipped, great care must be taken to ensure that it does not become damaged in transit. The platter and mat should both be removed, and if the turntable has a sub platter it should be taped securely to the turntable’s plinth. Better to have to clean off a bit of tape residue than have a damaged turntable. Removing the platter is especially important, as failure to do so will usually result in the platter breaking free in transit and sliding around inside the box, smashing the turntable to pieces. Some turntables such as the Technics SL-10 do not feature a removable platter or mat, in which case the platter should be taped securely in place with strips running across it. Some platters may be difficult to remove, in which case place 2 fingers inside the holes designed to enable you to lift them off while pressing down on the central spindle with your thumbs or lightly tapping it with a wooden handled screwdriver.
The arm should be taped or tied securely to its rest. The clip holding the arm is not sufficient to secure it in place while the turntable is in transit. Failure to do so will cause the arm to swing around in transit, damaging the arm bearings, cartridge and stylus.
Next, the counterweight should be removed from the arm, and the anti-skate set to zero. If the arm has a removable headshell, it too should be removed. Failure to remove these items can also cause damage to the arm bearings. If the turntable includes a circular adapter for large centre hole records, it should be removed from the turntable plinth and packed separately.
The turntable should then be wrapped in multiple layers of bubble wrap. If there is no dust cover, a box should be fashioned to sit over the arm assembly so that the arm cannot become bent in transit. The turntable should be packaged in a strong box or 2, with the platter, mat and accessories ideally packaged beneath and nothing sitting on top of the dust cover.
If the original packaging is present, it should be carefully put back in place and should be more than sufficiant to protect the turntable in transit. If the seller is unwilling to work with you to comply with the above guidelines and you’re unable to collect the turntable yourself, it’s up to you to decide whether the price justifies the risk. It is important to note that delivery companies will not award insurance claims for items with poor packaging, proof of which they will always require before paying out.
Checking Your Turntable
When you receive your turntable, there are several things you can do to check it for full functionality. First, verify all of the points above, while checking for any physical transit damage. Next, install the counterweight onto the arm and attach the headshell and cartridge if necessary. Adjust the counterweight so that the arm floats horizontally in the air, and then move the arm towards the centre. The arm should slowly return to its rest. Repeat this test, increasing the anti-skate. As you increase the anti-skate, the speed at which the arm returns to the rest should increase. If the arm sticks at any point, or if the speed of the return does not increase it is possible that the arm bearings, the anti-skate mechanism or both are damaged.
To check that the turntable is running on speed, place a strobe disk on the platter. You can find some free strobe disks in the Resources section below. Viewed under good lighting, the lines on the disk should appear stationary when the turntable is spinning at the correct speed. Some turntables include a built-in strobe which you can use to assess their speed, negating the need for a disk.
The first thing you should do with any used turntable is to immediately replace the stylus or cartridge. There are exceptions to the rule; for example, if the seller has installed a brand new cartridge and can provide proof of its purchase, or if you’ve purchased from a reputable source able to assess the cartridge beforehand. As discussed above, a warn stylus will irreversibly damage your records so if you’re unsure of how much play the stylus has seen, you should replace it or the cartridge according to the recommendations in this guide.
If your turntable has seen little or no maintenance over the years, it will undoubtedly benefit from a drop of oil. Many bearings can be oiled simply by dropping a few drops of turntable bearing oil beneath their central spindle, allowing it to make its way down the spindle shaft into the bearing. That said it is recommended that the same oil as the original be used or that the bearing be cleaned and fresh oil applied. DIY turntable maintenance is a subject to be covered in a future guide.
This article is part of our Guide to Turntables and Vinyl series. Continue reading: Part 10, Turntable, Tonearm and Cartridge Specifications.