(Disclosure: We may earn a commission for purchases made through links in this post. Such links are marked *.).
Whether you call it a phonograph, record player, or gramophone, these fascinating and old-fashioned instruments make the most beautiful music for us to hear.
They are not musical instruments in the sense of being played upon to produce new sounds in the hands of a human. They are tools of service to effectively reproduce and amplify the sound information that has been engraved on phonograph records.
In order to understand how record players work, you will want to learn the parts.
It’s fun to learn about the parts of a phonograph. Besides fun, it’s useful because if you think you might want to buy one, you ought to know what it is you are getting.
Perhaps you were at a friend’s house and grandpa brought out an old treasured vintage machine. Or you were walking down the city street, minding your own business, and came upon a used vinyl shop; you’d heard about the resurgence of this wonderful sound of music and went in to hear it for yourself.
Anyway, now you know what you listen to on what used to be called a gramophone, is superior to more modern CDs or even digital downloads, and you want to be able to run these machines yourself.
Record player parts
There are lots of parts that you need to know. Here are the major ones:
We tend to view the turntable as the “heart” of the player. Certainly, it is what we see and interact with the most. It’s what we play the records on!
It’s important for this piece of equipment to rotate smoothly. Aluminum construction helps that. This makes it spin quietly. But it adds to the cost of the piece.
In contrast, if it’s made of steel, the cost should be reduced. This is at the expense of smoothness. There may be more vibration and irregularity in the turning speed.
What makes the turntable rotate? There is a motor. Connecting the motor to the plate is a belt (“belt-drive”). Its effect is to reduce vibration and noise, also. This kind is the most popular. But some systems, instead, are “direct-drive”, which is without a belt. DJs and some other experts like the latter kind better because they are quicker.
Note: In modern lingo, “turntable” has become almost a synonym for “record player”. We are not sure why, but just be aware of that.
Tone arm, cartridge, and stylus
The stylus (also called “needle”) is so important. Unfortunately, it tends to be waxed over when talking about components. We will not ignore it!
It rides in the grooves of the phonograph disc. The movement consists of vibrations so we get sound! In the best circumstances, it is made out of diamond. It will need to be replaced after 1000 hours or so. They do not last forever …
Some are made out of sapphires instead. The latter cuts down on expenses, but are shorter-lived.
The desired shape of the needle itself is always a subject of interest when arguing about what are the best features in a setup. It may be round or oval. The former is felt to be more sensitive, resulting in clearer sound. The latter is felt to transmit truer audio sound (also called fidelity).
The cartridge is a small, usually rectangular, doohickey that carries and connects to the stylus. It rides at the end of the tonearm. It’s also called a “magnetic cartridge” or “phono cartridge”.
A metal coil inside lies exposed to a magnetic field. Vibratory information from the stylus (in the vinyl grooves) is transmitted through as an electrical signal. The signal passes through wires from the cartridge through the tonearm.
There are different types technically, though to start you only need to go with what the manufacturer has placed in your beginning configuration.
Later, if you want to embrace more sophisticated choices, you can learn the details. Most common is the “moving magnet” (MM) type. “Moving coil” (MC) is less common: it doesn’t lend itself to mass production. It may be superior, but that is not universal agreement on that.
Much neglected, the tonearm is quite essential to successful functioning! From the needle in the cartridge, it connects through to a preamplifier. But it is not just a pretty wand.
See what it has to do:
- skate control
- cue lever
Included in its duties are counterbalancing the cartridge so that the stylus rests with just the right weight in the record’s grooves. The counterweight does this.
The skate control (usually visible to the exterior as a knob) centers the needle as it goes along the grooves.
Another part, present on many sets, is the cue lever. It lifts the arm and puts it down for you so you can have it start exactly where on the disc you want.
You’ll find the tonearm rest on the side where it “parks” when not playing.
You may not have heard of this before. The electrical signals from the stylus through the tonearm are pretty low. They need to be jacked up (in the preamplification stage) in order to go to the amplifier.
Here is where you may find that there are differences of opinion and suggestions. Some modern record players have a preamp built into the body. You will see its USB output connector. More sophisticated systems may have this as an external component instead.
If the preamplifier is in the turntable, you connect it to an amplifier via the auxiliary (“aux“) input on the amp.
Alternatively, if you see an input on the amplifier that is marked “phono“, that means there is a preamplifier in there and you can plug in a turntable that lacks that component.
To purchase this type, you will often see it advertised as “XYZ Receiver with Phono”.
Instead, you can purchase a phono preamp separately and interface it between the other 2 pieces.
3 alternative locations for the preamplifier
- Preamp is in the player body/turntable.
- Preamp is separate component, between the turntable and the receiver.
- Preamp is in the receiver/amplifier.
Also (potentially tricky point) what you have as a preamplifier needs to be matched with the cartridge you are using. This is why it’s not a good idea to mix or cross over vintage components (a cartridge, for example) with modern (the preamp, for example), unless you know all about it.
This sort of mismatch, as an example, can be corrected or avoided by keeping the vintage chassis, but putting in a new cartridge when you are connecting it to an updated phono preamp.
Amplifier and receiver
Turntable amplifier and record player receiver are two terms that are frequently confused to mean the same thing. There is a difference.
An amplifier does just that and only that: it “amplifies” or increases the power of a signal. In the case of the phonograph, it is a sound.
A receiver “receives” a signal. In practice, it includes an amplifier and much more. It has an interface that connects and manages the relationships between components’ “inputs” and “outputs”.
Digital connections, such as with CD players, are usual and USB ports for a flash or portable hard drive where you have stored your computer files. Also, Ethernet for Internet connections and downloading music (streaming) have been available for a few years.
You can also engage the connectors in storing your record music onto digital devices. This would seem to be against our initial concept that analog phonograph sound is superior to digital! However, it is practical for long-term or back up storage in case of a precious record breaking or losing quality from poor playing techniques.
Especially if you have gotten into recording or making vinyl yourself. At least you’ve got some sort of back up “just in case”. Heck, the truth is some of us just like to monkey around with all this equipment and just have fun with it all! Golly, what can it do, what can we do with it!
Now you will be able to find a system that has WiFi for a wireless option to online streaming of sound files. It will also be good for storing your phono files from the turntable, as described above. You can use Bluetooth in a similar way, but for the short-range wireless meet-up between your phono setup and your cell phone or tablet.
Discussing this form of non-wired transmission leads to discovering turntable Bluetooth. In this arrangement, the connectivity begins at the turntable. From there it can bypass a wired receiver connection and go right to Bluetooth capable speakers via its short-range radio waves.
Home theater and surround sound versus a stereo system
For the purposes of system audio, such as we are discussing, the part we are talking about will most likely be a stereo receiver. It contains two amplifiers (left and right channels) for stereophonic sound (since we rarely do only monophonic sound anymore). Then you will connect them therefore to two speakers.
Instead, or in addition, you can essentially enlarge your sound capability to include video to achieve a home entertainment center. You will need an AV receiver. The sky is the limit if you want to develop further along these lines into a home theater setting.
Life can get very interesting in the presence of multiple speakers and surround sound equipment. This is all more and a bit different than what we have been discussing so far. We’ll have to have another post, at some point, to get into all that is involved.
When you buy a complete system all at once (“all-in-one”), you are safe. It’s easier if you obtain a record player with speakers. They will be matched to all the elements that precede them. Instead, if you purchase the turntable and/or receiver alone, you have to know some things to be sure you get the right output to match.
Important things to know about the best speakers for vinyl
There are several ways you can go about this. Your choices include:
- Complete system (turntable, receiver, speakers): all-in-one or separate matching components purchased as a set.
- Turntable with the receiver: purchased together as a set or purchased separately and matched to function well as a pair. You then find speakers to go with.
- Complete system: after purchase and use, you determine you want better speakers and add them on separately.
We’ll have posts about complete systems to follow.
For now, it is good enough to be advised of the major differences and alternatives between ones you might buy to add-on to preceding elements. The more important categories are these 2:
- passive or powered
- wired or wireless
Passive or powered speakers
Powered speakers have amplifiers built in. (They are also called active speakers.)
The decision whether to get passive versus powered speakers may be forced by the components you already have, as described above: if you already have a receiver, you wouldn’t connect it to powered speakers since both include the amplification stage.
Wired or wireless
If you are just starting out, we suggest going with old style wired. They are more dependable and you can be sure you have high-quality sound. They are also likely to cost less.
Wireless, the new kid on the block, is dreamy because of the convenience factor. No inconvenient and untidy wires to stumble on and have to figure out how to put together and where to locate.
It also lends itself when you want to connect to computer systems and devices. There is a lot of interest in using phonographs in portable settings. Here wireless capability can help a lot to create convenient outputs that tie into your cell phone or tablet.
A con is that wireless is prone to interference from other electromagnetic gadgets in the area.
WiFi or bluetooth for wireless?
Bluetooth is really pretty limited. We can see you going for it in particular or temporary mobile settings, such as when you want your music out at a patio barbecue.
You can connect to only 1 speaker, and have it within about 30 feet from the player (which, of course, is pretty doable) and you can’t have significant physical obstacles in the intervening space.
Mostly, Bluetooth is good for other uses in an audio system, such as moving the sound files to your cell phone. Which is something a lot of people want to do!
WiFi, as we described a bit (above), does have practical uses. Since its quality continues to improve over time, we expect demand for it to continue to get bigger. It allows for an interval distance of over 100 feet and supports multiple speakers.
How to choose a system
There are several ways to go about starting your vinyl involvement! As alluded to, above:
- single piece “all in one”
- matched set of analog components
- a combination setup with digital audio components
- audiovisual set (home theater)
You can buy the pieces of a complete phonograph system as a single piece, often in a case or chassis.
Doing this typically gets you a basic setup. This is something to get involved with when you are just getting started. You don’t know how interested you are in this new venture.
Beside your level of engagement, money may be an issue. So invest only in a simple system that a pro has put together.
Instead, you can get a system that consists of the various individual pieces. You can get such a setup also “done for you” so they are balanced and work together: a record player with speakers.
There are numerous components available and as many ways to get everything working together in a well-matched way. The sky is the limit: you can get a quite basic system or anything up to an extremely sophisticated one.
A less common consideration when you are just starting your interest is to combine your analog system with modern digital audio elements. This can get complex. But it may be dear to your heart, to have a total approach that also includes computerized audio and online files.
Some want to include CD playing. As CDs have become less popular, we see this less as something folks want to do. Though it is possible you have a, now aging, stereo system with CD player and actually want to add vinyl playing to that.
Another way you might be going about this is that you want to integrate your new record player with a home theater, surround sound, and TV integration. That’s a whole ‘nother subject, or two!
How to use a record player
You can buy it, you can know the parts, but unless you also have the ability to get it to work, it’s just a pretty box.
Instructions can get very detailed. But let’s start with just a simple approach.
How To Use A Record Player
We’ve included this fun and a bit retro video to demonstrate the basic steps in how to start the phonograph and play a 45 or 33 1/3 record on it. We like that it shows you how to position the tonearm and let it lower itself onto the tracks – oops. You can get instructed even though there is a little human inaccuracy along the way!
Vintage issues: The classic machine
Most of this post we have been talking about modern and modern-looking devices. Instead, maybe you want to get a used setup, the best vintage turntable, or a really old-fashioned gramophone record player. With the big horn!
You can acquire models that are designed to look just like the originals from yesteryear. These should be and usually are called “vintage style” or “retro” components.
Sometimes they are (a little bit erroneously) simply called “vintage”. So you have to watch out for that. Find out a bit more about the item that interests you to determine whether it is really a new replica or an old original.
Replicas can closely echo designs from last early to midcentury and forward. We think this kind of buying is very practical and also enjoyable. It’s likely to be successful.
You can get a well-made product with a handsome appearance. Some, as you might expect, can just be cheap “ripoffs”. We’ll have other posts that help you assess these categories of purchases.
Of course, the word (vintage) should be reserved for an actual old piece that was made back when not first fashioned today. If from the previous eras is what you want, you will most likely have to look through specialty shops or second-hand stores or relevant advertisements.
Pieces in excellent shape can be pricey. In the case of second hand, you can be dealing with something that has not held up over the years, and might not be playable. You may need to develop the expertise and attentiveness yourself so that you can adequately evaluate your options. Or consult experts.
You can have a good time just garage jumping. Discovering all sorts of used components and pieces of vintage vinyl, you can bring home just about anything and give it a go. (By the way, having done that, do be careful of playing a new or beloved vinyl record on a questionable machine or with a used stylus.) You may enjoy refurbishing an old record player cabinet.
Purchasing top record players
In our current post, we’ve been all about how vinyl phonographs work and introducing how to decide upon and put together a system. We haven’t been writing about the specific equipment you might like to obtain.
All that is the subject of other articles on our site. We’ll have record player reviews and discuss top rated record players.
Caring for your phonograph and cleaning it
Luckily this is not too involved a subject. Consider equipment that comes with a turntable cover. Dust it off! Fairly frequently.
If it is part of a piece of furniture, you will need to know how to care for that. For example, you may need some wood cleaner and polish.
One component you want to be sure to pay attention to is the stylus. We like to have a little stylus brush to get any dust off frequently.
There is more involved in caring for the records themselves. See our post on how to.
Commonly needed replacements and repairs
It’s not likely that you will never have to face one of these. Chances are that at some point you will need to learn how to fix a record player and repair something. Here are a discussion and some beginning references so you’ll feel confident you can handle what is needed when the time comes.
How to change a cartridge and/or stylus
Now, this is something that you are likely to encounter at some point. A stylus, even diamond, does wear even under optimum circumstances. This is one part replacement you don’t want to ignore since a damaged or very dirty needle can actually cause injury to your vinyl record!
With average usage, you could need a new one every couple of years.
How do you know when it is time for a new stylus? Most commonly, that will occur to you because you’ve noted the noisiness increasing while playing. The needle may start skipping. (For that reason, be sure you check your system with a newish, clean record when the question arises.)
You may need to replace the stylus only or also the cartridge. You have to remove them out of the bottom of the headpiece (also called “headshell”) that is at the end of the tonearm. Follow these clear written instructions.
Or watch an introductory video explanation:
How To Replace The Cartridge/Stylus/Needle On Your New Entry-Level Turntable
First, however, before the purchase of the next piece, be sure to read your turntable instruction manual. This will give you the specifications. You need to get compatible pieces that will be in balance with each other.
Should you have bought or been given a vintage turntable, some caution that you should always get a new cartridge and stylus at the time. The ancient ones are almost guaranteed to be trouble after such a gap in time and usage.
Note: Obviously, it is the stylus that will usually wear out first, so only that may need to be purchased anew.
Depending on your model, there are some players in which the cartridge and needle cannot be separated and have to be purchased as a unit. This situation is definitely found in lower end (less expensive) phonograph players and goes with the territory.
If you find that the model does not allow for replacement of the cartridge, that’s almost unheard of. If so, you shouldn’t have bought it in the first place!
How to replace a phonograph player belt
As you recall, most turntables will have a belt that goes between the turntable and the motor. Due to wear it can slip. Especially if you’ve got a secondhand or old family device. You are in luck at this point, since this is one of the easiest jobs to do. Here is a nice introduction to how to test your system, decide if a new belt is needed, and then replacing it.
Hey! Aren’t records important?
Note: In this article, we have been considering, quite importantly, the equipment you need to play your records and achieve great sound. We haven’t been alluding much to the platters themselves.
For how records produce that beautiful sound, check out our post on vinyl records.
P.S. Don’t forget the artist! You can have the best machinery, but you also must have the greatest performers to spin their magic. Please see our coming recommendations for some joyous collections of recorded music.
Before you go
You may enjoy our article on early gramophones and how phonographs were invented more than a century ago.