What is the Best Turntable?

With hundreds of turntables to choose from, why is it estimated that only 3% are star performers

How do you find the best turntable with such colossal choice? If you visit a large international Hi-Fi show you will be struck by the vast array of different turntables. Many of which, you will never see in a national Hi-Fi magazine. I counted over of 400 different models at the Munich show alone. As a rough estimate there must be upwards of 1500 different turntable models on the market. This conservative number is increasing weekly.

Even if you see a “turntable of the year award” in the latest magazine, it usually only applies to turntables (or new versions) launched that year. There can be a host of far better performers not considered for the award concerned.

The best turntable may look outwardly similar but sound radically different to others

At first glance, turntables appear very similar to one another. They are surely simple devices to spin a record at a fixed speed? Since the first appearance in 1877, little has fundamentally changed. Admittedly old gramophones were cranked by hand and are now driven by electric motors. But still, essentially all you have is a rotating platter on which you place your records. So where’s the magic?

I selected my first Hi-Fi system over 35 years ago. Being new to Hi Fi, my choice of turntable was made with no knowledge of the massive performance differences which exist between different models. It was only later on that I studied the Hi-Fi press, and found that in those days they stated long and hard the priority of a good turntable in System heirarchy. Hi Fi heirarchy asseses the significance of each item of equipment in the Hi Fi chain and lists them in sequential order of importance. I found it difficult to believe that an expensive turntable could be worth what sounded like a high investment. Only when by chance I eavesdropped on a shop demonstration was I instantly convinced.

This compared two decks which looked similar but the sonic difference between them was massive. Listening to the better one, the cohesion, dynamics and ability to follow the music was simply jaw-dropping. I left the shop, wondering how such colossal differences could possibly exist.

Appreciating what the best turntable does differently

The Challenges of Vinyl replay

Appreciating the awesome challenges presented in vinyl replay is the first step to avoid rushing into a decision. Most analogue reviewers consider their turntable to be THE single most important component in their entire system. To achieve great results from any system, the signal at the beginning of the chain must be of the highest quality or you simply experience “rubbish in, rubbish out”.

Firstly, the reason turntables have such an enormous effect on sound quality, is that they generate a super low level signal. This is then instantly magnified beyond imagination. Much more than a specimen magnified by an extremely powerful microscope. As your cartridge tracks the record grooves, minuscule mechanical movements of the stylus convert into electrical signals. These are then amplified a colossal 8000 times before they reach your speakers. This is just the magnification, but the resolving power is even more impressive.

The incredible resolving power of the best turntables.

If we appreciate the astonishing resolving power of the best turntables we will understand their importance. In the magnification of images the quality of magnification depends on resolution. The same is true for amplifying sound from a signal. The resultant quality is entirely dependent on the resolution capability of your signal meaurement. The most powerful conventional optical microscope resolves images at no more than 100 times magnification. Although they can magnify higher than this, the image just gets bigger but with no increase in quality (resolution). It never becomes more defined due to the wavelength of light which imposes limits. Electron microscopes on the other hand to reach down to levels of 500,000 X magnification with resolution.

Although the magnification of a cartridge signal is 8000 X, the resolution is much much greater. This is so high you could ask the question whether the ear is capable of differentiating such levels. An article written by H.E.A.R organisation states ” The ear drum moves only a thousand millionths of a centimeter (less than the diameter of a hydrogen atom) in response to the minimal sound you can hear at 1,000 Hz. It’s sensitivity is greater than any microphone. If it were any more sensitive, we would hear the constant noise of air molecules hitting our ear drums.”

The influence of Vibration

Once these factors are properly appreciated, it’s not difficult to grasp that the slightest vibrational artifact will massively affect the accuracy of the original signal. The turntable is so much more than simply a device to rotate records – it’s actually a super sensitive measuring platform.

Some may question how analogue delivers more information to the ear than digital sources? After all most modern records are produced from digital recordings. This is a good question and one we discuss in an article “Analogue vs Digital” at the bottom of the page.

The Path to a pure signal, free of unwanted vibration

The resolution of electron microscopes can be destroyed by the slightest vibration in their environment. For this reason, incredible measures are taken to ensure total mechanical isolation. Scientists resort to advanced techniques such as air flotation platforms and other sophisticated devices. The expense is astronomic.

The challenge of obtaining high resolution from a turntable is arguably more complex than that of an electron microscope. The behaviours are intensely intricate and conflicting. We would suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise has no conception of what’s going on. Some years ago, Origin Live was approached by microscope companies who were interested in our award winning turntable isolation platforms. The ensuing conversations highlighted some of the additional complexity that turntables experience over powerful microscopes. Namely, that the primary vibration problems are generated internally. It’s not just a matter of stopping vibration getting into the deck. But how do you absorb with the least amount of flexural movement and resonance?

best turntable what makes one

Internally generated vibration emanates from:
  • The motor drive system – electrical effects, motor vibration, pulley eccentricity, belt resonance and slip
  • The platter bearing
  • Resonant feedback created by the cartridge vibration
  • Airborne acoustic energy created by the speakers
  • Resonance initiated by ground-borne vibration from traffic, underground pumps etc

The intuitive answers to these problems usually lead to disaster. For example, the pursuit of low flexure might lead one to imagine that a thick, solid granite platter would give fantastic results. The problem with this idea is that the vibration from the record cannot escape through solid granite. So instead it simply bounces back into the record, causing destructive resonance in the vinyl.

Matters are further complicated by the need to absorb all frequencies evenly. If one frequency is absorbed quickly and another slowly, there will be  timing issues which affect musicality.

The critical demand for excellent energy absorption and low flexure would seem contradictory and insoluble for many. It is this puzzle which makes turntable design such a fascinating and contradictory subject of debate. However, over many years Origin Live have found little known methods to resolve such paradoxes.

Conclusion – Control of Micro-vibration is what massively differentiates the best turntables from the rest

Every component of a turntable influences micro-vibration in conflicting and complex ways. Origin Live’s experience in upgrading over 30 brands of turntable has resulted in hearing what different design approaches sound like. This puts us in a better position than most, to understand by comparison, the question – what makes a best turntable? Certain traits always result in a certain sound which remains embedded in the musical results, whatever the system it’s played on.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of different design aspects is a giant leap towards creating an ultimate design. We look at design in more depth later on, but for now we’ve seen that the best turntable will handle micro-vibration better than others. This must include both wanted vibration from the stylus and unwanted vibration  from resonance and reflection.