Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

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Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

Let’s get into turntable basics. Have you ever gone online and searched for a turntable review? If you have you’ve probably come across some reviews that are so technical you have no idea what you’ve just read. I know that can be rather frustrating if you are a new collector and have no experience using turntables or stereo equipment. Let’s see if we can remedy that.

Stereos, amps and speakers were quite common a few decades ago but so many new collectors have grown up in the digital age of Ipods and streaming music the concept of playing a big black round disk on a machine, with amplifiers and speakers can be daunting and totally foreign to them.

I want to gear this blog to the more casual or new collector as opposed to the audiophile so I’ll try to keep this as non technical as I can. Hopefully with this basic information you will be able to make a more informed decision when you decide to order your new equipment.  So keeping in mind this information is for you, the new collector, and not the audiophile let’s begin. First, if you have not read my post on things to consider when buying a turntable go here and read it first. (This post contains an affiliate link.  Click here for full disclaimer)




The basics first

Before we begin to look for a turntable to buy we should have a basic understanding of the components of a turntable so let’s go. Keep in mind that with a turntable, the amount of money spent will have an impact on the product you are getting. In other words, you are getting what you pay for. The more you spend the better quality and precision these individual components will be.  We’ll go from the bottom up starting with the foundation.


The Base

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

The Base or Plinth (Click To Enlarge)

Like anything, the foundation is critical. The base supports the rest of the turntable components. It should have feet attached similar to those seen in the photo on left. This ensures stability. Without the feet on the base your turntable will wobble about if placed on an uneven surface and any vibration will result in the stylus skipping and jumping over the record surface. Notice the feet are adjustable so you an level the turntable. Adjustable feet like those pictured may not be available on the more lower priced turntables, which is not a big issue if you have a fairly flat surface to place it on.





The Platter

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

The Platter (Click To Enlarge)

This is what the record rest on and the heavier it is the better to help reduce vibration. There will also be a mat that provides grip for the record. The platter is turned by a motor, either direct drive or via a rubber belt. There are many opinions on which is better, belt or direct. The only type I have ever used is belt and I have never had any problems with a belt. Some prefer direct drive but ultimately this is your decision and is a matter of preference. The main argument for direct drive is better speed, precision and less vibration and the argument for belt drive is less noise. If you want to know more about this option just ask me in the comment section.






The Tonearm

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

The Tonearm (Click To Enlarge)

This is the part that hangs out over the record and lets the needle contact the record as it spins. It supports the cartridge and stylus(needle). Not only does it allow the needle to contact the record, but it also must track consistently as it travels over the wide circumference of the outer part of the record but also as the circumference gets smaller as the record progress toward the center. If this design is not decent quality, then the music could sound a little slow on the outer grooves then and gradually sound faster as the needle progresses through the record to the center.

Towards the back of the tonearm is the pivot of the tonearm which contains the bearing.  In order to track properly the bearing must hold the tonearm steady as well as provide low friction. When a needle tracks through a record grove the right side of the needle produces the left audio of a stereo track and the left side of the needle produces the right audio channel.

So, you can see where a tonearm with a loose bearing will wobble about the track and will cause the needle to mis-track. This will not only produce poor sound quality but will also damage both stylus and your vinyl record. Click here to see a PDF file that illustrates what that wobble can do.

That is one of the main issues you will find with subpar “record players” that you find is places like Target etc. There is also no way to adjust the amount of weight the stylus applies to the vinyl. The $69 Crosley player is an example of this. But in the meantime just believe that it is very precise. If you want to read and view a technical paper that shows and demonstrates this let me know and I will get it to you. Below is pictured the $69 Crosley Cruiser and the $300 Audio Technica. Compare the tonearms on each and you will notice the more precise adjustments available on the Audio Technica compared to no adjustments or counter weight on the less expensive Crosley. Do you think the Crosley tonearm might have some wobble and extra heave weight bearing your record? Which would you prefer to use for playing your expensive vinyl records?

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

Crosley Cruiser (Click To Enlarge)

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

Audio-Technica at-lp-120 (Click To Enlarge)


Cartridge & Stylus

Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak

Cartridge and stylus (Click To Enlarge)

This will take a bit of explaining because some of the terms used can mean the same thing when some people speak generally. The stylus is what some people refer to as the needle, and the cartridge is the housing unit that supports the stylus/needle.  So, some people say cartridge when they are referring to the stylus.

Generally speaking the cartridge does not need to be changed unless you are making specific upgrades or if it has been damaged.  The stylus needs to be replaced if damaged (or sound quality degrades).  On average (depending on quality) you should get about 800-2000 hours playing time before your stylus needs replaced.  Some turntables will come with a decent cartridge which is fine but some will come with a lower end cartridge and perhaps a sapphire stylus. They may have an upgrade option which I would definitely take. If the option to upgrade is not available then just go spend the money and upgrade yourself. A diamond needle is far superior to a sapphire so make sure you are getting a diamond needle/stylus or upgrade to one.

The Audio-Technica AT-LP-120

I have my next purchase narrowed down to Audio Technica AT-LP-120 and one other turntable I am still researching. In my next post I will write a review on the Audio Technica. My review of this turntable is HERE.



If any of what I said is not clear then feel free to leave me a question in the comment section and I promise to get back to you in short order.

If you are fortunate enough to have a music store that sells audio equipment in your area you have an advantage when buying a turntable since you are able to go in and actually see them in person. You will probably be able to get demonstrations on how they operate and be able to talk to a knowledgeable sales person. Buying online is a bit different as you cannot actually touch the produce. That’s why it is important when buying online to buy from a reputable seller that you know will stand behind the product and is willing to offer a refund upon return. Amazon is good in the fact they have a simple return process. There are other reputable places like Crutchfield etc so just be sure you understand their return policy if you decide your purchase is not what you were expecting. I also recommend hanging on to the original box and packing materials until you are sure you are satisfied with your purchase.

Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.



  1. Hi Craig, I grew up in the middle of the era of vinyl records, turntables, 45s and LPs. I loved that era and it’s simple, less complicated ways. Thanks for the explanation of the different parts to a turntable. All I knew at the time was that you could play your favorite song over and over again by lifting up that little arm and setting the needle back down in the same grooves once again. Nice memories. Great post!

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Sue. I think that time period was the golden age of music. Records were so popular in the 60s thru the 80s and it seemed everyone had stereo systems. We all had nice record collections and it seemed the stereo was the center piece of most living rooms. Streaming music on the internet was not anywhere on the horizon. In fact the internet was not even a spark in anyone’s imagination. How times have changed and I don’t mean that in a bad way just looking back and realizing how much everything has changed i such a short time. I remember a couple years ago I was cleaning some LPs before listing them on eBay and my grandson, who was about seven at the time, came downstairs to see what I was doing. He said to me “Grandpa, that’s the biggest CD I ever saw”! Cracked me up.

  3. Oh wow!! Such an informative post.
    I love vintage and sure, old vinyl records. I am so sorry that I did not think of saving the bunch my parents had back then. I even loved listening to the genre of musical collection too. Oh well, they say ‘hindsight is 50/50’. We live and learn.
    Thanks for sharing, Craig. Keep up the great job!

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment Michelle. I bet your parents had nice variety of music in their collection. Little did er know at that time that vinyl records would become popular again so I’m sure there oare others who wish they would have held onto their records. But then again they did take up a lot of space and I’m afraid most were relegated to attics, garages, basements and trash bins. Oh well we did what we thought was necessary. Thanks, Craig

  4. Hello Craig, I absolutely adored this lesson on turn tables. I remember them quite differently from when I was teenager! Quality was not the criteria! I learned so much from reading this. I am also loving that records are still of value. Incredible post. Thank you so much!

    • Thank you Ariel for your comments. I agree, back in the day quality was not a big issue. If we wrecked or lost an album they were easy to replace and pretty cheap too. Now days as people seek records made decades ago they look for records in as good of condition as they can find. Collecting first pressings and rare issues are becoming a priority. Many of the newer records being made today are of inferior quality than the once made 40 years ago so quality is a big issue with many of today’s vinyl enthusiasts.

  5. Wow, Craig,

    I have seen Turntables and know something very little about them. However, I have never read a post with such thorough and comprehensive information about it before.

    Especially with your step by step explanation on each part of the turntable and it function.

    Thanks a lot for educating me today.


    • Hi Stephen and thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. A few decades ago it seemed everyone had a turntable as they were very common. Just as common as CD players are today. With the resurgence of vinyl record collecting more and more turntables are being made again so many who were born from about the 90s on have never seen a turntable and know nothing about them. I attempted to explain turntables as best I could to benefit new collectors who may be looking to purchase their first turntable to listen to their records. Hopefully I have helped a few people to learn a little about them. Thanks again, Craig

  6. Craig, Thank you for a great article. It is a great read.I appreciate the clarification on the tonearm. It is such a small part, but apparently a very important part of deciding which unit to purchase.

    • Hello Lisa and thanks for stopping my my blog. Yes, the tonearm is an important part of the turntable. Actually they all are important to the operation of the turntable but the tonearm is what guides the stylus through the groves of the record producing the music so the more precise the tonearm operates the better the music will sound. Have a nice day and hope you stop by again sometime. Craig

  7. Thank you for explaining all the critical components of a turntable, Craig. I had never thought before of how the platter weight would affect the quality of the play, and it makes perfect sense, the way you explain it.

    • On the surface it might not seem like a big deal but it really can make a difference. thanks for stopping by Annie.

  8. Dear Craig,

    I really enjoyed your post “12 Turntable Basics Explained In Non-Technical Speak”, Thanks for the detailed and very informative post. You explained it very well. Thanks again!

    Your Friend,

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