Do Expensive Turntables Sound Better Than Cheap Ones?


Turn table in black and white

When you get deep into the audiophile hobby and turn to vinyl records instead of streaming platforms like Tidal or Qobuz, you come across turntables. While turntables look simple, they are complex machines. High-end turntables can be extremely expensive and that got me wondering about the sound. 

Expensive turntables do sound better than cheaper alternatives. It sounds more lovely, dynamic, detailed, and completely draws you into the music. However, cheap turntables can also provide an enjoyable experience and provide a lot of value for their price. 

Let’s dive deeper into the anatomy of turntables to figure out why expensive models sound better. 

Anatomy of a turntable 

When I got started with turntables, I was surprised by the complexity of the machine. It has numerous delicate components that are precise and can make a lot of difference in the output. Moreover, the audiophile market is a niche market with turntables having a tiny share in that. That also affects the overall price and the law of diminishing returns gets stronger in such markets.   

Let’s check out how components differ in a cheap and expensive turntable. 

Weight

The most obvious difference between cheap and expensive turntables is the weight. Expensive turntables tend to be heavier. A heavy turntable allows for better vibration dampening and that creates less distortion in the music. Weight adds stability. On the other hand, cheap turntables are usually made from less dense materials to save on cost. That’s why they tend to be lighter and are more susceptible to vibration and external interference. 

I’ve tested this out personally on my Audio-Technica AT-LP60X-BK and my colleague’s expensive Audio-Technica AT-LP7 that’s twice as heavy. I’ve tested out the same vinyl records on both these turntables with the same speakers and the heavier LP7 sounds a lot cleaner. 

Audio-Technica AT-LP7
Audio-Technica AT-LP7

Expensive turntables always turn out to be heavier, and have substantial differences in size, materials used, and build quality. As we go through the different components of the turntable you’ll often find that they are intentionally made heavier. It’s all about absorbing vibrations. 

Platter

The platter is the large disc where the vinyl record sits and spins. Cheaper and budget turntables usually have a thinner and lighter platter made from metal, usually steel or aluminum. To reduce vibrations from the metal they also come with a felt mat. This combo gets the job done and produces decent sound. 

Contrary to that, expensive turntables usually have thicker and bulkier platters made from wood or wood composite with a layer of vinyl(The music record is made from the same material) above it. This adds more weight and makes the turntable more stable. Moreover, sometimes expensive turntables also have a clamping device that presses down the vinyl record on the platter for a cleaner sound that is isolated from external interference.   

Motor and Belt 

Cheaper and entry-level turntables often have a very simple motor to save cost. Moreover, cheaper turntables tend to be direct-drive where the motor sits directly under the platter and spins it via an axle or a smaller sub-platter under the platter. While this keeps production costs low, the proximity of the motor to the platter creates more vibrations and can distort the sound. Motors on cheap turntables also tend to wear out quickly. 

Contrary to that, most expensive turntables have the motor sitting far away from the platter so that vibration from the motor isn’t transmitted to the turntable. To spin the turntable, a spindle extends over the motor and connects to the platter via a belt that runs across the perimeter of the platter. This goes further to reduce vibrations and interference. 

Even if cheaper turntables like my LP60X have belt-drive, they have the motor sitting awfully close to the platter and the belt is also not made from metal. Moreover, the belt drive system on expensive turntables has a heavy metal adjustment ring to add more weight and also adjust the speed of the spin and tension on the belt. I’ve often experienced my turntable spinning faster without any adjustment because the cheaper belt keeps slipping. 

Bearing

The bearing is the component that allows the platter to spin smoothly and consistently without wobbling. It also helps the stylus track the record correctly. Any inconsistency can make the stylus read the grooves on the vinyl record incorrectly and that creates unnecessary distortions. That’s why the bearing needs to be extremely precise. Even the smallest deviation can cause big changes. 

Expensive turntables with heavier platters need much better bearings than cheaper turntables since they need to bear the extra weight and need to be manufactured from a material with a higher tolerance. While it’s a small component, it can make a world of difference in the output. 

Tonearm

The tonearm is a radial arm that holds the cartridge. Usually, it can be height adjusted and feature a counterweight to balance the cartridge that reads the grooves on the vinyl record. Tonearms demand precise manufacturing and fine-tuning so that they can help with optimal tracking via the cartridge with the right amount of pressure. This way, they don’t damage the record or the cartridge in any way. 

Expensive turntables have a much thicker and heavier tonearm tube. They are conical in shape to reduce resonance and may be made from exquisite materials like carbon fiber. They also tend to have extremely precise bearings with two on the horizontal plane and two on the vertical plane so that you can adjust the cartridge placement and pressure on the record just the way you want. 

Cartridge 

This component deserves an article of its own and allows for a lot of customization. It is the component attached at the end of the tonearm and holds the stylus that tracks the record. It is an incredibly complex electro-mechanical device that converts the vibrations picked up by the stylus into an analog audio signal. 

Expensive turntables come with higher-quality cartridges that come with a higher-quality stylus. Cheaper turntables with cheaper cartridges come with the easy-to-produce diamond-shaped stylus. On expensive models, the stylus has more complex shapes that may increase its frequency response and allows it to extract more details out of the record with fewer distortions. 

Expensive cartridges on expensive turntables also have a completely different mechanism. Cheaper turntables usually come with a moving-magnet(MM) cartridge while expensive turntables usually come with moving-coil(MC) cartridges that are more sensitive and deliver a more accurate signal. Moreover, MC cartridges are often entirely made by hand. It requires a different level of precision handcrafting and extensive testing that can’t be done by machines. 

Cartridges are also one of the most upgradable hi-fi components of a turntable. If you’re not happy with the stock cartridge of your turntable you can upgrade it. However, it’s a slippery slope. Once, I genuinely considered buying the Audio-Technica AT33SA which costs several times more than my entire turntable. 

To sum it up, an expensive turntable has:

  • Higher quality and heavier components.
  • Low resonance tone-arm that moves freely. 
  • Low vibration and stable motor that is placed far away.
  • Belt drive system.
  • Better-quality phono cartridge and stylus.

All these factors translate to a higher quality sound that is more snappy, preserves more details, and sounds more lively. Moreover, there are fewer distortions that can take you out of the immersive audio experience. 

Can cheap turntables damage records? 

Cheaper turntables can damage your records if it’s equipped with a cheap stylus and you’re not careful using them.       

If a cheap turntable comes with a ridiculously low-quality cartridge, it is going to be paired with a cheap stylus. In that case, the stylus may not be suitable for use for more than 150 playing hours and start damaging your record after that. However, as long as you buy a cheap, yet decent turntable from a reputed manufacturer like Sony, Audio-Technica, Yamaha, or Marantz, you’ll get a decent stylus that would last more than 1000 playing hours.

You also need to be careful with tonearm adjustment so that you don’t damage the record. At the back of the tonearm, you’ll find a tracking weight dial. Adjust it until you reach between 1.5 to 2g. That’s the optimal range for extracting most of the details on the record without damaging the grooves. 

As long as you adjust the tracking weight properly and replace the stylus after 1000 playing hours, you can get an enjoyable audio experience from your cheap turntable without damaging your precious records. I do that and for now, I’m not planning for diminishing returns by spending a lot of money on an expensive turntable. 

The case for expensive turntables 

While cheap turntables aren’t the best, they provide an enjoyable musical experience that will satisfy most people, especially those who are new to this hobby. However, if you’re very passionate about sound and don’t mind spending a lot of money on turntables for the best possible experience, you should definitely opt for the expensive models. 

While I’m not into expensive turntables at the moment, audiophiles are always on a slippery slope. I remember how I couldn’t imagine spending $1000 on headphones a few decades ago. Now, it’s completely different. 

So, if you’re a purist and want your vinyl collection to sound their absolute best, you may invest in an expensive turntable.   

Conclusion

Expensive turntables can sound better and cleaner than cheaper turntables by a decent margin. For audiophiles who don’t mind spending thousands of dollars for the best quality sound, there’s no other alternative. However, if you’re like me and have just started building your vinyl record collection, cheaper turntables can sound decent and get the job done. You can always upgrade down the line.

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Rune Bearson

As you can see, I love my headphones! I use them every day when commuting, watching YouTube videos, playing guitar/piano and doing chores. I'm a podcast addict and I like all kinds of music from metal to chillout ambient.

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