LPs were mostly replaced by cassette tapes in the 1980s and then by CDs in the 1990s. And now, CDs are being replaced in turn by MP3 files. But while newer technologies dominate the music industry, the humble LP has hung on, admired both by private audiophiles who like the feel and the sound of records and by DJs who use turntables as musical instruments. Some artists continue to release their work first on vinyl. Nothing sounds like a record, and probably no digital file ever can.
But with interest in LPs growing again, more people are getting interested in turntables and the maintenance turntables require. All turntables, especially those that have not been used in thirty years, need new parts now and then if they are going to sound their best. An overview of turntable care and maintenance and some tips on how to buy common replacement parts should help buyers keep the music playing.
Before discussing how to buy replacement turntable parts, it is important to get an understanding of what parts a turntable needs to have, what parts need to be replaced, and why a person might want a working turntable to begin with. The following section elaborates on LPs and turntables.
Why Play Records
There are two main reasons to stay with records: sound quality and protection from obsolescence. When an LP master is made, sound waves cause a cutting stylus to vibrate, creating wavy grooves in the record master. LPs are then pressed from moulds created from the master. Playing a record is simply cutting in reverse. The irregularities in the groove cause the needle or stylus to vibrate, producing either sound or an electrical signal that is converted into sound. The recording is called analogue because there is a direct correspondence between the shape of the groove and the sound.
Digital recordings, in contrast, are essentially a code, consisting of a series of ones and zeroes that require the right software to decode and turn into sound. If the software is lost, the recordings become worthless. The digital code also leaves out some information, resulting in a simplified sound on playback. No matter how good a digital recording is, and the best digital recordings are now very good, it can never be quite as rich as the original sound, but this loss of richness does not occur with analogue recordings. An analogue recording can sometimes include distortions and noise, but the sound is always rich and full. And while advances in the electronics industry could easily render all the digital recordings of today impossible to play in a decade or so, format changes are not a serious threat to LPs because there is no software to lose.
The Varieties of Turntables
There is a wide variety of turntable designs available, counting both vintage turntables and modern ones. Major differences between models involve how the rotation is driven, how the vibration of the stylus is translated into an electrical signal, and how well the system is protected from changes in rotational speed. While it is necessary to know whether a given turntable is belt-driven or not, other design elements often matter less from a maintenance standpoint. For a beginner, it is more important to get a basic understanding of generalised turntable anatomy than to learn about specific models because the variations between models often have little effect on what parts are going to need to be replaced.
The Anatomy of a Turntable
All turntables have several major parts: the plinth, or base, the platter, which is the part that actually turns; the stylus, which touches the record and picks up the signal from it; the cartridge, which holds the stylus and converts its vibrations to an electrical signal; and the tonearm, which holds the cartridge and swings out over the record. There also must be a motor to turn the platter, and it can either turn it directly by means of an idler wheel or by means of a belt.
It is important that the rotation of the platter be a consistent speed, so platters are designed to be heavy enough to have some momentum and are supported by well-lubricated bearings. Very high-end turntables are often much heavier and better lubricated in order to keep the motion as smooth as possible. The other components of a turntable all support the functioning of these major parts and in any case seldom need to be replaced.
Turntable Care and Maintenance
Turntables must be kept very clean, which is why they have dust covers. The stylus must be replaced every few years, as well as the belt if there is one. The bearings may also need to be cleaned and re-lubricated, especially if the turntable has not been used in years as the oil degrades over time. Do not use vintage oil as it has degraded in the bottle. Be sure to use the right type of oil for the model in question, as different turntables require different oils. New turntables, or those that have not been used in a few years, may also need to have their tonearms rebalanced in order to make sure the tracking force, or vertical pressure on the stylus, is correct.
Selecting Replacement Parts
Basic turntable maintenance includes periodic replacement of the cartridge, the stylus, and the belt, if there is one. Other components can break and may also need to be replaced.
Replacing the Cartridge and Stylus
The stylus or needle of a record player gradually wears out with use and must be replaced. A worn stylus causes a characteristic distortion described as a weak bass and a brittle treble. Some cartridges have replaceable styli, but others require changing the entire cartridge. Sometimes the cartridge itself goes bad, or the buyer may want to upgrade the cartridge.
Choosing a Cartridge
There are two main types of turntable cartridge: moving coil and moving magnet. Moving magnet cartridges are affordable, perform well, work with any preamplifier, and have replaceable needles. Moving coil cartridges only work with some preamplifiers, do not have replaceable needles, and cost substantially more, but the sound they produce is worth the price for those who can afford them. The difference is that moving coil cartridges produce a much weaker signal, so they pick up much less noise. This cleaner signal can then be amplified for a much clearer sound. The buyer can usually choose either type of cartridge for any turntable, though older turntables especially require cartridges of the same brand and some have oddly shaped tonearms that require specialty cartridges.
Choosing a Stylus
Styli come in several types and vary in price and quality. The lowest cost styli have conical or round tips, while higher-end styli feature micro-ridge, elliptical, or hyper-elliptical tips and produce better sound.
Replacing the Drive Belt
When a belt-driven turntable starts producing a wobbly pitch, it means the belt has to be replaced. Belts can also slip out of place, but in almost all cases, this is because the belt has stretched and needs to be replaced. Turntable belts come in different sizes, and the right size should be listed in the turntable’s manual. If there is no manual, measure for a new belt using wire and not string because string stretches. A slightly too-snug fit is better than too-loose if for some reason the right size is not available. Belts are specific to turntable models, so to find out what belt to get, look up the turntable model online. Instructions for replacing belts are available online.
Replacing Other Parts
Turntables that use idler wheels may need new wheels. The new wheel must be the correct type, and since differences between wheels can be subtle, choosing a replacement wheel that simply looks right or is the right size is not good enough. In most cases, an identification number is stamped on the wheel. If there is no number, it may be necessary to consult an expert to determine the proper type. Oil may not count as a "part", but old oil does need to be cleaned out and replaced. Vintage turntables that have not been used for a long time may also have serious electrical problems which must be fixed before turning the machine on or serious damage could result. This type of rewiring should not be attempted except my people who have at least a basic understanding of electronics. Remember also that a turntable all by itself cannot play music; it requires preamplifiers, amplifiers, speakers, and so forth. Some machines include some or all of these components along with the turntable while others do not, but either way a problem with the sound could mean that one or more of these other components has a problem and needs a part replaced. The problem is not always with the turntable.
Buying Turntable Replacement Parts on eBay
Turntable replacement parts are available through a variety of dealers and online through speciality sites and through eBay. A few tips should help with the buying process. It is easier to search for specific turntable parts, such as a belt, than to search for "turntable parts" as a group. Since turntables are very specific as to the size and type of each part, it is a good idea to determine exactly what you need ahead of time and then use the Advanced Search feature to find it.
Buying Turntable Parts on eBay with Confidence
Buying through eBay is usually fairly simple, but a few good habits are still recommended. First, read through the listing carefully before buying to make sure you have the right size and type. Make sure the part is in working condition, not provided as a collector’s item. If this is not clear from the listing, ask the seller. A contact link is included on the seller’s profile page, along with his or her feedback score and the details of his or her return policy. Look for a money-back guarantee. And especially for major purchases, remember to ask the seller to insure shipping.
Records are the way to go for many serious audiophiles as they produce great sound, and there are signs this older technology is making a comeback. The popularity of records means there is a whole new generation of people learning how to perform regular maintenance on turntables or even attempting to restore vintage ones that may not have been used in thirty years. Despite the advent of new technology in the form of first cassettes, CDs, and finally, MP3s, many still consider records as capable producing the best sound.
Turntables are simple machines, compared to CD players or MP3 players, but that simplicity makes them slightly more complicated to operate. Turntable users must learn how to do basic repairs and know how to find the necessary replacement parts. But for many, learning how to replace and realign a cartridge or adjust the tracking pressure of a tonearm is simply part of the fun of owning a turntable.