For many years, records were the dominant music replay format for much of the world. The introduction of compact disc and other digital formats, including digital downloads, initially seemed likely to make vinyl a redundant format, but recent years have seen a revival of interest, and an upsurge in the production of record players and turntables, along with USB- and computer-linked players for archiving purposes.
Overview of Record Player Types
A record player is a device which includes a turntable, or record deck, and which also includes acoustic or electronic reproduction equipment such as a horn, or amplifier, and speakers, to allow the user to listen to records without any extra equipment. By this definition, a record player is a distinct item from a turntable, which requires connection to a separate, external amplifier and speakers in order to operate successfully.
In the early years of music reproduction, recordings were made and reproduced entirely by acoustic means, initially on wax cylinders, but later in a standardised form on gramophone records, as we know them today - flat discs of shellac, later to be vinyl, with a spiral groove running from edge to centre. Record players from this era, usually referred to as phonographs or gramophones, were simple non-electrical devices, usually with turntables driven by wind-up clockwork mechanisms, and with horn assemblies to amplify the groove information from the stylus. Since the only records made in this era were of the shellac type, recorded at 78 rpm (revolutions per minute), these gramophones will only cope with this specific type of record, and will be unable to play any later format, such as LPs or singles. For the buyer with a collection of these discs, a traditional gramophone may be considered a worthwhile option for their replay, as opposed to modifying or expanding a modern replay system to cope with the differing format. Many collectors and vintage enthusiasts hold the view that the only way to properly replay the early acoustically-recorded discs is via a totally acoustic replay system, and this has helped to maintain an active market in this type of player. Due to the age of this style of record player, it is naturally quite a limited market, and genuine horn gramophones will be quite few and far between. However, a number of pastiche or imitation gramophones have emerged in recent years, which use electrical reproduction from vinyl, CD, cassette or digital file via a horn assembly to mimic the sound and appearance of the traditional horn gramophone. Differentiating these from a traditional, antique, or vintage item is a simple matter - any horn gramophone requiring battery or AC power is a modern one, any with a wind-up mechanism are of the vintage/antique type. A broad change in materials and advances in technology led to the introduction of different types and formats of records. Vinyl became the dominant material, as opposed to the shellac used for 78s, and stereo reproduction, as opposed to mono, also came to dominate.
In the same way that early phonographs were constructed from similar woods to the furniture of the time, the early developments of electrical record players for the vinyl and stereo era were fashioned in the style of pieces of furniture, and were sometimes designed by the designers of the time. Radio was a popular medium, and manufacturers combined radio and record replay components in a combined unit termed the radiogram. These units were much larger than the typical radios of the time, and the larger cabinets and larger speakers gave them greater fidelity than the smaller units. A stereogram is essentially the stereo equivalent of a radiogram, whether fitted with a radio or not. Stereograms and radiograms have large cabinets, with some models offering extra space for record storage, and are often the size of small sideboards. With the emergence of the 45 rpm single, and growing youth culture of the 1950s and 1960s, came the demand for a more compact and portable formats of record player.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the growth of more compact, and sometimes portable, record players. These often incorporate a record deck in the lower section of a suitcase-style unit, with replay amplification and a loudspeaker mounted in the lid, although they can sometimes house all the components in a single box with a plain lid. With the emphasis on compactness and portability, most models will have a lid of some sort, others feature carrying handles, and others are designed with portability and home use in mind, with detachable legs or stand assemblies. Most are of a single-speaker, monophonic design, although others can be found with twin stereo speakers.
With the introduction of Compact Disc and other digital formats, vinyl sales went into decline, and many users traded in or archived their record collections. Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the format, along with the introduction of record players which allow the owner to either record an LP onto a USB stick or other memory card, or alternatively feed the audio to a computer USB port for playback or recording via the computer.
Record Player Facilities and Features
The record player industry has, broadly speaking, used only four fixed speeds for disc recording and playback over the years - 16, 33, 45 and 78 rpm. A record player should therefore be chosen according to the type and speed of discs the buyer will play, or which they intend to acquire in future. Bear in mind, though, that 78 rpm records require a totally different stylus profile to the later microgroove records, those in the 16 - 45 rpm range. When buying a player to cope with 78s only, or a multi-purpose unit to switch between 78 and other speeds, the buyer should ensure that the cartridge has the ability to be easily switched between the two stylus profiles. In many cases, this is achieved by a rotating assembly on the cartridge.
Variable Speed Control
Some record players offer speed variation control, allowing it to be modified to a certain extent around the core fixed speeds of 33, 45 rpm etc. This is most likely to be of use to musicians who wish to fine-tune the playback of discs to fit in with the pitch of their musical instruments, but can also be useful for correcting vintage recordings, some of which were not consistently recorded at the target speed.
Some players, as well as being self-contained replay devices, allow connection to other components, perhaps with speaker outputs for connection to larger speakers, or tape outputs for recording from the player to a tape machine.
Careful examination of the photos and description in a listing will usually give a good indication of the overall condition of the player. The prospective buyer should review the seller's history of sales as well as their feedback rating, and determine if the seller has prior experience of selling this type of product.
In the main, record players, as well as turntables, are delicate items of equipment, and the more cautious buyer may not want to commit to a purchase that will be delivered by mail or courier. Listings of record players can be sorted by location, with the nearest first, and this will allow the buyer to select those within easy reach, and for which the seller has offered a local pickup option.
Consult the listing or the seller to determine whether or not the original packaging is included. The safest way to ship a record player is in the packaging designed for it by the manufacturer. Inclusion of the original packaging also allows the prospective buyer to judge the overall condition of the player, on the basis that if the seller and/or previous owners have retained the original packaging, then they are also likely to have looked after the player itself to a significant degree.
Record players come in a variety of formats, with varying facilities and features. With the aid of the above guidelines, the buyer can tailor their purchase to their requirements, and be assured of many years of listening pleasure.