A record player is a device including a turntable, pickup arm, and cartridge, along with amplification and speakers, forming a self-contained listening unit. A record player is distinct from a turntable in that it contains the components to amplify and replay any record played upon it. A turntable on its own generates only a low-level signal, and requires connection to separate amplification components for playback. This article will, even though they include processing circuitry instead of amplification, consider USB turntables as record players.
Vinyl records are delicate items which are easily damaged, whether by misaligned or damaged playback equipment. The first 'do', therefore, must be to ensure that any purchase is in good condition, at least in the area of the turntable, the area which has physical contact with the records. The amplification, speaker or processing components of a record player, while they affect the output from it, they don't have the capability to damage records, even if they are faulty in some way.
Generally speaking, the better the engineering quality of the turntable, the more likely will be that it will be free from misalignment and other endemic problems such as excessive friction and the like. Any problems in the following areas could lead to outright physical damage to the user's records, or to excessive record wear. Much will depend on the price point at which the record player is being purchased, but in terms of general principles, the plinth or base upon which the turntable platter (the rotating section which carries the record) and pickup arm are mounted must be firm, and level. In the best turntables, this is checked with the aid of a spirit level. Once a level base is established, the platter should rotate freely and evenly, with no tendency to waver up and down, nor any variation in speed. With these factors established, the pickup arm should be free to move across the record, and vertically, without friction or binding.
The most crucial area of the turntable is the pickup cartridge and stylus, which are mounted to the pickup arm, and form the crucial contact point with the record. The condition of the stylus can only be properly assessed with the aid of a microscope, and if there's any doubt about its condition, it's usually best to err on the side of caution and replace it. If the seller can give some indication as to the amount of use the stylus has had, all good and well, and this can be factored into the decision whether or not to replace. Most record players at the low to middling price points will be fitted with cartridges that enable easy replacement of the stylus, as cartridges with non-replaceable styli tend to be fitted only to turntables at the higher price points. It should be noted that the cartridge and stylus, or the stylus alone, are often referred to as the needle, in a throwback to the days of the early gramophones, when a steel needle was routinely used for this purpose.
Players to Avoid
The primary don't of buying a used record player is essentially to avoid those in poor condition, and/or with obvious signs of damage or previous abuse, especially in the pickup arm, cartridge, and stylus area. As mentioned above, records are easily damaged, and most listeners will want to preserve them in good condition. There's little point in gambling on a player in poor condition, if one can be found in a better state of repair. The buyer should look at their playback requirements, and match the player to those requirements. Don't buy a player that plays 78s, for instance, if none are in the collection of records to be played. The following should aid the buyer in making an appropriate choice.
Record players have existed in a number of forms over the years, giving the buyer a number of alternative buying choices.
The earliest record players were purely acoustic replay devices, consisting of a clockwork-driven platter, and a needle and horn assembly for amplification. Broadly speaking, these only tend to come up for sale in specialist dealers and antique shops.
Stereograms and Radiograms
The early electrical record players came in the form of stereograms and radiograms, large pieces of furniture containing, at the very least, a turntable, amplifier and speaker pair, sometimes with the addition of a radio tuner or tape recorder, and possibly with storage capability for records. These appear quite often on the used market, but due to their size, they're quite impractical for delivery by post, and tend to be sold on a face-to-face basis rather than in distance sales, such as by online auction.
Portables and Semi-portables
Primarily intended to appeal to the youth market of the day, a number of portable and semi-portable designs began to reach the market in the 1950s. Many of these came in suitcase-like designs, where the turntable could be enclosed with a latching lid, and carrying handles allowed the player to be carried from point to point. Others took the form of a clamshell design, where the two halves of the shell folded around the record and the stylus and cartridge assembly was fully enclosed. Players of this type come in a mix of battery- and mains-operated designs, and it should be noted that many of them are of monophonic design. The semi-portable follows similar design lines to the portable - lid, carrying handle, etc., but also comes supplied with removable legs, allowing it to be set up semi-permanently in one location, but easily moved to another.
A development from the early days of stereo sound was the music centre, a type of record player with amplification and other source components as well as a turntable built into a single unit, most often with separate stereo speakers.
USB Players and Recorders
Recent years have seen the development of the USB turntable, a specialised type of record player incorporating a turntable with either processing or recording circuitry. These are aimed at those who perhaps have a vinyl collection, but who disposed of their turntable or record player in the first flush of enthusiasm for CDs and digital media. These units allow the user to either feed the signal from the turntable, via a USB connection, to a PC, there to be recorded, stored and/or processed by software on the PC, or to record the output from the turntable to a media card or USB stick. In the first instance, if the PC is connected to a sound system, it can also function merely as a replay system. In the main, these units are built to quite a low price point, and aren't expected to yield high-quality results.
A growing trend is the production of retro record players, sometimes in units combined with cassette players, radios, and often with the capability to connect to PCs or record to USB sticks and other types of media cards. These are styled in a fashion that reflects the style of the early gramophones, but again, they are built to quite a low price point, and aren't designed with serious listening in mind.
Record players come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While the actual style of player to be bought will largely depend on the buyer's preferences and requirements, the guidelines above should prove useful in selecting one in good, serviceable condition, and which will give a good number of years of listening pleasure.