What's the Difference Between a Record Player and a Turntable?

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What's the Difference Between a Record Player and a Turntable?

Record replay has been in the home since the early 1900s, initially with acoustic gramophones driven by clockwork, which amplified records with the aid of large horn assemblies. Later, electrical recording and replay were developed, and this led to larger-scale adoption of records as a means of distributing music to the general public.


The turntable as a standalone item of record replay equipment entered the consumer electronics world with the trend toward separates as a style of replay equipment. Broadly speaking, this trend came about as a result of a number of core improvements in audio replay, amongst them the introduction of stereo recording and replay, and of microgroove vinyl records, as opposed to the shellac-based 78rpm records that had preceded them. The new LP format offer longer playing time, quieter surfaces, greater dynamic range, and better durability.

Recognising the Parts

The term 'turntable' can refer to a turntable chassis or base unit, essentially a plinth bearing a rotating platter to carry the record, and a motor to drive that platter at the chosen speed or speeds, possibly also with switching or control circuitry for the motor. The term can also refer to a similar chassis or base unit fitted with a pickup arm and a pickup cartridge. The cartridge contains the stylus, which traces the groove on the record, and a generator unit which forms an electrical signal based on the groove modulations read by the stylus. The pickup arm is a carrier for the cartridge, and this should be engineered to allow the cartridge to track the record without error, and without friction. The stylus and/or cartridge can commonly be referred to as the 'needle' - a hangover from the days of acoustic gramophones when the stylus truly was a steel needle inserted into the tracking end of the horn. Essentially, therefore, the turntable is a unit which rotates a record, and which, with the inclusion of a tracking pickup arm and cartridge, generates a low-level electrical signal from the record, to be later amplified through other components such as speakers or headphones. The signal generated by the cartridge is of the order of microvolts, and is clearly insufficient to drive either a headphone or speaker assembly. Turntables, pickup arms and cartridges are available at all price points, from the cheapest and most basic through to the highly expensive and exotic. Generally speaking, the better the engineering, the better the performance, as the fine detail of the signal groove on a modern LP can be measured in terms of microns, and any aspect of the turntable not engineered to fine tolerances will impact on the end result.

Turntable Design Options

Many design options have been explored by manufacturers over the years, in terms of plinth and base construction, platter materials, motor drive electronics, pickup arm materials, and cartridge design. Platters can be of metal, glass, acrylic, and other synthetic materials. Pickup arms can be metal, carbon fibre, Kevlar, and other composites. The platter drive and plinth design also factor into the overall sound of the turntable. The drive method can be direct, idler, or belt drive, and the plinth design can incorporate a suspension to isolate the platter from the motor and base, or can be of a solid construction, with all elements mounted directly onto the plinth. The core philosophy behind separates is that of the ability to upgrade, repair or replace one component without affecting the others. With separate components, if one is away at repair, another can be substituted in the interim.

Record Players

The essential difference between a turntable and a record player is the presence or absence of amplification and speakers. It can be seen from the above that a turntable has none of these, and requires the addition of further separate components in order to generate sufficient electrical signal to drive speakers, headphones, or other replay or recording components. A record player is a unit combining a turntable, arm and cartridge along with amplification and/or speaker components in one unit. Optionally, this combined unit could include other sources as well as the turntable.

Early Models

The early horn gramophones fall into this record player category, and were built into standalone cabinets. In the early stages of microgroove and stereo technology development, the dominant style of replay equipment in the home was either the radiogram, or the stereogram. These were larger cabinets, sometimes approaching the size of small sideboards, which typically included a turntable, amplifier and a pair of stereo speakers (when built as a stereogram), and possibly a radio tuner (hence the radiogram). Some types of these units also included tape recorders and cupboard storage for records and other accessories, which added further to the size. A number of differing styles of record player have evolved since the early horn gramophones, and the large-format stereograms and radiograms of the 1950s and 1960s.

Portables and Semi-Portables

With the emergence of the 45rpm single came the desire from its target market, the youth of the day, for portable and semi-portable solutions. This led to the development of battery-operated players, some of which were barely larger than the record itself. Some manufacturers tried to popularise record players for installation within cars, but further development in more impact-resistant formats, such as cassette and 8-track tape, stifled this trend. A key element in developments of this time was that of the small-format record player, which allowed the youth of the day to replay their own music in their bedrooms, away from the communal areas of the house. A number of manufacturers developed the semi-portable - a suitcase-style player with lid and carrying handle, which came supplied with detachable legs, allow it to be carried from one place to another, and to be set up as a freestanding item of furniture in each.

Music Centres

With the introduction of cassette tape came the trend to assemble a number of different source components, with an amplifier, in one unit termed the music centre. This would typically have the turntable, radio, cassette deck or 8-track tape player, and amplifier in one cabinet, with separate speakers. The cassette decks were typically internally wired to enable recording from radio or turntable, and the combination of the units reduced the amount of cabling needed between source and amplifier components. With the introduction of compact disc, vinyl fell out of favour, and music centre's became far smaller, as Midi or Mini HiFi systems, typically with a footprint no larger than that of the disc itself. However, now that digital downloading seems set to replace physical digital formats such as compact disc, a renewed interest in vinyl has taken place, and has led to the development of the last two categories of record player.

USB Players and Recorders

It's perhaps debatable whether this format should be termed a record player or turntable, but USB turntables exist to facilitate recording and conversion to digital via PCs or data storage cards. The replay signal from the cartridge is digitised, and either passed to a PC via the USB connection, or directly stored onto the data card within the turntable itself. These units tend to occupy the lower end of the market, and aren't typically expected to give high-quality results.

Retro-Style Players

Also allied to the resurgence in interest in vinyl has come the retro-styled record player. Sometimes with only a turntable as the source, sometimes with radio and cassette components, the retro players are built in a style which echoes the design of early gramophones, stereograms and radiograms. Often built from plastic and/or synthetics, rather than real wood, these players again occupy the lower end of the market, and yield similarly low-end sound quality.

Finding Record Players and Turntables on eBay

From the eBay homepage, select Shop by category, and expand the pop-up category box with theSee all categories button. SelectSound & Vision,, and from the selection list to the left-hand side,Home Audio & HiFi Separates.. From the Category list, select Record Players/Turntables.. From this point, there's no subcategory division within eBay to distinguish record players from turntables within this category, so it is advisable to adjust the search by Brand, Drive Type or Model (all selections available from the subcategory lists to the left-hand side) to limit the listing numbers. Drive Type selection might be made byBelt Drive,, or Direct Drive,, for instance.


The choice between a record player and turntable will be governed by the buyer's budget, by the results desired, and by whether or not matching amplifier and speaker components are currently available, or are intended for purchase with a turntable. In the main, the highest-quality results will be returned by a standalone turntable partnered with separate amplification and speakers. Although a number of quality record players exist, the majority are to be found at the lower end of the market.

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