What to Look for When Buying a Turntable
If you are looking for a new turntable, congratulations. Listening to music on vinyl is a great way to hear truly natural, warm sound. But there are some things to watch out for, especially amidst the turntables sold at modern big-box stores, as well as in old ones found at thrift stores and yard sales.
The top thing to be aware of when looking at turntables provided by general merchandise stores like Target and Wal-Mart is that many of these come with cartridges that contain plastic needles. These cheap needles have been used for decades, usually in "all-in-one" combinations of turntable, radio, cassette, and sometimes CD. Now some manufacturers, mainly Crosley, are selling old or antique-looking turntables that look nice on the outside but contain these same plastic needles from the early 1980s. While these get the job done in that they produce sound from the record, they are not good for the record and they also break more easily.
If you buy or someone gives you one of these turntables, you should seek out a new cartridge with a diamond stylus, the standard amongst audiophiles and anyone who is serious about vinyl.Most mid to high-grade turntables will come with a cartridge with a diamond stylus (stylus being the needle assembly).
Some may come with a tone arm that comes apart halfway through for easier replacement of the cartridge. Although convenient for replacement, this creates another connection for the sound to have to pass through and thus potentially more problems can arise. Also if you are new to looking for used turntables, watch out for thrift store and yard sale varieties that don't have the other end of the tone arm. To find a replacement tone arm along with new cartridge, stylus, etc. would not be worth the cheap price you may get the turntable for.
You should also be aware of direct drive vs. belt-driven. Most turntables you will find new and used and aimed at the consumer or audiophile will be belt-driven, in that the motor will drive a belt which then spins the platter upon which the record sits. This is preferable for sound quality because the vibrations of the motor do not affect the pickup of the sound from the grooves as directly. But belts wear out eventually and add another cost for repair. Direct drive turntables have no belt and thus spin up faster, so a lot of DJ's prefer them. They also will require less maintenance. But, as said above, sound quality may suffer slightly.
Starting in the late 1980s companies started to make turntables with automatic tone arms which often moved horizontally across the record, driven by a servo. Usually these were/are paired with direct drive of the platter. These are kind of neat, as you can supposedly program "tracks" of the record, but they often end up creating more problems when the servo dies or the tone arm absorbs impact. Because of the wiring involved, they are more difficult and costly to replace and/or repair than a manually operated tone arm.
I hope you have found some use in this list of things to watch out for when looking for a new turntable. If something seems like a really good, cheap deal, it is best to investigate further because usually you will have to pay the cost of the turntable or more in order to get it in good, working condition, especially if it's a used model. By the same token, even if the model is brand new, it may not be manufactured up to very high standards of quality. Always check the things I mentioned above, and you will have a much better chance of finding a good deal on a good turntable that will bring you listening pleasure for decades to come.