What makes a great turntable

Feature

What makes a great turntable
Thursday, June 24, 2021

In a recent group test of turntables by another publisher the Rega P10, a personal favourite, was criticised for having a lack of bass. This perceived shortfall is because the P10 is one of the most successful turntable designs when it comes to minimising extraneous or unwanted vibration, or distortion to give it the correct name. The cartridge on any turntable is designed to read or measure the tiny vibrations in the wall of the groove of a vinyl record, cartridges are very sensitive devices that pick up any vibration wherever it comes from. So if any part of a turntable is vibrating for any reason be it the motor that drives the platter or energy from the loudspeakers getting into the stand and thence the turntable, that energy will get to the platter and reach the cartridge. With turntables that are built with wood or use high mass components higher frequency vibrations are dissipated but lower frequency ones travel through the turntable structure, eventually arriving at the stylus where they are added to the music signal being traced in the groove.

This results in the very common warm, thick sound of bass on vinyl, it’s why digital bass seems harder edged and more dynamic by contrast. Digital has its problems but tonal colouration is not one of them. This type of distortion can sound very appealing and when tuned carefully contributes to the character of many well regarded turntables, but make no mistake it is not accurate nor transparent to the music that was originally pressed into the vinyl. It’s a testament to the basic physics of turntable design that even the cheapest don’t tend to sound nasty in the way that digital systems can, the distortions that they pick up are usually harmonious and in time with the music, they are generated by mechanical rather than electronic shortcomings.

What you find with the Rega P10 is that some older records can sound bass light but they also sound more vivid and real, early Led Zeppelin pressings are a good example. I have an early pressing of Led Zeppelin III which has never sounded as alive and thrilling as it does on the P10 but it’s not big on bass (if you want a fattened version try the later remasters), yet if it’s the music you are interested in the degree of insight provided by this turntable far outweighs the aesthetic appeal of fulsome bass. The message bypasses the intellect and gets straight to the heart and soul, and that after all is why we love music. 

Put a record on that has some real bass cut into its grooves and you know all about it. This tends to be more apparent on albums produced in the last thirty years but there are often surprises on older recordings. And because this turntable is so revealing the impact of real bass is that much greater. The point being that you want a turntable that reflects what was recorded and cut into the lacquer, the balance that the artist originally decided they wanted, and not a distorted version of it. A turntable that adds as little of its own character as possible reveals more of what went into the creation of the music, it doesn’t mask the signal by imposing itself on the music. Ultimately it lets you hear more of the magic and that’s what makes vinyl so fantastic.