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Explaining the differences between turntables and record players

Vinyl is back, and it’s here to stay. Two decades of gradual yet relentless resurgence made the once-obsolete format the emblem of the modern music connoisseur, to the point that the good-old records are outperforming all other physical media in terms of sales and popularity.

The byproduct of this fascinating resurgence is a new generation of music enthusiasts who are not particularly familiar with the technology to reproduce this format. Hence the question: What’s the difference between a turntable and a record player?

Nowadays, you’ll find information online where these two terms are used interchangeably, or the differences between the two are far from clear. However, despite serving similar purposes, these are two completely different items, and understanding the differences between them will help you become a better audiophile and understand how to make the most of your record collection.

Behind the insights

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, author and contributor at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer, audio engineer, and longtime audiophile. Over the years, my passion for music has developed into a full-time profession, and I’m always on the lookout for new equipment to mix, master, and listen to music.

I’m also running workshops on deep listening and the benefits of experiencing music in the most accurate way possible.

What is a turntable?

A turntable is a device responsible for holding and spinning your records. It features vital components in music reproduction: a tonearm moving the needle through the record’s grooves and a cartridge that converts the needle movements into audio signals.

On its own, a turntable won’t reproduce audible sound, you’ll need an amplifier and speakers to create an audio system that works. Seasoned audiophiles opt for turntables because they can customize their hi-fi system, bringing to life a unique sound signature.

Audio-Technica turntable device
Modern turntable | Image: Audio-Technica

Modern turntables come with all sorts of fancy features, like USB connectivity or the ability to digitize analog audio, giving you the possibility to upgrade your listening experience.

How does a turntable work?

As you place a record on the platter, the record will rotate at a constant speed of 33 1/3 or 45 revolutions per minute (RPM), depending on whether you’re listening to an EP (45 RPM) or an LP (33 1/3 RPM).

Forty-five-RPM records spin faster and store more sonic information, therefore offering better accuracy. That said, LPs provide outstanding sound quality that can be further enhanced by professional turntables.

How does the spinning of a record turn into sound?

The tonearm holds a cartridge and stylus. The latter is in contact with the record, moving along the grooves and reading the physical bumps, which are translated into sounds.

This information is sent to a phono preamp, which amplifies the weak signal and sends it to the amplifier, further boosting the signal strength to a level that can be picked up by the headphones or speakers.

Now that we got the most complicated part out of the way let’s see what a record player is.

What is a record player?

A record player is a standalone playback device that does include a turntable but also features a built-in amplifier and speakers within a single unit.

In a nutshell, a record player is a portable system that contains all the different elements of a larger audio setup, making it easier and more affordable for music listeners to enjoy their vinyl record collections.

all-in-one record player
All-in-one record player | Image: 1byone Audio

How does a record player work?

The great thing about record players is that they’re effortless to use, maintain, and move around. Most of the time, all you have to do is connect it to a power source, place your record on the platter, lower the tonearm, and let the music fill the air.

The main differences

I already explained how record players and turntables are intrinsically different, so now, let’s focus on their built and sound quality, highlighting the pros and cons of owning one or the other.

1. Components

It’s a common assumption to think that record players feature lower-quality components than professional turntables. After all, you can get a standalone record player for less than a turntable, which will then require a whole set of additional gear to operate.

While an audiophile would (most likely) never opt for record players, these can be an affordable solution for beginners, and most of all, some of the best models are definitely built to last. Want a few examples? Check out my recent review of the best beginner record players and turntables.

2. Design

When it comes to aesthetics, I love both the timeless design of the most popular record players and the minimalist approach of modern turntables.

For example, take the 1byone Audio H009, an excellent record player with a vintage vibe, but also with everything you need to make the most of your collection, like Bluetooth and USB connection, and good-quality speakers. On the other side, we have the exceptional Rega Planar 2, a turntable that offers outstanding sound quality with a stripped-down design that enhances its aura and built quality.

As often happens, it all comes down to taste. Both devices can look great in any environment and can seamlessly blend in a listening room.

3. Price

Record players are generally more affordable than turntables, even without considering that with the latter, you’ll need to buy additional equipment to play your music. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly way to listen to your records, then a record player is the device for you.

That said, you can build a good hi-fi system without spending a fortune, and the sound quality will be far superior. For instance, take the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X, match it with a good budget stereo amplifier and a pair of bookshelf speakers, and you might be able to get a great audio system for $800 or less.

4. Sound

Finally, the sound. The downside of buying a standalone record player is that you can’t upgrade its components. Yes, you can connect it to external speakers and improve the sound, but you can’t do anything about the preamp, for instance.

While the quality of all-in-one record players is improving, a customized audio system allows you to choose every component and bring to life your unique sound signature. If you’re serious about your listening experience, this is the path you should take.

Which one you should buy?

There are pros and cons on both sides. A turntable can be the foundation of your hi-fi, and as you create your unique audio system, you’ll learn about every component and how to enhance the beauty of your music collection. However, this can be an expensive and time-consuming process that might distract you from what really matters, which is to enjoy the music you love.

turntables vs record players explained
Image: Charlie Alcaraz

On the other hand, a record player is an affordable solution that might introduce new music enthusiasts to the world of vinyl and allow seasoned audiophiles with a budget-friendly alternative to high-end setups.

The downside is that standalone record players can hardly match the sound quality of hi-fi systems, and the moment you outgrow your record player, you’ll just have to just buy a more performing device instead of replacing single components as you would with an audio system.

Frequently asked questions

In this section, I will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about turntables and record players.

Do I really need a turntable?

You’ll need a turntable if you listen to vinyl or have a record collection at home that you want to rediscover. If you’re curious about the world of analog music and want to explore audio in a different way, then buying a turntable is an excellent option.

Does music sound better on vinyl?

To answer this question, first, we need to define what we mean by “sounding better.”

Music on vinyl does not offer superior accuracy but has a warmth and appeal that can create an immersive experience for the listener. In fact, with its occasional pops and crackles, vinyl might sound worse than digital files when it comes to accuracy.

All in all, listening to records is an experience that goes beyond sonic fidelity, creating a bond between the listener and the analogue format no digital file can offer.

Do I need speakers for a turntable?

Yes, and not only that! You’ll also need a preamp (unless already included in the turntable) and an external amplifier.

Check out my recent article on the best speakers for vinyl for more information.

Do I need an amplifier for a turntable?

Yes, you do. That’s a crucial component of every sound system and has a massive impact on the quality of audio reproduced.

Can I listen to vinyl with headphones?

You certainly can! Amplifiers generally have a headphone output you can use to connect your headphones and enjoy your records. Even some record players and turntables come with a headphone output.

Do I need Bluetooth on a turntable?

If you want to connect external Bluetooth devices to your turntable, then you should opt for one with Bluetooth connectivity.

However, bear in mind you can also get an amplifier with this option to compensate for the lack of Bluetooth on the turntable.

What genres sound best on vinyl?

All genres sound great on vinyl. Most people say that blues and jazz sound great on vinyl because the analogue format creates a timeless vibe that magnifies the beauty of these styles.

However, from Beethoven to Burial, you’ll find that listening to music on vinyl can be an enlightening experience, regardless of the genre.

How long do vinyl records last?

If stored in a suitable environment and played using high-quality equipment, a vinyl record can last for decades or even a century.

How long a record last depends largely on how you take care of it.

Final thoughts

I hope this guide helped clarify the crucial differences between record players and turntables. If you’re ready to enter the realm of high-fidelity audio, check out my recent articles on the best vinyl players for beginners and how to set up your first hi-fi system. Happy listening!