Technical & Editorial

Vinyl vs. CD - A Running Commentary - Parts 1 - 5


Part 3: Turntables, Tonearms, and Cartridges

When CDs supplanted LPs about 20 years ago, there was less and less availability of "record players". However, there were still plenty of aficionados out there who wanted to maintain and expand their LP library, and some of them were clever engineers who simply decided to build their own turntables. And, the ones they built were a far cry from the $100 jobs that we used to buy at Radio Shack. Along the way, they said, "You know, I could probably sell these things and make back my investment." Thus was born the high-end turntable market.

Of course, high-end tonearms had to be designed too, and the cartridges.

These days, you can spend $100,000 on a turntable, $15,000 on a tonearm, and $10,000 on a cartridge. That's a lot of trips to Starbucks.

Besides being built in extremely limited quantities, they are all hand made products. No mass production on an assembly line for these things.

Here is one example, the VPI HR-X turntable and JMW-12.7 tonearm. The current price (2013) is $13,000. Notice that the platter is driven by a belt that is attached to a flywheel on the left, and that flywheel is driven by two motors using another belt. This totally decouples the platter from the motor and eliminates rumble that would otherwise be transmitted to the platter from the motor. This particular tonearm is described as low mass, although a specific number is not given. If you are anal, as just about any hard core audiophile probably is, you will ferret out the info about tonearm mass before you purchase one.


Here is a close-up of the flywheel and attached belts.


(Turntable photos copyright VPI)

Of course, you don't have to spend $12,000 on a turntable and tonearm. There are plenty of nice products out there in the less than $1,000 range.

So, you have a turntable, and now you pick the cartridge.

Depending on how careful you think you can be setting it all up, you need to choose MM or MC. The Moving Coil (MC) will give the best detail, but will be the most vulnerable to noise because the output is very low. The more expensive they are, the more they seem to have lower and lower output, probably because just a few hand wound turns of wire are on the cantilever.

Here is the Koetsu Onyx Platinum MC cartridge. It is priced at $8,000. The output is only 0.2 mV. Keep in mind that is 2/10 of one thousandth of one volt. So, the interconnects from the turntable will be carrying less than a thousandth of a volt, and the interconnects from your CD player will be carrying about 1.5 volts. That is a factor difference of 7,500 to 1. Remember how careful I said you would need to be in connecting the turntable to your preamplifier? Very careful. A flatulent mouse standing two inches from the interconnects would probably cause some audible noise in the cables. Get the picture?


(Photo copyright Koetsu)

The one cartridge that does not fit the usual mold is the Sumiko Blackbird, which is an MC product, outputs 2.5 mV, and has a compliance of 12 x 10-6 cm/dyne. It's priced at $1,099, and we will talk about this cartridge a bit later.


(Photo copyright Sumiko)