Beginner’s guide to vinyl: Buying gear & collecting

Very often I speak with people who would love to get into buying vinyl records, but they don’t even know where to start. They don’t have a turntable and are frankly a bit intimidated by the process. What kind of player should they buy? Will their current stereo support it? Where can they go to buy records once their gear is set up? We will address all of these questions and more in this tutorial. Getting set up can be extremely easy.

01. Selecting a turntable
First and foremost, you’ll need a device for playing your records on. Before we get into the specific features you need to be aware of, let’s just discuss where you can go to purchase one.

If you’re anything like me, you still prefer walking into a store and speaking with a real person. The place I’d recommend for this is Guitar Center. They offer ultra competitive prices, they are just about everywhere, and you can usually find someone in their stores with a decent bit of knowledge. They typically have a respectable selection and can special order hundreds of models for you. Be aware that all of their products are going to be geared towards DJs, not home audio systems. This is a plus to me as I find DJ gear to be of high quality and much more aesthetically appealing.

If you prefer to shop online, I would recommend two stores:

A. turntable lab
With stores in LA, NYC, and Tokyo they offer a wide variety of DJ gear and some home audio equipment. Their selection is great and their prices are competitive. The website is easy to navigate and offers great reviews.

B. needle doctor
This store is based in Minneapolis’ Dinky Town area. Their website offers a massive selection and is very easy to use. They are renowned the world over as one of the best dealers of vinyl related equipment. They sell everything from entry-level gear to some of the most expensive high-end products imaginable.

There are only a few features you need to be concerned with when shopping for your first turntable. The first is variable speeds. Don’t purchase anything that only plays one speed. It won’t save you much money and at some point you’ll regret it. There are 3 speeds of records: 33rpm, 45rpm, and 78rpm. Most players will play 33s and 45s. Some play all three. Be sure to get one that at least plays 33s and 45s. 78s are fairly rare so you can get away with a player that does not support that format for now.

Turntables operate in one of two ways: belt drive or direct drive. If you don’t intend on doing any DJing, I recommend purchasing a belt drive turntable. They typically cost less and some people think they actually produce a more accurate sound.

Turntables need to run through a preamp in order to work with a stereo. Some stereos have built in preamps, but many today do not. If you intend on setting up your turntable with an existing stereo that doesn’t have a phono input and preamp, you may want to consider buying a turntable with a built in preamp. Check out the Audio Technica AT-PL50 if this sounds like a feature that appeals to you.

02. Selecting a cartridge
While it is possible to spend hundreds of dollars on a cartridge, I recommend spending about $50 on one built by the manufacturer of your new turntable. You should be able to purchase one from the same place you get your turntable from. You can always upgrade to a better cartridge later.

03. Selecting a stereo
There are many different features and levels of quality in home stereo equipment. Without getting into too many details and specifics, I’d like to offer a few tips for beginners. If you would like to hook a turntable up to your existing stereo receiver you need to be sure that it has a built in preamp. If it doesn’t, you can still hook a turntable up to it, but you will need one of two things:

A. Preamp
You can purchase a standalone preamp for under $100. Plug your turntable into the preamp and the preamp into your stereo receiver.

B. Turntable with built-in preamp
As mentioned above, you can purchase turntables with a built-in preamp. This will allow you to plug your turntable directly into any stereo receiver. Also note that most of these models have a bypass switch for the preamp so you can opt to use a different preamp if you’d like.

If you will be purchasing a new stereo, pick one up that has a built in preamp so you don’t need to deal with the things noted above. If you are looking to make a high-end purchase you can break this rule and explore a getting a separate tube pre-amp (as apposed to solid state) and receiver. There is no need to purchase a surround sound stereo for your turntable as vinyl records are only mastered in mono or stereo.

04. Building your collection
There are many ways to get started. To me, the most fun way is to drive down to your local record and shop and start in the bargain bins. Some shops sell records for as cheap as 25 cents. Often times these records are so cheap not because they are bad albums, but rather because there are so many copies of them out there. I’ve purchased hundreds of records for $1 or less, some of which are my favorite records I own. You can stock up on tons of albums this way to get your collection going.

Another way to build a collection cost effectively and very quickly is to troll ebay and craigslist for record collections. You’ll find people selling their entire collection of vinyl for what amounts to pennies per album. This takes some of the fun out of it to me, but definitely gets you into the game very quickly.

Once you’ve got a decent quantity of records you can start seeking out specific titles and even explore purchasing new releases and reissues. I’ve found that most people start off purchasing very cheap records and slowly find themselves willing to spend more and more on vinyl. Just remember, there are plenty of good records out there for very reasonable prices.

Do some research to find out if there are any record shows in your area. I know there is at least one a month in my area (twin cities). These are events where dealers gather in one place to sell vinyl. Often times these dealers don’t have storefronts. Think of it as a mobile record store that opens every few weeks in a different place. Not only can you find great records for fair prices, but you’ll also get to meet other collectors and become part of a community.

I hope you enjoyed this very basic beginners guide to vinyl. Check back often for more updates and feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions.