The Vinyl Record Playback System


Pro-Ject Debut III prior to counterweight installation (weight on right)

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A complete system to play records is comprised of the following components:


Turntable platter with mat

The turntable:  The turntable’s job is to rotate the record smoothly and evenly, without introducing vibration from itself, while minimizing acoustic feedback as well as eliminate effects like footfalls, etc. from disturbing playback or degrading sound quality.


Pro-Ject Debut III Tonearm

(After unboxing- secured with twist-tie, no counterweight installed)

The tonearm: The tonearm holds the cartridge as it tracks across the spinning record.  It is included with most turntables but strictly speaking it is considered a separate component, as is the cartridge.


Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 Phono Cartridge

The phono cartridge:  The phono cartridge is attached to the tonearm.  It tracks the record groove and generates a tiny electrical output.  Like a speaker, it is a transducer because it converts one kind of energy into another.  In this case it is mechanical energy into electrical energy.  Transducers usually have the hardest jobs in the electrical chain because it is harder to convert one kind of energy into another than to amplify or modify and electrical or digital signal.


The Parasound Zphono, an affordable,  high performance phono preamp

Parasound Zphono Product Link

The phono preamp: The phono preamp takes the very tiny electrical output of the cartridge and amplifies and equalizes it so it can be used with your receiver and amplifier.  Most older stereo receivers and amplifiers have built-in phono preamps.  If they do, you will have a “Phono” source you can select, and connections with a grounding post on the back.


This audiophile quality vintage NAD receiver has a phono input, and a good one at that!


If your receiver has a dedicated “phono” input it has a phono preamp built-in.


Rear view of external phono preamp.  See selector for MC and MM cartridges- more on that later.

If your amplifier, preamplifier or receiver does not have a phono preamp you can add one externally.  In fact, many audiophiles use an external phono preamplifier even when their receiver has one built-in.  Why?  The phono preamp can have a large effect on sound quality.  Using an external phono preamp almost always yields better sound and it provides and the ability to match phono preamplifier with your cartridge or listening tastes.  If you have a recent home theater receiver you will probably need an external unit as most home theater receivers do not have a phono preamp built-in.

Why don’t these receivers have a phono input when they have so many other inputs?  It’s a sensitive bit of circuitry and would add a fair amount to the cost, especially for good sound quality.


The Pro-Ject Debut III USB has a built-in phono preamplifier and USB output for connection to a computer.

(Courtesy Sumiko)

Pro-Ject Debut III USB Product Link

Some good quality turntables like the Pro-ject Debut USB, have built-in phono preamps.  Plastic cheapies that have built-in phono preamps are to be avoided!

Summing it up

The turntable turns the record.  The tonearm holds the cartridge, which tracks the record and create a tiny electrical signal.  The phono preamp takes the tiny electrical signal, amplifies and equalizes it, then sends it to you receiver or amplifier for playback.

Putting together a system

What you are looking for when you put together a system is synergy… a turntable, tonearm, cartridge, and phono preamp that work well together.  Certain kinds of cartridges and tonearms work better together, and certain cartridges (low output moving coils) need special phono preamplifiers because the cartridge’s output voltage is extremely low.   Putting an expensive cartridge on a cheap tonearm or turntable is a waste of money as the turntable and tonearm won’t match well with them.  It often sounds worse than if a less expensive cartridge is installed.

Getting a playback system with well-matched components isn’t hard, no matter your budget.  You can make sure you get a system that works well by buying a setup with the cartridge already installed, such as a Rega P1, Pro-Ject Debut III, a Pro-Ject RM-5 SE, or a Clearaudio Concept.  The manufacturer has done the ground work for you and has everything ready to go.  If you want to put together something more custom or upgrade your existing turntable with a new cartridge you can email me for recommendations or check with a retailer that specializes in vinyl playback gear.  I’ll have a listing of some recommended specialists soon.

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Questions?  Email Don

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