120studio.com
April 2015



Intro

The goal of any turntable, CD player, or audio tape deck is to play music as clearly as possible.   That's true for digital music, too.  Noise can take away from your listening enjoyment. 

When you start listening to music to actually "listen to music"-- rather than just something to have in the background-- you'll start to notice sound quality a lot more.

Once you become an advanced listener, noise will probably start to bother you more than before. 

So, let's talk about two key concepts:  signal-to-noise ratio, and wow & flutter.

We'll keep it simple here:  I'm going to help you pick out good audio equipment from what's on the market today.


A Quick Note


This article is made possible only with the support of readers like you, when you use the links on here to purchase your gear.  The small commissions from sales are what allow me to keep this site going.   Thank you in advance for your help.


Signal to Noise Ratio

Wow and Flutter

Quality Today

Component Drift

Platter Wobble

Conclusion









Signal to Noise Ratio


This describes the ratio of what you actually want to hear (the signal) relative to the amount of noise (hiss, static, or buzz.)

It refers only to what the turntable produces.  That doesn't mean you couldn't throw a bad disc on there and get awful sound.  If they recorded on cheapo equipment, it will sound bad.

40 dB was once considered alright for a consumer turntable, but by the Eighties, there were turntables with 60 dB, and some above 70 dB.  A lot of R&D has gone into low-noise circuitry.  Today, even several of the beginner turntables advertise 50 dB.

And today there are quite a few that advertise 60 dB or better. 

In theory, a 50 dB turntable would be noisier than a 60 dB and way noisier than a 70 dB turntable.  The question is whether an average listener would really notice it. 

That's because once you start dealing with S/N ratios of about 60 dB, you probably won't notice much of a difference as the S/N improves above that.   Even at 50 dB, the amount of noise is quite small.  To get 2 dB of noise, you'd have to have 100 dB of music.    Most people cannot hear 2 dB, and definitely not when there's loud music playing.

There will be more noise from other sources that you would hear first.

50 dB is a good enough S/N ratio for the average listener.   And 60 dB or above is very good.

Beyond that, it's more important to have a low degree of wow & flutter.





Wow and Flutter

Have you ever heard a tape that was recorded on a deck that's going bad?  The pitch keeps changing and it's all distorted.  That's wow and flutter.  Normally it's not that bad, but all decks have a slight amount of wow and flutter even when they're new.

Turntables have some, also.
 
A few people are insensible to wow and flutter even as high as 0.25%.   That's a quarter of a percent.  It sounds OK to them.  Others will find half that amount to be unacceptable.

Very high amounts of wow and flutter sound nasty and distorted to anyone.   But some people notice small amounts very easily, and they cannot stand to listen to the music.

Most beginner and mid-range turntables nowadays are between 0.10% and 0.20%. 

Here's a basic rule of thumb.   If your turntable has wow and flutter below 0.20%, the average listener probably won't notice it, except in the very quiet portions of the music.   0.20% is two-tenths of a percent.  

At 0.10%, few people will notice wow and flutter at all, even in the quieter portions of the music.  (Some people can;  but not most.)

Right now, the upper-tier models from Pioneer, Audio Technica, and Stanton have the best offerings in this category, at 0.10%.  That's about at low as you're going to get in a new turntable, unless you spend a whole lot more.  The much-touted basic models from Pro-Ject and Rega don't offer any better.  The entry-level ones from Pro-Ject have 0.12%, and Rega doesn't even publish theirs;  I expect it's at least 0.10%, otherwise they'd be making sure to tell you what it was.

I'm glad to see the new TEAC TN-300 on the market.  It would have been nice to see a lower number for wow and flutter.  Even so, there's a large number of listeners who won't be bothered at all by 0.2% wow and flutter.   (And, see the next section.)




Quality Today

One of the things you'll see happening is people reading specs and saying stuff like, "Clearly, Turntable A is better than Turntable B.  Just look at the published specs!"

Whether that's a good approach depends on what kind of specs we're talking about.  Don't become too fixated on published specs.  There are camera people who do this, and it gets to the point where they don't even take pictures anymore.  They spend all their time arguing. 

Specs don't always translate to real performance.

A brand-new turntable that advertises 0.20% wow and flutter might actually sound better than a vintage one that advertised 0.05%.   Not always, but sometimes.

How is that possible? 

Wow and flutter are caused by both electrical and mechanical factors.  In an older turntable, capacitor values can drift.  Mechanical parts become worn.  Even transistors can drift, thanks to years of dealing with power spikes.  Most of the time, there are no obvious signs.  Most power spikes are not enough to kill the electronics completely, but you'd better believe they will affect performance.  

(This is why I keep telling people to get a real surge protector.)

There are vinyl enthusiasts who will tell you to get a vintage turntable and fix it up.  Problem is, the average person does not have the time or inclination to spend a year chasing down parts, or re-soldering a bunch of stuff inside their turntable chassis.

If you like vintage turntables, then by all means get one.  And if you can buy one that's been completely overhauled, then that might be best for you.  I love vintage gear;  don't get me wrong here.  What I'm saying is:  don't be scared off from one of the new units.  There are a lot of satisfied listeners out there.




Component Drift


Let's say you had a vintage turntable that advertised 0.03% wow and flutter, back in the day.  

Well, that "0.03%" might still be true... or, it could be much worse today.  Remember what I said about mechanical wear, power spikes, and component drift.  This is not conjecture.  It really happens.

Meanwhile, if you get a "good copy" of that modern turntable, the actual wow and flutter could be less than the published figure of 0.1 to 0.2%.  Remember, those are maximum figures.  There's a reason why they have a "less-than-or-equal-to" sign next to the number.

There are two buying paths here.  Brand-new turntable that's "pretty good", or vintage turntable that has the potential to be "great", if everything works perfectly. 

Go for the great, right?  Maybe that choice seems like a no-brainer, but it's actually not.  Here's why.

If people put their money into vintage turntables only, the market for new turntables will die out.  Then, when it's time to upgrade, there will be nothing!

If people put their money into new turntables, there will be more R&D that goes into making better ones.    Then, when it's time to upgrade, there will be even better turntables... maybe as good or better than the vintage stuff.  

I have become a fan of Chinese electronics and other products, because the quality has improved greatly over the past decade or so.  With continued interest in analog audio, you're going to see that quality improve even more. 

New turntables have brand-new components and manufacturer warranties.  And if you buy them through here, there's a great return policy in case you don't like something. 



Platter Wobble


A lot of vintage-only turntable guys say the new machines are bad "because the platters wobble". 

Actually, many of the consumer turntables from back in the day had wobble, also.    I've seen a number of them. 

Back in the late Eighties I used to go into stores and test all the turntables that I couldn't afford.  Which was basically all of them. And I remember seeing some platters that wobbled slightly, and thinking, "Hey, won't that ruin the sound?"  It didn't. 

Ideally you don't want any platter wobble, but the fact is, the average listener is not going to hear the effect.  Most are not listening to high-end recordings of classical music with a critical ear.   That's really the only time a lot of these units will sound bad, and even there, I'm not convinced that it's a foregone conclusion.

My old JVC turntable has platter wobble.  In fact, it's a bit worse than what you'll find on many turntables today!  Yet the turntable sounds fantastic, with no wow / flutter that I can detect by listening.   Have I compared the sound to every other turntable?  Nope.  It provides sound that I find to be very good.

Actually, here's an update.  Now that I've started paying attention to the quiet passages... yup, I can hear the W&F.  Easily.  The passages between songs have an oscillating sound, like you hear when the rear passenger window is opened a bit while you're driving down a highway.  The oscillation period seems to be somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 of a second, if I had to guess.  The fact that I can hear it easily means it's very high... probably way higher than the original spec at which the turntable was manufactured.  I know it's not the LP's, because the oscillation period is too short. It's the turntable. 

I've heard a number of different tracks and albums on the Audio Technica AT-LP120, and guess what?  That sounds fantastic, too!   The published wow and flutter specs are a whopping 0.2%, but it doesn't sound bad to me.  Either I'm one of those people who can't hear wow and flutter easily, or else the turntable is better than people are acknowledging.  And actually, there are other people who've reached the same conclusions I have.

The AT-LP120 sounds so good-- to me, anyway-- that if I were shopping for a turntable in the $250-to-$300-ish price range, I would just grab one immediately and not even think twice.  

It's more fun to listen to records than to agonize for months about which one to buy.   It's a lot like cameras; some people spend so much time worrying they're getting the wrong camera that they're not taking pictures or having fun. 



But I Still Want Lower Wow & Flutter


The manufacturers have probably figured this all out long before you and I have.  They're not going to offer < 0.1% W&F in the mid-priced range, not when they don't have to. 

Then again, they make the conditions ripe for a competitor to do exactly that...

Until that happens, the good news is that Pro-Ject makes the Xperience Classic with 0.08% wow & flutter. 

Then there's the Pro-Ject PerspeX with 0.06% wow & flutter.  Once you're down in this range, it could be argued that no one is going to hear the W&F at all, and thus other factors become more important.  The PerspeX has a mag-lev suspension system, rather than springs.  As you would expect in this price bracket, it's also got the carbon-fiber tonearm.

If I were in the market for a new turntable and wanted something really nice, I'd seriously consider one of these.  (Get yours through this link and help keep my site on-line.)





Conclusion

Modern turntables publish higher specs for wow and flutter.  That doesn't mean they're bad turntables.  They sure don't spec better than vintage turntables, but most of the new ones are quite usable and have thousands of satisfied owners.

Anything below 0.20% should be tolerable for most people, and only a few will notice anything amiss at 0.10%. 

Vintage turntables usually have better published specs, but component drift and mechanical wear can increase wow and flutter.  It can also degrade signal-to-noise ratio.  

How many listeners do you know who will go through a piece of vintage electronic gear and replace every electrolytic cap in the whole device?  I don't know many.  I don't have time to do stuff like that.  Even if you do, that still wouldn't be enough, because you'd probably also have to replace all the semiconductors that had gate voltage drift (etc) from all the years of bad power. 

And in some cases, you'd have to replace bearings and other parts to bring the unit back to factory spec. 

Unless you're serious about investing the time required to refurbish a vintage turntable, you might be better off with one of the newer units.

Right now, if I were looking for a mid-range consumer turntable, I'd probably go for this turntable, this one, or this one.   0.1% wow and flutter is about as good as you're going to find in a currently-made turntable, unless you get into the higher-priced ones such as this unit from Pro-Ject.

And for most listeners, the AT-LP120 is plenty good.

If you found this page useful, informative, or entertaining, please help me out by purchasing your stuff through these links.   Your help is greatly appreciated.

Thanks for visiting my website!








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