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How Record Players Work: 10 Things to Know

Do you love your record player but wonder what’s going on under the surface? 

Read on below to learn the basics of how record players work. Any curious record collector can benefit from some extra knowledge about their favorite way to enjoy music. These seven key pieces of information will help you understand the ingenuity behind your record player. 

1. The Phonograph: Grandfather of the Modern Record Player 

Before the record player was the phonograph. Invented in the late 1800s by none other than Thomas Edison, the phonograph was a device designed to record sound and play it back using technology that was the precursor to modern record players.

To use a phonograph, one would use a hand-crank to rotate a cylinder attached to a needle. Sound waves made the receiver on top of the phonograph vibrate, making the needle move. The needle would record the sound waves onto the cylinder as the user rotated it with the crank. The phonograph could then be used to play the recorded sound back. However, the device was not particularly reliable or easy to use.

2. The Gramophone: Father of the Modern Record Player 

A decade after the invention of the phonograph, German-American inventor Emile Berliner refined Edison’s phonograph concept to create the gramophone. Instead of recording sound onto a cylinder, the gramophone played back recorded sound on discs using a needle similar to that of the phonograph. 

The gramophone took Edison’s initial concept of a recording and playback device and repurposed it so that consumers could listen to recorded music. The gramophone was one step closer to the modern record player.

3. From Gramophone to Turntable

The gramophone was refined and improved during the early twentieth century, and eventually gave way to the introduction of the turntable record player. Like the gramophone before it, the turntable was not designed to record sound. Instead, it used a needle to play back recorded sound on vinyl records.

In addition, while the gramophone required a user to crank a handle to rotate the disc and play sound, turntables were designed to rotate the records mechanically. Adding a mechanical belt allowed for record players to become a staple of home entertainment by the 1940s.

The “needle” of a modern record player does not serve the same purpose as Edison’s phonograph needle, which was actively recording sound waves onto a cylinder. Instead, the modern record player’s needle serves as more of a stylus, reading prerecorded sound of a record as it rotates. 

4. How Sound is Copied onto Records 

Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone and eventually the turntable, also found a way to copy prerecorded sound onto records, allowing for mass distribution of recorded music in record form. This is done using a process called electroplating, which allows for the creation of the grooves on a record that are read by the needle. Electroplating is done using a press, which leaves imprints on both sides of the record of a master recording. An LP (or long play) record has space on both sides for about twenty-five minutes of recorded sound. 

Although some records, called 78s because they rotate at 78 revolutions per minute, were made from a material called shellac, the norm for record material is polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC. This is the material that gave vinyl records their name. 

5. How the Record Player’s Needle Works

The record player’s needle, also known as a stylus, picks up vibrations from the grooves in the record as it spins. These vibrations are then translated into sound by the record player. The vibrations received from the record by the needle travel to an amplifier inside the record player by way of a mechanism called the tone arm. 

6. From Needle to Cartridge 

A modern record player’s needle, or stylus, is typically made out of unrefined diamond. This hard material sits inside the grooves of the record while it spins. The needle picks up vibrations from the spinning record, but these vibrations will not produce sound unless they are converted into electrical signals. 

7. From Cartridge to Amplifier 

In order for sound to come out of the record player’s speakers, the vibrations picked up by the needle must be turned into electrical signals. This conversion process happens thanks to the cartridge. The cartridge is attached to the needle and contains a magnet which vibrates as the record spins. As the magnetic field shifts, it generates an electrical current, which is picked up by the amplifier. 

8. From Amplifier to Speakers

Getting sound from a vinyl record requires amplification. This is because the electrical signal from the record player’s cartridge is far too quiet to hear. Some record players have preamps built into them. A preamp not only converts the electrical signal from the cartridge into sound, it also makes it loud enough to hear. 

There are several potential configurations that determine the way a record player makes sound. Some more recent record players have a built-in preamp and speakers. This means you do not need an external amplifier, preamp or speakers to get sound. However, external speakers tend to provide better sound quality than those included in a record player, especially a cheaper one. 

Many record enthusiasts enjoy their records using a setup that includes a turntable, external preamp and passive speakers. Passive speakers require an external amplifier like a preamp to work. Depending on your level of commitment to the hobby of listening to records, investing in a preamp and speakers can be game-changing.

9. Mono vs. Stereo Sound 

Originally, records played only monophonic sound. In other words, if a mono record was played out of two speakers, the left and right speakers would play the same sound. In the late 1950s, the first stereophonic records were released. Stereo records gave listeners an opportunity to listen to their music with the sonic dynamics of a live band. A stereo mix is typically more full sounding, making stereophonic records a major innovation. 

For a long time, both mono and stereo pressings of vinyl records were released. This gave consumers the opportunity to buy whichever pressing was compatible with their at-home record player setup. Upon their initial release, stereophonic records were not yet compatible with every record player, and mono alternatives needed to be available. A modern record player can easily play both mono and stereo records. 

This distinction between mono and stereo pressings of records can provide a partial explanation for why certain pressings are more desired by collectors than others. Many collectors opt for mono pressings of records released before 1959, because this was before stereophonic pressings were perfected.

For collectors choosing between mono and stereo pressings from the 60s and 70s, a few factors come into play. Many collectors are looking for the rarest pressing of an LP and will choose between mono and stereo based on which pressing is rarer. 

When newly released albums are released in vinyl form now, they are in stereo by default. So, if you are less interested in rare pressings and more interested in building up a collection of your favorite recent albums on vinyl, the mono versus stereo conundrum will probably not affect you. 

10. Differences in Record Players 

If you’re looking for your first record player or upgrading from your current one, it’s essential to know what can make each one cheaper or more expensive. The price of a record player is far from arbitrary – it is usually indicative of what features are included and the overall quality of the player.

One key difference between cheaper and higher-end record tables is that more expensive turntables typically weigh more. Weight is a strategic part of the player’s design; the heavier the player, the more vibration it can absorb. This has a major positive impact on overall sound quality and adds to the listening experience.

In addition, the tone arm, belt, and other apparatuses in a cheaper record player can negatively affect sound quality since they are usually lower grade. The tone arm in particular can have a negative effect on the overall sound of the record player.

Overall, the listening experience for vinyl records is much more complex and subjective than just the gear you choose. The feel of the record in your hands, the serenity of pulling it out and placing it on the turntable, and the pleasure of enjoying analog listening all contribute to the popularity of record players. 

Now that you know how a record player works, the enjoyment of listening to vinyl is even greater. The intricacies of your turntable are a testament to the magic of human invention. When you put a record on, you’re engaging with a piece of technology that is one of the most innovative inventions in history. This reality in and of itself makes listening to records enjoyable, rewarding and worthwhile.


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