Welcome to the Vinyl Cult: Buying a Half-Decent Record Player

Father and son, Tom Stinson and Randy Stinson, of Randy's Records are pros when it comes to purchasing a record player. Photo: Swainston

Everyone who is even a little bit into music has that friend who continually, and annoyingly, scoffs at iPod playlists and can never shut up about the divine attributes of vinyl records, spouting nonsense like “it’s more personal, man” or “there’s a warmer sound, man.” I never bought into all of that, but don’t get me wrong, there have been times in my life when my record-buying habits seriously impaired my ability to pay rent or put gas in my scooter, but that’s just because I’m crazy about rock n’roll in all its various forms. When I find a punk or hardcore 7” that is otherwise unavailable, I get this tingly, sort of aroused feeling in my stomach, and I dig seeing my LPs lined up on the shelf, but I never thought they actually sounded better. 

It turns out (again!) that I have no idea what I’m talking about. After spending an afternoon in the back room of Randy’s Records, a family run establishment that exists because, as founding owner Randy Stinson charitably says, “It’s fun to get vinyl into the hands of people who like it,” I learned just how wrong I was. I also learned that my turntable, a Crosley CR49-TW that I got for Christmas a few years ago, is a total piece of garbage.

Father and son team Randy and Tom Stinson, who make up the expert brains of Randy’s Records, took one look at my setup and chuckled. My heart sank. I knew my system wasn’t anything special, but a chuckle from these two means bad news. They’re the experts. Randy bought his first record (Santo and Johnny’s Sleepwalk) in 1959, and has been an addict ever since. At one point, he claims to have owned over 30,000 45s. Tom couldn’t help but to be surrounded by vinyl his whole life. They know exactly what they’re talking about.

“Those are kind of a novelty thing, but a lot of people are buying them,” Randy says, referring to Crosley record players and other similar stereo systems. “It’s sad because they’re ruining records. They’re buying all these 20 and 30 dollar records—you know, like Radiohead’s new one or something—and you can’t play it very many times without it starting to wear.” The best record players, he says, were built in the seventies and eighties, and can often be found in record stores if people know what they’re looking for.

Randy is quick to point on my turntable’s most serious flaw. “The two most important things about a record player, in my opinion, are the arm and the cartridge,” he says. The arm on mine shakes around like crazy which, according to Randy and Tom, will keep the system from being able to reproduce the high and low ends of the sound spectrum.

Randy weighs the cartridge, explaining that most needles and records are calibrated to handle a cartridge that weighs about 1.5 to two grams. The cartridge on mine is so heavy that his scale can’t read it. Randy shakes his head and estimates that it weighs about 8 grams. That means that my precious records are wearing out at least four times faster than they would on a good turntable, and they’re not sounding very good while they do it.

Decent cartridges are available at Randy’s for anywhere from $25 to about $200, depending on what you’re looking for. I have no idea what makes one different from another, so I have Tom explain the difference. It all comes down to the shape of the needle, he says. Now I’m no engineer, but from what I understand, the higher-end needles, known as microlines, make more contact with the record’s grooves than the middle and low-end ones do, elliptical and conical, respectively. It turns out that a record holds many times more information than a CD does (that means it has potential to sound really good, dude), but you just have to know how to access it all. One part of accessing all that info is to swap your needle out after every 1,000 hours of listening.

Randy throws a slab on my record player and listens for a few seconds before announcing that the platter is spinning too fast. He checks it, and sure enough, instead of spinning at 45 RPM it’s spinning at about 52. Bummer.  I ask him why this is and he explains the different kinds of turntables, ones with belt drives and ones with direct drives.

He says that on direct drives, the platter is built right into the motor. DJs prefer these models because they start and stop instantly with the push of a button. The others, he explains, are quieter.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a belt drive or a direct drive. If it’s well built, it’s going to hold its speed,” Randy says. According to him, not enough people check for speed when buying a turntable at a thrift store. He teaches me a trick. Turn on the stereo and put a coin on the platter, counting how many times it goes around in a minute. “It’s better to be slightly fast than slightly slow.”

One of the main arguments for CDs over records is that record players pick up extra noise from dust or scratches, but Randy discredits that notion.

“If you go to a concert and you focus on all the people around you, the squeaky chairs, whatever, you’re going to hear all kinds of noise, but if you go and focus on the music, it’s a great experience,” he says. “That’s what we do with records. You put a record on and so there’s a little tick every once in a while, there’s a little bit of background noise, but when the music’s on you don’t hear that.”

Needles, platters, cartridges and arms. Ticks and background noise. It’s a lot to keep straight, and it seems like getting a good sound out of vinyl records might start adding up to be rather expensive, especially when an amplifier and speakers get thrown into the mix, but at Randy’s there are full systems, complete with USB jack and self amplified speakers for as little as $250.

“The truth is, I just want people to have good turntables so they can hear records like I did,” says Tom.

Randy adds, “It’s hard to tell people just what it is. Some people think we’re a cult because we think that vinyl sounds better than CD. They don’t get it. They think we’re nuts.”

Father and son, Tom Stinson and Randy Stinson, of Randy's Records are pros when it comes to purchasing a record player. Photo: Swainston