Audio      Guides



Intro


Some people like music as background noise.

When you start listening to music to actually "listen to music", you'll start to notice sound quality a lot more.

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.


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Signal to Noise Ratio

Wow and Flutter

Quality Today

Component Drift

Platter Wobble

But I Still Want Lower Wow & Flutter!

Conclusion









Signal to Noise Ratio


The music want to hear is the "signal".  The hiss, static, or buzz from electronics is the "noise". 

So there's a ratio.  Higher is better.

A bad recording, or a bad pressing, could add noise too, but that's not part of a turntable's "signal to noise ratio".  Just the turntable itself.

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.


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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 mid- or upper-tier models from Pioneer and Audio Technica have the best affordable 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 last I checked, Rega wasn't publishing 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.)


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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%.   This can happen often.

How is that possible? 

Wow and flutter are caused by both electrical and mechanical factors.  In an older turntable, capacitors can drift or go bad.  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.  And that's not always a bad idea.  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.


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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. 


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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.  It's worse than what you'll find on many turntables today!  Generally it sounds great, with no wow / flutter that I can detect in normal listening.  

When I really pay attention to the quiet passages on the JVC... yup, I can hear the W&F.  Easily.  I bet it's at least 0.20%, and probably more.

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.  I know it's not the LP's, because the oscillation period is too short, and it's that way on all of them. 

But that's an old turntable with a visibly-warped platter.  And probably the bearings are worn, too;  I've had that for almost 30 years.

I've heard a number of different tracks and albums on the Audio Technica AT-LP120, and guess what?  That sounds fantastic!   The published wow and flutter specs are 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.

(Update:  I've heard some people have tested theirs, and some definitely have W & F less than 0.2%.)

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. 


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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. 

But even if they did, you probably don't have LP's that are centered accurately enough anyway!  Turntables better than 0.15% W&F will not show much improvement unless you collect very high-quality pressings with good concentricity.

In case you do, there are starting to emerge brand-new turntables that have W&F specs lower than 0.1%. 

In the higher-priced range, 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 but a "golden ear" could possibly 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.

In the more affordable range, we now find this turntable from Pioneer, one of the pioneers of quality turntables.  It advertises a W&F spec of less than or equal to 0.01%, which is at least as good or better than any vintage turntable out there.  The W & F spec is so low that a special test LP is probably not even concentric enough to get past its own baseline W&F.

(Get your Pioneer through this link, or any of these, and it really helps keep my site on-line.)





Conclusion


Many of the modern turntables publish higher specs for wow and flutter.  That doesn't mean they're bad turntables.  Most of them don't spec better on paper than vintage turntables, but they're quite usable and have thousands of satisfied owners.

Anything below 0.20% should be tolerable for most people, if they even notice it.  At 0.10%, very few people can detect it at all. 

A lot of vintage turntables are worn and have component drift, so they're out of spec anyway.  Based on my own experience, I would not be surprised if a lot of them are now 0.25% or worse.

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.  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. 

Right now, if I were looking for a mid-range consumer turntable, I'd probably go for this turntable or this one.  0.1% wow and flutter is very good, and if the spec for that Pioneer is not a typo, 0.01% is phenomenal.

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

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