Contrary to popular belief, a turntable and a record player is not the same thing.
The terms may be used interchangeably in many contexts but there are important key differences that separate these two.
But which option is better for you?
After all, simply knowing how they differ in their main functionality doesn’t answer the question of why a person would choose one over the other.
This requires us to dig a little deeper into the differences between a turntable and a record player.
So, keep reading to learn the surprising qualities of these two systems.
To compare a turntable and a record player, we need to properly explain what each is in its own right. Especially if you’re new to collecting vinyl, you may not know where a record player starts and where a turntable ends.
It can be a bit like trying to draw a line at the point where a hill turns into a mountain. So, topography aside, let’s jump into the magical equipment that brings records to life.
A turntable is a piece of audio equipment that spins a vinyl record and captures the vibrations of the grooves in the record via a needle. So, the turntable would include the surface on which the record sits, the motor system to drive the rotation, the tonearm setup that ends with the needle, as well as any turntable controls such as the speed control.
The speed control is important for changing between 33 ⅓ and 45 RPM so that you can play different record sizes.
Furthermore, some turntables will include a preamp. However, this isn’t always the case, so it is something that one would need to check.
However, much like a person is more than the sum of their parts, there is more to the characteristics of a turntable than just its multiple elements. So, what’s more important than its anatomy is the fact that a turntable is not a complete standalone system.
You can’t simply buy a turntable, pop your record on and expect to hear the sweet melody of Frank Sinatra coming through loud and clear.
A turntable requires an additional audio system to be able to play the music that the turntable reads. Depending on whether the turntable includes a preamp or not, the audio system could merely be an amplifier or it could be an amplifier as well as a preamp.
It’s a lot to take in, we know! And this isn’t even covering the details of all the parts. If you’re drowning in a sea of lingo, jump over to our article on Parts of a Record Player – Full Turntable Anatomy Explained. You’ll find a no-nonsense explanation of all the important bits and pieces.
On the other hand, a record player is fully kitted out and often has all the bells and whistles! It’s an all-in-one system that allows you to play your records right from the get-go. A record player gets you from wanting to crank up your favorite tunes to dancing to them in the shortest time possible.
It includes a turntable, an audio system to play the music aloud and it typically provides an assortment of extra features. These additional features could be anything from Bluetooth capabilities to the ability to play other file formats like radio and MP3 etc.
The best and most obvious place to start is in the naming and the specifications of the equipment. You wouldn’t buy a car without first checking what you’re getting for your money and your record player or turntable shouldn’t be any different!
The manufacturer should tell you exactly what it is and what it does or doesn’t include. This will be your most reliable source of information to get your ducks in a row, so don’t get lost in the flashy design or marketing slogans. Always read the specification.
However, there are a few other aspects that can help you tell the difference at first glance. Bear in mind that these aren’t strict rules, but they should help you become more acquainted with the look and feel of both systems.
Turntables are typically one unit that looks like a rectangular base with all the other components, that we briefly mentioned earlier, on top. The controls will be fairly basic and geared towards simply switching on the turntable, lowering the tonearm or adjusting a few details such as the counterweight, anti-skate or speed.
You probably won’t see any additional controls for other features like Bluetooth or a USB slot for MP3. It’s unlikely that the turntable would come with other equipment such as an external speaker or subwoofer.
And as for the most important part, which is the sound of a turntable by itself, the answer is rather anticlimatic. If you play a record on a turntable without rigging it up to a sound system, you shouldn’t hear anything exciting. If you lean in super close, you may hear a faint whisper of some slightly hollow sound. But it would be nothing close to what you want to be hearing from whichever glorious record you decided to pick that day.
When you compare this to a record player, you notice that some attributes stand out as reasons to assume it could be a record player and not a turntable. Namely, additional feature controls like the different file formats that we touched on earlier.
Furthermore, record players are often, but not always, styled as a briefcase. It is common to see record players that appear to be a small briefcase with a handle when it is closed. These then unclasp to open up and show the platter and tonearm.
Another little telltale is the sound system that is sometimes visible in plain sight. This could be an external speaker or subwoofer that comes with it or even small speakers that can be seen on the sides of the base.
And the biggest giveaway is the awesome sound! When you use a record player, you can immediately hear the full blast of your record. Without any additional equipment, you should be able to jive to your tunes the second the needle hits the first groove.
The question is not so much if one is better than the other but rather if one is better than the other for you specifically. Both options provide a multitude of different benefits, but they are targeted to different people. Whether it’s because of portability, convenience or being customizable, both systems will have people who love them or hate them.
One of the appeals of a record player is that you don’t need to worry about endless cables, separate preamps, active or passive speaker sets and such. In many cases, you can pack up your whole record playing system by merely snatching a clasp. Of course, not all record players are so portable but there are plenty on the market that are designed with portability in mind.
However, some record players can be rather large to account for the complete audio system. This makes them very difficult to transport. So look out for this design consideration when checking out different options.
But essentially, the crux of portability comes down to what type of record player you are considering and whether you are comparing the portability of the individual item or the portability of a full system that works.
By nature, a turntable should be more portable than a record player since it is just one piece of the puzzle. There is less of it to move around. However, if you consider what it would take to transport a fully-functional record playing system, a turntable would probably fall in the ranks because of its inherent reliance on other equipment.
While the portability of a turntable is appealing at first, that quickly disappears when you realize that the turntable alone will leave you with a shallow flicker of sound.
There is a clear winner in the competition of convenience! One of the main reasons that a record player is a fantastic option for people who have simple taste is that it is a mighty agreeable setup. It allows you to streamline your system and give your brain the day off. Minimal effort is required and it offers a high reward from day one.
Whereas a turntable will always require a little extra input. Even if the turntable setup is incredibly simple, it is not a plug-and-play system. So, if you’re after convenience, a record player is perfect!
If you’re a vinyl veteran and love vintage turntables or are quickly becoming an enthusiast, you may be particularly interested in something that is customizable. This is where a turntable can shine! Since a fully-functioning system with a turntable is made up of multiple components, it means that you have full control over the quality of those pieces.
You can start small and as your love for vinyl records grows, you can start to invest more into higher-quality preamps and speakers to improve your sound quality. A record player doesn’t typically offer you the same level of freedom.
That’s not to say that a record player doesn’t allow any room for adjustments, it’s just to say that customizations are less accessible. Record players often allow you to connect to a different speaker set so that you aren’t locked into using the stereo speakers provided with the record player. However, it’s difficult to start heavily messing with all the internals since it’s all one system.
If your love for records does grow into a collection we recommend storing your vinyl records correctly so they last generations, and can be enjoyed many years into the future.
Cost is a hairy topic when comparing turntables and record players because there is so much variety. One’s initial instinct is to say that record players are more expensive because they include more equipment which drives up the price. However, you can find low-end record players that are more budget-friendly than a high-end turntable.
And again, it’s important to consider the whole setup, not just the individual systems. Even if the turntable that you’re eyeing is cheaper than the record player that you’ve been checking out, you need to consider the cost of the turntable’s additional equipment and how that will increase your total cost.
For the most part, if you’re comparing similar quality systems, record players are more expensive than turntables. But if you’re a bit of a fixer-upper, you can sometimes snag a fantastic turntable that would be cheaper than its record player counterpart, even if you count the cost of the sound system.
As you can see, there is a significant overlap between a turntable and a record player. However, the biggest distinguishing factor is that a record player includes a fully-functioning audio system, whereas a turntable requires additional equipment to play music.
Each system is better suited to different types of people. Some may love the convenience of a record player while others desire the flexibility of a turntable. Whichever direction you lean, we have full faith that you’ll be enjoying the timeless joy of vinyl records in no time.
- Hands-On: Victrola Premiere V1 Music System Review
- How to Clean a Record Player (& Needle) – With Photos
- Vinyl VS Record: Are They the Same Thing? What About an LP?
- How to Fix a Warped Record: Is it Possible to Unwarp Vinyl?
- How Much is a Record Player? Are They Worth the Cost?
Trent is a music lover, musical instrument player and passionate audio afficionado.