Everything you need to know about hooking up a vintage turntable

First things first – the simple setup: If you’re hooking your vintage turntable to a stereo receiver or amplifier that has jacks on the back marked “PHONO,” it’s easy: Plug the matching cables coming from your turntable in the phono jacks. Most likely (but not always) there’s also a skinny single wire coming from the turntable. This is called the ground wire. Attach it to a post or a screw (usually labeled “GROUND”) on your stereo (more on that below). Plug in the turntable’s power cord, set the function on the stereo to “phono,” and you’re ready to go. Just be sure not to put the turntable too close to your speakers! (More on that below, too.)

Important note: many of the more recent all-plastic turntables (Audio Technicas, some of the black Sonys, etc) have a built in phono preamp with an On/Off (or Phono/Line) switch under the platter. If you plug one of these into a Phono input on a receiver and it’s REALLY LOUD (and probably distorted), this is because the switch is in the wrong position and the signal is going through a phono preamp twice. Turn it to “Off” (or “Phono.”)

If you DON’T have a phono input on your audio system, or if you’re trying to connect your turntable to powered speakers, a sound bar, headphones or a sound input on your computer, the rest of this document is for you. (Note that I’m NOT going to discuss newer turntables that have USB outputs or Bluetooth connectivity — those units will have internal preamps, so just use the instructions included with those.)

Most audio sources you connect to a stereo or home theater receiver (DVD/CD players, iPhones, Bluetooth receivers, etc.) are called line level sources — they have electronically amplified signals. Turntables are different — the output from the cartridge on a vintage turntable is MUCH lower. It requires additional amplification and some EQ to bring it up to a proper signal. This additional amplification is called a phono preamp (a.k.a. “phono stage”). Phono preamps were built-in to older receivers and amps (see first paragraph above). Quite a few newer turntables have built-in phono preamps that can be switched on or off (see 2nd paragraph above — check the manual).

Most new audio gear — soundbars, mini-systems, Bluetooth speakers, home theatre receivers, etc. — do NOT have phono inputs. (In the last few years some manufaturers — Yamaha, to name one — have resumed putting phono inputs in their gear). To use a vintage turntable with these newer units the turntable signal must pass through an external phono preamp. You’ll then plug the output from the phono preamp into line-level inputs on your gear (these may be marked Aux, Tape, Line, Video, CD, etc). You would also use a phono preamp if you wanted to play your turntable through a computer, powered speakers or headphones. Bottom line, if your gear doesn’t have an input marked “PHONO,” you need a phono preamp. 

Note: If the input on your audio device is a stereo mini-plug jack (i.e. the headphone jack on an iPod), you’ll also need a 3.5mm Mini Plug to RCA stereo cable. These are inexpensive and very common, typically used for connecting devices with a headphone jack to stereos with two RCA jacks for left (white) and right (red) signal.

Which external phono preamp should I buy?
External phono preamps range from under $20 to thousands of dollars. For the casual user, you don’t need to spend a lot to get decent sound. The units below are listed roughly in order of increasing quality:

Pyle PP999 (~$15) – Bargain basement basic unit
Behringer Microphono Pp400 (~$25) – Basic unit with both RCA and ¼” stereo outputs
ART Pro Audio DJPRE II (~$66) – Higher quality basic unit * Best deal here and my best seller!
ART Precision Phono Preamp (~$80) – Similar to above with moving coil option
ART USB Phono Plus (~$99) – Similar to above with USB output
(This is just a small list that I started 10 years ago — there are dozens of reasonbaly priced options now).  

Remember – any stereo unit that has a “PHONO” input has the phono preamp built in already! You don’t need to buy a separate unit. And even an old stereo unit that is “broken” may still be usable as an external phono preamp. If the unit powers on, try plugging the turntable into the “Phono” jacks and take the output from the “Tape Out” jacks, then plug those into an input on another system.

What do I do with the skinny wire and/or why is there a buzz?
Most turntables have a thin “ground” wire alongside the phono cables. Not connecting the ground wire will result in an unpleasant buzzing. If no ground wire is present on your turntable, you may not need to worry about it, but always look to make sure no one’s amputated or unplugged it. Older stereos have a marked connection point for this wire. Some external phono preamps have one too. This is the best place to connect the ground wire, especially if using with a computer sound input. Some inexpensive preamps have no dedicated ground terminal; try connecting the wire to the preamp’s metal back plate using any means available. You’ll know when you’ve connected the ground wire because the buzzing will stop.

Why is my stereo marking a horrible noise when I play the turntable above a certain level?

The cartridge on a turntable is very sensitive to vibrations (it’s supposed to be – that’s how it extracts the music from the grooves). If your speakers are close enough to the turntable, the cartridge will pick up the low frequencies and you’ll get a very unpleasant form of acoustic feedback. It can ruin your records, your needle, and even your speakers if it gets out of control. The solution is to make sure that the speakers and turntable have a good bit of distance between them, and they shouldn’t be on the same surface. Another handy hint – the more stable the surface, the better your turntable will sound.

Okay, how do I set it up to play properly? What’s with the numbers on the dials and/or the weight at the back of the tonearm? What is anti-skate and how do I set it?

There are no easy, cut-and-dried answers to these questions. While many turntables have fairly simple and standard adjustments, there are endless variations and some have no adjustments at all. Your best bet is to go to the Library at Vinyl Engine (you will need to create an account) and download the users manual for your turntable model. You will also need to know information for your particular cartridge/stylus, specifically the tracking force (VTF). Most cartridges have an entry in the Cartridge Database at Vinyl Engine.

As a general rule of thumb, a “safe” default tracking force is between 1.5 and 2 grams for most hi-fi cartridges. Ones specifically made for DJs track a bit heavier, around 2 to 4 grams. Anti-skate (force that helps the stylus stay centered in the groove, sometime called “bias”) is usually set the same as the tracking force.

How do I record digital files (MP3s, FLACs, etc) from my records?

This operation is also referred to as a “needle drop.” The basic idea is that you turn your computer into a digital tape recorder. If using an old receiver, you hook the jacks marked “tape out” to the sound input on your computer. If using external phono preamp, hook the preamp outputs to the computer input. Record using audio editing software (Audacity is an example, and is freeware). Note that the trickiest part of recording on a computer is getting the recording software taking properly to your audio hardware.  When you’ve got the recording part working properly, you take the existing file (the whole album, or side of an album) and break it up into individual tracks (one file per song). For best results, clean your records. I also highly recommend ClickRepair if you can find a license for it (as of March 2021, support for the software is currently in limbo as the developer is in poor health).