Folks come in fairly often looking for a “cheap turntable.” Of course, unless you hit on an awesome thrift store or garage sale find, this isn’t really something which exists anymore. We remember the days when box stores like Best Buy sold a fairly decent Technics or Sony, but that’s nearly as distant as the time Tom Petty fought with MCA Records when they wanted to raise the retail price of Hard Promises to $9.98. A good turntable just isn’t cheap anymore and given their popularity, not on the shelves for long.
Historically, Gen Xers like ourselves acquired turntables without much effort. Our parents’ friends often gave us theirs, since it hadn’t been used in years, or we simple went into Mom and Pop’s basement and stole the one they’d forgotten. When one of us used to commute by bicycle we’d find them on the curbs in nice neighborhoods on garbage day, and strap the new prize to a rack on the back. Yep, the coveted turntable was once like the television is today.
There’s a graveyard of turntables here at Hymie’s, from a vintage Brunswick wind-up (which belonged to a friend and is kept on display in the shop as a little tribute) to a couple of those goddamn Crosleys which poop out within weeks of opening the box. The turntables you see stacked in the back room of the shop all need some love of one kind or another. They’re not simply missing belts or needles — they need to be taken apart and fixed. This, along with the fact we sell them far more quickly than we find the time to fix them, is why there’s never a huge selection of working turntables for sale.
We’ve all become so spoiled by the fact there’s three dozen types of ketchup in the grocery store that we expect the same everywhere else we go. It’s just not so with turntables, especially the elusive “cheap turntable.”
Consider, for instance, the time which went into a Technics 1900 which came with a large collection we bought last summer. Its tone arm lifter didn’t function, meaning its auto-start also would not function, and more importantly that when it reached the end of the album the auto-return would drag the needle across the surface of the album.
Vrrrrrrrrrrrroooooooooomp! You know the sound.
What happens with a turntable sits for a decade or several is that its lubricants turn to sticky goo, sort of like pine sap. On other machines this freeze the platter in place. This is especially common with the classic BSR “stackers,” which at one time were about the most common record players in the world and when cleaned can be very durable. On these classic direct-drive Technics, which are no longer in production, the sappy gunk most often seizes up that tiny, essential little plastic rest.
The rest is raised and lowered by a piston inside a metal shaft and a spring, and its connection to the auto-start, auto-return and cue switch functions are controlled by a plastic cam. Cleaning these parts requires a tedious deconstruction of the turntable. First one turns it over and removes the screws which hold the tone arm assembly and basic casing in place. When loosened you can remove the switches and cover plate seen in the first photograph, and you can work the casing carefully around the tone arm, as in the picture just below.
Now you’ve nearly there You have to remove the remaining screws holding the turntable assembly to the rest of the mechanical parts and lift it up carefully. You must be gentle so you don’t damage the tiny leads which carry the signal from your stylus through the tone arm, and eventually out to your amplifier, your speaker and your ears (otherwise you’ll double your work). You also have to raise the tone arm assembly carefully so it remains properly connected to the levers and gears which control the various automatic functions (auto-start, auto-return, repeat, etc).
While you’ve got the machine disassembled, its a good idea to give everything a quick tidying, too. If you have a can of compressed air its nice to get any junk out of there, and its a good idea to clean the pitch control contacts with a de-oxidizing solution. If this isn’t something you do every week, the ten dollars you’ll spend on those couple cans will be an investment to last you half a lifetime.
Finally you’re there. The white plastic piece you see below is the lifter cam, and its your culprit. Remember the Vroooooooooooomp! sound? Its all this guy’s fault. In the picture the spring which holds him taut has already been removed, but he was so stuck in place the spring was stretched to its limit. You remove a screw which holds the lifter cam in place and the tiny c-clip holding the spring over the piston. All of these parts, and all of the washers installed with them, need to be scrubbed with rubbing alcohol,using Q-tips and a tiny flathead screwdriver, until they’re free from the sticky lubricant. When this stuff is really stubborn, especially on older players, you may have to use a soldering iron or a hair dryer to heat the area up before you can make any progress. The piece onto which the lifter cam is covered with a tiny metal sheathing, and that has to be scrubbed too. One finally clean and dry they’re all re-lubed, this time with a dry lubricant which can be silicon- or graphite-based (meaning you won’t have to make this repair again for a couple more decades, ideally). Then the entire works needs to be re-assembled without disrupting the other functions, all of which were working when you started.
Afterwards, the lifter rest needs to be adjusted to the proper height, so it neither disrupts play nor fails to raise the arm high enough to protect the stylus and records during auto-start and auto-return. Once assembled and adjusted, the turntable has to be tested for an afternoon, so you’re sure one of your customers won’t get home and find something else has been damaged in the disassembly and reassembly process. Most turntables have a damaged stylus by the time they make it to the record shop as well, so there’s the job of properly balancing and aligning the replacement.
We have always said we fall in love with most turntables which come through the shop — this is in part because we often spend half an afternoon performing surgery on them. When you think about the intricacy of the interlocking parts of a machine like this Technics 1900, they’re remarkably elegant. The many articles we’ve seen in recent years about the ‘resurgence of vinyl’ often cite the physical appeal of albums and the larger artwork on their jackets as a factor which distinguishes them from digital media, but seldom recognize how much ore enjoyable owning a turntable can be. We have many favorite models, and enjoying the beauty of them isn’t really so different than enjoying a classic car show or building a boat inside a bottle.
But they often require knowledge, patience and skill to repair. There is also often an investment in parts and supplies. This is why there aren’t always “cheap turntables.” When choosing which project to work on next, we try and get at least a couple record players repaired each month which will cost under fifty dollars, but many like this Technics 1900 go for more than that online in ‘as is’ condition. Even at a fair price, it was gone within a day or so, and the customer who brought it home has told us it performs fantastically and sounds great. We have meanwhile moved on to the next project, which yesterday was a Sony linear tracking turntable (what’s this?) which has a problem with the tone-arm motor.
If you enjoy looking at beautiful turntables, or if you’re looking for a fully-restored classic console stereo of quality turntable, you should really visit our friends at Vintage Music Company. They also have the largest selection of 78rpm records you’ll find anywhere, and they are where we most often by needles for our own records players here at Hymie’s.
So there’s an explanation of the turntable graveyard here in the shop. Some may never be fix-able, and others are being kept so they can one day donate a part or two to another. Others are on the ‘donor list,’ waiting patiently for a part. Most are just waiting until the day we have the time and resolve to get in there and fix something like a tone-arm lifter.