What makes for a "great" turntable?

I know that the cartridge, tonearm, phono pre-amp and other upstream components make records clearly sound different, but what is it about different turntables themselves (cartridge and tonearm excluded) that affects the sound? I would guess isolation from external vibrations and rotational accuracy. After this, what else is there that makes a great $30000 turntable sound better than say a much lower priced "good" table?

Also, how significant is the table itself to the resulting sound compared to the other things, ie tonearm, cartridge, phono pre-amp, etc?
longevity, convenience(cartridge mounting, general maintenance or lack there of) and my fave..autolift.
I will second 'autolift', especially the Denon machines. I have, in addition to my VPI Aries, the 47F Denon. It gets more play then the Aries.
I would guess isolation from external vibrations and rotational accuracy

I think you've pretty much said it as far as clearly identifiable design characteristics that affect the sound are concerned, except that I would add "rotational stability" if that is not implicit in "accuracy."

Although I have no experience with $30K+ turntables I would imagine that, as with most audio components, beyond a certain price point there is either diminishing return or overkill.

As you may be aware, around 25 or 30 years ago Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn began to promulgate the self-serving philosophy that the turntable is the most critical contributor to the overall sonic performance of a system. This by virtue of the fact that it is first in the chain, and so any inaccuracy or distortion that it produces is amplified by everything else that follows.

I suspect that he didn't do too well if he ever took an academic course in Logic, his philosophy totally ignoring the possibility that the inaccuracies introduced by the turntable may be orders of magnitude smaller than those introduced by other components.

Here is a quote from a site that talks about his classic LP12 turntable, http://www.tnt-audio.com/sorgenti/linn_lp12_e.html:

The character of the LP12: at first, it has a lovely midrange, which makes you smile, when you listen to a singer's voice, kind of tube preamp like. Then it gives some kind of forward movement of the music playing, which Linn fans call PRAT (=Pace, Rhythm And Timing). This forward movement gives a lot of joy when listening, but records which do not develop such a forward movement on the LP12 do sound definitely boring. Some records are such that you are hunting for "interesting parts" giving you the goosebumps.

Perhaps, perhaps not, but my point in mentioning this is that for owners of super-expensive turntables (which the Linn was not, of course), there are likely to be subjectively perceived sonic values that transcend what is attributable to specific design characteristics.

-- Al
The "purpose" of a TT is to spin the record at a constan rpm and to provide a stable platform for the LP and tonearm. The motor and bearing should not transmit vibration/noise to the LP. Speed control should be precise and accurate. The spindle should be correctly sized and centered. The armboard should be dimensionally stable and should not transmit bearing and motor vibration/noise to the tone arm. Pretty simple performance standards, but implementation is the key, as always. Precision implementation, I should say; at the very small distances and signal levels we are talking about here, the margins of error are similarly small.
Mass. A good TT will have mass. Everything everyone said above is correct too, but IMHO a very heavy platter contributes to both speed and image stability - especially if you're using a clamp. See SOTA.
I think linn should get off the "follow the tune" crap when it comes to the linn sondek, and start with designing and building a Turntable for this century.
It is my belief that the price asked does not always indicate the quality of the turntable, or any other component for that matter. What does make some products standout from others is the philosophy of their designs. Everyone knows that the audio chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you have a great system, but with a bad tube in the amp you get a poor result. The same goes for a turntable or any other component. Each piece in the audio chain has to be looked at as an entity in itself. A turntable that would be stellar overall may fall down when a compromise exists which would lessen the intent of its design. It is the same with a speaker, an amp, a tonearm, or whatever. That's the rub because a product in a line that doesn't have maximum attention to detail, or was intentionally made to a lesser price point, often overlooks some aspect that would otherwise strengthen the overall design, hence the weak link in the chain. The problem with all this is the price tag you're going to see when everything is done right to an OCD level. Suddenly, that $5,000 system becomes a $150,000 one. Sure the turntable is a part of it, but it doesn't stop there. Any piece of a top system needs such attention or the result is compromised. That's why a $30,000 turntable is usually better, and that's why a $30,000 preamp is usually better. The same goes for any component. The caveat is that some of those products somehow manage to miss the mark for whatever reason. All you can do, assuming you have the price of admission, is make judgments based on common sense, your ears and careful research. All that said, an item on the extreme of high-end audio can be good enough that it will immediately be apparent to even the casual listener that he is hearing something very special. Unfortunately, one that doesn't meet the standard stands out like a sore thumb at this level of system performance.
You got it right with your second sentence, and Swampwalker said it a different way. But most important in all of this is to have fun listenin-ta-rekkids, and part of having fun is not stressing about it, so I agree that for many listeners, autolift is a great feature. The number one difference between a $30,000 table and a very well-designed table purchased used for 80% less is... well... $24,000. Usually that also means something in the looks and bragging rights department, but I don't need a work of art to listen-ta-my-rekkids.
more than ever,it would appear that a turntable's price is somewhat 'contingent' on how 'tall' it is, and how its 33&1/3 rpms is better than the other guy's 33&1/3 rpms (those at a lower elevation). many i know with a house- full of records(literally) couldn't tell me(of the top of their head) what the model number of their table is, or the make(and year purchased) of their cartridge . in most cases, it's a garden variety panasonic or dual, and after 30 or 40 years its still spinning at 33&1/3 just fine. I guess that makes for a 'great' turntable.
Thanks for keeping it real jaybo.
Okay after 50 years in this hobby and having owned more turntables than most members. Back in analogs golden day the tables of choice were Dual and Thorens and many of those survive to this day.But Dual and Thorens now are mere ghosts of what they once were.

However for the last 25 years or so have been firmly entrenched in the VPI line up of turntables. The reason for me is quite simple. The VPI turntables are well thought out, superb construction and parts and most of all service is just a phone call away, plus they have a firm dealer network. Another plus is the clear upgrade path that VPI tables have, when one wants to move their existing VPI to another level, without having to buy another new turntable or start over again with something else.

Yes I continue to evaluate other brands that come through here such as Project,MMF series,Clearaudio,Sota, and others. This is not to disparage those brands, but none of those have for me the overall comfort level of the VPI brand.

If push came to shove, the only other turntable out there I would go for is the Simon Yorke turntables. A friend of mine has the S 7 and this is in my opinion the finest turntable I have ever had the pleasure to listen to. Each time I visit him I am just totally mesmerized by the outright musicality of the Simon Yorke. I have never heard anything in turntables that can touch the S 7. But that level of excellence does not come on the cheap. And the rest of your system must be up to the task of running an extreme turntable such as a Simon Yorke.

For me the VPI brand offers the best of all parameters that I seek. Is there better out there? Sure there is and it will cost your dearly to move into that realm
Real simple..........a "great" turntable is one which spins records at the proper speed, is reliable, and, most importantly, makes you want to play LP after LP after LP. A great turntable is one which makes you forget about the turntable itself, and allows you to focus on the MUSIC.

I spent many months doing a ton of research, and thanks to many of you fellow 'Goners, I finally bought my new analog front end ----- a Rega P3-24 table w/ Exact 2 cartridge. I am absolutely thrilled with the way it matches beautifully with the rest of my system, and I'm now at the point I was hoping I'd be at all along......I don't think about Rega or VPI or SOTA any more,... I simply close my eyes and enjoy the tunes. Miles, 'Trane, Rollins, and Mobley have never sounded better. So, I guess, I have a "great" turntable. HAPPY LISTENING, ya'all !!!
"...rotational accuracy"

FWIW, this issue is, to me, the Achilles heal of the analogue process, whether inherrent problems arrive with the LP or is caused by the TT. I hear and can't stand pitch errors, especially obvious when listening to solo instruments on sustained notes. So I find that TT's that float my boat, are those with very heavy platters, unsuspended, and have isolated motors. Nottingham's use this design principle. At least that cures pitch problems with the TT, if not the source.

Folks who don't have 'perfect pitch' are blessed IMHO. :-)
I dont have perfect pitch as Newbee might, but I certainly can hear pitch modulation as well. mostly on poor pressings of some indie rock favorites of mine. It doesnt destroy my experience though.

I favor a turntable that isolates vibration, and acurately communicates the music. take it for what its worth, but you'll find yourself much more happy if you buy a good TT rather than a good looking TT. I prefer unsuspended from the few I've heard. There is a turtable for everyone out-there so have fun with it, it shouldnt be a stressful decision (but I have made it that way in the past).

Luckily though, I'm a sucker for almost all TT designs so I'm set on the asthetics. (except some of the high end clear-audio stuff--those are rocket ships not turntables)
Recently I went on eBay and ended up buying a Beogram 4500 with MMC-2 cartridge, both NIB. This table is a suspended design and while I was somewhat nervous about that, I have ended up being very pleased with this table to the point that I now use it exclusively. IMO it's not as good sonically as the non-suspended Scheu Premier I own, but it's darn close.

I think what has really surprised me about the Beogram 4500 is that I now spin more LPs than when the Scheu was in use. The Beogram has a linear tracking arm that just requires you plug in the cartridge and set VTF. Pitch is easy to set and has been pretty stable. One button cues the arm and drops the stylus down, then auto lift returns it at the end of the side. No issues with cartridge/arm matching, VTA, azimuth, etc.

I think the biggest hoot though is the built in RIAA equalizer so just plug the attached phono cable RCA ends into an open line input on the preamp. I was a little skeptical about the RIAA equalizer but everything is quiet and the sound is very good. To my surprise Peter at Soundsmith confirmed for me that the design of the RIAA equalizer is actually pretty good.

So while there may be better designs from a technical perspective, musically this is the greatest designed turn table I have ever owned. It's user friendly, sounds great, and is fun. As others have said, if it makes you enjoy the music...
There was a interview with A.J. Conti from Basis Audio in TAS I think.
He says it all.
Three things make it great: transient speed stability, isolation from external vibration, and ability to drain off internal vibration generated by motor & platter bearing. Few turntables get all three things right, and some of the top models that do, succeed by addressing the problem with an integrated plinth and rack system.
clio...friggin great stereo...fyi, I lived with beautiful goldman studio(which cost more than the car i drove at the time)along with my humble oracle paris, and my thorens jubilee. considering what i paid for it, it (in practical terms)cost me about 250 bucks everytime i played an lp. between that, and a neverending battle to make it sound superior to my blue collar tables, i gave up and sold it. eventually got a nice car though.
It depends what you are looking for. Good quality and convience, the older automatic dd tables could fit that category especially the longivity of those tables. For me, a great table is one that you do not realize its there when the music is playing. Imo, high mass is part of the equation. I have been experimenting with the maplenoll tables compared to my michell over the past couple of years and find the maplenoll comes closer to my definition of a great table. As I have found one of the maplenoll tables that have the heavier plinth and platter (about 150 lbs of mass) i will be able to compare two heavy mass tables to see how much extra the mass brings to the quality.
Thanks Jaybo, it took a while to get there. I've moved backwards in time in the turntable world. However, the Beogram 4500 is still "newer" (manufactured from '89 - '93 IIRC) than all the cars I've owned in my life, all of which came from the 60's and 70's, save my current daily driver, an'84 Porsche Carrera.
My 20 year old Linn Axis is neither lightweight nor the heaviest table, but it's the heaviest I've ever owned, plus it sits on a big, 60 pound, big honking solid oak coffee table that I picked up back then for $30 in a used furniture store down south.

I put a $10 Thorens arm lift on it when I bought it that still always lifts the arm when done without fail.

It sits about 4 feet forward and to the left of my left full range speaker. My system also sits in the basement of my home on a thin padded carpet on top of the solid concrete foundation of the house.

I can play at any SPL with no feedback or other nasty noises in play. It's been a real keeper with only those two tweaks (oak table and lift) at $40 total.

Personally, I think there are many very excellent sounding table rigs available out there without going off the deep end in regards to cost.

The turntable is one device in my system though where I would admit to looks as being a factor for me. If I have to chose a replacement someday from among many good tables, I might well go for the one that just looks coolest to me, as long as I know it is technically sound, much like buying a new car. Convenience and low maintenance is also a big factor for me.

The other thing would be to make sure it has a tonearm that can work well with the low compliance Denon DL103R cartridge, which I have zero interest in switching from.

I guess my philosophy summarized is once you find the right cartridge, build the rest of the phono rig in accordance around it....and make sure it is easy to use and will last and look nice along the way.
What about the size of the table in regards to being able to support longer tonearms for more accurate tracking of records start to finish?

Aren't longer tonearms better in this regard in general?

I believe that Turntables has been in stagnation in the development in the last many years.
Arms, Cartridges and RIAA's has moved on, though.

When talking about high-end TT's, today, almost all TT's on the market has big mass, huge platter, stiff standing - no hanging, no plinth.

Out of the box, most of these moderne monsters, mainly sold for the design, sound competitive to CD.
The are all easy to live with, easy and uncritical to set-up.

No matter where you put it, the accoustic feedback is the same.
Not gone, but very hard to influence on.

General, they all play fine and...................well...............clinical.

To a certain limit.
This limit is, fairly enough, plentyful and extended beyond most people's gear capabilities and maybe even beyond what some ears might catch.

But if you acknowledge this limit, you will also come to the conclusion that these modern, stiff, huge, heavy TT's never will be able to get beyond this limit by tweaking, modifying or alligning.

No doubt that some of these modern TT's are fitting well in designer homes.

The better suspended TT's can be hell to live with.

When, at last, well alligned and adjusted, You better leave it alone.
At Least until next cartridge change.

If you are the kind of guy that needs to play-and-tweak all the time, this is not the TT for you.

It's important to place suspended TT's on a stable surface like for instance a brick-wall mounted dedicated TT-shelf, put it behind a curtain, put it in another room than the speakers, surround it by vaccuum.

Combine a well suspended TT with SME 3009/Alphason HR-100S or other S- or J-arms and you will miss most music below 50 Hz.

Use well suspended TT's with tangential arms is a no-go unless you build yourself with this in mind from the start.

Radial arms with angle correction are ok, though.

Put a wrong mat on the platter and the music turns into mud.

Some of these well suspended TT's was launched with fragile motor control or rumbling motors.

But can you eliminate these forementioned "handicaps" in the motor control, can you dampen the noise from the motor, and can you match the correct combination of platter, mat, arm, cartridge and if you, after this effort, can get the rare skilled hands of craftsmanship to adjust and allign everything from vtf, vat, zenith, azimuth, overhang, tracking angle etc. etc. and, very important, the hanging suspension to a very soft point............................................. ..............

Then a well "hung" suspended TT can do magic and play the music in a way like some tube aficionados are experiencing when the best result of matching gear, selected tubes, adjustments of azimuth, right amount of SolidState influence and everything else comes to nirvana..........................and this will be slightly better than the normal Solid State solution, just like the well suspended TT can perfom slightly better than the normal stiff designer rig.

However, tube amps can also, like the well suspended TT's, have a tendency to be not easy to live with.

The Sound from these well suspended-hanging-subchassis TT's is not only precise and well defined, it exudes room mediation, stereo perspective, deeeeep bass with precision and attack, a very open top like if a piece of clothes was removed from where the tweeters were positioned, the midrange will introduce human voices like if there were singing in your living room without amplification, extremely natural.

The Music will simply be transduced from the groove and transmitted to the room in an intensely and heartfelt way, cuddling and nursing the listener and creating joy and pleasure.

I wonder what was happening in all those years while production of TT's was put to a stand-still because people were fooled to believe in the digital revolution?
But it, obviously, didn't serve this niche well..........that is an audible fact.
What became of magic?

That's a passionate response Dolph and in a way, I know what you mean.
However on this issue, we'll have to agree to 'disagree'?
I believe the last 10-15 years have seen some significant advances in the thought and design of turntables, arms and cartridges (particularly LOMCs).
Whilst invoking the analogy of suspended decks and tube amps will put a lot of people on your side, it is rather suspect?
While I'm happy to accept an electrical signal preferring the linearity of tubes to the on/off nature of transistors, I do not believe a turntable prefers to 'move'.....which it certainly will do if it is suspended?
The 'softness', 'warmth' and 'magic' you perceive in your suspended turntables are really a 'colouration', 'distortion' and 'loss of information'.
Many people prefer this romanticism to 'fidelity' and good luck to them.....whatever 'rocks your boat'?
But to bemoan the loss of 'magic'?............you really need to hear the Raven AC-3, Rockport Sirius, Walker Proscenium or Clearaudio Statement in a fine home system to re-discover the magic......the magic of 'fidelity'.
We disagree to agree.

However, we seem to disagree to disagree that arms and cartridges have moved on in development.

Don't think I find romance in the ultimate sound welcome.
My preference is mastertapes played on 1/2-track 15ips Lyrec machines.
Doesn't get better no matter how much money you throw after TT's, arms and cartridges.

I will agree to disagree that my describtion can be explained with colouration, distortion and loss of information.

The trick is not that the hanging suspended TT moves.
The trick is that what's carrying the LP and doing the grooving is NOT moving.

The TT's you mention can each buy several cars from new.
I did audition two of them.
I chose different.

Right combination of TT, tonearm and cartridge. Regardless of price. I have a TT set up of $4000, $20000 and $50000 ( retail), The smaller one is extremely satisfactory. In fact I love the sound of the smaller set up. Comparison done using same phono and rest of the system. Speed probably is the least accurate (in comparison) but most musical.
Nil, I'm a big advocate of system synergy as the primary key to good sound, be it the phono rig or the whole setup.