Automatic vs Manual Turntables

Marc HenshallMarc Henshall
New to Vinyl, Vinyl 1014 Comments

When choosing a new turntable, there are many factors to consider. In most cases, your final decision will come down to a balance between price, features, quality, and personal preference.

One aspect that is often misunderstood is the choice between automatic and manual turntable designs. After all, if you can remove effort and work by purchasing an automatic deck, why would anyone buy a manual design? Naturally, there are pros and cons to both designs.

What’s the Difference Between an Automatic and a Manual Turntable?

A fully automatic turntable features a mechanical system linking the platter and the tonearm. With the simple push of a button, the arm will rise up and lower precisely at the start of your record. Equally, the arm will lift automatically at the end of each side and return to where it started. 

In the case of a fully manual turntable, you’re in the driving seat. You’ll need to cue up the record at the run-in groove and lower the arm with a lever. At the end of each side, the record will continue to ride inside a locked groove until you raise the arm. You’ll also have to return the tonearm to its rest and stop the platter from spinning.

So Why Aren’t All Turntables Automatic?

Automatic turntables offer much in the way of convenience, but there are compromises in terms of mechanical noise and interference. With a fully manual turntable, the only mechanical link between the tonearm and the platter is the point where the stylus hits the record. The arm can even be placed in a completely separate chassis if you desired. In the case of automatic decks, the platter and the tonearm are linked—usually via mechanical means—and all this extra machinery (cogs, gears, springs, etc.) contributes to the overall noise and resonance of the turntable.

Another consequence of extra components is one of design limitations. For example, to house the mechanisms, the plinth of an automatic turntable cannot be as solid or rigid as a manual turntable. This, again, impacts turntable resonance. Also, by design, the very best performing tonearm bearings cannot be used in an automatic design. 

The components and compromises mean automatic turntables usually occupy the more affordable end of the market. There are always exceptions, of course, but it’s safe to say there are more affordable automatic models than expensive ones. 

With an automatic turntable, you are sacrificing quality and control for convenience. The manufacturer usually pre-sets the tracking force and anti-skate on an automatic deck, and therefore your ability to adjust or dial in the performance is greatly restricted. You have less control, but if the idea of setting your own tracking force or anti-skate setting fills you with trepidation, this might affect your final purchase decision. 

So Which One Should I Buy?

If you are a casual vinyl listener looking for convenience first at an affordable price, then an automatic deck might be just what you need. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking for the best possible performance and a fully engaged vinyl listening experience, then you should invest in a good quality manual turntable.

Moving to a manual turntable will also make your setup easier to upgrade. For example, should you wish to upgrade your cartridge, then you’re more likely able to do this with a manual deck. Other components are often upgradable too, such as the platter, the tonearm, or even a simple RCA cable upgrade.

Lastly, as most serious record collectors tend to favor manual turntables, you are naturally treated to a wider choice of brands and models on the market. Some mid-to-higher end models even offer a semi-automatic turntable option, whereby the tonearm will lift automatically at the end of each side.

Consider reading our guide listing the “best turntables for beginners” as a place to start shopping for your first deck. Happy listening and welcome to the vinyl hobby.

  • Avatar Larry Haynes says:

    This article is full of errors re: full auto tables. ONLY if one considers NEW tables are these compromises valid. I have 8 full auto vintage tables; 5 of them have NO mechanical linkage of platter to tonearm. They have LED position sensors that activate arm to beginning of play and arm return. The other 5 have mechanical links, but ONLY at beginning and of play. I know this because I have several carts tracking perfectly at 0.7 grams VTF.

    • Marc Henshall Marc Henshall says:

      The article is for beginners, Larry. The kind of detail you’re calling for would only put someone at that level off. And yes, it is referring to newer decks, on the whole.

  • Avatar Paul says:

    I like that some manufacturers are taking the auto shut-off only approach, the Music Hall Classic and the Fluance RT85 being two examples of this. There are also several arm lifting devices such as the Q-Up and Little Fwend, but these would certainly add to the cost of a budget manual turntable. And installation would be a nightmare for the uninitiated!
    What Mr. Haynes seems to be implying is that anyone looking for anything of quality in terms of a fully automatic turntable should be prepared to pay for something vintage, and that simply might not be an option for first-timers. Cheers. I thought it was a great article.

    • Marc Henshall Marc Henshall says:

      Thank you Paul. Yea, I like the auto shut off features too. Q-up is a good shout. All is a balance of cost and availability, as you say.

      I’m always happy to take constructive criticism, of course. But I felt vintage turntables and higher-end fully automatic options were a topic for another day in this case. Thanks for reading as always. Happy spinning.