What Is a Record Player?

Henry Gaudet

A record player, also called a phonograph, is an electric device used to play audio recordings. Vinyl phonograph records are placed on the record player's turntable and spun at a constant speed, and sounds are reproduced through a stylus or needle that runs along the record’s spiral groove. Between the 1920s and 1980s, the record player was the most common consumer device for audio playback, and even in the early 21st century, record players have continued to see use.

From the 1920s to the 1980s, the record player was the most common consumer device for audio playback.
From the 1920s to the 1980s, the record player was the most common consumer device for audio playback.

A record player works by guiding a stylus along a spiral groove in the record. As the stylus follows this track, variations in the groove cause the needle to vibrate. These vibrations are amplified through electric speakers, reproducing the recorded sounds.

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.

Thomas Edison is credited with the invention, in 1877, of the phonograph, a mechanical wind-up machine that played recordings made on tinfoil cylinders. The flat record disk was an innovation put forward by Emile Berliner. With the introduction of electricity into the home, the record player was born.

Early records spun at a speedy 78 revolutions per minute (rpm), meaning that they played quickly and could not hold much music. A 78 disk measured 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter, and each side could hold about 3 minutes of sound — typically enough for just a single song or other short recording.

By 1948, long playing records (LPs), 12-inch (30-cm) disks that moved at 33.33 revolutions per minute and could hold as much as 45 minutes of sound per side, had become popular. Sound quality made dramatic improvements in sound quality during this period as well, and high-fidelity (hi-fi or hifi) recordings removed much of the hiss and distortion of the early records. Hi-fi record players with stereo speakers and record changers took full advantage of these latest innovations.

Despite the popularity of the LP, there was still a demand for individual songs. The 45, a 7-inch (18-cm) disk, played at 45 revolutions per minute, as the name implies. These smaller, more portable 45s might have been responsible for the rise of the portable record player. In the 1960s and 1970s, small lightweight phonographs became especially popular among teenagers.

In the 1970s, other formats began to challenge the record player for dominance. Tapes, first eight-track tapes then cassette tapes, offered similar size to LPs while also providing more portability and better durability. They also were free from the record’s tendency to skip when jolted, meaning that recorded music could be played in the car.

It wasn’t until the rise of compact discs in the 1980s, though, that records began to vanish from stores. By the 1990s, records and record players had become difficult to find. Even so, a small demand remained, and by the beginning of the 21st century, nostalgia and niche appeal had fueled somewhat of a resurgence in the record player’s popularity.

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Discussion Comments


To tell you the truth, Cageybird, I'd much rather listen to my old vinyl albums on a used record player than get the same material on CD. There's just something about the pops and crackles of a vinyl album that make it sound more authentic. CDs do a great job of duplicating a song exactly as recorded, but vinyl albums capture all of the warmth between the notes.


A young friend of mine decided to open up a "vintage and vinyl" store downtown, and I would spend as much time as I could helping him to price all of those old vinyl records fairly. I had a blast going through thousands of albums I grew up listening to, and he appreciated having someone around who actually remembered vinyl records.

The problem he ran into was finding enough record players for customers. A lot of people threw away their vintage record players when cassettes and CDs became popular. We couldn't even find record players for sale in the local classified ads. He did discover that a company called Crosley still made record players, and needles could still be ordered through online electronic stores.

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