Something that is frequently repeated on this blog and in many other corners of the internet is that turntables have the benefit of being upgradeable in a way that very few other audio devices are amenable to. This blog has covered cost effective tweaksto affordable cartridges, mats, clamps and isolation and we really are only scratching the surface of what options are available to people if they want.
A question that needs to be asked at the same time as discussing these possibilities is the extremely simple question- should you? At some point, simply because you can carry out a particular upgrade to a particular model, it will be worth asking if doing so is worth the outlay. In particular, it is necessary to ask, would the money that the upgrade costs be better spent on trading up to a completely new turntable altogether? As with many aspects of audio hardware, there isn't a perfect equation for this but there are some general pointers.
As with so many things in life, we can look to the automobile industry for a degree of inspiration. Cars are devices made of many thousands of components and the careful substitution of some of those can yield some very worthwhile improvements. My own car- a derivative of the Ford Focus it seems is too depressing to be inflicted upon the US market- has been altered by my tame mechanic to use the wheels and brakes from a more upmarket Focus which had been thoughtfully parked on its roof, which means it grips a little better and stops a bit more keenly. This can be seen as a cost effective upgrade.
On the other hand, taking the engine and having it balanced, ported and taken to 'fast road' spec would cost thousands and still leave me the owner of a sad, grey minivan. There is an obvious point with something as large as a car that throwing more money at it becomes pointless. Of course, some people decide that they wish to throw a huge amount of money at a car that is frequently worth less than the upgrades but this decision is clearly an emotional rather than a rational one.
With a record player, the most logical way of approaching this decision is firstly to see what upgrades are available for it. If you own an all-in-one type unit, the decision whether to upgrade it or trade it in is answered for you fairly effectively by the very limited number of upgrades that can be applied directly to the turntable itself. Once you have stopped using the internal amp and speakers, you can't really do very much to the actual mechanics of playing a record. If you want more performance, you really have little choice but to fire up eBay or Craigslist, write a listing that would make Hemingway weep and raise the funds for something better.
If you own a standalone record player, the calculations are likely to be rather more complex. Even very basic models have the notional ability to have cartridges, mats, even the platter changed without too much effort. In terms of the worth of these upgrades, it is best to check firstly to see what the manufacturer offers themselves. Pro-Ject and Rega in particular are keen advocates of factory upgrade packs that allow for you to extract a bit more performance from your turntable without altering the basic fabric of it too drastically. These are obvious candidates where the likelihood is that the costs are worthwhile- although it never hurts to check other user experiences.
Where things get more complicated is when you start to consider cartridges. If you have a tonearm that accepts cartridges with the traditional 2 screw mount and has an adjustable counterweight on the back, there's technically nothing to stop you putting any suitably mounted cartridge on it. It is here that calculations on the value of upgrades start to matter rather more. If your arm doesn't provide the necessary rigidity, controlled resonance and effective mass, that expensive cartridge isn't going to show what it can do.
This is part of the set of calculations that make up the performance of your record player (and partnering phono preamp) as a whole. If you buy a cartridge with great signal to noise measurements but the noisefloor of the deck as a whole is higher than this point, you're not going to see the real benefits from it. The quality of the motor and power supply- areas that are not commonly interchangeable on most turntables- has a direct bearing on the performance of the player as a whole and changing items around them will only unlock some of your- potentially expensive- upgrade's potential.
So, this being the case, is there a hard and fast equation to work to in order to calculate the worth of an upgrade relative to the turntable and whether it makes more sense to upgrade the whole deck? Alas, there isn't a foolproof set of numbers to punch in each time but there are some pointers. If the upgrade costs anything upwards of 50% of the turntable (with the possible exception of changing the tonearm), it is unlikely to be entirely worthwhile. There are exceptions to this- if you spend $800-1,200 on a used Linn LP12, Linn has nearly $25,000 of updates at your disposal- but it doesn't hurt as a baseline.
There are other clues as well. If your tonearm can't be adjusted for vertical tracking angle (VTA) either via on-arm adjustment or spacers, it is likely it was really designed for the cartridge it came with- or at least ones that are similar. If the turntable doesn't easily allow for the arm to be changed, that is also often a sign that there are limits to how far the manufacturer saw the deck being pushed. On a more prosaic level, if the company in question has a range of models above the one you own, that is a fairly solid indicator that they feel there is more performance to be had from changing the whole turntable. You can ascribe this to cynical consumerism if you wish but if there wasn't a benefit to doing so, it is unlikely they would still be in business.
Ultimately, your turntable should be viewed as a balanced item where the price of the deck, arm, cartridge and phono preamp are usefully proportional to one another. Taking one of these things widely out of proportion is unlikely to be terribly successful- although to keep a sense of proportion here, it unlikely to be terribly harmful either. It is important when budgeting for upgrades that 'little and often' isn't necessarily the path to meaningful improvement. You are far better off waiting for the chance to make a considerable step forward rather than trying a scattergun approach.
If you can't budget for changes of this nature, it is often more sensible to take a step back and consider if your funds might be better used on other parts of the system or simply buying more music. It is very easy to become locked into a deeply unsatisfying cycle of 'side-grading' and wind up spending more than you would on a decent single upgrade without achieving the same benefits. Knowing when to stick with what you have is as vital a skill as knowing what to upgrade and it is something we'll be visiting very soon.