If you’re like me, you grew up with music in your house. That meant my dad’s old trumpet, used in the Washington Football Team marching band (although they didn’t play Hail to the Football Team). My sister had a basic acoustic guitar. And my elementary school taught me basic song structure using simple instruments, the recorder and the autoharp.
Our house had two ways to play records: my sister’s Sears record player with a detachable speaker, and in the corner of our basement, our parents’ massive Magnavox console stereo complete with an AM/FM receiver, outsized speakers that delivered a tremendous punch, and a self-contained turntable that could play records at 33, 45 and even 78 RPM.
As turntable manufacturer Music Hall states on its website, vinyl is a stable, long-lasting and widely available medium. And of course, true audiophiles swear that the vinyl sound is warmer and more organic than the digitally reproduced signals from today’s streams and other reproducible media.
Technology has since made the rest of an audiophile’s stereo setup much smaller and more lightweight, but the turntable remains basically the same device it was back in my parents’ basement. Of course, that’s only in appearance.
Modern turntables offer such amenities as Bluetooth connectivity, a USB output to help digitally capture the true vinyl sound, plus the chance to enjoy recordings in a format familiar to those of us who grew up with those massive console stereos. That means enjoying LPs, their cover art, their expansive liner notes, and perhaps most unlike today’s typical digital listening experience, the ability to immerse yourself in an album side that lasts 25-30 minutes instead of shuffling from song to song.
So how do you choose a modern turntable to help your return to enjoying recorded music on vinyl?
How to Pick a Turntable
Like any media experience, the prices range from budget-friendly to Rolls-Royce, but there are many solid options in the $200-400 price range. And a good rule of thumb is that as the budget increases, the improvements in performance and sound quality get smaller. That means that often the best way to decide is to actually hear a turntable in person, something that gets difficult if you don’t live near a high-end audio retailer.
The biggest argument for spending more is that budget turntables generate a higher amount of tracking force, pushing the cartridge deeper into the grooves and eventually causing damage to the vinyl of your favorite album.
Other considerations include whether or not the turntable has a built-in preamp or requires an external one; to tell the difference, turntables with built-in preamps have a LINE signal output, while one without a built-in preamp will have a PHONO signal output. Phono preamps take the signal from the turntable, which is generally low-level, and raise it to line level—the level your stereo expects from its other components via red and white RCA inputs on the back. Incidentally, using turntables without a built-in preamp can allow you for another chance to upgrade your system as your budget increases down the line.
But the two things that will most affect your sound output are the quality of the speakers in your listening setup and the quality of the cartridge, often erroneously referred to as the needle. Turntables with fixed cartridges are typically the entry-level items with lower price points and lower sound quality. Mid-range and higher turntables allow for a cartridge that can be replaced or upgraded in the future when your budget allows.
Turntables also come in manual and automatic versions. An automatic version uses the motor to move the tonearm directly to the beginning of the record, while manual models require the user to place the tonearm on the disc by hand. Most high-end models are manual, as the fewer mechanical components are required to generate less electrical activity that can interfere with the sound signal. And finally, you should know whether the model you desire has a motor integrated directly underneath the platter, called direct-drive, or is offset in the turntable case. These types use a belt, similar to a miniaturized fan belt in a car engine, to turn the disc. Direct drive turntables are generally more robust and generate more torque, a quality desired by DJs. Belt-driven models, by virtue of distancing the motor from the cartridge, have a lower signal-to-noise ratio.
Now that you’ve gone to turntable school, here are our picks for some of the best options to start enjoying music, both old and new on vinyl.
A universal choice by audiophiles as a good mid-level option, the Debut Carbon EVO offers solid performance and good aesthetics, as the body of the turntable is sleek, minimal, and available in a number of brightly colored finishes (our favorite is the satin yellow). It comes with a two-year warranty, and a good Sumiko-Rainier cartridge (one that typically retails for $150 on its own) included.
The EVO is an upgraded model from the Debut Carbon and features an internal ring of thermoplastic elastomer or TPE under the steel platter to further eliminate background noise and give you truer sound performance. Customer reviews on the Crutchfield website bear out two obvious facts: the EVO offers a short and easy setup and high-end performance at a mid-range price.
REGA Planar 1 Turntable ($475)
The EVO’s closest competitor offers a couple of advantages, including an easy setup that is essentially a plug-and-play operation, along with their own carbon cartridge that offers smooth travel over your record collection and good signal response.
The tonearm now comes with the Carbon MM cartridge already installed, making setup a breeze; users simply put the balance weight on the end of the tonearm, plug in the power cord, and are ready to listen to your vinyl in seconds.
Additionally, the new 24v low noise motor reduces vibration and drives the platter at consistent speeds. If the EVO offers a kind of high modernist look, the Planar 1 is the IKEA version, sleek and modern and definitely a bit more minimalist.
On the downside, the Planar 1 requires a phono preamp; Rega recommends their own Fono Mini A2D V2 Phono Preamp, which adds another $175 to your investment but also allows for USB connectivity, meaning you can make digital versions of your LP collection for the times when traveling with a turntable isn’t an option.
U-Turn Orbit Plus Turntable ($289)
One of the most popular mid-range turntables around (so popular that it is frequently on backorder), the Orbit Plus looks sleek and sounds great.
It comes in gloss finishes in six colors, though the black and white models remain the most popular. It is available with a built-in preamp for an up-charge of $70, and the built-in-the-USA product offers a three-year warranty. Its platter is clear acrylic, which adds to the high style element, and it comes with an Ortofon cartridge included. Even more exciting is the fact that the Orbit is available in a fully customizable configuration, which allows the consumer to choose the cartridge, chassis color, platter, preamp and even add a cueing assembly to the tonearm, especially helpful when you want to play side one, track 3 of Led Zeppelin IV.
Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB ($249)
Another choice for the budget-minded, the LP120X is USB-enabled that allows the consumer to rip records to digital storage for use in streaming, whether in your car or at the gym or using a whole-home enabled solution. It has a built-in preamp as well, meaning that its low price doesn’t require any additional investment.
It isn’t fancy, but it is a workhorse, and the USB version is essentially the same turntable that Audio-Technica has offered for years. Available in wired and wireless models, it’s also one of the most popular turntables around and is frequently on backorder.
Music Hall - MMF-1.3 ($299)
A complete off-the-shelf solution at an entry-level price, the MMF 1.3 also offers three speeds, allowing you to play not just singles and albums but also those dusty big band-era 78RPM records you found at an estate sale.
This is a 3-speed belt-driven turntable that comes complete with a tonearm, mounted cartridge, and built-in phono preamp. The AT3600L cartridge manufactured by Audio-Technica comes precision aligned.
Rega Planar 3 ($945)
And the superstar choice is another entry from Rega. The Planar 3 is now in its fifth generation, and everything except for the hinges and dust cover have been re-engineered, an example of Rega’s continuing commitment to quality and innovation.
Since its introduction in 1977, the Planar 3 has been among the top choices of audiophiles, and its gloss black finish is a classic look. It’s also available in white and gloss red. This is a belt-driven model with a glass platter designed to minimize the noise of its 24-volt motor and provide excellent frequency response.
As the most expensive model in our choices, buyers of the Planar 3 should know that experts agree that their choice is among the top models available; the Planar 3 was chosen as the What Hi-Fi? Product of the year 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. And it will likely be the last turntable you will ever buy, as it is backed by a lifetime warranty.
Having a high-quality way to play your favorite vinyl records is much needed, especially in 2020, as we spend more time at home.
Figure out what features are important to you like the belt drive, a moving magnet, playback features, USB port functionality, etc. and jump on the bandwagon.
Turntables are back, and not just something you dust off at your parent’s or grandparent’s house anymore. Once you listen to your favorite jams on vinyl, you will never go back.
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