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Inherited your parents’ collection of LPs? Want to take part in Record Store Day? Do you just enjoy the ceremony and physicality of vinyl in an increasingly distracting and notification-heavy digital world? With the recent resurgence of vinyl’s popularity, companies have flooded the once sparse market with a plethora of turntable options. This dizzying new marketplace is full of new tech, but with an old technology, new is not always best. Here’s our guide to the best turntables.
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The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB is the best turntable for most people
If you’re new to turntables, you might not know that Audio-Technica makes some of the best cartridges out there. Enter the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB turntable, your do-most-anything option. The AT-LP120X is special because (as you may have noticed by the name) you can plug it into a computer via USB. This lets you easily convert your vinyls to a lossless FLAC format and save it digitally. If you or someone you know has a classic vinyl that’s hard (or impossible) to find on any music services you can just save the files yourself.
The AT-LP120XUSB runs at speeds of 33/45/and the rarely supported, 78 rpm without ruining the pitch or messing with the music in any way. Though you can adjust the pitch if you feel the need to. It has a start/stop button, due to it being a direct-drive turntable and the ability to start/stop it remotely should you decide to hook it up to more equipment and explore your inner DJ.
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Newly added to the upgraded AT-LP120XUSB is Bluetooth capability, using the aptX codec, so you can easily pair this turntable with your wireless speakers or headphones. The AT-LP120XUSB does not have a volume knob, so you’ll need to have one on your wireless headphones or speakers, otherwise, the experience could induce hearing damage.
What you should know about turntables
The key to the best vinyl record listening experience is stability. If you pause and think about how a spinning vinyl disc with a metal needle balancing on top of it, held in place with a long lever arm can sound like anything, let alone anything good, it’s because of all the stabilizing elements built into a turntable. Vibration ruins most record experiences, be it pogo dancing around the room causing the tonearm to jump, or poor materials transferring vibration and making an unpleasant hum.
Materials like carbon, which is light and rigid, or acrylic, which is dense and stable, all contribute to improved stability. Over the years manufacturers have implemented things like dampening legs, to reduce the transfer of vibrations underneath the turntable, and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) platforms, all in an effort to improve the vinyl experience.
Don't buy turntables with cartridges you can't change.
The challenge is balancing cost and utility as a consumer. While these are by no means cheap turntables, they all have replaceable cartridges, which extends the life of your turntable. You certainly can find new turntables for less, but they almost always have cartridges that can’t be replaced—in effect, giving an expiration date to your turntable. Don’t buy turntables with cartridges you can’t change.
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So, do you buy the more expensive turntable now, but skimp on the accessories that can also improve the experience, or do you buy a slightly cheaper model and upgrade the cartridge later?
What’s the difference between belt-drive and direct-drive turntables?
A belt-drive mechanism is the traditional style and tends to produce less noise and vibration in the signal chain because it’s buffered by an extra stabilizing pulley wheel with a belt around it that rotates the platter. Belt-drive is common in high and low-end turntables but can require more maintenance down the line.
Direct-drive is what you’ll find on DJ decks (like the famed, but discontinued Technics SL-1200); it foregoes the pulley wheel, and has more torque at its disposal, so it’ll reach an appropriate play speed more quickly. Typically, direct-drive turntables require less maintenance, but they have the potential to introduce more noise.
What do you need to get the most out of your turntable?
For the vinyl record setup you’ll generally need the following:
- A turntable
- A cartridge
- A preamp (sometimes called, “phono”)
- An amplifier
- Speakers (and/or headphones)
This might sound like a lot, but remember once you have these items, they’re unlikely to become obsolete, considering you’re investing in a media that has already been perfected.
All of the turntables on our list include a cartridge, but you’ll need to replace it down the line as cartridges wear out. I know I said nothing will become obsolete, but equipment does require maintenance. The cartridge contains the “needle” that makes contact with the record, using a moving magnet to translate the physical grooves on the record by using electromagnets. In high-end audiophile gear, some cartridges cost more than an entire turntable. So it may be small, but it can’t be overlooked.
The preamp’s function is in its name; it boosts the signal (and in doing so, modifies the signal) prior to being sent to the amplifier, which then does the heavy lifting in making the volume useable. Many newer turntables come with built-in preamps, which is helpful when embarking on building your record player setup, because it’s one less thing to worry about. But if you’re someone who is really interested in tweaking your system, you may prefer the modular nature of a separate preamp.
If you choose to get active-powered speakers, you can skip the amplifier. If you’re using passive speakers, you’ll need an amplifier.
Learn more: How do speakers work?
One thing to note, in connecting all the cables for your rig, is that the majority of turntables have a ground wire. This keeps the noise down to a minimum, otherwise, unwanted hum will be introduced to the signal path. If your turntable has a built-in preamp it may not require the ground wire. With an outboard preamp, you’ll need to ensure the ground wire is connected alongside (most likely) RCA cables to the preamp.
Once you’ve got your system hooked up, it’ll be something for your kids to inherit, because save for digital add-ons like USB and Bluetooth, turntables are pretty much done developing. So sit back, and enjoy the music, well, except for when you have to get up and flip the record over.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO is a simple turntable that sounds great
One of the best-sounding turntables you can get is the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO. It doesn’t have a lot going on for it design-wise, as it’s more on the minimal side. But what it lacks in flashiness it makes up for in quality. This turntable has a sturdy carbon tonearm made to rest firmly on the record without damaging or scratching it.
The Debut Carbon EVO is known for sound quality and getting the most out of your records is what it does best. Interestingly, Pro-Ject is by far the largest producer of audiophile turntables, and it does almost everything in-house. Carbon is more rigid than aluminum (which is frequently used on tonearms) and lightweight. This means you’ll hear more accurate sound reproduction because of fewer vibrations, and without the cost of wearing out your favorite vinyl, by having the cartridge pushing extra weight onto it.
It has a precision belt drive and uses a Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge for accurate sound reproduction. The Carbon Debut EVO includes a dust cover to protect your records. One thing to keep in mind is that you’ll need a decent preamp to get it to work, so that’s an added cost. The Carbon doesn’t have any stand-out tricks like some other turntables but for sound, it’s hard to beat.
Get a custom design with the U-Turn Orbit Plus
A relative newcomer to the audio industry is U-Turn, a company that assembles all of its products in America, which is noteworthy not because it’s better, but because it’s nice to support small businesses with passionate people. U-Turn has one basic turntable, the Orbit, that you can customize in several ways including upgraded wood plinths and upgraded cartridges with prices ranging from the basic model at $179 to customized models at just under $700 USD. If you’re looking for the best value it’s the U-Turn Orbit Plus at a reasonable $289 without preamp (or, $359 for a built-in one).
The Orbit Plus includes an acrylic platter that is dense and reduces vibration. This is particularly useful for bass-heavy music because it’s the first thing to get lost on a rumbly platter. The painted MDF plinth is solid and hefty, grounding the turntable. The tonearm system is well-designed with an innovative gimbal bearing, making adjustments easier and preventing the cartridge from skipping across. It even sports a heavy counterweight to support a large array of cartridge designs.
With a three-year warranty and extras like a dust cover, felt mat, and cables all included, there’s not much to dislike about the U-Turn Orbit Plus.
Get a great automatic turntable for less with the Denon DP-300F
What if you’re reading this thinking, sure it’s nice to have a carbon tonearm, but if I fall asleep to a record, will it stop playing? For most of these, the answer is no, except with the Denon DP-300F. At a decent price, Denon offers automatic features like auto-play and auto-stop.
In addition to creature comforts, the DP-300F has a highly adjustable tonearm, so you can really get the balance right, alongside with anti-skating. Of course, with more moving parts, there are more possible things to go wrong, which is why cheaper automatic turntables are not recommended. That’s where the results of cut corners can be found: I’ve seen more than my share of cheap automatic turntable tonearms not lift high enough at the end of an LP and then proceed to quickly dig a stomach-dropping scratch across the vinyl, or irritatingly, decide that the record is over when it isn’t and lift off early. You don’t have to worry about that with the DP-300F.
Saving you more money the DP-300F also comes with a built-in preamp, and with aluminum construction and a belt-drive, it’s a pretty solid entry into turntables. The only clear weak spot is the cartridge, but luckily it’s fully upgradeable, should you decide at some point you want something higher end.
Best turntables: Notable mentions
- Rega Planar 2: Do you feel like breaking the bank? The Rega Planar series has been around for four decades. The Planar 2 combines a myriad of simple, well-designed decisions such as an acrylic platter, an excellent Rega cartridge, and a dense plinth. The third iteration is marginally better, but save your dollars for the rest of your setup.
- Gramovox Floating Record player: Back in 2015 this show-stopping vertical record player earned 1.5 million dollars on Kickstarter, packing in quite a lot of features for the price including an acrylic platter and speakers. It can be a little hard to find in stock these days.
- Drop x Audio-Technica x Carbon VTA: This recent collaboration between Audio-Technica and Drop pairs a rather excellent AT cartridge with a rigid carbon plinth.
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We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts, while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
As always, sound is an objective and subjective matter. But subjectivity is even more prevalent when it comes to vinyl because the only people you’ll find with them are usually those that care deeply about the way their music sounds. Those who would pay a good amount of money to make sure that everything sounds as good as possible.
That said, everyone has a different budget but we think this list is a great place to start. Make sure to drop a comment with your favorite turntable if we missed it!