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What Are the Best Turntables for a Beginning Audiophile?The argument over analog versus digital amongst hi-fi enthusiasts is one that will never be conclusively settled. For some of us who were voraciously buying records in the 1960s and 1970s, the arrival of the CD in 1982 was a traumatic moment. Most people seemed to embrace the new digital format and listened with awe to the early releases like ABBA’s ‘Visitors’, Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’. A minority of diehard vinyl-lovers remained sceptical and insisted that CDs sounded clinical, representing rather than reproducing the original recording. Given the choice, they’d go for the vinyl record every time.
Neil Young is probably the highest profile artist to speak out in favour of the analog format, describing it as ‘a universe’ compared to digital, which he likens to particleboard. To him, the digital format is like listening to music through a screen full of holes, with each hole representing just one separate strand of the total sound. He feels this can never be as satisfying as the analog universe. In his opinion, ‘everything recorded between 1981 and, say, 2010 will be known as the dark ages of recorded sound.’
Who can say for sure? What we do know is that sales of CDs have been falling for 20 years, largely on account of the invention of the MP3 player and, more recently, streaming services. In the same period, sales of vinyl have been increasing every year. From January to June 2022 19.4 million vinyl LPs were sold in the US and they are close to overtaking CDs. The resurgence of vinyl was initially ascribed to the devotion of hipsters and ageing purists but the buying patterns suggest a different story. Demand for back catalog vinyl has fallen and sales growth is now being driven by new releases. The most popular vinyl record in the first six months of 2022 was ‘Harry’s House’ by Harry Styles. To quote Bob Dylan: ‘something is happening here.’
So, with the rise of vinyl continuing, it follows that more and more people, young and old, are buying turntables. With so many audio manufacturers entering the market, the time is right to ask the question: ‘What are the best turntables for a beginning audiophile?’ We’ll do our best to provide the answers.
Before You Start LookingPerhaps the two most important criteria are expectation and budget. Unless you’re choosing an all-in-one audio system with built-in speakers, then you need to be able to buy various pieces of equipment in addition to the turntable, such as powered speakers and a phono preamp. If you’re planning to build a complete set-up then you should expect the turntable to cost no more than 30% of your budget, so you’ll have plenty of funds left for the best speakers, cartridge and preamp.
The more expensive turntables often allow you to select a specific combination of tonearm and cartridge and these models may also require a separate phono preamp. Other options include Bluetooth turntables which will stream vinyl to wireless speakers and USB turntables for digitizing your records.
If you’re new to playing vinyl then you won’t have a benchmark by which to judge the performance of record players. If you haven’t been playing vinyl much since the CD revolution, you'll only have a vague memory of what vinyl can sound like. Today’s technology means you’ll be able to buy a turntable that more than matches equipment from the past. Bear in mind that generally, the more you spend, the better you’ll get, but having said that, it’s not hard to find an entry level turntable that will deliver the goods. All the models we recommend here will bring out the main qualities of your vinyl.
Entry LevelIf you’re a newcomer to the delights of vinyl, it isn’t necessary to spend a vast amount of money on your first audio system. You can access Young’s ‘universe’ and the much-touted warmth of vinyl with a relatively affordable entry level turntable, like the Crosley CR704C-PA Musician 3-Speed Turntable, an all-in-one audio system with built-in speakers. Its performance is sophisticated enough to tell you whether vinyl is the route you want to take.
If you already own a decent pair of powered speakers, then you might consider the Audio Technica AT-LP60XBT-BK fully automatic belt driven turntable which retails at about $150. With this model, you can easily upgrade it with a higher spec stylus or belt should you develop a taste for the analog experience and feel inspired to enhance it.
If you’re feeling committed enough to move into the mid range price bracket, there are plenty of excellent choices for under $500. For about $400 the Audio Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB-BK Wireless Direct-Drive turntable is a good choice. This is the high quality relation to the LP60 with a number of significant differences. It looks very similar, with the same dust cover and sturdy plinth, but instead of a belt drive turntable, it is fitted with a direct drive motor, which means the patter is attached directly to the player’s motor. The belt driven turntable is extremely popular but because the rubber belt tends to wear over time, some audiophiles prefer the long-term reliability which comes with the direct drive motor connection. The LP120 also has a USB drive which enables you to convert your vinyl into files you can save on your computer and transfer to your phone or MP3 player for convenience and portability.
Another contender is the Pro Ject Debut Carbon, an entry level turntable made by the highly respected Austrian company which has been producing excellent audio equipment for over 30 years. Pro Ject turntables look very sleek and are available in a range of colors. It has a robust body made from carbon fiber and delivers consistently high sound quality.
In the same price range as the Pro Ject Debut Carbon is the Rega Planar 1. This delivers a great sound and like all of Rega’s record players, it has a wonderfully simple design that’s both aesthetically pleasing and functionally efficient. It has a 24v synchronous AC motor with an aluminium pulley that ensures quiet, smooth operation and a gloss-laminated plinth fitted with the RB110 tonearm and Rega Carbon cartridge. It offers several opportunities for upgrades, including the mat and the belt drive, which will enhance its performance to such a degree that it can do justice to the most expensive pair of powered speakers but will also sound great through more modest ones.
If looks are a priority for you, then try the Floating Record Vertical Turntable from Gramovox. Its unique selling point is its departure from the standard horizontal turntable concept and plays records in a vertical position. It’s fascinating to watch but it’s much more than just a visual novelty. It’s a genuinely high-performance unit with built-in, dynamic, full-range stereo speakers and it comes in at under $400.
Another visual treat is the Pro Ject Elemental turntable, with a much lower price tag, around $250. It’s not as instantly eye-catching as the vertical turntable (which has inevitably spawned many imitators) but its pared-down look with exposed belt drive makes it great to look at. It sits on a substantial stone base with a medium-density fibreboard platter, an aluminium tonearm and an Ortofon moving magnet cartridge. But never mind its appearance, how does it sound? Excellent.
If you’re confident in spending more on your first turntable, there are some high quality models available for up to $1000. The first one we simply have to mention is the Rega Planar 3 which through a series of incarnations has dominated this level of the market for over 50 years. It’s a belt drive deck without USB or Bluetooth and it doesn’t need a separate phono preamp. Rega keep things intentionally simple and invest purely in sound quality, so if you fit this with a Rega Elys2 MM cartridge and start playing vinyl, you’ll be amazed at the sound quality. Its sound scale is huge, with every instrument balanced, distinct and complementary, demonstrating the kind of coherent musical universe Mr Young has told us about. It also looks beautiful. Not surprisingly, it has won many awards over the decades and it remains a leader in its class.
The Technics SL-1500C is a little more expensive than the Planar 3, with a built-in phono stage and electric speed control. It’s a direct drive model with the instantly recognisable Technics S-shaped tonearm and it is a worthy rival to the Planar 3, perhaps not as subtle but certainly capable of delivering a big, clear, well-balanced sound. The Japanese manufacturer’s most notable success is the SL-1200, which was used by DJs for decades and while the SL1500C certainly isn’t a DJ deck, it delivers great sound and performs just as well for audiophile use.
£1000 and Beyond
OK, we admit that it’s hard to call this an entry level model or an ideal purchase for the beginner, but the question ‘what are the best turntables for a beginning audiophile?’ can’t be fully answered unless we consider those beginners who have a lot of cash to splash. The Rega Planar 6/Ania is double the price of the Planar 3 but it’s an astonishing package that we think justifies the price tag. It features a custom-machined drive pulley, the new and much improved Rega RB330 tonearm, a separate power supply and a one-piece aluminium sub-platter. It has an electronic speed change control and a smoked dust cover to complement the dual-layered glass platter. It’s robust but lightweight, so its mass is not sufficient to affect the sound. Its insight levels are profound and it can render delicacy and nuance as effortlessly as it can fill the room with thunderous guitars and drums.
As we said at the start, you don’t have to spend ridiculous amounts of money to get a truly excellent turntable and audio system. However, if you’re feeling a little on the ridiculous side, then the Rega Planar 8/Apheta 2 is an incredible machine. Packed with custom-made, precision-engineered parts, it has simply stunning levels of agility and insight. You could actually pay a lot more for some competing models from rival manufacturers but that would really be a bit ridiculous. And for a beginner, the Planar 8 is more than enough.
So, set your budget, work out your priorities and dive in. Vinyl might hail from the past but it looks as if it’s going to be an important part of the music industry for years to come. As long as today’s biggest stars are putting out new material on 180gsm vinyl, from Taylor Swift to Ed Sheeran, from Lana Del Rey to Adele and from Lady Gaga to - well - Neil Young, you’re going to need buy a turntable that can do it justice. You can’t go wrong with any of our recommendations, which we’ve road-tested extensively with music of all genres, from BeBop to Hip Hop, from Dance to Dub, from Prog to Pop and from Classical to Country. Welcome back to the future.