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What Are the Best Vintage Turntables?
Guides to the best audio equipment usually require frequent updates as manufacturers respond to fierce competition with ever more sophisticated improvement and innovations. When it comes to talking about vintage equipment, there isn’t the same imperative to evaluate the new. Instead, we’re re-evaluating the old. As time passes, certain equipment will acquire vintage status, but on the whole, it’s a relatively fixed quantity.
That’s not to say it isn’t subject to the same passionate debates and disagreements that rage within the audiophile community. Loyalties to certain brands can be as unwavering as those of NFL supporters to their teams. However, when we decided to try answering the question, ‘what are the best vintage turntables?’ we knew that everyone reading this guide would have at least one thing in common: a love of vinyl records, both 33 and 45 rpm.
This isn’t the place to rehearse the argument about digital vs analog. For the sake of today’s discussion, we can all assume that vinyl is a good thing. Moreover, buying a vintage record player has the advantage of giving you access to high quality equipment without the extravagant expense of a new turntable straight off the production line. You don’t have to pay top dollar for a quality turntable.
As with any secondhand product, before buying a vintage turntable, you need to check it carefully. Scrolling though eBay for a name you recognise is no guarantee of quality. A vintage record player needs to have been well-maintained and the inevitable signs of wear should only be aesthetic rather than compromising its performance. For example, a belt drive turntable may well need a replacement belt as they wear out over time. There’s no substitute for seeing the player in the flesh, so to speak, and experiencing its sound for yourself. With those caveats in mind, the question is, which ones are the best? Let’s take a chronological look at the most glorious moments in the history of the turntable.
Garrard 301/401In 1953, the musical landscape was very different from that which we’re used to in the 21st century. Hi-fi was in its infancy and the dominant popular musical forms of the second half of the 20th century were yet to emerge. The 301 and 401 are idler-powered, a mechanism which was a forerunner of the drive motor belt drive turntable system that became widely popular over the next decade. Both are examples of transcription turntables that were commonly used by radio stations in the UK and Europe. Today they sound a little under-powered in the higher frequencies but in the lower registers, they are extremely impressive.
Thorens TD-124Rock’n’Roll had barely been invented when Thorens produced this almost legendary turntable in 1957. In fact, the 12 inch long player had only been in widespread commercial use for a few years and major stars like Frank Sinatra, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers used the format to considerable effect. The Thorens TD-124 is the epitome of the vintage record player and has been used for decades in broadcast studios all over the world. In 2020, Thorens released a new version which built on the solid properties of the original but delivered enormous improvements thanks to the technological advances of the intervening six decades. For sound quality, the 2020 model would have to be your choice, but for the sheer pleasure of using a piece of living history, the 1957 TD-124 can’t be beaten.
Goldring/Lenco GL75A decade later, this collaboration between the British company Goldring and the Swiss manufacturer Lenco set a new standard in hi-fi. The GL75 was an integrated unit that possessed all the qualities of a transcription turntable with a sophisticated pickup arm. Technically precise, it produces a clear, powerful sound and features a drive system powered by a constant-speed motor. It has four speed settings: 33 rpm and 45 rpm, the two speeds in use today, as well as 78 rpm for much older records from the 30s and 40s plus 16 rpm, a speed that was still widely offered by record players into the 70s despite the fact that very few 16 rpm records were ever made. Although by modern standards, the GL75 may seem a little primitive, diehard fans of analog reproduction will never tire of its warmth, depth and authenticity.
Acoustic Research XA/XBEdgar Villchur was an American inventor who was already famous for his 1954 invention of the acoustic suspension speaker when his company Acoustic Research released the AX/XB. It incorporates a suspended turntable platter, developed by Villchur, which heavily influenced the designs of Thorens, Linn and others. It is one of the most sought-after vintage turntables in the world and stands up very well even at 60 years old. Acoustic Research released new turntables in the 1980s, which are similarly collectable and also easily modifiable.
Linn Sondek LP12We skip forward to 1972, the year of Ziggy Stardust, Neil Young’s ‘Harvest, Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Superfly’ and Steely Dan’s debut ‘Can’t Buy a Thrill’. Linn Sondek released its LP12 in a bumper year for vinyl records and it became an instant hit with hi-fi enthusiasts. The first version had a rich, round balance that gave excellent sound quality and Linn had the foresight to make it easy to upgrade with a range of compatible arms and cartridges. Over the decades, the LP12 has been comprehensively redesigned and contemporary models create a neutral, more even-handed sound. If you can locate a first edition, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised by its capabilities which still impress 50 years on. Considering a new Linn turntable could set you back anything from $4,000 to $30,000, tracking down an original LP12 is well worth the effort.
Ariston RD11SLike Linn, Ariston was a Scottish hi-fi specialist and the RD11S was based on the same approach applied by Thorens. Its drive motor belt drive reaches optimum speed very quickly and it incorporates shock absorbers to maintain the stability of its heavy platter and tonearm. First built in 1972, it still sounds rich, warm and full.
Technics SL-1200In 1976 the music world was on the verge of the punk revolution with the release of the first albums by The Ramones and The Damned, on collision course with established giants like Bob Dylan (‘Desire’), David Bowie (‘Station to Station’) and The Rolling Stones (‘Black and Blue’). Technics launched what became the DJ’s favorite, the Technics SL-1200. It is particularly strong in the bass registers, thanks to its direct drive system. With high quality build and flexibility in the choice of cartridge, it delivers an exceptional listening experience for its time and still compares very favourably with modern turntables.
Rega Planar 3
The Rega Planar 1 is rightly regarded as iconic and a fine achievement in sound quality. However, when the Rega Planar 3 came along in 1978, it represented a significant advance for mid-market record players and has remained one of the most appealing choices for audiophiles ever since. Rega has a consistent policy of updating its most popular pieces and the Planar 3 still exists today as the RP3/Elys 2. When it first appeared, you’d have been playing newly released albums from the likes of Bruce Springsteen (‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’), Blondie (‘Parallel Lines’) and Marvin Gaye (‘Here, My Dear’). Put the same records on this high-quality turntable today and you’ll see why it was considered as ground-breaking in its price range.
Thorens TD-125Throughout the 1970s Thorens produced the TD-125 in enormous quantities to satisfy growing mass market demand. Today it is recognised as a vintage record player of timeless quality. Unlike the TD-124 of the 1950s, it is a fully suspended turntable and features electronic speed control. It is one of the earliest examples of a motor control board and this, in conjunction with a heavy platter, creates a flywheel effect that guarantees consistency of speed. Today it’s fairly easy to source spare parts and to upgrade its performance with the addition of an SME tonearm.
Dual CS505At the beginning of the 1980s, just before the tornado of the CD revolution arrived, Dual produced this fine example of an entry-level turntable. 1981 resounded to the sounds of Grace Jones’s ‘Nightclubbing’, U2’s ‘October’ and Prince’s ‘Controversy’ and the CS505 did a fine job on all of them. What Dual put under the hood might not have stood up to close scrutiny from someone in the know, but what mattered was the impressive sound it delivered for the price tag. In later years Dual modified the CS505 with some refined design elements but these were largely cosmetic. The listening experience remained reassuringly strong through all its incarnations.
Mister Disc (AT770)We couldn’t resist including this oddity from the Japanese company Audio Technica. Released in 1983, it was slightly bizarre response to the Sony Walkman and aimed to do for vinyl what Sony did for the cassette: make music portable. It’s hard to remember in the age of smartphones, streaming and MP3 players, but portability was something only battery-powered transistor radios could provide back then. The Walkman could be listened to as you walked along or even jogged. This was never going to be possible but with the battery-powered Mister Disc, Audio Technica certainly gave it the old college try. Collectible as a curiosity rather than for its sound quality, it still commands affection in some parts of the audiophile world.
Pink Triangle Tarantella
This 1997 turntable was quickly recognised as something special. Early products were seen as direct competitors to the Linn Sondek and the Tarantella represents the pinnacle of the company’s achievements. With a little care in setting it up, you can be sure of pretty awesome sound quality. Unfortunately, Pink Triangle went out of business and has since been resurrected under the Funk Firm brand. If you can get your hands on a Tarantella you’re in for a treat.
So, in our opinion, what are the best vintage turntables? We would honestly find it very difficult to single out any one of the classics we’ve mentioned. If money is no object and the best sound quality is your objective, then you’d probably go for a brand new top of the range item from Rega, Pro-Ject or Technics. But even then, we’d be leaving out plenty of other excellent brands. It’s not hard to find guidance if you’re interested in the latest innovations.
Buying a vintage turntable is a very different pursuit. Naturally, you want a great sound quality. You’ll probably also be looking for something that is in good cosmetic condition and yes, buying used is often cheaper than buying new. But there is more to it than these considerations. Buying a vintage turntable means you’re getting a piece of history, both musical and technological. Some people will be drawn to 1950s equipment, because they feel an affinity with that era of revolutionary change. Others will hanker for the 1960s when studio recordings started to break out of the strict confines of the previous decade. There are comparable attractions in the products of every period. We hope we’ve given you a broad overview of some of the best options available. It’s now for you to decide which of these masterpieces comes closest to your own ideal.