The Best Record Players and Turntables for Every Kind of Audiophile
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In case you hadn’t heard, vinyl is having a moment. Record sales were up 27% last year, and if you yourself are searching for the best record players to enjoy your new stack of LPs, we’ve got you covered.
But first, what is it about vinyl that has everyone rediscovering record stores again? For Francis Harris, co-founder and musical director of Public Records in Brooklyn, New York, it’s less about sound quality (Harris champions CD as a “superior format”) than it is about a “greater appreciation of the art form and the labor that goes into making a record.” And while a CD player is great and all, listening to analog playback, rather than digital, allows users to hear music as the artist intended.
As opposed to just streaming a song on Spotify, playing vinyl also “adds an alternate tactile experience to your listening,” Peter Hahn, owner and founder of Turntable Lab in Brooklyn, New York, says. From viewing and handling the sleeves, placing the tonearm, maintaining a mechanical piece of gear, plus hearing dust and imperfections, Hahn notes that diving into records opens folks up to a “huge, consuming hobby,” like finding new favorite record stores, getting into the nitty gritty of gear, and building out a record collection.
The difference between a record player and a turntable
If you came here looking for record players, we have news for you: We don’t want to recommend just any to you. Record players—like, those briefcase-looking-things with built-in speakers—just aren’t that great in terms of sound quality, and a hell of a lot of them may actually screw up your records. Instead, we’re all about turntables.
Turntables aren’t entirely distinct from record players. Record players house everything you need to listen to a record (including a turntable for spinning your latest and greatest) and they play your vinyl through built-in speakers without the need for any additional audio equipment. Sure, they’re great in the short-term, and certainly cheaper than a full turntable system. But if you really care about drawing out the best audio quality possible, and ensuring that your LPs don’t sound like a mewling, distorted cat, it’s worth setting yourself up with a turntable and individual speakers.
Turntables are more of a pared-back setup that’s usually comprised of a platter (the thing your record sits on), tonearm (the device that holds the cartridge in a steady position while it reads your records), and most importantly, the cartridge (an electromechanical device that uses a stylus to translate those grooves on your record into signals that produce music). Alone, it’s not enough to play audio, so, you’ll also need to tack on a phono pre-amplifier—though not always, more on that later—and speakers to transfer sound.
What to look for in a turntable
There’s a whole language of niche terms to learn when you’re scratching the surface of turntable lore, but here are the very basics to know before diving in.
Built-in preamp: If you’re new to turntables, you’ll probably want to find a turntable that has a built-in preamp. In general terms, a turntable works like this: The turntable’s cartridge reads a record’s grooves, then sends out a signal. That signal needs to be amplified because it’s too weak to be read by your sound system. A phono preamp turns your turntable’s otherwise-weak signal into something readable by your speakers so that you can actually listen to your records. A preamp isn’t usually that expensive, so having a turntable with one that’s already built in is “more about convenience and not having to mess around with an additional set of wires and power supply,” Hahn says.
Automatic versus manual: “If you want to listen to records and chill out, having an auto-stop function is great,” Hahn says. An automatic turntable is one that uses an automated tonearm to start a record without user intervention and stop a record once it’s done. With a manual turntable, you’ll have to get used to lowering the tonearm yourself and get comfortable doing so. You’ll also have to make sure you stay alert so that you can lift the tonearm once a record is done—leaving a tonearm down once a record’s complete isn’t the worst thing in the world, but you’ll waste power and potentially shorten the lifespan of your needle.
Belt drive versus direct drive: So how exactly do those records spin? A turntable will either feature a belt drive, in which a literal belt connects the platter to the motor, so that as the motor runs, it moves the platter around. Belt drives will wear down over time (but over a long, long period of time) though they reduce vibration noise and produce excellent sound quality. On the other hand, direct drives eschew the additional part—the belt—so that the motor is the direct force that turns the platter. Direct-drive turntables get up to speed faster than belt-drive turntables, though they’re usually on the pricier side, and they’re probably a better choice for professional disc jockeys.
Guided by experts, we tuned in to hear about the very best record players and turntables for spinning all of your favorite LPs like a bona fide pro.
The Best Turntable, Overall: Fluance RT81
While in the audio home theater speakers game for a couple decades, Canada-based Fluance didn’t start making turntables until recently. Its RT81 is one of the brand’s best in terms of value, with California Chaney, a DJ and travel editor, calling it a “great starter turntable with impressive sound for its price point.” The RT81 also comes equipped with AudioTechnica’s AT95E cartridge, which boasts impressive sound quality so your favorite Cream record doesn’t sound terribly tinny.
The rubber mat is an upgrade from the RT80’s felt mat, though they both have a built-in preamp. It’s a manual turntable, so you’ll have to get used to dropping the needle on your own, but it does offer an auto-stop function at least. “I love the sleek knob that easily changes the RPM and speed of the record, so you can switch between them easily,” Chaney says. The turntable boasts a sleek-as-hell design, which is available in three finishes: piano black, piano white, and walnut.
The Best Budget Turntable: AudioTechnica AT-LP60X
From college radio booths and beyond, the AudioTechnica brand is a perennial favorite of audiophiles. “This is the industry standard starter turntable,” Hahn says, calling it a “solid value.” If you’re trying to get into turntables, $149 is probably the least you’ll want to spend, and it’s not so expensive that you have to commit to it if you suddenly fall out of love with vinyl. Hahn is a fan of this beginner model because it has a built-in preamp, automatic play feature, and small footprint for squeezing onto a media shelf.
This specific model does not have a Bluetooth connection for syncing your music up to your speakers remotely, but the sister model AudioTechnica AT-LP60XBT does for slightly more money. Another downside: The diamond stylus is replaceable, but the cartridge is not, which means if you want to upgrade your turntable down the line, you’ll have to spring for a totally new unit rather than upgrading specific components.
The Best Upgrade Turntable: Technics SL-1500C
Public Records uses various iterations of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, Harris says, because “to date, no other producer of turntables tops Technics’ stability and pitch control.”
Hahn agrees with the Technics praise, but calls the Technics SL-1500C model the best upgrade turntable as it’s essentially the “hi-fi sibling” to the SL-1200 line, which for decades has been industry standard for DJs and record producers. The SL-1500C has a similar direct-drive motor as the SL-1200s, but takes things much further in terms of construction and custom-machined parts, which have less to do with getting the best sound but making sure the build quality is superb.
The high-end turntable has an auto-stop function, and the brand actually implemented that feature into the base of the tonearm, which Technics says “eliminates impacts to the tonearm.” If there is anything not-so-superb about this model, it’s the 2M Red Cartridge, which Hahn calls “basic” for a model of this price point. The fix? The $209 2M Blue cartridge for even better sound quality.
The Best Midrange Turntable: Rega Planar 1
Since the ‘70s, UK-based brand Rega has been producing some of the world’s best hi-fi products. The Rega Planar 3 is especially raved-about, but it’s also much, much more expensive than this more mid-tier Planar 1 model, which offers comparable sound quality. Chaney calls the entire brand’s range of turntables “unbeatable in their precision to play a record faithfully and with the most accurate sound.” And while some shoddier turntables might amplify a turntable’s “retro, scratchy warmth,” Chaney says the Planar 1 is primed to retain a record’s original quality because of its weight, preset force, and low-vibration motor.
The Best Turntable for Aspiring Audiophiles: Music Hall MMF 1.5.ttl
According to Hahn, the folks at Turntable Lab liked Music Hall’s original MMF 1.5 turntable so much, they asked the brand to make one exclusively for them. “We picked this model because at this price point, it’s rare to get all the features we look for: a real wood body, a high-quality S-shaped tonearm, and the Ortofon Silver cartridge, which retails for over $100 on its own,” he says. That S-shaped tonearm is great because it has anti-skate adjustment, so it doesn’t drift (or “skate”) to the center of the record. It plays three speeds—33⅓ rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm—which are easily controlled by a knob, and for the price point is a well-designed turntable with the sound quality to match if you’re upgrading from a basic AudioTechnica.
The Best Turntable for Sonos Lovers: Pro-Ject T1 Phone SB
Chaney calls this turntable “the most futuristic of the bunch,” and it’s not just because of its sleek, streamlined appearance. The turntable is completely devoid of plastic for an environmentally-friendly bent, and made even more striking thanks to its glass platter and wooden plinth elements. Looks aside, the minimalist T1 Phono SB isn’t the brand’s most advanced turntable, but it is one of its best entry-level turntables, since it has a built-in preamp. It’s also a favorite of Sonos, so you can trust it produces excellent sound to complement Sonos’ excellent home theater speakers.
The Best Turntable That Comes in Flashy Colors: U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus
Another attractive option, the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus has a built-in preamp, which Chaney reminds us is “great for a beginner to drop a record and immediately enjoy great sound.” The turntable comes equipped with an OA2 gimbal tonearm and a Ortofon OM5E cartridge, which offer precision tracking and high-quality sound, plus an acrylic platter for more detailed playback. This turntable has the most splashy color options—so it’s an excellent alternative to those lesser-quality record players we were saying to avoid—”but the quality and sound precision has all the features you want of a new turntable,” Chaney explains. In this price range and easily accessible at places like Target, the Audio Orbit Plus is certainly a worthwhile buy.
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