Best Turntables

Films and TV shows are best left alone. There’s no earthly reason to remake Ghostbusters with a female cast, or remake The In-Laws with any other cast. It’s sacrilegious to bring MacGyver or Hawaii Five-0 back from the TV graveyard. And most people will probably agree that capital punishment isn’t a cruel and unusual fate for those planning to film a new version of Scarface.

It’s a different story, though, when it comes to many forms of mechanical and electronic equipment. The intricate pinball machines which were replaced by video game consoles now sell for big bucks and occupy prominent places in man caves. After a brief flirtation with quartz, high-end watchmakers realized that there’s no substitute for a precision mechanical watch. And thankfully, the world has once again realized the virtues of vinyl records – and the turntables needed to play them.

The best turntables can deliver warm, natural audio that MP3 or CD players can’t. Different cartridges and styluses can fine tune the vinyl listening experience in ways not possible with a CD. Throw in the added tactile and visual enjoyment of playing a record and closely analyzing the cover art, and it’s hard to believe the turntable was out of favor for so long.

Before shopping for a turntable, it’s important to understand the difference between inexpensive USB turntables, which are usually made from plastic and serve the sole purpose of “playing music from a record” (often for the purpose of converting records to digital files) – and higher-end models with changeable cartridges and straight tone arms that can be rebalanced, designed for those who fully appreciate the audio they’re listening to. Many describe the latter models as “audiophile turntables,” but we don’t think you have to be a music snob to love high-quality sound.

You also don’t have to spend a fortune to get one of the best turntables on the market. Computerized engineering and lower production costs have allowed manufacturers to design and sell great turntables, while giving you a better bang for the buck than in the good old days when you couldn’t get music on CDs or digital files, and you could only listen to your favorite songs on a radio or a record player.

It’s possible to spend more than $1000 for some of the finest turntables available, but in these reviews we’ll focus on models that sell for less than half that price. They still give you outstanding audio performance, but at a more reasonable price point for most consumers.

It’s time to take these babies for a spin.

1. Pro-Ject – Debut Carbon DC

If you’re not going to lay out a grand for a turntable, this is the one we recommend because its performance comes awfully close to those very high-end audiophile turntables. It’s been on the market for several years but no other sub-$500 competitor can match it. There are several reasons for the surprisingly impressive sound produced by the Pro-Ject; key among them are the light-but-strong 8.6 inch carbon fiber tone arm used for decreased resonances, a Ortofon 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge known for its detailed sound reproduction, and a heavy-duty steel platter. All are normally found on much more expensive models. The only fly in the ointment is the thin felt platter cover, which we’d suggest replacing for a few bucks.

The Debut is easy to set up because it comes with nearly everything already done for you. All that’s required is installing the bias and counter weights and setting the speed – and we should mention that this Pro-Ject does require manual adjustment of the belt if you want to switch from 33 1/3 to 45 RPM. It’s not difficult, but may be a consideration for some. We like the construction of this turntable, with a quiet synchronous DC motor and Sorbothane suspension that along with the heavy platter keep wow and flutter to minimum, although the arm assembly is somewhat old-school and can be a bit touchy if the unit isn’t on a flat surface.

The key, of course is the audio. And the Debut delivers nearly-perfect clean, clear sound that excels in the detail and nuance of the audio. Lows aren’t quite as punchy as we’d hope, but they’re still strong and more than sufficient for full appreciation of the music’s dynamic range and problems like noise and rumble are nearly non-existent.

You can choose from seven attractive colors of this Pro-Ject turntable. Whichever one you pick, you’ll be getting a turntable that could compete with models costing much more.

Facts and figures for the Pro-Ject – Debut Carbon DC:

  • Drive: Belt
  • Motor: DC, decoupled
  • Speeds: 33 ½, 45 RPM, manual adjustment
  • Tone arm: Carbon fiber
  • Platter: Balanced steel
  • Cartridge: Ortofon 2M Red moving-magnet
  • Body: MDF
  • USB Output: No
  • Dustcover: Yes
  • Dimensions: 16 x 4.5 x 12.5 inches
  • Weight: 12.3 pounds
  • Warranty: 2 years, 1 year on cartridge

Check Pro-Ject – Debut Carbon DC Price on Amazon

2. Rega – RP1 Turntable

Rega’s been making turntables for five decades and the RP1 has been around for many years, but with continual upgrades it’s better than ever. It was hard to decide whether to place it at #1 or #2 on our list of best turntables since it’s just about as good as the Pro-Ject. We ultimately ranked it second because we like the detailed audio of the Debut a bit more than the punchier sound of the Rega. Make no mistake, though – you can’t go wrong with either of them, since they’re priced around the same level and they’re both going to deliver full dynamic range with impressive clarity.
When you first look at the Rega, you’ll know that the company paid more attention to the design and construction than the bells and whistles; the turntable looks much like a bare-bones model you may have owned in the 1970s (if you were around then). But the company hand-assembles its own RB101 tonearms (similar to the RB300 arms on its upper-end turntables), uses high-quality low-vibration motors and precision main bearings. You’d expect to pay much more for turntables with those features. The cartridge is a Rega Carbon moving-magnet cartridge that doesn’t have quite as much warmth as the Ortofon 2M but otherwise manages to gets the most out of your vinyl. Noise and rumble are very low, and there’s a nice natural wool mat for the platter (which is made from phenolic resin).

Once again, you’ll have to change speeds manually by moving the belt, but setup is as easy as it is with the Debut and the two turntables’ performance is pretty darn close. You won’t go wrong with either of them.

Details for the Rega – RP1 Turntable:

  • Drive: Belt
  • Motor: AC synchronous
  • Speeds: 33 ½, 45 RPM, manual adjustment
  • Tone arm: Carbon fiber
  • Platter: Phenolic resin (Bakelite)
  • Cartridge: Rega carbon moving-magnet
  • Body: MDF
  • USB Output: No
  • Dustcover: Yes
  • Dimensions: 17.5 x 4.5 x 15 inches
  • Weight: 9.2 pounds
  • Warranty: 1 year

Check Rega RP1 Turntable Price on Amazon

3. Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive Professional Turntable

This is the best turntable you can buy (in our preferred price range under $500) if you want to transfer your old LPs to digital media, because it comes with a USB output and included software that’s compatible with both Macs and PCs. It also, of course, has standard line level outputs but the RCA output cables are hard-wired.

The AT-LP120-USB has also been around for quite a while, and at a price $100+ lower than the first two entries on our list it has become the standard for “entry-level” audiophile turntables. It features a direct-drive motor instead of a belt-driven one; even experts disagree on which is better, but we’ve found that direct drive creates more noise in the system because noice can be transferred from the motor to the stylus. On the plus side, you don’t have to make a manual adjustment to change the speed (and in an unusual twist, this AT can play records at 78 RPM if you change the cartridge).

There are other conveniences on this turntable including an integrated phono amp (which can be bypassed if desired) so you can connect directly to powered speakers, dials for pitch, tone arm height and anti-skate adjustments, and even the ability to play records backwards (insert your own “Paul is dead” joke here). More importantly from our viewpoint, this is a very well-built table (and quite similar to the late, lamented, expensive Technics 1200). And while the sound delivered by the included AT95E cartridge is rather soft, not as full and impressive as you’d get with more expensive turntables, it’s quite good for casual listeners who simply enjoy their music. You may hear some low-level noise, pops and clicks (particularly with dirty vinyl) but very little wow and flutter and good response.

The AT-LP120-USB is versatile and well-designed. It isn’t great, but it’s very, very good. (If you want to come in right at the top of our price range, we suggest looking at the Audio-Technica AT-LP5 instead; it’s just been released and a terrific performer, but may be difficult to find.)

Looking deeper at the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive Professional Turntable:

  • Drive: Direct
  • Motor: DC
  • Speeds: 33 ½, 45, 78 RPM
  • Tone arm: S-shaped aluminum
  • Platter: Cast aluminum
  • Cartridge: AT95E
  • Body: Plastic
  • USB Output: Yes
  • Dustcover: Yes
  • Dimensions: 17.75 x 6 x 14 inches
  • Weight: 23.5 pounds
  • Warranty: 1 year, limited

Check Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive Professional Turntable Price on Amazon

4. Music Hall MMF 2.2 Belt Driven Turntable

More comparable in build to the Rega (and made by the same people as the Pro-ject) but around the same price as the AT-LP120-USB, this Music Hall turntable is a well-built, minimalist belt-driven model. It delivers solid audio performance without much rumble or noise, thanks to the Music Hall Magic 2 moving-magnet cartridge (which is made by Ortofon). You’ll enjoy the balanced sound from this turntable, although the cartridge and metal alloy tone arm don’t produce audio with the same impact or strong lows you’ll hear from our higher-ranked competitors.

There are a few other small issues that knocked the MMF 2.2 down in our reviews, including the fact that the RCA output cables are hard-wired, the felt platter mat is inferior and will need to be replaced, full setup is required, and the anti-skate was a bit problematic. None were deal-breakers, but did lead us to prefer the tables we’ve ranked higher. The Music Hall is a good backup choice, though.

More info on the Music Hall MMF 2.2 Belt Driven Turntable:

  • Drive: Belt
  • Motor: AC synchronous, decoupled
  • Speeds: 33 ½, 45 RPM, manual adjustment
  • Tone arm: Metal alloy
  • Platter: Metal alloy
  • Cartridge: Music Hall Magic 2 moving-magnet
  • Body: MDF
  • USB Output: No
  • Dustcover: Yes
  • Dimensions: 17 x 4.5 x 13 inches
  • Weight: 9.2 pounds
  • Warranty: 1 year

Check Music Hall MMF 2.2 Belt Driven Turntable Price on Amazon

5. U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus Turntable

We close with another nice belt-driven model, and quite frankly it comes in at #5 on our list of best turntables because it’s from a company that’s relatively new on the scene. The Orbit Plus (and its lower-priced cousin, the Orbit Basic) was born from a Kickstarter campaign; it’s a promising product, but the manufacturer has only been around for a couple of years so there isn’t the same history as with a product from A-T or Rega.

First, the pluses. It’s made in the USA (unusual for tables in this price range, around $300), it’s easier to switch out the cartridge or other parts than most competitors, and the sound is pleasing, in part due to the high-quality acrylic platter. As for the negatives, there are some slight turntable speed issues over time, the tone arm is made from metal and plastic, the bass is somewhat wanting, and changing speeds by moving the drive belt required more dexterity than we would have liked.

U-Turn says it’s continuing to roll out upgrades and improvements, and this is a strong contender that we’ll be keeping our eye on. For now, it’s not the best turntable in its price range, but it’s not far off.

Specs for the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus Turntable:

  • Drive: Belt
  • Motor: AC synchronous, decoupled
  • Speeds: 33 ½, 45 RPM, manual adjustment
  • Tone arm: Metal alloy and plastic
  • Platter: Acrylic
  • Cartridge: Ortofon 5E moving-magnet
  • Body: MDF
  • USB Output: No
  • Dustcover: Yes
  • Dimensions: 17 x 5 x 13 inches
  • Weight: 12.5 pounds
  • Warranty: 1 year

Check U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus Turntable on Amazon

One Response

  1. Rob Beldam September 9, 2016

Leave a Reply