The vinyl revival that’s been gleefully exiling CD players off to the Island of Misfit Toys for the past several years has its pros and cons. The downside includes having to secure a second mortgage to obtain LPs that barely made it to the thrift-store dollar bins a decade earlier. But looming large among the advantages is the abundant supply of quality turntables out there—many can be bought for affordable prices.
Whether you want a starter kit or an audiophile extravaganza, here’s a guide to some of the best turntables for your buck.
How to Find Your Perfect Turntable
Start your search by determining how much you want to spend and which features you want.
Got powered speakers? A built-in preamplifier (preamp) lets you plug straight into them, eliminating the need for extra components. But more seasoned stereophiles may want to curate their own preamp choice.
Likewise, a turntable with a preinstalled cartridge eliminates the hassle of selecting and installing your own, but audio mavens might be particular about their preferences. Then you need to decide which drive system is right for you. Belt drives are quieter than direct drives, but that design means you will have to shift the belt manually to change speeds. It’s less convenient but sonically worthwhile.
Pro tips: For stability, remember — heavier is better. If possible, opt for DC power to increase quietude. Avoid hardwired plugs; replacement could be problematic. If you really want to splurge, carbon tone arms and decoupled motors (more about them later) are your friends. And if you intend to do any digitizing, you need a USB port or you’ll be neck-deep in a creek sans paddle.
How We Chose These Turntables
In choosing the top options, we referenced Popular Mechanics’ previous research on turntables and interviewed Steve Cohen of high-end New York City audio shop In Living Stereo. We also evaluated each model based on user reviews and popularity on retailers like Amazon and Best Buy, as well as weighed reviews on respected outlets including Stereophile, Absolute Sound, CNET, Sound and Vision, and Devoted to Vinyl.
We favorably reviewed the original AT-LP120 in our previous list of best turntables. And this updated model is another winner. Modeled after the legendary Technics 1200, its high-powered direct-drive motor and heavy base and platter give it the dependability and stability associated with that iconic turntable. It comes with a built-in preamp (which can also be bypassed), so you can plug it straight into your speakers. As noted by Turntable Lab, the updated, even more affordable 120X makes a good thing better, upgrading the motor, anti-skate control, cartridge, and preamp among other things, and swapping the hardwired RCA plugs for removable ones for easy replacement. And like its predecessor, it has a USB port, so you can digitize your records. It even has a 78 speed in case you want to go spelunking in antique shops for 10-inch records.
—EASIEST TO USE—
Get the best of old-school and up-to-date tech with the PS-LX310BT. Its bluetooth connectivity lets you go wireless (as long as you’ve got wireless headphones or speakers), and its USB port enables digital transfers from vinyl to your hard drive. The belt-driven LX310BT is all about ease — built-in preamp, fully automatic operation, cartridge permanently mounted on the tone arm, hardwired cables, even one-touch play. The lightweight build belies its tightly modulated sound, and WhatHiFi.com insists you’d have to go much higher up the food chain for significantly better sonic dynamics. The three-position variable gain switch really gives you a leg up, letting you adjust the output according to your sound source. Forbes feels that while the overall frequency response and stereo image can’t be expected to emulate high-ticket turntables, the LX310BT delivers plenty of clarity for such an economical model.
Audio Technica AT-LP2
The little sibling of Audio Technica’s AT-LP5 (which is more than twice the cost) has a lot to live up to, but it represents the family well at its price point. The fully automatic LP3 is a belt-driven turntable with hardwired cables, a built-in preamp (which can also be bypassed) and an easy-to-change AT91R moving magnet cartridge. You could swap out for a moving coil cartridge instead, but considering what that would cost, you might not be getting your money’s worth on either end. WhatHiFi.com and The Vinyl Factory both suggest that while the much pricier LP5 naturally sounds more dynamic and nuanced, the relationship between the two comes through with plenty of punch for something in an entry-level price range. If you opt for an external preamp, you might even find that the gap between the two tables shrinks further. Quick caveat: there’s no latch to hold the tonearm in place, so be careful not to accidentally send it skittering across your records!
—MOST SURPRISING SOUND —
MUSIC HALL MMF-1.3
Music Hall may not be as iconic a name as Audio Technica or Sony, but the MMF-1.3 proves that their affordable line can hang with the big dogs. The belt-driven 1.3 makes things easy with its built-in preamp and pre-mounted Audio-Technica AT3600L cartridge. But it appeals to more upscale desires with its detachable cables and three speed options. Keep in mind that for the 78 speed requires its own special cartridge (not provided). Some users have opted to upgrade the AT3600L for standard 33/45 operation. The 1.3’s recommended tracking weight is a heavier-than-usual 3 grams, but don’t let that scare you off. It runs like a mouse in a library, and CNET praised its preamp for enabling a rich sound across all frequencies and music styles, while Audio Advice even slotted it into their Best Under $500 list.
Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN
Hovering at a level in between the LP3 and LP5, the Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN is geared a bit more toward seasoned listeners than the former, with a fully manual turntable and detachable cables putting things more in the hands of the user. Like the LP3, it’s got a built-in but switchable preamp, but CNET preferred the preamp’s performance to an outboard option and has big eyes for the handsome design, with artificial walnut veneer. The AT-VM95E moving magnet cartridge comes pre-mounted and pre-aligned, which takes some of the work out of things. Discogs was besotted with touches like the carbon-fiber tone arm and cueing lever, which you won’t always find in such affordable models.
U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus
You can get artisanal versions of everything from hammers to haberdashery these days, so why not turntables? Orbits are made to order in U-Turn’s Woburn, Massachusetts, shop, and they’re customizable to fit your preferences and budget. The brand’s operation started with a 2014 crowdfunding campaign and they know how to keep things simple. A pre-installed cartridge and (optional) built-in preamp make the Orbit as plug-and-play as it gets. The company offers three models with predetermined specs, starting at a shockingly low $179 (minus preamp), but custom options can bring the price up to $684. The belt drive cuts down on extraneous noise and is unusually placed outside the platter. CNET reviewers loved the design, but to switch playback speeds you have to manually reposition the belt—that’s only an issue if you alternate often between 45s and LPs.
—BEST MIDRANGE VALUE —
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC
There’s a way to get audiophile-quality sound without turning your bank account a desolate void, and it’s the Debut Carbon DC. Pro-Ject is one of the biggest audiophile turntable makers around, and their original Carbon changed the game by including a carbon-filled tonearm to work with the cartridge in a way standard steel arms never could. The DC version delivers even more, with a motor that runs on DC current and is detached from the base, so it’s exceptionally quiet. The Carbon DC comes pre-installed with an impressive diamond-tipped Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Devoted to Vinyl and Turntable Lab were both blown away by the Carbon’s inclusion of high-end technology that can’t find elsewhere at this price. FYI, if you want to change the speed you’ll have to adjust the belt manually, but you could spring for the Esprit version that automates the process.
—BEST PREMIUM VALUE—
This one represents a big jump in price, but keep in mind that in the realm of heavy-duty audiophiles, it's considered a “budget” turntable, and is the most affordable model from Germany’s Clearaudio. The Concept first appeared in 2009 but, crucially, the current model sports an aluminum sub-chassis instead of a plastic one, which fits the heavy (5.5-pound) platter better and allows it to revolve with more precision. For an audiophile table it’s surprisingly plug-and-play, with a cartridge that’s preinstalled and calibrated. If you bought the Moving Magnet cartridge separately it would cost you $250. That said, if you want a dustcover, it’ll run you an extra $250, so maybe we could call that a wash. Like the Carbon, it’s got a decoupled, DC-powered motor that keeps things library-quiet. Why do Stereophile and Devoted to Vinyl love it? A mouse could scamper across the base while you’re playing a record and it would register nary a squeak. The faithful reproduction of every frequency will have you wondering how the band snuck into your living room without anybody noticing.
—THE ULTIMATE OPTION—
AMG Giro G9
If you’re the kind of listener who'd sooner sacrifice a limb than compromise on sound quality, you can leap into the deep end with AMG’s Giro G9. We’re back in German territory once more—they know how to do audiophile sound right over there. The Giro is the smaller, cheaper (believe it or not), and more advanced offspring of AMG’s Viella. The G9—drooled over by Stereophile and Absolute Sound—is basically the Giro plus the mighty, copper-wired 9W2 tone arm. With a moving-coil Teatro cartridge, it tracks with almost scary precision. Running on DC power and fashioned with a grade of aluminum usually reserved for airplanes, the Giro captures not just a crazy degree of clarity, but a level of depth and dynamics unattainable from a lower-priced turntable. So it’s especially recommended for classical music aficionados searching for the ultimate experience of all the subtlety, nuance, and epic sweep a symphony orchestra can encompass. On top of everything else, it looks like it would be as much at home in an art gallery as in a hi-fi shop.
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