Since starting Vinyl + Cocktails this past summer, Levi and I have had quite a few people ask us about the best turntables for people just getting into vinyl. Our “Beginner’s Guide to Buying Your First Turntable” is now up over at the Art of Manliness, but we wanted to provide some additional guidance for those wanting specific turntable recommendations. The following is a short guide to what we believe are the 5 best turntables for those just getting into vinyl.
Beginner Audiophile Turntables: The Big 3 (Pro-Ject, Music Hall, Rega)
“Most highly recommended. I don’t know what else comes close for $399…”– Michael Fremer, Stereophile Magazine Senior Editor
Key Features : Carbon tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Ortofon 2M Red cartridge
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is a redesign of the manufacturer’s bestselling Debut III series, a turntable that caught many in the audiophile community by surprise with its ability to go toe-to-toe with much higher end turntables. The Debut Carbon features an upgraded cartridge (Ortofon 2M Red vs Ortofon OM5e), and upgraded carbon fiber tonearm (lowers resonance), redesigned body and inner suspension, and removable RCA cables should you want to upgrade further. One would be hard pressed to make a case against this being the best beginner audiophile turntable on the market.
Key Features: Adjustable height tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Music Hall Tracker moving magnet cartridge
In almost every audiophile forum you’ll find a discussion about “Best Beginner Turntable” or “Best Turntable for Under $500”. The same three names always come up: Pro-Ject Debut III (now Carbon), Music Hall MMF 2.2 and Rega RP1. What makes the Music Hall stand out from the pack? First, the Music Hall offers an adjustable tonearm, meaning you can adjust the Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) or the relative angle of the stylus to the groove (sometimes necessary when swapping cartridges). Second, it has leveling feet that can be adjusted when dealing with uneven surfaces. Finally, the Music Hall features a $100 Music Hall Tracker Moving-Magnet cartridge (not bad for a beginner table). Overall, the Music Hall is a beautiful turntable that competes well in the low to mid-range audiophile category.
“Perhaps best of all, the RP-1 is easy to own and to use. It’s not just that I can’t imagine $445 buying more happiness; I can’t imagine so modest an investment in money and effort buying more music.” – Art Dudley, Stereophile.com
Key Features: RB100 tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Ortofon OM5E moving magnet cartridge
British audio company, Rega Research, has been making turntables since the 1970’s and with a well-earned reputation stemming from their higher-end offerings, it’s not surprising that they’ve managed to create such a simple and well-preforming entry-level turntable. The RP1 is noted for its great dynamics and performance on the high-end with things like cymbal crashes or piano flourishes coming across very life-like. The main downside noted by many users is the low-end Ortofon cartridge, but that is something that can easily be upgraded.
In the end, any of the above three turntables would be an excellent starter turntable. Each has its fan clubs, but most would admit that the differences are quite slight. For those with a budget under $500 the Pro-Ject, Music Hall and Rega offerings represent the most bang for your buck in terms of design, sound quality and ease-of-setup and use.
Key Features: s-shaped tonearm, heavy base, variable pitch control, high-torque direct-drive motor, incredibly reliable
We have to expose our bias at this point, Levi and I both own the Technics SL-1200MK2. Widely regarded as one of the most reliable turntables ever produced, Levi purchased his several years ago after dreaming of owning a legendary turntable that originally came out in 1972. Despite its massive acceptance in the DJ community today, the Technics turntable was originally built to be a sturdy, one-time purchase home audiophile turntable. Clocking in at over 25lbs, it’s a tank, designed to minimize acoustic feedback. It was manufactured with a direct-drive system rather than belt-drive, helping to minimize flutter and also allowing for quick spin-up.
In 2010, Panasonic announced it would be discontinuing production of the turntable with the result that prices have since skyrocketed, more than doubling since Levi bought his new in 2006 for $599. There is a dwindling supply of new units on the market today, but soon buying used will be the only option (although, due to its durability, buying used isn’t a showstopper by any means). Is it still worth purchasing at such high prices? Hard to say, but from a usage standpoint it will likely pay for itself 500 times over in pure enjoyment and reliability. It’s a powerhouse that is endlessly upgradeable, meaning you’ll likely be passing it on to your grandkids down the road. It might be considered overkill for everyday household use in light of other, more cost-effective options listed above, but we love it and recommend it for anybody who can swing the cost, find one used, or just wants to make sure they get it right the first time.
The Budget Warrior
Key Features: Fully automatic belt-drive operation, built-in switchable preamp, easy setup, affordable
For those who are looking to dip their toes in the water, but aren’t quite ready to make a $300+ investment, the Audio Technica AT-LP60 is an affordable workhouse that couldn’t be easier to set up and use. It is fully automatic meaning you just hit play and it does the rest. Additionally, it comes with a built-in phono preamp making it possible to connect the turntable directly to your computer, stereo, or other components that don’t have a phono input. While the quality is not up to the same standard as the turntables listed above, this AT-LP60 has received consistently high scores from thousands of satisfied customers who are quick to point out that it outperforms all others in its sub-$100 price range.
For more info on buying your first turntable see here.