Top 5 Beginner Turntables for Vinyl Enthusiasts

by Cameron Schaefer on November 8, 2012

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 up over at the Art of Manliness, but we wanted to provide some additional guidance for those wanting specific turntable recommendations.  As a bonus, we’ve also created a list of “Must Have Vinyl Accessories” for those of you that really take the plunge.

But, without further adieu, 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)

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399)

“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.

Music Hall MMF 2.2 2-Speed Audiophile Turntable ($449)

 “Leave it to Music Hall to take its best-selling, Stereophile ‘Recommended’ MMF-2.1 turntable and give it an upgrade, just to make it an even better value.” – AudioAdvisor.com

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.

Rega RP1 Turntable ($445)

“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.

The Legend

Technics SL-1200MK2 ($1300)

“This wasn’t JUST a record player.  This was a piece of art that doubled as a record player.” – Chuck Miller, TimesUnion.com

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

Audio Technica AT-LP60 Fully Automatic Belt Driven Turntable ($75)

“It’s not going to get any better than this until you hit about the $300 range.” – Amazon customer review

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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Craig Weatherill March 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Hi,
I’m Craig. I purchased ” The Legend ” used about 4 months ago. I hooked it up to an old but reliable Aiwa stackable unit. I would really like to get the correct components to compliment this GREAT turntable. Would you PLEASE advise me ? I have CD’s and an Ipod, but NOTHING is better than the little “crackle & pop” of vinyl !!!
I don’t know what I need ! I don’t know what I don’t need either !
I have the turntable w/ a Stanton headshell ( not original Technics ) , the cartridge states: STANTON 505. I also have a small phono preamp : BBE – FJB-200X
NEED LIST :
1 – receiver ?
2 – amp ?
3 – speakers ?
I have about 220 albums and can’t wait to listen to them LOAD & CLEAR
Thank you for your time ! I look forward to hearing from you !
Craig

Cameron Schaefer March 19, 2013 at 7:14 pm

@Craig,

Let me preface this by stating plainly that I’m not a home audio expert – I only know what has worked for me. If you already have the turntable and the preamp then all you should need is a receiver and speakers. The receiver already has an amp in it so you shouldn’t need a separate one. I’d advise going to your local record or electronics store and trying out different receiver/speaker combinations. Tell them you’re wanting to use it for music as often the bigger stores assume you want something for movies. Hope that helps!

mooch March 31, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Excellent article as was your beginners guide.

Really I just want to dabble in a bit of pop and crackle, just like Craig. But, having undertaken research this past month I think I’d be annoyed were I not to get the mark II SL1200. Now the problem is that there are loads on auction sites and the prices vary wildly from $300 to $1400 custom.

Therefore I have two questions:

1. If I bought a low priced technics (max £200/$320) and worst case scenario the arm, cartridge and say even the motor needed replacing, what cost would I be looking at? i.e. is it feasible to maybe rebuild it? I was quoted by a repair centre, $140 for a new arm, is this true? I also hear pitch can be a problem on technics due to heavy DJing/scratching.

2. What on earth am I looking for when buying second hand and what should I be most concerned by? Can I tell by merely looking?

I know this is a risk but, well, they aren’t making technics anymore and I’m certain the right second hand choice would give me immense pleasure.

If you could advise it would be most appreciated!

mooch

Robbie April 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm

Mooch,
Great companion article by Cameron over at Art of Manliness, one section covers buying used. Cheers, I’m about to embark on the same boat as you!
http://www.artofmanliness.com/2012/11/09/a-beginners-guide-to-buying-your-first-turntable/
-Robbie

mooch April 1, 2013 at 3:27 pm

Thanks robbie but that is the article I referenced and it doesn’t address the specific pitfalls of buying a second hand SL1200, the workhorse of the DJing world which means they often get pretty beaten.

I’m after specific advice regarding the SL1200mk2 as refurb costs can be exorbitant. Examples:

New arm: circa $120-150
New cartridge (although not exclusive to technics by any means) $100+
New cover (many come without/damaged): $100
Recalibration of pitch: unknown
New tracking light: unknown
New motor: unknown
Earth cable: unknown

The list goes on and I don’t mind taking a risk, suffice to say, as long as I know what that dish might be.

Cheers

Jordane Yu April 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Great article. Really helpful.

I bought this pre owned vintage Sony PS2350 turntable a year ago, and now I’ve completed my set up with a denon amp and some kenwood speakers. Thing is, it came with a sketchy head shell, cartridge, and stylus. I was wondering if I would upgrade my head shell, cartridge and stylus, would it be in a universal size that would fit all tone arms?

Don May 30, 2013 at 3:09 am

Hi Cameron,

I enjoyed the article. Cleared up and clarified a number of issues. I have many albums that I like to listen to but the overall audio from my current system is poor. I have an old Pioneer PL-100 turn table that I have had since about 1981. It was only recently that I realised new turn tables were still available and I am now doing a little research with view of getting one. When I use this unit I experience a significant amount of ‘crackles’, ‘muffling’, ‘distortion’, etc. from the records and through the speakers. I have added my new Yamaha speakers to the amp, but the audio has not improved that much. Mind you the entire system is from 1981. I suppose my question is, if I were to buy either the Rega RP1 or Pro-ject Debut Carbon discussed above and connect it to my new Yamaha receiver, do you think I would see an improvement in the audio. I imagine your reply will be a resounding yes, given the age and probable quality of the Pioneer I am using, but I ask before buying a new unit simply out of curiosity. Further, my Yamaha receiver does not have a phono jack, so I assume I will need to purchase an external pre-amp for use with the turn table/amp. Which one would you recommend? Thank for your assistance with these questions. Regards, Don

Salvatore Miceli December 9, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Just like to say that I scored a mint 1200 from an old friend for $75. Sold my Rega Planar 3 the other day for many of the reasons mentioned above. I did a side by side comparison and the 1200 blew the Rega out of the water. The 1200 is the way to go for longevity! Be patient and check pawn shops. You never know what you may find.

Vinyl lover January 6, 2014 at 11:05 am

I’m quite surprised by the number of record players under the 100 bug that give a nice sound. My experience is that the players that get more expensive don’t make up for that money by better sound bot more on durability and looks.

Great tip about the pawn shop too, a good turntable can take a lot of years so might still produce great sound.

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Turntable lover March 17, 2014 at 7:29 am

Great article! I only have one minor comment, it can be a little misleading for people buying the first turntable. You can easily find good turntable around $200 dollars (like the Audio-Technica AT-LP120).

Despite that, thanks for the reading!

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C May 11, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I just want to make sure i got this right (i’m sort of a noob at this). I want the Pro-ject Dedut Carbon and with that I need a preamp, receiver and obviously speakers right? This wouldn’t be my first turntable my first was a TT, CD player, Tape deck combo that recently quit working. My vinyl collection has grown quite a bit since I got it from about ten to nearly a hundred and think it is time I got something of a higher quality.

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