Bonjour, creeps. I’m back again with another one of these things. This time around, the subject is still vinyl, but playback rather than the discs themselves. In the last decade, vinyl has seen a resurgence in popular culture as millennials began spending some of their disposable income on physical music. With the Napster revolution in the decade that preceded this craze still in recent memory, it kind of makes no sense that vinyl records have made a comeback when they offer none of the convenience of digital.
All that said, if you made it this far along, you may still be interested in trying the hobby out for yourself. Being slightly more complicated than cassette, CD, or MP3 players, turntables can be daunting at first. A few different things have to go right for a vinyl record to be played back safely and accurately, and choosing the right deck can make the process of starting out much easier.
Conventional wisdom says that if you want to get into vinyl, you need to shop for an old turntable at your local Goodwill consignment shop. While this is one way to get going, I would recommend against buying used equipment from places like this until you are very familiar with the inner workings of turntables and can quickly determine what may need costly or difficult repairs and what could be the ultimate bargain.
When looking for your first turntable, you need to make sure of a few things. First, you want something that can reliably spin at 33-⅓ RPM (and/or 45RPM), has adjustable tracking force, and preferably an adjustable tonearm. The reason for the consistent speed is you want your music to sound as intended — spinning slightly too fast or slow will affect the pitch. Adjustable tracking force allows you to dial in the exact force the cartridge uses when being dragged through the grooves of the record. When set too lightly, the tracking force can lead to skip or groove hopping. Setting it too heavy can potentially damage your records and affect playback. Finally, you want an adjustable tonearm so that you have the option of replacing, servicing, or upgrading your cartridge at a later date. The stylus (or needle) in a cartridge has a finite lifespan and users can simply swap out stylii once the original wears out without replacing the rest of the assembly.
Turntable Best Bets
At this price range, there is really only one turntable out there that offers a big bang for your buck while meeting the requirements posted above. Made exclusively for Target stores in North America, the heyday Turntable is what you need to be looking for. The heyday is plastic construction and made in China, but remains your best bet at this price point. It has passable looks, an adjustable tonearm with anti-skate adjustment, and a good quality Audio Technica cartridge included. Unlike some models, it also has a built-in phono preamp (so you won’t need to buy one separately to use the turntable with your existing gear) and Bluetooth transmission functionality. Yeah, buying an analog record to playback and convert to lossy digital kind of defeats the purpose, but to each their own. The heyday also offers push-button speed changes, meaning you don’t need to manually adjust the drive belt as you would on most turntables of this type.
You may notice the popular Audio Technica LP60 or various Crosley tables in this price range. Because they lack some critical features (such as tonearm adjustment) avoid them in favor of the heyday if you need to stretch your budget.
If you have a bit more to toss around for your first turntable, you could do much worse than the Orbit from uTurn. For $200, you get a basic, well-built deck. The belt-driven design is available in wide variety of colors over a solid MDF platter (offering less resonance than lighter plastic designs). It comes with an Audio Technica cartridge similar to that on the heyday, but does not come with a built-in phono preamp. You can add one for an additional $70 if you need one.
uTurn also offers various upgrades and enhanced models of the Orbit for additional cost. The Orbit Plus model adds a nicer Ortofon cartridge and push-button speed control for $329. The uTurn Special turntable adds a solid wood plinth, a fantastic Ortofon Red cartridge, acrylic platter, and cue lever (for carefully raising and lowering the tonearm). This bundle goes for $499. At this price, there may be better options available to you, though uTurn does offer some additional customization choices if you opt for an Orbit.
For a bit more cash, you can pick up a Fluance RT81 turntable. This Canadian-designed table is probably your best bet at the $250 price point. You get a big chungus walnut plinth, Audio Technica AT95E cartridge ($75 by itself), push-button speed controls, and a built-in phono preamp. The RT81 is available in 3 colors, but I can’t imagine anyone that would opt for the basic black or white over the natural walnut.
If you can stretch your budget up to $499, the Fluance RT85 ups the ante even further. This is like the RT81 on steroids. It is built off the same basic walnut plinth design, but brings along an acrylic platter and the wonderful Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge ($250 when purchased separately). If you are interested in buying just one package and getting immediate, high-quality sound with no fuss, you really can’t do much better than this.
At $599, the Project Debut Carbon EVO checks almost all the boxes. It features a design similar to the Fluance RT85 above, but with a thinner plinth, carbon tonearm, and Sumiko cartridge. While it won’t sound much better than the Fluance (depending on how you feel about the difference in cartridges), it has its place in the market. Project is one of the best budget turntable manufacturers in the world.
If you don’t mind buying a used deck from a reputable refurbisher, there may not be a better choice under $1000 than to opt for the mother of all turntables, the Technics SL-1200. Originally released in the late 1970s, the SL-1200 eventually became the de facto standard for club DJ work thanks to its tank-like reliability and compatibility with aftermarket parts. There is a reason that most DJ turntables on the market are made to look exactly like the SL-1200 — these decks are the real deal.
Unlike the choices above, going for a Technics SL-1200 will require the purchase of a phono preamp (if you don’t have one already) and a cartridge. These table were originally sold with an empty tonearm, though selecting and installing a cartridge on this deck is about as easy as it gets. Being the most popular model ever produced, you will also always have a worldwide network of replacement parts available as well as the unquestioned best aftermarket support of any deck.
I recommend getting your SL-1200 from a reliable shop or refurbisher. It is easy to find used models for sale on eBay, but unless you know what to look for or can inspect the thing in person, you may find yourself in possession of a heavily-used club model that needs major repair. I use a dealer out of Japan (where the tables are made) that sources and cleans good, working units. Look for a model that comes with a dust cover (you’ll thank me later) and expect to spend from $500 to $700 depending on the item condition. This vendor ships for free and offers great pictures of each deck for sale.