Vinyl records have seen an enormous, unlikely resurgence in recent years, selling millions of copies and sparking a renewed worldwide demand for the format. In an era where technology has made music-listening increasingly digital and ubiquitous, vinyl offers a tangible option for music lovers to enjoy their favorite albums. A huge draw to records is the high-quality sound that they are universally known and loved for: richer, warmer tones that can make for a more meaningful music experience.
But the format of records is only one part of the equation of better sound. The quality of your turntable makes a world of difference in listening to vinyl albums. With millions of listeners just recently getting into vinyl for the first time, many have questions when faced with the prospect of choosing a record player to invest in. Record players come with a wide variety of different bells and whistles, and they are offered at a vast range of price points for various music-listening needs and budgets. Here we compare the pros and cons of seven turntable options at a range of prices from cheapest to most expensive, all under $500.
U-Turn Audio Orbit Special Turntable
Pro: Wood body eliminates unnecessary noises
Con: Must move the belt to change speeds, which makes it less useful for playing 45s
Featuring the famous Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, the Orbit Special from U-Turn Audio provides excellent reproduction for all different types of music. An acrylic platter helps to reduce fluctuations in the turntable speed and the external belt system cuts motor noise to a minimum. While it does support singles, this is clearly geared toward enjoying full-length LPs and comes with some special features designed to help those who play longer albums.
Admittedly this does drive the price up quite a bit, but even the most discerning audiophile should get excited by the precision gimbal tonearm and internal anti-skate system. Since the body is made from genuine hardwood, the unit weighs almost 18 pounds. This makes it ideal for installation in a home entertainment system. After all, this added weight leads to a -79 dBA SNA ratio with less than -63dBA of rumble.
Audio-Technica AT-LP5 Direct-Drive Turntable
Pro: Switchable built-in pre-amp allows users to connect it to components that lack dedicated phono inputs
Con: Tonearm bearings are rather loose and need to be tightened periodically
The Audio-Technica AT-LP5 is the latest in a rather long series of audiophile-geared record players that offer excellent sound reproduction without crackles. As long as you don’t rock out to your favorite albums at concert pitch, the AT-LP5 should never experience resonance problems either. The tonearm is mounted on a hydraulic lift, which helps to balance out some of the concerns that listeners have had with Audio-Technica’s gear in the past. While it tends to be more expensive than most competing units, the AT-LP5 boasts excellent playback of both LPs and 45 singles. At nearly 23 lbs., the table is hefty enough to remain stable as well.
Music Hall MMF-1.5 Turntable
Pro: Features a Technics-style S-type old-school aluminum tonearm
Con: Built-in preamplifier sounds a little tinny
Confusingly, the MMF-1.5 has the lowest number in Music Hall’s current catalog but it’s actually their latest model. It’s also somewhat less expensive than many other older models. The cherry-wood veneer and vibration-damping platter mat slash noise levels, so you can enjoy even narrated records if you wanted to. The sound really is that warm when running through a good set of speakers.
The S-type tonearm comes with a removable headshell that improves tracking reliability while also making it easy to change out the stylus. Some assembly is required, but it’s easy enough to put together the fairly light 17.4 lb. table. While the onboard preamp is relatively anemic, the MMF-1.5 connects easily to any stereo with analog jacks so this is remedied easily enough.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC
Pro: Precision belt drive and Sorbothane motor offers excellent tracking
Con: Some units ship with an undersized dust cover that has to be left open when playing larger LPs
Using the same great Ortofon 2M red cartridge that’s found on several other audiophile-quality turntables, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC provides excellent sonic quality that has kept it at the forefront of the vendor’s catalog for some time. They’ve referred to this as their latest premier model for several years now and it’s quite inexpensive compared to many other similar designs. It’s also relatively light at just under 12½ lbs.
An 8.6″ tonearm coupled with a very large platter gives audiophiles plenty of space to play extended LPs as long as the cover is left open. Those who want to want to regularly play 45s will, unfortunately, have to manually reposition the belt, but this is otherwise one of the best units in its class.
Yamaha TT-S303 Hi-Fi Turntable
Pro: Tonearm is statically balanced and offers excellent tracking
Con: At less than 11 lbs. the TT-S303 is rather light
If you’d like a piano black player with a retro look and modern electronics underneath, then this might be the one for you. The built-in phono preamp provides line output that you can hook two-jack stereo headphones up to. A rigid cabinet helps to drastically cut back on noise levels, so you won’t notice any signal loss if you try listening to it this way. A switch on the back of the cabinet gives you the freedom to switch the equalizer on and off at any time, though most users advise not toying with it while you’re playing a record.
Denon DP400 Turntable
Pro: Comes with an in-phono equalizer that works with any connected amplifier
Con: Not fully automatic despite being listed as such
Denon has been making record players for over 100 years, and the DP400 is their latest in a long line of units geared toward audiophiles. To that end, it actually plays 78s as well as singles and LPs. The company decided to market the slightly over 11 lb. table as an accessory because it’s designed to do much more than merely reproduce sound with a custom belt-driven platter. For instance, the curved horizontal tonearm stops the platter at the end of a side and you can use the dust cover to display album jackets. It’s a neat piece of gear that’s rather reasonably priced for something that was released fairly recently.
Sony PSHX500 Hi Res Turntable
Pro: One of the better sounding turntables that feature USB I/O
Con: Onboard preamp is a bit anemic
If you’re looking for something that can outperform all-in-one designs that feature built-in speakers while also supporting USB I/O, then you’ll want to consider the PSHX500. While it only weighs less than 9 lbs., the highly stable belt drive and ⅕” rubber mat helps reduce the risk of unnecessary noise. While the built-in EQ circuit is a bit light on power, this device can output excellent sound to any connected PC or Mac without sacrificing the ability to use it with a traditional stereo. This makes it a great choice if you plan to be switching between MP3s and regular LPs on a fairly regular basis.
If you’re an audiophile and on the lookout for traditional record players that offer modern style, then you can’t go wrong with the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC. The large platter size and weighty design make it quite capable of playing nearly any record that you might want to throw at it. In fact, it’s one of the better modern designs if you’re looking to play any vintage oversized LPs that hang over other platters. It’s rather affordable when judged against other similar units and the stock Ortofon 2M Red stylus sounds great whether you’re listening to bass-heavy rock music or jazz that’s full of treble chords.