Into Vinyl? The Best Turntables Under $400
Dear Reader: You, sir, have asked us to step into a snake pit. Other than the OS wars, no topic inspires such passion, enmity and grief than vinyl, especially when it comes to advocating for the appropriate devices needed to properly enjoy it. But we are duty bound, and soldier on we will.
If you've spent more than a couple seconds cruising online for an opinion on a solid turntable, you are undoubtedly overwhelmed by the incredible array of options -- despite the supposed demise of vinyl three decades ago! (The correct term, by the way, if you want to fit in, is "turntable" and not "record player." Those are for kids.) The fact that vinyl didn't go extinct is a good thing, of course, as we ourselves love records and turntables. The complexity in buying then comes from the fact that turntables, despite being seemingly simple mechanical devices, are comprised of a handful of discrete mechanisms and components that are incredibly varied as you go from brand to brand and price range to price range. So, when you're in the market for a turntable, the sophisticated buyer will want to consider the elements that make up the whole. To name a few, there are the following: the drive system (belted or direct drive); the tonearm (straight or curved, hollow or solid); the cartridge type (ceramic, moving magnet, or moving coil); the platter (wood, metal, glass); and the plinth (i.e., the base of the player, made of metal, plastic, wood fiber or glass). And then there are the assorted electronics that go into it. Still with us?
We couldn't possibly say that any one combination of the above options is "best," but there are a few guidelines we can offer. The heavier a turntable base and platter are, the more stable and less likely they are to be affected by vibrations from a turntable's own mechanisms (or from you, as you clodhop around the house). DJs and amateur turntablists who want to get their wicki-wicki on will want a direct-drive motor, a high-powered motor connected directly to the platter. The rest of us, though, will prefer a belt-driven assembly, which helps to keep the motor from vibrating the platter (and record). Moving magnet and moving coil cartridges are always better than ceramic ones, and usually are replaceable and upgradable (but can also be extremely expensive). There are enough proponents of both straight and curved tonearms, meanwhile, that we won't argue one is better than the other. Ideally, though, you'll find one that you can balance by adjusting its counterweight. Finally, if you have a stereo receiver with a dedicated phono input, you won't need a turntable with a built-in preamp. If you don't, though, you'll want one that does. Otherwise, you'll have to shell out for a separate preamp, and add to your stack of home audio equipment.
Now, at the risk of alienating hordes of readers, we've put together our top turntable picks for an amateur, an aspiring DJ or budding audiophile, that should suit even the most rabid vinylophile.
Audio Technica AT-LP60
Stanton T.92 USB
Nonetheless, let's assume you're interested, in which case we'd recommend the $300 Stanton T.92 USB. Even discounting the ability to plug it into your PC, it's a full-featured and high-quality table fit for an aspiring DJ. Nicer features include a high-torque direct-drive motor, pitch control (including Digital Signal Processing, which can change a song's tempo without affecting the pitch), a quality cartridge, and easy switching between 33, 45 and 78 rpm. And, like any deck of this breed, it offers a stop-start button along with the ability to balance the tonearm and anti-skating forces. On the digital tip, it has both USB and S/PDIF (optical digital) plugs, and comes with Cakewalk Pyro Audio Creator software, which is easy enough to understand and works well.
Pro-Ject Debut III
The only downsides you'll encounter are ones common to any turntable of this price point and category. First off, it doesn't have a built-in preamp, so you'll need to pony up for one if you don't have a receiver with a phono input. And switching between 45s and 33s requires physically removing the platter and slipping the belt from one position to another, which, while tedious, isn't actually complicated. And newbies may be surprised to discover operation of the Debut is fully manual, which means to play a record you lift the tonearm via its lever, nudge it over the track you want to hear, and drop the needle, as opposed to hitting an automatic "start" button. Then when the album is over, you'll also have to lift the needle again, or it will scuff around the runout groove for eternity. All in all, though, these aren't gripes so much as fair warning, and only constitute a small price for extraordinarily great sound. Of course, listening to vinyl on such a high-performance player means you'll soon need a better pair of speakers. But that's a question for another time.