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Into Vinyl? The Best Turntables Under $400

Top Turntables
A reader writes: "I recently helped my parents clean out their house, and, lo and behold, stumbled upon my beloved record collection, which I had assumed was long gone. So, now I need a record player. I'm not planning on becoming a wedding DJ anytime soon, but I want my Emerson, Lake and Palmer to really bump, so help make this reunion work and just tell me what to get!"

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

Audio Technica AT-LP60
For the dilettante who just wants a bargain-priced, reliable player for novelty's sake, we'd recommend the Audio Technica AT-LP60 ($99, but widely available online for $77). It offers a good mix of built-in usability and performance with the ability to upgrade the stylus, should you want a minor quality improvement at some point. It plays 33 and 45 rpm records, and has three function buttons for stopping, starting, and lifting/cueing the needle. Thanks to its switchable internal preamp, you can either plug it into a receiver with a dedicated phono input, or turn on the amp and directly plug it into a receiver or powered speaker system. Unfortunately, the tonearm isn't adjustable, and the platter is belt-driven by a flimsy rubber band that will surely stretch or snap with a fair bit of use. But at least they're replaceable. At under a hundie, though, it's a perfectly serviceable and friendly turntable for rediscovering your old vinyl friends.


Stanton T.92 USB

Stanton T.92
Over the past decade, manufacturers jumped on the digital bandwagon and began pumping out turntables that add an analog/digital converter and a USB cable for digitizing LPs, but, we have to say, we're highly skeptical. The gist is that you plug them into your PC via a USB cable, install some software, and, as you play records, they'll be copied to your computer. You then label the tracks individually, and choose whether or not to process them (to remove hisses and pops). The funny thing is, unless you're a digital DJ, there's little benefit to taking the USB route that we can see as you can simply use a $6 RCA-to-1/8-inch adapter and plug a regular turntable with a built-in preamp directly into your PC's audio input jack. To digitize your tunes you'd then fire up the same free or cheap software (such as Audacity) that comes bundled with these models, and copy your music yourself in exactly the same manner and time frame. To be frank, it's a modestly arduous process either way you dice it, and as far as we're concerned, the only person who would benefit from a USB turntable is someone whose PC has an extremely dated audio card.

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.

Stanton T.92 USB

Pro-Ject Debut III

Pro-Ject Debut III
Crossing the border into audiophile-junior sound (a realm where the devout can easily spend thousands tricking out their turntables), the Pro-Ject Debut III starts at $400. The Debut is our favorite among the typical go-to tables in the sub-$500 range because of its out-of-the-box awesomeness; it's mechanically solid, comes standard with a great cartridge (the Ortofon OM5e), has a great tonearm, and is a relative cinch to set up, balance and play. Unlike the plastic bodies we've mentioned above, the Debut's plinth is made of heavy MDF (or, medium density fiberboard), which cuts out unwanted vibrations and makes it all the less likely that you'll skip a record when pogoing to your Minor Threat singles. It also has a novel motor assembly, which is dampened by rubber and thus cuts out yet another possible source of hum. And, not insignificantly, this thing is just gorgeous to look at.

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.

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