After spending over 50 total hours comparing turntables and measuring their performance we’ve determined that the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB is the best turntable for most people. It’s highly adjustable, has a built-in phono preamp for hassle-free setup, sounds great out of the box, and even has a built-in USB port if you want to digitize your LP collection. It’s also very speed-accurate, according to our tests. Why do our tests matter so much? Because we found competitors in this space that exhibited audible speed shifts at least 2x worse than what their specs claim. When it comes to turntables, what the companies say they can do doesn’t always match up with reality.
If you don’t need USB recording or want to possibly save a little bit of money, the Fluance RT81 sounded identical to our main pick in testing. Both use the same cartridge, have similar tonearm designs, and have built-in phono preamps, so it isn’t surprising we couldn’t tell them apart when listening. The Fluance isn’t quite as speed-accurate, but comes close. Plus, it stops the table automatically when the record finishes playing to prevent unnecessary stylus wear.
For a bit more you can get the Rega Planar 1, which sounded better than any of the other tables we listened to and sets up in less than a minute without need for a stylus gauge or any other specialized tools. The Rega sounded bigger and more detailed than the competition, but unlike some audio components that highlight details, its sound didn’t fatigue our ears.
If you’re not excited enough about vinyl records to spend hundreds on a turntable, or you want a Bluetooth-equipped model that can stream music to a wireless speaker, the Audio-Technica LP60-BT is a safe place to start. It’s fully automatic, so you don’t even need to lift the tonearm, but the sound was smaller and less detailed than the competition’s and you can’t upgrade to a better cartridge.
The following guide contains a fair amount of jargon. So if you’re unfamiliar with the parts of a turntable and/or the terminology involved in evaluating one, we recommend clicking here to skip ahead to the terminology section.
I’ve reviewed audio gear for almost a decade and listened to turntables since the late 1990s. I try to ground all of my conclusions in both objective and subjective data from testing, and in the experience gained during the hundreds of hours a year I spend evaluating and comparing audio products.
This guide is designed for the person who is either first getting into vinyl playback, or has been out of it for a while and wants a simple solution. Many of the turntables discussed here feature integrated phono preamps, which is important because signals from phono cartridges must be amplified and equalized to be compatible with normal stereo systems or powered speakers. Most new entry-level receivers lack phono preamp sections, and soundbars and wireless speakers never had them, so a built-in preamp can be important.
The phono preamp issue is just one more reason why we don’t discuss the option of used turntables in depth. There are plenty of used turntables out there that are great, but those can take some work and fine care to optimize their playback. If you’re a vinyl veteran, this might be for you, but it’s probably not for the first-time turntable owner.
If you already have a turntable that works for you, you probably don’t need to upgrade to a new turntable from this guide. You can probably get more out of your current turntable by upgrading the cartridge or getting a new phono preamp than you can from buying a whole new table.
Since we last updated this guide more and more companies have jumped into the turntable game. Vinyl sales have risen through the past decade, and audio companies want to capitalize on the trend. Many turntable brands have introduced new and ostensibly improved models since our last update.
We brought in nine new or updated turntables to compare with our existing pick, the Audio-Technica LP120. For models without an integrated phono stage, I used the $2,350 Parasound Halo JC3. If a model had an integrated phono stage, I typically used that because we figure most of you will too. I listened to all of the turntables in my dedicated home theater room that measures 11 by 13 by 8 feet. For direct comparison, I played identical copies of an album on multiple turntables using a line-level audio switcher. Due to the different output levels of each included cartridge, I had to adjust the level each time I switched turntables, which meant I couldn’t do a blind test.
We considered belt-drive and direct-drive models for this guide. Many enthusiasts are convinced of the superiority of one or the other. The common belief is that direct drive is more speed-accurate because it drives the platter directly, and belt drive better isolates records and cartridges from motor noise and vibration. We found that in this price range, neither had a clear advantage. The direct-drive models were usually more speed-accurate, but also sometimes had more wow and flutter distortion than the belt-drive models. Most higher-end turntables use belt drive; perhaps at those prices they can improve the speed-accuracy to the point where belt drive is clearly superior.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB is the best turntable for most people because it sounds great, has an internal phono preamp, is speed-accurate, and lets you easily digitize your LP collection if you desire. The AT-LP120-USB is a great entry point for the vinyl enthusiast, with sound quality that holds up in comparison with some tables costing twice as much.
The sound quality of the AT-LP120-USB, with the included cartridge and integrated preamp, is remarkably good. With high-quality source material, it has the ability to present a quiet background with very good channel separation and vocal clarity. It can stumble a bit on very busy musical sections on the inner grooves of records (where the fidelity is not as good as on the outer grooves), but many tables do this. The more records I play on the Audio-Technica, the more I find myself appreciating it.
Most modern receivers lack a phono preamp (which is necessary to hook a turntable into a sound system) and even fewer people own an external one, so it’s convenient that the AT-LP120-USB has one built in. This means that straight out of the box, the Audio-Technica can plug directly into a soundbar or powered speakers that have an analog input. This saves you $50 or more, and reduces the complexity of your system. However, if you already own a phono preamp, it is likely better than the one built into the AT-LP120-USB.
You can disable preamp inside the Audio-Technica with a switch, but when we tried it, it produced a ground hum that wasn’t present with the internal preamp. Even moving the turntable to a dedicated 20-amp circuit with no other components plugged into it didn’t resolve the issue fully, so you might wind up happiest with the internal phono preamp even if you own a better one.
Compared with other entry-level turntables, the Audio-Technica is very flexible. The tonearm includes adjustments for vertical tracking angle and anti-skating, plus a counterweight system with a wide range of adjustability. Its direct-drive mechanism facilitates push-button access to 33, 45, and 78 RPM speeds, so you don’t need to adjust a belt over a pulley when you change playback speed (as most belt-drive models demand).
The AT-LP120-USB’s tonearm accepts a wider range of replacement cartridges than many other affordable turntables do. It also has a removable headshell that makes swapping between cartridges quick and easy enough that over three years of extended testing, I’ve swapped between two cartridges often.
Unlike some of the other turntables we tested, the speed of the Audio-Technica was consistent for both 33 and 45 RPM speeds. On some turntables 33 RPM is stable and 45 RPM shows obvious speed fluctuations. This slight speeding up and slowing down became audible on those models when listening to sustained notes. Even though most people don’t listen to as many 45s as they do 33s, a turntable should play both accurately.
The AT-LP120-USB’s inclusion of a USB output makes it easy to digitize your LP collection. Most new LPs include download cards so you can get MP3 or FLAC versions of the album, but used LPs lack this. The USB output lets you connect the AT-LP120-USB directly to your computer, so you can use a program such as Audacity (which is included with this turntable but also available for free download) to digitize your collection to take with you, and you get the vinyl mix of the album that many people prefer.
Unlike some other turntables, you need to attach the counterweight and balance the AT-LP120-USB’s tonearm, although it’s a good idea to check every turntable’s tonearm balance in case something was jarred during shipping.
You can balance the tonearm (and thus adjust tracking force, the downward pressure the tonearm puts on the stylus) with the Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Gauge. It’s a tiny but accurate scale that makes it easy to measure tracking force, which you can fine-tune by turning the counterweight on the other end of the tonearm.
The permanently attached RCA output cables are also an annoyance, mostly because they are only 42 inches long. You can get a cheap extension cable for them, but a user-replaceable cable is always preferred.
Compared with our upgrade pick, the Rega Planar 1, the Audio-Technica is noisier, which is apparent during breaks in the music where nothing is playing. The AT-LP120-USB also didn’t suppress pops and clicks as well as the Rega when playing dirty or damaged records. Of course, I’d recommend anyone buy a record cleaner like the Spin Clean to keep their records in better shape, as keeping your records clean also helps preserve them and keeps your stylus in better shape too. If you’re using clean records, click suppression will be a smaller issue.
As mentioned above, when used with an outboard phono preamp, the AT-LP120-USB produced lots of noise and background hum. We didn’t encounter this problem when using the internal preamp. Other turntables with internal preamps also suffered from this, but the Rega Planar 1 was almost dead silent when used with the same external phono preamp on the same outlet. Even if using an external preamp provides better audio quality, the excess noise will mask that. Some people remove the integrated preamp entirely from the turntable to improve audio quality, but because this voids the warranty and requires considerable soldering skill, it isn’t something we’ve tried or would generally recommend.
Justin Yu at CNet calls the Audio-Technica a “solid, low-cost turntable for anyone looking for an easy entry point into the world of vinyl records.” His only major downside is that because the RCA cables are attached they can be hard to replace if damaged, but we haven’t seen reports of this happening to people.
What HiFi? likes the LP120 as a “sturdy record player that does everything one could expect, at a very reasonable price.” The site finds this model’s sound to be a bit smaller-scale than the competition but didn’t provide any direct comparisons to other models.
Over more than two years we’ve run into no issues with the AT-LP120-USB. It’s been rock-solid.
The Fluance RT81 looks much like the Audio-Technica and sounds almost identical too. It has the same cartridge and a similar tonearm, but uses belt drive instead of direct drive (though unlike some other belt-drive models it lets you select between 33 RPM and 45 RPM without switching a belt). It also has an integrated phono preamp, but unlike the Audio-Technica, it will automatically stop the platter from spinning once the arm reaches the center of the record. (It does not, however, lift and return the tonearm as a fully automatic turntable does.)
Some people might prefer the look of the Fluance to the Audio-Technica, but it is unlikely anyone will be able to tell them apart sonically. Listening to identical records at identical points and switching back and forth, I noticed no difference in sound quality between the two. I had measured the Fluance running slightly fast (0.37 percent), so the timing of the records was eventually off, but otherwise any differences between the two were impossible to discern.
The Fluance often sells for $50 less than the Audio-Technica, but it lacks a USB output for easy dubbing of your vinyl. Plus, its speed isn’t quite as accurate, and we don’t have the long history with Fluance’s turntables (the company only recently began selling them) that we do with the Audio-Technica model. In April and May 2017, some buyers complained about speed-stability issues, and we reached out to Fluance. In Fluance’s testing the company identified an RT81 batch that did not have the optimal lubricant level in the spindle, which affected some units. The additional quality-control measures that are now in place should ensure consistency for all units going out since that batch’s release. Buyers who encounter this problem should reach out to Fluance to have it resolved.
If the Audio-Technica is sold out, or if you decide you like the Fluance for aesthetic reasons, it should provide the same sound quality. Fluance also sells a cheaper model, the RT80, but we believe the improved build quality and better cartridge of the RT81 make it worth the $40 upgrade.
The updated entry-level model from Rega, the Planar 1, offers improved audio quality over the Audio-Technica and has the easiest setup of any turntable we tested. When we listened to The Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” the Audio-Technica put poor Ringo back in the corner and muffled his voice. The Rega put him center stage and let him shine. Complex passages were a bit clearer on the Rega and the soundstage was wider with better separation between instruments.
The Rega was easy to set up out of the box. The cartridge is pre-mounted and all we had to do was remove a piece of protective cardboard, install the counterweight, and then connect the power and RCA cables. It took under a minute to have the system up and running. Rega offers a number of upgrades for the Rega Planar 1 but the performance pack is the one most people might want to consider. For $200 it offers a wool mat instead of the standard felt one, a better belt, and most important, an upgraded cartridge. You have to install these yourself, but the three-point mounting system Rega uses for its cartridges makes this relatively easy.
If you plan to do lots of long-term upgrades to the Rega, beyond the performance pack, you might want to start with the Planar 2 instead. It has a better platter than the Planar 1’s and a more adjustable tonearm that will support more cartridges.
What HiFi? gave the Planar 1 a perfect five-star rating and said there are no negatives for it at the price. “Even as an entry-level turntable, this is the kind of player that could feasibly be the last of your system’s components you’d feel necessary to upgrade,” it wrote, and particularly complimented the easy setup and the available upgrade package.
There are a couple of downsides to the Planar. It runs around 0.5 percent fast, but in listening tests comparing it with other more-accurate tables we didn’t notice this speed difference. You also have to remove the platter to switch from 33 to 45 RPM. This can be resolved with an item like the Phoenix Engineering Falcon speed controller, but that costs almost as much as the Rega itself.
If you want something that can just play records easily for as little as possible, the Audio-Technica LP60-BT will do the job. Unlike the other tables we considered, LP60-BT is fully automatic: Press a button and the table spins while the arm moves into position. Once a record is done, the arm goes back into place and the table stops. It has a built-in phono stage and you can even get it with a Bluetooth output for use with wireless speakers.
Compared with the other turntables, the sound was smaller with more smearing of details when listening to music. It also offers no way to improve it down the road, as you can use only the cartridge that Audio-Technica sells for it. It’s also the least speed-accurate of the cheaper turntables we tested, though not by a huge amount. If you’re spending $20 to $50 on high-quality vinyl pressings, get one of our main picks instead. If you just want a way to play a record once in a while, then the LP60-BT does the job easily.
I spent more than a dozen hours researching every turntable under $500 that I could find. I tracked down bench tests from the few sites that do objective testing, and spent a lot of time using Google Translate to get reviews from Germany and other countries where turntables remain even more popular than in the US. After all of that research, I found a lot of competitors, but nothing that could unseat any of our choices.
The Crosley C200 feels like a very lightweight, cheaper version of the Audio-Technica. It lacks a few of the features of the Audio-Technica, including USB output, and its cartridge isn’t as good. Overall it just didn’t sound as good as the Audio-Technica or Fluance tables.
The Crosley C10 sounds and looks good, but is in our opinion priced too high. It usually sells for only $30 to $40 less than the Pro-ject Carbon DC but has a very basic tonearm instead of the carbon fiber one, has a worse cartridge, no way to lock down the tonearm when not in use, and has the same annoying counterweight. The inability to lock down the tonearm was a bigger problem here, as it didn’t like to rest fully in the stop position and could be knocked out when you bumped the table. For roughly $35 more you should get the Pro-ject Carbon DC, as Pro-ject also makes the Crosley. Or even better, spend a little extra for the Rega Planar 1.
The Music Hall MMF-2.2 bears a lot of similarity to the Pro-ject Carbon. In fact, they come from the same factory. But the MMF-2.2 comes with what most feel is an inferior tonearm and cartridge. Where the Pro-Ject has a carbon fiber tonearm, the MMF makes do with a metal alloy model, though it does have VTA adjustment. At The Absolute Sound, Paul Sedydor listened to the MMF-2.2, which he found to “homogenize textures and colors” in recordings; he said that with the included Tracker cartridge the “low end plumbs no depths.” Michael Trei at Sound & Vision compared the MMF-2.2 with the RP1’s predecessor and concluded, “It had a slightly laid-back quality that was easy to listen to, though its sound at times seemed a touch less dynamic and exciting.”
Our prior upgrade picks were the Pro-ject Debut Carbon and Debut Carbon DC. This time we felt the Planar 1 is a better choice because of easier setup and use as well as sound quality. The Carbon DC sounded more lively than the Rega, but its sound can get a little harsh in the long term. It also exhibited far more background hum in our testing than the Rega. The anti-skating weight on the Pro-ject also bothered us the more we used it. It’s a weight held by a piece of fishing wire that is prone to falling off. I’ve lost this in the past, and it must have fallen off 20 times in testing. It’s a little thing that can become a big annoyance the more you use it, but even without this issue I’d still pick the Rega.
The Pro-ject Primary sounds good for its current price of $250 and the speed change is easy to do with the pulleys exposed instead of under the platter. At $250 our main picks include phono preamps, saving you $50 or more. The Primary also had the second-worst wow and flutter measurement in our testing.
The Pro-ject Elemental line is the company’s most affordable, but online reviews show a large number of complaints about the speed-accuracy of the table so we left it out of testing.
The Pro-ject Essential II falls in the middle of the Primary and the Carbon. It has a more flexible tonearm than the Primary while using the same cartridge, but doesn’t offer the carbon fiber arm or Ortofon Red cartridge of the Carbon. It also has the annoying counterweight that the Primary does not, so we decided to test the Primary instead.
Pro-Ject also makes the RM series, which is another line of tables apart from the Debut. This includes the RM-1.3, which reviewers loved when it was released back in 2010. But nowadays it lacks the value that Carbon provides, and it is more finicky in use. At TechRadar, Dominic Todd gives it a five-star (out of five) review, and says that “Given its price, the Genie 3 sounds exceptionally good.” Reviews of turntables at TechRadar seem to be a bit subject to rating inflation, so the review from Brent Butterworth is a good secondary point. In the end he felt that “Perhaps most important, I now feel like I own a real turntable instead of just a record player.” However, he now prefers the newer Carbon. Although the RM-1.3 might offer some sonic advantages, the Carbon has a better arm, and the RM-1.3 belt is prone to slipping off.
Sony’s PS-HX500 turntable is the only table we know of that can record your records to a PC as DSD, Sony’s preferred HiRes Audio format. Unfortunately, despite its $600 price it had the worst speed-accuracy of any turntable we’ve tested, playing 33 RPM records almost 2 percent too fast and 45 RPM records 1.5 percent fast. Though some of the other turntables were around 0.5 percent fast, that wasn’t noticeable to us, but the 2 percent on the Sony was pretty easy to hear.
The U-Turn Orbit turntables made a big splash when announced and are still a popular option. The Orbit Basic sells for $179, and the upgraded Plus with an acrylic platter and Ortofon OM5E cartridge sells for $289. We tested multiple review samples from U-Turn a couple of years ago and they all had issues. The motor speed was inconsistent, with really high wow and flutter that we could hear easily. Since then U-Turn says it corrected these issues. However, the company also said it had eliminated the wow and flutter in replacement units it sent us, but those both had it as well. The Orbit isn’t as strong a value as it originally was, because more companies are making turntables at the same price, often with more features.
CES 2017 in January will likely see more turntables coming from lots of companies, and we expect to test any promising new models. But most probably won’t ship until later in the year.
Before you buy or use a new turntable, it helps to be familiar with the jargon. We’ve explained some key terms below.
1. Tonearm: The tonearm holds the cartridge as it moves across the record. Typically a tonearm is straight, but some are S-shaped. The ideal tonearm has no mass, is perfectly rigid, and has a bearing with no friction. Because that isn’t possible, you want a tonearm that’s as light and rigid as you can get. If the tonearm is flimsy and resonates, that resonance will make it into the music. Carbon fiber and other composites are light and stiff, and cheaper metals like aluminum are light but have much more resonance.
2. Cartridge: The cartridge and its stylus are what physically play the record. The stylus moves up and down, left and right, producing a waveform for both stereo channels. There are many types of cartridges, but almost all entry-level tables will use moving magnet (MM) designs.
3. Platter: What the record sits on. The platter is rotated by either a direct-drive or belt-drive system. The platter should be as dense as possible to reduce rumble and other mechanical noises that will otherwise make it into the music.
Phono stage/phono preamp: The signal from a turntable is far less powerful than the signal from a CD player or other typical audio source. It also requires an equalization function, called the RIAA curve, to achieve a correct balance of bass to treble. A phono stage (or phono preamp) will boost the signal and apply the RIAA curve. Some receivers and integrated amps have built-in phono stages, with an input labeled “Phono” and usually with a ground screw for the turntable’s ground cable. If neither your stereo system nor your turntable incorporates a phono preamp, you’ll need to buy an external one.
5. Tracking force: Cartridges are designed to apply a specific amount of force to a record, specified in grams. Apply too little and the cartridge and arm will bounce around, skipping constantly. Apply too much, and you’ll cause excessive wear of the stylus and the record itself. This is adjusted at the end of the tonearm opposite the cartridge.
Azimuth adjustment: The stylus on the cartridge should be directly perpendicular to the record itself. The azimuth adjustment lets you rotate the tonearm slightly in each direction to make sure it is correct.
Vertical tracking angle: The body of the cartridge and tip of the stylus should be directly parallel to the record surface while playing. Because records are different thicknesses and cartridges slightly different sizes, many tonearms offer a way to adjust this.
8. Drive method: The platter is either belt-drive or direct-drive. In a belt-drive turntable, an elastic belt connects the motor to the platter. The belt’s elasticity helps isolate the record and stylus from the motor’s vibration, and can help reduce wow and flutter1, which are speed fluctuations. On higher-end tables, you even see the motor totally isolated from the chassis, which in theory should remove any chance of motor rumble coming through the stylus. Direct-drive turntables have the motor directly connected to the platter. This will pass along far more motor noise, though the effect can be reduced through the use of various platter substances and construction techniques. The benefit of direct drive is that the platter gets up to speed faster and the direct connection provides far more torque, which is why you’ll find direct drive in DJ turntables, which require speedier response.
Setting up your turntable correctly is key to getting the best performance out of it. There are many online guides available, including a nice step-by-step one put together by Brent Butterworth for Sound & Vision. There are also lots of video guides on YouTube, some of which are for specific models that you might buy. If you want a video to help, Michael Fremer has a DVD that goes into depth on setting your turntable up for best performance, and then you’ll have it around for when you need to make a future adjustment or upgrade to your unit.
You’ll need to buy a stylus force gauge to get the tracking force on your table correct. Too low and you’ll have lots of skipping; too high and you risk damaging the stylus and your records. This manual gauge from Shure is cheap and effective, and has been around forever. I’ve used it to set up numerous tables without an issue.
Keeping your records in good shape is important as well. The Spin Clean is the best cheap way to keep them in ideal condition. It requires a bit more manual labor than a vacuum unit does, but saves you hundreds of dollars over one of those units.
The Shure M97xE is an affordable cartridge that is very neutral and works well with the lighter tonearms of these turntables. It’s good enough that VPI Industries has used it on its $30,000 direct-drive turntable for daily use.
Most turntables ship with the cartridge installed and aligned, and include a tool to align it if it is off. If you choose to replace the cartridge you’ll need to realign it again. This can be done with a tool like the Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc, or a free protractor you can download and print yourself.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB is the best turntable for casual listening due to its sound quality, built-in phono preamp, USB output, and flexibility. People after even better sound quality can upgrade to the Rega Planar 1, but for most people, the Audio-Technica will satisfy any vinyl playback needs.
(Photos by Chris Heinonen.)