Belt Drive and Direct Drive Motors
As the turntables listed above illustrate, there are two types of motors, each with their own advantages and disadvantages depending on the circumstances of use. Many of the turntables sold today are bought by those interested in becoming DJs, who rely on the high-torque and rapid response of a direct drive motor for performance purposes. The drawback with direct drive turntables is their tendency to transmit vibrations from the motor that can be picked up by the needle. Belt drive turntables do not have this problem and are more favored by audiophiles. They are not designed to handle the motions like scratching or other performance effects, and would quickly wear out of used in that manner.
Speed Settings and Pitch Adjust
These features are important for two reasons. The first again relates to the use of turntables by DJs, and involves employing the pitch adjust slider to sync the tempo between two songs intended to be played simultaneously. Lower end turntables or those not designed for performance will not have this feature, making such synchronizations impossible. This is why it is such a necessity for those wanting a turntable or two for this purpose and even more important than the type of motor. The other consideration about the speed settings relates to the format of the record. While most modern records are either 33 or 45 RPM, some collectors will want to look for turntables with a 78 RPM setting to ensure compatibility with older vinyl formats.
Manual and Automatic Play
This may not seem like a huge consideration, but unless the cartridge can be very delicately and precisely placed every time, the risk of damage to both it and the record is high. Most high end performance turntables are manual, since the DJ will do the cueing. An automatic play feature reliably lowers the needle in a gentle manner at the beginning of a record, and it also senses when the record has finished. The tonearm returns to its cradle, instead of allowing the stylus to skate all the way to the label where it can get damaged or emit a terrible sound that can harm speakers as well.
Most modern stereo systems do not have phono inputs, in which case the turntable requires an external phono preamp or needs to have a built-in amplifier with line output. Though the majority of turntables made today include both types of outputs, some do not continue to play though the line output once the motor has been turned off. In some cases, 3.5 mm adapters may be needed to connect with certain stereo systems or speakers. Very few turntables will have internal speakers but those models that do offer an extra degree of versatility and portability. USB outputs also have become a standard feature and are highly recommended for those backing up their vinyl collection to a digital format.
Selecting the proper turntable is not the most simple process, but understanding how the different features and options cater to particular needs is the best way to approach the decision. This not only helps narrow down the choices, it keeps the focus on functionality instead of aesthetics, which can be very misleading when it comes to technical matters. The primary purpose is ultimately to enjoy music in the purest way possible, and although this of course means different things to different listeners, few will argue against the magic of turntables and vinyl.
If you can still find them, here a some great options
The enjoyment of music is very much related to how it is experienced, and although most might agree is better to hear it performed live, there is nothing that can reproduce music quite as elegantly and exquisitely as a vinyl record. Many mediums for audio have seen their peak in popularity come and go, and even digital formats are soon outmoded if not frequently updated. By contrast, vinyl records are more popular today than they have ever been. Except for a few modern garnishes like USB outputs or specialized cartridges, record players have also changed very little, mostly because the sound they produce could not be any better. It can be difficult to improve on such perfection, but here are some of the best turntables available today to suit a variety of budgets and purposes.
Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Direct-Drive Professional Turntable
This turntable is inspired by the legendary Technics SL-1200, which quickly became a favorite among DJs and was to set the standard for performance turntables for years to come. Audio-Technica has modernized this popular design to better meet the demands of current music technology, while still faithfully emulating all the qualities that made the now classic Technics SL-1200 so sought after. A closer look at each of the essential features will illustrate why this has become the turntable of choice for so many vinyl enthusiasts today.
The plinth or base of the turntable is solidly constructed from a tough ABS and polymer plastic material. Most of the internal parts are metal and it weighs just over 23 pounds. There is a spot for holding an included 45 adapter and another spot for an extra cartridge. A button in the lower left corner just below the power switch starts or stops playback and nearby buttons select the speed setting. There is also pop-up target light for finding the record grooves when the lights are low. A removable plastic cover to protect the turntable from dust or scratches when not in use. On the bottom are four adjustable feet that are spring loaded to dampen vibration from external sources and ensure audio clarity.
The metal platter where the record is placed is mounted directly into the motor’s central spindle or shaft, eliminating the need for belts that eventually wear out and beed replacing. This is known as direct-drive and is widely favored by DJs for their high torque and ability to start very quickly. Some audiophiles and vinyl aficionados point out the increased potential for vibrations from the motor to disrupt the sound, however, the slip mat will reduce the chances of this happening. Records can be played forwards or backwards at speeds of 33, 45 and 78 RPM as well as finely adjusted by a pitch slider within a range of either 10 or 20 percent. Strobe dots around the circumference of the platter provide a visual reference to help more precisely determine the speed of playback.
The tonearm of the AT-LP129-USB is designed with an S-like shape to minimize tracking errors and maintain a constant speed from beginning to end. It locks in place when not in use and a cueing lever with hydraulics allow a slow descent into the groove. An adjustable counterweight ensures the vertical tracking force is not so light the record will skip or too heavy and damage the vinyl or cartridge. Audio-Technica includes a pre-mounted cartridge so the counterweight and anti-skate adjustment will need to be reset accordingly for different cartridges. The one provided is not designed for scratching but there are many specially made for this purpose that may be used in place of the original.
There are multiple outputs on this turntable, including a line out and USB along with the traditional phono output. The USB port is a modern addition that allows the turntable to be connected directly to a computer for easy recording and digitization of vinyl. This is of particular value to collectors desiring to back up their rare music. An internal preamp powers the line out, which can hook up to stereo systems or speakers that may not have phono inputs. While this is convenient, it is not ideal in some performance situations because the sound will cease to play if the motor has been stopped. The phono output does not have this issue and will continue to transmit sound as long as the record is still in motion.
Included with this turntable is a professional cartridge, an adapter for playing 45 RPM records, a USB cable, a slip mat and two cable adapters for the line output. The line and phono output cables are built in and extend out from the base. The turntable also comes with Audacity recording software that is compatible with both PC and Mac, providing all the tools necessary to record audio from vinyl to computer.
This turntable from Audio-Technica is an all-around excellent choice, built to produce satisfactory sound quality for the audio connoisseur as well as meet the performance demands of the professional DJ. Is also very well priced at around $250, so for those interested in cultivating their beat juggling and mixing skills, buying an additional turntable is not such a large investment.
Sony PSLX300USB USB Stereo Turntable
This next turntable is made by Sony, a company well known for producing quality audio gear for many decades now. While it is not quite built to meet all the demands and withstand the rigors endured by performance turntables used by professional DJs, this is well designed turntable with an exceptionally clear sound that will satisfy audiophiles and collectors. It sells for around $130 and is also fully automatic, making it a good starter turntable for those who have an interest in vinyl but need a record player that is not too pricey or complicated.
The set up is easy, flexible and fast, requiring no special tools or equipment other than some kind of audio system to play the music through. There are several ways to output the sound, including phono outs, USB or a line out powered by a built-in amplifier. Many stereos do not have phono inputs, in which case a phono preamp will be necessary for those who prefer not to use the line output. The USB output allows the turntable to connect with any Mac or PC for recording and converting albums to other formats, ensuring some degree of preservation for the music and vinyl itself.
The experience of listening to music on this turntable is what makes it so exceptional. The belt drive motor is extra quiet and free from vibrations, resulting in excellent reproduction of the original and true sound that is etched into the grooves. The platter is made from metal, plastic and rubber with two speeds for playback, 33 and 45 RPM. There is no pitch adjustment slider, which is used for matching the tempo of one record to another. This feature is usually only found on professional performance turntables and is not at all necessary for conventional use.
The tonearm is straight instead of curved, resulting in a pitch variation of no more than 25 percent at the most and imperceptible to all but the most sensitive ears. This is due to the slight increase in revolutions per minute as the needle moves closer to the center of the record, shortening the path with each turn. This is known as wow and flutter, and can also happen when a record is warped or the hole is slightly off center. Keeping the turntable on a level surface will minimize the type of uneven wear on both the stylus and vinyl that can lead to similar issues with audio quality.
Attached to the tonearm is a magnetic cartridge, which more accurately tracks the grooves than the standard ceramic cartridges most often found on turntables at this price level. This is fortunate, since the cartridge is fixed and cannot be upgraded, although the stylus is easily replaceable and a quality one will generally cost less than most average cartridges. The included model N-6516 stylus has an aluminum cantilever with a polished diamond tip and is good for up to about 500 hours of play, at which point it should be replaced to avoid causing excessive wear on the vinyl.
Besides the cartridge, this turnable includes a protective plastic top, all the necessary cabling and an adapter for 45 RPM records that stores in the base of the turntable when not in use. It also comes with free Sound Forge Audio Studio LE software, which features tools capable of cleaning up compromised or degraded audio by removing clicks, pops and other unwanted sounds from records recorded into the computer program through the USB connection.
For the purposes of simple enjoyment, this turntable fills all the requirements and then some. Though not suited for DJs looking for a high performance turntable, the PSLX300USB is a user-friendly record player that will suit any casual listening situation and is well within the average budget.
Audio Technica AT-LP60 Fully Automatic Stereo Turntable
Here is another fine turntable from Audio-Technica, this time presenting a more basic version of the AT-LP120 that still retains many of the elements found in that higher end model. It even has a feature or two not found in the AT-LP120, such as fully automatic play and an especially quiet belt drive motor. It does require some assembly but instructions are supplied as well as a link to a video that clearly demonstrates each step, ensuring the process is completed correctly and without any confusion. The AT-LP160 sells for around $100 and this is by far one of the best starter turntables available, particularly for those that don’t mind the extra bit work of putting it together.
Some of the parts that must be installed before the turntable can be used are the belt and platter. Instead of being located directly beneath the platter, the motor is off to the side and connected to the central shaft by the belt. Belt drive motors are exceptionally good at minimizing internal vibrations that can be registered by the stylus, but they do wear out with time and need to be replaced. The professional grade platter is die-cast from aluminum with an anti-resonance design that further dampens any vibrations that might transduce through the turntable, offering some of the most noise free music reproduction possible within the medium of vinyl records.
The tonearm is fully automatic, and will position itself at the beginning of the record and slowly lower to begin play. Upon reaching the end of the album, play will stop and the tonearm will return to the resting position. The size of the records being played needs to be selected in advance and can be set for 7 inch and 12 inch LPs. There is no counterweight or anti-skate adjustment, but the vertical tracking force, while a little heavy at 3 grams, should not cause any undue wear and tear with the vinyl. The tonearm does not lock into place, but this prevents the potential damage that could result from inadvertently starting the automatic play while the tonearm is immobilized.
An Audio-Technica Dual Magnet cartridge containing a diamond-tipped stylus is included with this turntable. This cartridge is designed for very precise tracking and reproduces incredibly clear audio with little or no deviations in the sound quality. The stylus is replaceable, however, because there is no way to adjust the factory set tracking force of the tonearm, the cartridge cannot be switched out for a different one.
Along with the cartridge, this turntable includes a removable dust cover, 45 RPM adapter, output cables and male and female adapters for 3.5 mm stereo connections. The output can be toggled between phono or line output and an internal preamp with RIAA filter powers the line out. There is a USB port for connecting to a computer and free Audacity software that is compatible with Mac or PC and makes digitizing vinyl simple and easy. A slip mat is also included, which is nice considering these usually tend to come with higher end turntables.
Although arriving third on the list, this turntable is very well made and incorporates many of the same components used in the AT-LP120. It may lack a few features like the ability to adjust the tonearm, but there are few of any turntables of this quality available for such a low price, something beginners and aficionados can both appreciate.
We added this one for an inexpensive option
Jensen JTA-222 3-Speed Turntable
This final turntable wins the best budget pick not only for the low price, but also for having several interesting and unexpected features. The inspired design gives the player an appropriately vintage feel, lending a more classic style to the overall look and ambiance. It makes a great addition to any room or area that is meant for fun and relaxation and easy to transport at just over six pounds.
There are three speeds for play including 78 RPM, which is unusual since most cheaper turntables only have two speeds, 33 and 45 RPM. The tonearm is slightly angled to minimize wow and flutter and comes equipped with ceramic cartridge. These types of cartridges do not track as well as magnetic cartridges and are more likely to skip when playing old records, however, they are far more durable. The sound they produce is somewhat lower in fidelity due to a more narrow frequency response, but the are more resistant to vibrations that can transmit from within or externally through the turntable and into the stylus.
Another cool feature of this turntable are the internal speakers. These conveniently eliminate the need for preamps, external speakers or stereo hookups, although there is still an option to run the signal out through the external output or stereo headphone jack. Many record players do not have built-in speakers due to the potential feedback between them and the stylus. Fortunately, ceramic cartridges like the one on this turntable comes equipped with are far less susceptible to these kinds of vibrations.
To make this turntable even more versatile, it is also has a built in AM/FM receiver with a stereo indicator light to assist with tuning. This makes it perfect for everyday use and much more worth the already low cost. Whether it is playing music from the radio or a record, the sound is very impressive for such an inexpensive turntable.
This is obviously not a turntable built for meeting the demands of a DJ or ideal for those desiring to transfer their vinyl to a digital format. Everything else considered though, this is an excellent record player for the price, and the inclusion of built in speakers and radio makes it all the more attractive as a secondary turntable. The durable ceramic cartridge makes it ideal for playing used records that might cause excessive wear to buildup of dust on more delicate cartridges. It is also the perfect record player for introducing younger enthusiasts of music to vinyl, allowing them to also gain an appreciation for this time-tested medium and ensure its future popularity for generations to come.