If there’s one thing the best turntables demonstrate, it’s that vinyl is the music storage format that refuses to die. It’s closing in on its 75th birthday and has seen off more attempts to nail down the lid of its coffin than Dracula… and yet vinyl remains in the rudest of health. Sure, it’s convenient to stream music with one of the best Bluetooth speakers, but music lovers are still embracing the tactile and sonic pleasures of the vinyl and record companies are releasing high-quality, heavyweight pressings of albums old and new on an almost daily basis.
This resurgence in popularity has, naturally, been reflected in the market for record players. From dirt-cheap turntables-in-a-suitcase all-in-ones to witheringly expensive audiophile alternatives, from sleek wireless Bluetooth devices to hands-on fully manual operators, your turntable options are more numerous than they’ve ever been.
The choice can be bewildering. But no matter if you’re a vinyl veteran or a recent record player convert, there’ll be something in our list of the best turntables around that will work for you.
What are the best turntables?
After a huge amount of exhaustive testing, we know the best turntable you can buy, dollar for dollar, is the Rega Planar 3/Elys 2. It’s the absolute sweet-spot of the entire (and entirely brilliant) Rega range: an outstanding cartridge on a super tonearm, mounted to a beautifully specified and constructed plinth. It sounds sublime.
If you’re just planning on dipping a toe in the water, though, we’d steer you towards Pro-Ject’s outstanding Primary E. The Austrian turntable specialist is particularly skilled at turning out high-achieving record-players at very competitive prices, and this just might be its most impressive entry-level deck so far.
Of course, you might want to combine exquisite vinyl performance with fairly un-vinyl-like convenience – in which case you need to investigate the Cambridge Audio Alva TT. Not only is it a fine-sounding turntable in its own right, but it features wireless Bluetooth streaming at a 24bit/48kHz high-resolution standard. Which makes it just about the most modern example of this venerable technology you can buy.
The best turntables you can buy
Everything that made Rega one of the go-to turntable brands even during the format’s leanest years is here in the Planar 3/Elys 2 combination — and in spades.
Every crucial component is specified without compromise. The polished glass platter, the bearing assembly and 24v motor, the high-gloss acrylic plinth with double brace, the hand-assembled RB330 tonearm…they’re all significantly overspecified and designed to make the Planar 3 perform to its absolute maximum. And in the Elys 2, Rega has developed and fitted a cartridge that does absolute justice to this engineering investment.
The result is a turntable that looks good and is built to last, a turntable that rejects external vibration manfully, that is completely stable… and, when slotted into an appropriate system, delivers a sound that’s alive with detail, immediacy, weight and dynamism.
Pro-Ject has long been a true entry-level hero where turntables are concerned, and with the Primary E it’s delivered a record player that absolutely nails the fundamentals. If you’re looking for an affordable way into the joys of vinyl, look no further.
No, it’s not what you’d call a looker and yes, the finish of the plinth and platter could be more luxurious. But the Primary E — thanks to its high-quality tonearm, very acceptable Ortofon cartridge and general robustness of build and specification — is utterly fit for purpose. And thanks to its hard-wired RCA interconnects, pre-set tracking and anti-skate weights, and pre-fitted cartridge, all you need to do is slip the belt around the platter and the pulley; it’s basically plug-and-play.
And the sound the Pro-Ject makes is as easy to listen to as the turntable is to operate. All of the vinyl virtues – rhythmic expression, low-frequency substance, overall unity of presentation – are present and correct. As a gateway drug, the Primary E proves very moreish indeed.
Imagine a record player that can seamlessly fit into your modern, wireless ecosystem. A record player that can stream wirelessly, at a high-resolution bit rate, to your wireless speakers, wireless headphones or multi-room audio setup…then listen to the remarkable Alva TT and stop imagining.
Cambridge Audio has built a handsome, hefty and very well-specified turntable in the Alva TT. Its aluminium construction, weighty platter, medium-torque direct-drive motor arrangement (ideal for absolute rotational stability) and impression of unburstable build quality go a long way to justifying the asking price. And then for good measure, Cambridge Audio has fitted an analogue-to-digital converter and a Bluetooth streaming module – which basically makes the Alva TT the world’s first high-resolution record player.
Put the Alva TT anywhere you like in your room, put on a record, then sit back and enjoy its detailed, punchy and effortlessly musical sound, with mains power the only physical connection required.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Technics and its iconic SL-1200 turntable may be feeling mighty flattered by the Audio Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB. Still, there’s more to this deck than simply trying to look like a legend.
WIth its direct-drive arrangement, stroboscope and pitch control, the AT-LP120XBT-USB is a good starting point for any budding DJ. But thanks to its integrated switchable phono stage (making it easy to slot into systems of any kind), aptX Bluetooth wireless streaming (for uber-convenience) and USB output (for making digital copies of vinyl to a computer), it’s a Swiss Army knife of a record player.
And happily, the sound it makes is well up to standard. It’s not the most forceful or assertive deck you’ll ever hear, but it extracts plenty of detail, has an easy-going way with rhythms and puts some nice emphasis on the midrange (vocalists in particular). It’s the best turntable pick if you want a little bit of everything.
“Chunky” is the word that best describes the VPI Prime, at least as far as build quality and (let’s not be coy) price is concerned. This not-insignificant outlay buys some quite considerable heft, from the steel-and-MDF chassis and 19.8-pound, magnesium-and-aluminium platter to the bomb-proof main bearing assembly and clamp to hold your vinyl securely in place.
Naturally, this being the authentic high-end, £3750 includes a tonearm but not a cartridge – and you’ll be looking to spend anything up to £1000 on something appropriate.
If you’re still with us at this point, though, we can talk about the way the VPI Prime sounds – and in all honesty, the sound it produces makes that price look absolutely fair enough. This is a confident, revealing, articulate and endlessly listenable turntable, with all sorts of pertinent observations to make about the detail, integration, dynamics and soundstaging of your favourite records. In other words, it’ll give you the whole story.
There’s currently no more affordable way into Technics turntable ownership, but that is emphatically not the same as suggesting the SL-1500C is built down to a price.
At a glance, it looks like the company’s storied SL-1200 DJ deck with the more hands-on elements deleted — and to an extent, that’s exactly what this is. So it has the same bank-vault build quality, the same fearsomely overengineered direct-drive motor mechanism and the same big ‘stop/start’ button as the world’s favourite record player.
Unlike the SL-1200, though, the SL-1500C is quite a deft and articulate listen. Whisper it, but the SL-1200 has always been a bit of a blunt instrument in sonic terms – but the SL-1500C is an altogether more nuanced device. The pre-fitted Ortofon cartridge helps here, while the switchable auto-stop mechanism and switchable phono stage make it a more flexible device too. Some turntables will hit harder and dig deeper, but very few will deliver the same pride of ownership.
Rega is the only company in this list with more than one entry – and while the rest of its turntable portfolio is not without charm, the Planar 1 is perhaps the purest expression of what Rega is all about.
As with almost all Rega decks, the Planar 1 doesn’t pamper you – it’s best to think of the chassis and plinth as necessary supports for the important stuff (motor, bearing, tonearm) rather than objects to be admired in and of themselves. If you can sort your visual and decorative priorities out, Rega will take care of the audio stuff for you, and in some style.
The Planar 1 is a disciplined listen, able to snap into and out of low-frequency information with none of the hanging around that lesser designs can indulge in. As a consequence the midrange is uncluttered, and free to get on with communicating impressive levels of detail. And the entire presentation hangs together coherently, meaning the Rega serves up a complete picture without sticking its oar in to any appreciable degree.
This isn’t the only member of the best turntables club that can make digital copies of vinyl records, but if that consideration is high up your list of priorities, the PS-HX500 can be an even better pick than the Audio Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB.
As a pure record player, the PS-HX500 is very decent though not exactly outstanding. The plinth, chassis and tonearm don’t feel anything special — although this being a Sony product, you can take build quality and longevity as givens. It’s an enjoyable listen, though seems a little reluctant to properly sink its teeth into a recording.
However, the digital copies it can produce are deeply impressive, and very faithful to the vinyl from which they’re ripped. If you have some rare records, or some vinyl that’s not really up to being played all the time, the PS-HX500 is a very capable solution.
When you get comfortably into the four-figure price bracket, your turntable really needs to be more than a one-trick pony. There’s no merit in just sounding great and looking amateurish or ugly, just as there’s no merit in looking a million dollars and sounding like a few cents’ worth. Which brings us to how it should be done: the Clearaudio Concept.
The design language here is elegant and understated – timeless, even. The quality of materials is unarguable, as is the build quality and finish. And the sound the Concept makes, while far from the last word in outright attack, is every bit as sophisticated as the machine from which it emanates.
With the emphasis squarely on subtlety, nuance and insight, the Concept is capable of extracting the finest details from the groove and laying them out for inspection. This isn’t at the expense of the broader picture, and neither is the Concept in any way prissy. It simply digs out the minutiae and puts it into proper context. It’s quietly thrilling.
“Affordable” is a relative term, but by its own giddy standards Vertere has really pulled out the stops to bring its DG-1 in at a real-world price. And it’s done so by rationalising, rather than abandoning, all the clever materials, far-sighted engineering and design idiosyncrasies that make its more expensive decks so compelling.
As far as dynamic potency goes, the DG-1 is untouchable, asnd by that we mean both the board quiet-loud-quiet dynamic expression present in most recordings and the more nuanced harmonic dynamics apparent when in individual instrument and vocal parts. It handles rhythms and tempos with complete authority, and it presents a beautifully open and easy-to-follow soundstage too. And it does all this without needing the same engineering qualifications that Vertere’s more expensive decks insist on.
How to choose the best turntable for you
First off, be aware the signal from a record player is feeble to the point of being non-existent.
It takes a great deal more amplification to make it audible than any of the other formats you listen to – so if it’s going to be of any use to an amplifier it’s going to need a rocket up it at some point. The rocket in question is a phono stage, sometimes known as a phono pre-amp, which amplifies the weak signal from a record player to make it louder. If your amplifier doesn’t have one, you either need to buy a record player with an integrated phono stage, or purchase a stand-alone phono stage to go between your record player and your amplifier.
After that, it’s important to make sure you’re budgeting correctly. There’s no point in spending thousands on a record player if the system it’s joining cost peanuts, just as buying an budget-conscious turntable is a false economy if your set-up cost proper money. In either case, you’re not maximising performance.
Then make sure your turntable has the facilities you need. Do you have some old 78rpm discs? Not every record player can deal with them. Do you want to convert your vinyl into digital files? Make sure your deck has a USB output. Would you like to stream your vinyl wirelessly? Then a Bluetooth transmitter is a must.
Setting up a turntable is therefore more of a complex process than simply turning on your favorite Bluetooth speaker, though as any audiophile will tell you, that extra effort can yield some great-sounding rewards.