Steve Guttenberg, who writes the “Audiophiliac” column for the consumer electronics website CNET. A former record producer, Guttenberg has worked in the audio industry for more than 30 years. CNET.com
People are listening to records again. Sales of vinyl LP records increased 30% last year to nearly 12 million sold in the US, the most in at least two decades. Fans say that records produce a warmer, richer sound that lets you hear more nuances than with digital MP3 files or CDs or from streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify. (See 11 Great Albums on Vinyl)
And with records hot again, stereo-equipment makers are offering affordable new record players that sound worlds better than the typical inexpensive turntables of decades ago. It’s a lot of fun to drag your old albums out of the attic and play them again…and to buy new ones. Here’s how to choose a new turntable, plus my picks of today’s best ones…
Choose a turntable with low vibration and a diamond-tipped stylus. As a record spins on the turntable platter, the stylus at the end of the tonearm traces the grooves in the record, creating tiny vibrations that are transformed into electrical signals. Any external vibrations, including those from the turntable movement itself, can hurt the quality of the sound.
Look for a turntable motor that turns the platter with an elastomeric belt rather than one in which the motor is connected directly to the platter. The belt helps absorb motor vibrations.
Also look for a turntable that includes a diamond-tipped stylus, which lasts longer than a sapphire or platinum-alloy stylus and reduces vibrations by providing more consistency as the record rotates.
Helpful: Make sure the table or shelf that supports your turntable is level. Even a slightly uneven surface causes added vibration.
Consider a turntable with a built-in preamplifier if you don’t already own a stereo system with a separate one. “Preamps” take the electronic signal from the turntable and prepare it for full amplification by your speakers.
Consider powered speakers if you don’t already have an audio system. They plug into an electrical outlet, and you connect them directly to your turntable or your preamp, bypassing the need for a receiver or a separate amplifier. Recommended if you don’t want large speakers: Audioengine A2+, five-inch-high, cube-shaped powered speakers that produce a rich, clear sound. Price: $249 for a pair. AudioEngineUSA.com
The right turntable for you depends on how much you are willing to spend and how much sound quality you demand. All three of these play records at 331/3 rpm or 45 rpm…
Best low-priced turntable with good sound: Audio-Technica AT-LP60 has a built-in preamp and is available in black, silver and two shades each of red and blue. It produces smoothly balanced sound with plenty of bass. A button on the front lowers and raises the tonearm—useful if you have unsteady hands and are worried about scratching your records. The turntable has rubber feet that limit vibrations. List price: $99. Audio-Technica.com
Best moderately priced turntable with great sound: U-turn Orbit Plus Turntable is my favorite choice overall because it’s reasonably priced but offers high-end features. For example, it has a heavy acrylic platter. That helps make sure the record turns at a very consistent speed, which helps produce a beautiful, warm sound with crisp highs and good definition. Every turntable is assembled by hand in a Boston-area workshop. The Orbit Plus, which is available in five colors, lists for $309 without a preamp, but you can custom order one with a built-in preamp for $379. UTurnAudio.com
Best if you want very high-quality sound: Rega RP1, which has a sleek silver, dark gray or white base and weighs a solid 9.2 pounds to help reduce vibrations. Its sophisticated, hand-crafted tonearm lets you adjust the angle and force of the stylus on the record to extract more bass and treble details and make music even more impressive. Note: This turntable does not have a built-in preamp, so you can’t connect it directly to your speakers. You’ll need an external preamp or a stereo system that includes a preamp. List price: $445. Rega.co.uk