You want to play that vinyl! Want to read some record player reviews?
We know you’ve gotten excited about getting your own. You’ve looked at them and heard great music coming out of them at your friend’s house. You stopped by a cool vinyl shop in your city. Now it’s time for yours.
We imagine you don’t know a lot about actually buying a record player. Also, you probably have at least some budget constraints. Especially since you don’t know yet if you have a major, or just a minor interest developing in all of this. You shouldn’t throw the biggest wad of cash in this direction … yet.
Taking these unknowns into account, it’s probably unwise for you to jump in at the higher end of the spectrum of terrific systems that you might love to see in your living room. It’s better that you consider more modest purchases (dollar wise) at first.
Consider Your First Setup
After you’ve gotten your “feet wet”, later you can move on to a more sophisticated setup. From your experience with your first, you will learn what are the features that are most important to you. You’ll find out those limitations you are willing to put up with.
Don’t worry about outgrowing your initial layout. There is always something you can do with it. Hand it over to another friend or relative who you will have helped to enjoy getting started. Or, just think: you may want a second system in your own place.
Another likely possibility: you may not outgrow what you find at the start. This could be enough for you. It might be just right for your needs and interest for a long time to come. In fact, the systems we are looking at in this post are pretty terrific for the long run.
We do suggest that, at some level, you jump in. Don’t procrastinate! That’s because it’s the only way you will have early access to the sound you want. Believe us, we doubt very much that you will regret it.
First off, if you haven’t perused our discussion of the parts of phonographs, feel free to take a detour to our other post on that, before you get into this current subject.
Basic “Essential” Features
Obviously, you must have all 3 of the major pieces:
You should get them at about the same time. Or you have to be sure when you purchase them separately, that they play well together.
Can You Spend Less Than $100, or $200, And Not be Disappointed?
I know you don’t want to hear it, but it is not likely. We know people are searching for “best record player under $100”. Unfortunately, these less expensive (we don’t want to use the word “cheap”!) buys leave a lot out that you should include. Some of this group are darn cute! We know, we see those that have a retro look from the 1950s and 1960s and, just like you, we wanna buy ’em.
How about “best record player under $200”? Sorry, again. Components this inexpensive may really attract your eyes and your budget. Maybe on sale, a big sale. Instead, we would encourage you to save your pennies until they amount to a bit more. Don’t get a system that you will not be happy with right off the bat.
Do You Buy A “Record Player” Or A “Turntable”?
It may not be clear to you when you begin assessing equipment that ads and articles may use the words “record player” and “turntable” interchangeably. In our modern lingo, the 2 have essentially become synonyms. Theoretically, the term “record player” could also include amplifier and speakers. So it would be nice if that would be stated clearly in all articles, but … wishful thinking. Just be aware you may have to determine which meaning the article or advertisement is using.
As we stated above, you need 3 major pieces (turntable, amplifier, and speakers). Because of this confused use of terminology, you have to go the next step and read through enough literature on your choice to understand whether you are getting only 1 (turntable), or all 3 (amounting to a phonograph).
What To Avoid
- all-in-one design
- ceramic stylus
- failure to match the amplifier to the turntable
- placing turntable right next to the speakers
There are some limitations in many low-cost systems, especially in the turntables, that can result in problems as you go on to use them over time.
The lowest price category you will see, and including among the sweetest looking devices, is the “all-in-one”. In these, the turntable, receiver/amplifier, and speakers are housed together in 1 chassis, all connected for you.
Why not get this sort? Because the individual components tend to be lower quality, put together to save money for you. So you can afford them. But the trade-off, unfortunately, is that the sound you will get is not great. Also, lower caliber needles and tonearms can be rough on your vinyl records.
It’s too bad that most “suitcase record players” are also essentially all-in-ones and suffer the same issues. These are portable onesies packaged, literally, in a suitcase-looking box. The point is you can easily gather 1 up and take it to the beach or the party! But the sound standard is unlikely to be that good.
Why do you need to be cautious about buying this type of stylus? Because they are heavy and lack flexibility in their movement. Your vinyl records can take a beating because of this, with the grooves wearing out prematurely, reducing the lifetime of the disc. Aficionados also feel the quality of sound is less appealing. People say avoid for your most precious vinyl. But we think you love all your vinyl and want to do your best to preserve all of it in good condition. The preferred choice is the moving magnet stylus.
Direct Drive Versus Belt Drive
Decision making here is less certain. You might be okay with either. Belt drives tend to be preferred because they cause less vibration. Thus, they are characteristically associated with better sound quality. But some direct drives are good anyway. So it depends on the particular manufacturer and their model.
Tonearm Anti-Skating And Automatic Return
We can’t insist that your purchase have anti-skating because it seems some makers have been able to design the function so that this feature is not mandatory. But in general, look for it.
We love an automatic tonearm: one that lifts up from the side rest, descends by itself at the beginning of the first track, and lifts itself back up at the end, returning to the side. Ah, bliss.
However, there is not universal agreement that this is a good thing. In fact, as you will see (as you read on), our favorite choice does not have it!
See instructions in a reference on how to cue up.
Failing To Match The Amplifier To The Turntable
Phonograph playing requires a preamplifier to jack up the sound signal. When you purchase components separately, you need to know whether the preamp is in the turntable or in the receiver. Most people get the turntable first. You have to check whether the preamp is in it. If it is, then you want to find a receiver that does not have a preamplifier, which is most common these days.
That’s the ordinary modern kind because the average modern audio receiver is made for many other inputs, not phonographs, that don’t require preamplification. (In the heyday of vinyl, receivers were usually used for record player inputs and so essentially always had preamps as standard parts. On this older style, you will see a jack input for “phono” in.)
When there is no “phono” in on a receiver (meaning there is no preamplifier in the receiver), then you must have it in the turntable! In this case, you plug the turntable into “aux” on the receiver.
There needs to be a preamp in either the turntable or the receiver.
Now, what if both your turntable and receiver have preamps? If that is what you have, do not plug your turntable into the “phono” input of the receiver; instead plug it into another input, such as the “aux”. You can acquire a preamplifier as a separate piece of the system, but that is a more advanced option, unusual for beginner-type setups.
Note: We’ve been using the words “amplifier” and “receiver” almost as though they were synonyms, too. Actually, the amplifier is housed in the receiver. The receiver also contains connecting devices and ports for additional components you may have. Such as CD players and tape decks. Obviously popular in previous decades.
Placing The Turntable Side-By-Side With The Speakers
An issue when you place your speakers right beside the turntable and receivers is vibration. You literally are shaking the tonearm and stylus in the record grooves. This, obviously, impairs the sound. It also wears down the vinyl and can injure it.
There are a number of styles and designs of record player furniture that can be exciting and useful housing for your soon-to-be treasured phonograph equipment pieces. We’ll go into them in another post. Here we just want to mention that we look for a record player stand and storage units where the equipment can be adequately separated and function at their best.
Our “Must Haves”
As well as the basic entities, there are several ideas that are dear to our hearts in any record player parts we find interesting. We encourage you to make them essential (or near necessary = very highly desirable) as you search:
- The stylus (needle) must be replaceable.
- The turntable output should include a digital connection (a USB cable) that you can hook up to a computer, mp3 player, or flash drive so you can save the music from your vinyl to digital storage. This, of course, makes your system more versatile and even more worthy of the price.
- Must be able to separate the speakers from your turntable physically, so can design their locations in the room as you need them. Obviously, the turntable is going to go someplace convenient for your entertainment uses. As we mentioned above, it is preferable to not have the turntable on top of our touching the others, especially because of vibration and interference issues.
In addition, you want to place your sound collectors depending on the size and shape of your room and the degree of loudness you want. (See discussion to follow.) We are talking about a phono audio system by itself in this post. However, you may be creating this as part of a home theater or surround sound system. In that circumstance, you have video needs to address, which are not part of this post.
Oh, and don’t forget, we need it all (the various audio pieces and their arrangements) to have a nice appearance. This may be a vintage look or modern stylish. We cannot abide something that is crummy looking.
What’s A Good System For You?
What we want to do here is give you a bit of a survey. We will outline the array of possibilities and include some actual examples of what you might purchase.
In this post, we are discussing new players that you can buy online or in a store.
In contrast, if it is looking over true vintage turntables for sale that takes your heart, peruse the second-hand stores and garage sales in your area.
Affordable Record Players
The question is: can you find your best record player (or turntable) at a price under 100, 200, 300, 500, or 1000 dollars? Or must you go even higher if your dream is to find a really good-sounding vinyl listening experience in your own home?
If you are doing the search “Best record player under $300” you are getting up to an almost doable number. You might, just about, get 1 component (usually the turntable) for about that amount. Specifically, you can successfully do “Best turntable under $300”, maybe just barely. You can definitely carry out your search for “best turntable under $500” with a positive outcome.
But remember you need receiver and speakers too. Therefore, you are unlikely to get the caliber and usability you want in a total system at that price.
You’ll have more versatility in your purchasing choices if you can include the entire lower price range together as you start to look around. You might find a system that is good, but just over your initial “maximum”, or the features may be so great that you want to splurge just a little bit more.
Having said that, if you feel you need to discover your layout only under a certain price, we hear you.
Of course, it could be that you’ve already found or been given 1 of these 3 major things. In that instance, then you may specifically be looking for just 1 or 2 other pieces to match. As mentioned above, you might already have a receiver and speakers set up for an earlier CD player or a modern TV/ video viewing system: just add a phonograph turntable to what you already have in place.
Top Record Players
All our emphasis on what to avoid is as valuable as outlining specific features of top rated record players. It helps us focus on the smaller number that is most likely to be the best. They have the greatest likelihood that you will hear really good sound. Also that the system will be safe for your vinyl. That it will help preserve your record collection for much future playing.
Audio-Technica AT-LP120 – A Fine Low-Priced Turntable
This is a very popular piece of equipment and for good reason. It’s good looking, it wears well, it’s reliable and versatile, and not hard to learn. An excellent choice for the long run, you won’t outgrow it right away
- Plays all 3 record types: 33 1/3, 45 and 78 RPM. (Many phonographs do not play 78s.)
- AT95E cartridge: this is well-respected, such that many other manufacturers put it in their record players.
- The cartridge is easy to replace.
- Built-in preamp: convenient to have. Don’t have to look for an amplifier that includes 1.
- USB: we love it to connect to our computer to archive a valuable vinyl.
- Some advanced tonearm attributes.
- Beginners find ease in use: a really good finding.
- The case is plastic, not wood: but you would have to pay lots more for, plus only a few turntables are in wood.
- Not automatic: this means you have to place the needle on the record manually via a lever on the end of the tonearm.
- No Bluetooth nor WiFi: we don’t miss them, but some folks like wireless.
The quality AT95E cartridge is widely used and liked. It contains the desired elliptical-shaped diamond stylus. You can take off the headshell (cover) on the end of the tonearm, making the cartridge easy to take out. We so appreciate that!
You do not need a receiver that has a preamp in it. They can be hard to find in newer receivers that are not designed primarily for phonographs to attach to.
As mentioned earlier in this post, we find a USB output very useful. We’ve just bought a great (possibly expensive) piece of vinyl and want to copy (preserve) the music on our computer as a fail safe (backup) and for quick plays on our car stereo while driving. Yes, it’s digital, not as good as analog, but still pretty good. And, heck, we can’t play our lovely vinyl in the car!
This model even includes Audacity software to enable you to do just that: make the digital copy.
If you really feel you won’t use the USB function, you can get the same machine at a slightly lower price without it.
We should mention the presence of the direct drive. It is a common feeling among turntable enthusiasts, that the means of “driving” the platter should be by a “belt drive”. There are pros and cons, we’ve gone into before in another post. Audio-Technica has chosen, versus the majority opinion, to have a direct drive. In this configuration, it appears to work quite well. They know how to manufacture it successfully. Few if any complaints are logged against it. We do not argue with success.
Pitch control, as on this machine, involves adjusting the speed of the platter. It is not an option on all machines. It is most useful for DJs in action. But it is nice to have for every day, too.
What do we mean by “not an automatic”? You have to manually place the stylus directly on the record yourself and pick it up at the end of your session. The tonearm does not automatically move over from the armrest and do this for you. At first, it is intimidating: you think you will scratch or dent your record! So practice on some old thing, a little. Then fear will leave you and you will do it very nicely. To help you do this easily, there is a height adjustment on the tonearm and a lovely lift lever.
If you must have an automatic, see our review of more turntables.
The tonearm has a built-in S-curve. Whether this piece should be straight or curved is another one of those uncertainties that audiophiles argue about for hours, days, … years. It’s really unclear. The Audio-Technica model comes with only the 1 type so we have no direct comparison. Based on what is known, we can’t see choosing or avoiding a particular turntable because of this feature. The curved one works just fine here!
For our beginner use, we anticipate not having much in the way of problems. However, we like that the manufacturer has thoughtfully provided mechanisms that ensure confidence the tonearm will work splendidly. There is a counterweight that you can set to balance the arm. Anti-skate opposes the natural tendency for the arm to pull to the center during play.
There is a well-functioning dust cover. This part is essential and almost every table has one. So simple. But occasionally you come across 1 that does not, so always check on that detail.
You know, we love wood, but few phonos today have a wood case. So just live with it. Black plastic is classy looking and the unit is well designed and respectable in appearance. You can be okay with it on display among your things. (You can get it in silver, too.)
Bought It? Set It Up For The First Time
If you have set up a phonograph before, you won’t need much assistance. However, if it’s all new to you, it’s nice to have a helping hand, even though it’s not that hard to do. It is a one-person job and pretty quick.
What to adjust at the start:
- leveling the phonograph player
- balancing the tonearm
- setting cartridge tracking
Here is a good video to help you:
Audio Technica LP120 Turntable Setup (How To)
Room Placement Is Important
As significant as the setup of the equipment itself is the room setting. You want your turntable to be away from sources of vibration. We go into more details, below, when we talk about speakers.
Turntables Do Not Function In Isolation: Gotta Connect To An Amplifier
Theoretically, you could directly connect your turntable to your computer and use that speaker system (ugh). But of course, you are not going to do that.
What is the difference between a receiver and an amplifier? You get an amp in the receiver. One advantage is that the receiver has a radio tuner. It also has digital and analog inputs and outputs for several devices. It is good as part of your home theater complex.
If You Are Going To Get A Receiver/Amplifier, Get A Good Capable One For Vinyl
The ones were are interested in are not for video, home theater, surround sound environments. They are for stereo and just right for our vinyl inputs.
While we do emphasize that we are writing only about systems suitable and needed for our record players, we do think it is a good idea, in choosing a receiver, to “go big” a bit. What I mean is don’t just get a minimum item. Get a device that can do a bit more: be versatile. Reason? The future! You just might want to add on components.
Plus, we bow down to the truth that we live in the Internet, WiFi, Bluetooth era of desire for possible multiple sources and ways of connecting all our music modes. The receiver-amplifier can handle other inputs, analog, and digital (like our smartphones), than our phonographs, and that’s a good thing for versatility and for your budget.
This one can also interface with Amazon’s Alexa. That is not particularly why we have chosen it, but why not have that and other trendy capabilities at your hand?
Yamaha R-N303BL Stereo Receiver – Our Best Bet
This is not one of this manufacturer’s more expensive options. We picked it out because we are trying to tell you about relatively affordable pieces that over-perform, so you can stay within some kind of budget.
It puts out 100 watts, which is a good standard amount of power. For our uses, you can get receivers with lower wattage, but often then you need to increase the loudness and if you have a spacious room, they may seem underpowered.
Note: This one has the preamp in it and you will see a “phono” input. But if you get the AT turntable we suggested (above, since it also has a preamp) you would use “aux” input from the turntable to this amplifier.
Yamaha’s sound is notable nice. We keep hearing folks describing it as “warm” and “clear”. Both are good adjectives! Some who had amps dating from the heyday of phonographs and had them die of old age were looking for something with comparable sound and felt this unit sufficed. That’s a compliment!
Here is a little video blurb by Yamaha, so you can get a glimpse of the pretty beast.
R-N303 Network Stereo Receiver
The only thing we wish it had is a “vintage” look! Oh, well, pretty alone isn’t good enough. This item has to perform. “Brains” are more important than “beauty” in this case. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not ugly. Not by far. It’s just — modern looking.