It can sometimes be difficult to find the sweet spot between the quality of the vinyl gear we want to buy and the money we want to spend when shopping for a turntable and other home stereo components.
More expensive is usually better. You get what you pay for. But unfortunately, money doesn’t grow on trees. At least not for most of us.
So the question is this. How much money is it necessary to spend to buy a turntable we can really enjoy?
How much does a good turntable cost?
Turntables start at about $40. Turntables under $100 have a reputation for destroying records and should be bought with caution. An entry-level to affordable turntable costs from $100 to $400. A quality turntable that will sound great on most Hi-Fi stereos and last for decades will cost between $400 and $700.
So, from $400 to $700 is a good sweet-spot for turntables.
In my opinion, it is not necessary to go over the $700 mark for a turntable if you are not looking for extraordinary sonic performance.
Above $700 the gain in sound quality per (thousand) dollar spent will get smaller and smaller. And only noticeable if you have a full-blooded high-end stereo to hook the turntable up to.
This article will cover what it takes for a turntable to be a good one. And describe why $400 to $700 is the sweet-spot for turntables. We will discuss a few cheaper turntable options. And I will show you which turntables I think are the best ones to buy.
Alright! Let’s jump in!
What makes a turntable a good one?
There are many factors that make a turntable good or not. But I think there are three fundamental ones that need to be ticked for a turntable to be a good one. Three non-negotiables.
- The turntable doesn’t destroy records
- The turntable is built to last for a long time (decades)
- The turntable sounds good
Other factors are design, upgradability, and ease of setting up and use. But let us focus on the three most important ones.
Doesn’t destroy records
Super-cheap turntables (and record-players) have a bad reputation for destroying records. The reason being that they are designed with way too high tracking force. So the stylus (needle) digs into the grooves much harder than ideal and literally destroy the grooves. So, for a turntable to be good and worth buying it has to not destroy our precious records. I guess we can all agree to that.
Built to last a long time
A good turntable needs to have great built quality. And plenty of turntables have. Many people still use turntables from the 70s. And vintage turntables are popular on the used market. A good turntable is built to last. It was true 50 years ago. And still is.
A good turntable has to sound good. That is pretty obvious. If you are going to hook your turntable up to a $100 set of powered bookshelf speakers, this might not be super critical.
But if you are planning to use the turntable with a decent Hi-Fi stereo with good quality speakers that has the potential to sound really good, the weaknesses of a poor sounding turntable will be quite noticeable.
A poor sounding turntable will underperform on a Hi-Fi stereo. The sound will just not have the openness, clarity, presents and the deep tight bass that the sound from a good turntable will have.
Why is the $400 to $700 range the sweet-spot for a good turntable?
Because this is the price range where we find the lowest priced turntables that fully tick all the three fundamental boxes. And that offer really good value for money.
Under $400 it is hard to find a turntable that tick all the boxes. We will find turntables that don’t destroy records and have good build quality. But it is hard to find a turntable under $400 that will sound good enough to not disclose any weaknesses on a good Hi-Fi stereo.
This is, of course, debatable and to a certain degree down to personal preference. But I have found this to be true in my own experience. And many other vinyl lovers seem to share this opinion with me.
When we pass the $700 mark, turntables will produce better and better sound, but the value for money will drop dramatically as we will have to pay a lot of money for smaller and smaller improvements in sound quality.
So, the $400 to $700 price-range is the sweet spot for buying a good turntable that will sound great and that you can enjoy for a long long time.
What is the best cheap turntable?
For many people, $400 is too much to spend on a turntable. Which is normal and totally ok!
So, if you are just starting out with vinyl or just want to play your records as cheaply as possible, what is the best option?
It is the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X (Amazon link).
It does not have a reputation for destroying records or to break into pieces. And the sound is fully acceptable when hooked up to affordable powered speakers etc.
It is fully automatic and has a built-in preamp.
It is super popular and has received good reviews.
I am pretty confident that this is the best buy if you just want to play vinyl records spending as little money as possible. At the price it is normally selling for at Amazon, there is practically no competition in this price range.
What is the best beginner turntable?
I think it is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB. That is the first turntable I bought when restarting my vinyl journey.
The build quality of the AT-LP120 is awesome. Almost unreal for the price.
As an electronics engineer and electronics designer my self I cannot wrap my head around how they can manufacture something that well built and sell it for such a (relatively) low price.
It does definitely not destroy records. If you get the adjustable tracking weight right, that is. But that is easy to get right.
It looks exactly like the legendary Technics 1200. And have the same features.
The AT-LP120 might not be the best sounding turntable in the world out of the box. Which can’t be expected. It is still an entry-level turntable. The cool thing about the AT-LP120 is, however, that it is a great project turntable that can be upgraded and modified to become better and better with time. I have done a lot of mods and upgrades to my AT-LP120, and it have become a very decent sounding turntable. You will find many articles on this site about how to modify and upgrade the AT-LP120.
Why I think this is the best beginners turntable, is because of all the features that come with it. It can do everything. It can be used for music listening as well as DJing. And for a beginner, it is cool to start with a turntable that can do everything. To get a sense for all the available features and so on.
But, I don’t necessarily think the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB offers the best value for money for someone that is looking for a good turntable for passionate music listening on a good Hi-Fi stereo.
For that, the turntable discussed below is arguably a better buy.
What is the best turntable to buy overall?
It is probably the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC.
It is the lowest priced turntable on sale that fully ticks all the boxes.
Well built. Don’t destroy records. Sounds good. It also looks awesome in my opinion.
Pro-Ject is a very well respected turntable brand and this is their best seller.
Very well received by critics (Hi-Fi Magazines).
It usually costs about $100 more than the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB. But for that money, you get a cartridge that alone costs $50 dollar more. And a better sounding turntable that does not need to be modded to get out its sonic potential.
Compared to the AT-LP120 it is a much simpler design. On the Pro-Ject all the focus is on reproducing good sound. No bells and whistles.
When I decided to upgrade from my Audio-Technica AT-LP120 I was thinking about the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC for a long time. Listened to it at my local Hi-Fi shop multiple times. And it sounds great. It comes with a $100 cartridge as standard.
At last I did, however, decide on a Rega Planar 2. Which costs about $250 more than the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. But it was a close race.
I honestly think the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC is more value for money.
But I pulled the trigger on the slightly better sounding Rega Planar 2 to be sure to not having to think about upgrading my turntable again in a very long time.
I had already invested $4000 in speakers and amplifier and wanted a turntable that fully matched the other components in sound quality.
Not sure if a can hear a significant improvement in sound quality over the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon on most records, but the Rega Planar 2 just felt right for me. It was a heart decision most of all.
But still today, I think the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is the best value for money home listening turntable on the market.
What about high-end turntables?
I don’t think it is necessary to go above the Rega Planar 2 to be able to enjoy real Hi-Fi sound quality. I use it on a $4000 stereo and it doesn’t disclose any weaknesses at all.
I believe this level of turntable extracts 90% of the sonic potential in a vinyl record. And for the remaining 10% you will have to spend a lot of money.
But if you have the money and want to spend it, don’t let me hold you back!
From the research I have done, the Rega Planar 3 and the Rega Planar 6 are two of the most popular High-End rated turntables among Hi-Fi critics.
As this article has disclosed already, the turntables listed below are my recommended buys between $100 and $700. You can also check out my full list of 10 recommended turntables.
(The links are to Amazon.)
Best turntable (overall)
Best entry-level turntable
Best beginner turntable
Best upper mid-range turntable
Modifications and upgrades
One of the cool things about buying a good turntable in the first place is that it can be upgraded to sound even better over time.
The best way to do this is to replace the cartridge with a higher quality one.
This can be done on all the turntables above except for the most affordable one. The Audio-Technica AT-LP60. On that one only the stylus can be replaced.
But for the AT-LP120, Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, and the Rega Planar 2, replacing the cartridge is fully possible and a great upgrade.
Not necessary by any means, but a nice option to have up your sleeve.
A cartridge upgrade on those turntables will cost between $200 and $600 depending on how big of a sound improvement you want.
But again, you will need an expensive high-end stereo to be able to hear the improvement in sound quality given by the extra dollars spent on a cartridge.
How much does a good preamp cost? A good preamp to use with a good quality mid-range turntable costs from $50 to $200. Two great choices are the Pro-Ject Phono Box MM that usually sells for just below $100 and the Rega Fono Mini A2D that usually sells for just below $200.