Break out the black light and dust off that lava lamp because vinyl and turntables are back! While not at the level of demand seen in the 1970s, vinyl sales have been steadily increasing for more than a decade. As of this writing, LPs are outselling CDs on a yearly basis and chances are you or someone you love is interested in a new record player.
A turntable can be a great gift for the right person, but the fear of making the wrong choice is real! B&H is here to help, whether you're shopping for someone's first system, looking to impress the audiophile in the family, or trying to inspire the next superstar DJ. We will demystify some of the broader points to help you make an informed decision and highlight some choice models and for whom they might be perfect.
Belt-Drive vs. Direct-Drive
Belt-drive and direct-drive refer to the type of motor that spins the record platter, and all turntables fall into one of these two categories.
For home use only, a belt-drive motor uses a rubber belt to connect the motor and the platter. This isolates the motor from the platter, reducing the amount of vibration and motor noise that can be picked up by the stylus and heard through your speakers. Also, belt drives tend to be less expensive than comparable direct-drive options. The drawbacks are the record takes a moment to get to full speed, there can be small pitch variations due to belt slippage, and the belt may eventually need to be replaced. These are problems that prevent use by DJs, but do not have a serious impact on home listeners.
A direct-drive motor is attached to the platter directly, providing more torque and precision than belt-drive setups. This is the only choice for pros, but direct-drive motors are also favored by some home users for their durability and consistency. Featured in popular models, like the legendary Technics 1200 series, direct-drive motors spin the platter faster with the ability to start and stop quickly and smoothly. This is a necessity when scratching, mixing, and beat matching records. However, with the motor attached directly to the platter, more noise can be transferred to the stylus and thus heard through the speakers. Direct-drive motors also cost more to manufacture than belt-drive motors. Direct drive options, such as the entry-level Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB, start at a higher price point than entry-level belt-drive turntables, like the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X, and don't sound as good as similarly priced belt-drive options, such as the Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN.
In the broadest sense, belt drives are quieter and preferred for home and critical listening while direct drives are more durable and consistent, making them a must for DJs and professional use.
Two-Speed or Three-Speed
Records are pressed to play back at one of three speeds: 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm. When shopping for a turntable, you will see two-speed turntables, like the Audio-Technica AT-LPW40WN, that can play 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records, and three-speed turntables, like the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB, that can also play 78 rpm records. You may be thinking three speeds are better than two, but the truth is many listeners have no need to play 78s.
Consider the record collection in this case. 78s were first produced around 1900, and the last 78 rpm records were pressed in the late 1950s, so anyone with a newer collection has no need to spin records at 78 rpms, unless they're a big fan of “Alvin and the Chipmunks.” If the person you're shopping for has a collection of 78s, obviously this is a feature they would likely enjoy. However, it is important to note, 78 rpm records not only require faster rotation, but they also have wider grooves than 33s and 45s, which means you'll need to change the stylus to play them properly. Playing 78s with a stylus meant for 33s and 45s will result in distortion, since the needle bounces around the groove and can possibly damage it.
If you need 78 playback, we recommend purchasing a turntable on which the headshell can be changed easily, along with a separate 78 stylus, cartridge, and headshell combo, such as the Audio-Technica AT-VM95SP/H. This will make it as simple as possible to make the switch.
Manual vs. Automatic
A fully automatic turntable, like the Dual CS 429, will lift and drop the tonearm to play the record electronically with the touch of a button, and then return the tonearm automatically when finished. A manual turntable, such as the Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon EVO, requires you to lift the tonearm manually, move it into place, drop it to play, and then lift the tonearm and return it when the record has ended. There are also semi-automatic varieties that offer partially motorized features, often on the tonearm return. While automatic turntables were the norm in the '70s, most modern options are manual or semi-automatic.
Remember: anything in the signal chain can affect sound quality; this is important to consider when you are comparing similarly priced options. Typically, fewer features mean better sound quality when the cost is the same.
To sum it up, manual turntables offer greater purity of signal, but automatic ones provide greater ease of use.
Wired vs. Bluetooth
How are the records being listened to? Is there a hi-fi system with a dedicated phono input? Good news, any turntable will work. Powered speakers? You need to make sure you are getting one with a built-in phono preamp. Want to go wireless? Bluetooth-equipped turntables are excellent for people who want to reduce wire clutter with Bluetooth speakers or listen quietly on Bluetooth headphones. As time and technology march on, more turntables are being offered with this feature and the quality has been improving.
On average, the addition of Bluetooth increases the price of a turntable from around $50 to $100. Also, the quality and range of Bluetooth transmission can vary, depending on the version and what codecs are supported. Regardless of the quality of Bluetooth transmission, it will never be as high as the quality achieved with a wired setup.
Best Budget Pick: Audio-Technica AT-LP60X
Great for someone just starting out, or for anyone looking for an economical choice, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X turntable is straightforward and compact. It offers automatic functionality, a pre-installed stylus, and a switchable phono preamp. You can even add Bluetooth and USB archiving without affecting the quality. However, the price for those models is expectedly higher.
The main drawbacks of this table are a lack of tonearm adjustments, which may make it difficult to track certain records (especially older, well-worn ones), and an entry-level fixed headshell/cartridge that can't be changed. The stylus can be replaced, but only with the same model.
For the Entry-Level Hi-Fi Enthusiast: Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN
The Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN is what most vinyl enthusiasts would consider a quality “entry-level” model. It is a two-speed, manual turntable with a built-in phono preamp. The build quality is considerably better than less expensive options, with features like an adjustable carbon fiber tonearm, which allows you to change the headshell, cartridge, and stylus.
For the Entry-Level DJ: Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB
The perfect record player for the beginner turntablist, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB is a three-speed, manual, direct-drive turntable. It has adjustable pitch and a strobing speed indicator light. This is among the most affordable direct-drive options available, ideal for the budding DJ to practice their tear, crab, and chirp scratches.
For the Economical Audiophile: Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon EVO
For those who have a higher appreciation for audio quality and the audio system to hear it, the Pro-Ject Audio Systems Debut Carbon EVO is where we start to see high-end functions and features, without breaking the bank. Three-speed-capable, fully manual, and with high-quality materials throughout, this is a turntable focused on producing the best possible sound quality at this price level.
For Quality and Convenience in One: Dual Electronics CS 429
Looking for great sound with the convenience of fully automatic functionality for under $1,000? Some say they don't make things like they used to; well, Dual is still building them like they did in the '70s when automatic function was more common. The CS 429 is a high-quality, three-speed, belt-drive turntable with lightweight aluminum platter and tonearm and well-regarded Ortofon 2M Red cartridge included. It offers a fantastic combination of quality playback and ease of use.
For the Professional and Anyone Who Wants to Feel Like One: Technics SL-1200MK7
Originally designed as an audiophile turntable, the SL-1200s were quickly adopted and made famous by professional DJs for their durability and ability to stop and start on a dime. They can be a little noisy and there may be better-sounding belt-drive options at this price point, but the quality here is high. Featuring the famous Technics direct-drive motor, adjustable pitch control, a strobing light sensor, and adjustable tracking, this latest iteration of the SL-1200s will let you spin and scratch like a pro. These are legendary for a reason and the sound quality is more than adequate for most listeners, especially when direct drive is preferred.
A Direct-Drive for the Audiophiles: Technics Sl-1210GR
For listeners not satisfied with the SL-1200MK7, Technics produced the SL-1210GR, taking everything that made the 1200s great and improving the quality with better damping and vibration reduction, while also using better quality components throughout. This is solid, premium build quality with sound that would satisfy the most discerning ears.
Wrap it up!
We have just scratched the surface, but I hope this has made your holiday gift search a little more informed. As always, we'd love to hear from you in the Comments section. Let us know your favorite record players or share some knowledge to help your fellow B&H shoppers.