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A moody close up of a record player arm.

The Best Record Players for Different Types of Listeners

Turntables are one of the world’s great inventions. Everything about them is awesome, especially the way you can put a piece of polyvinyl chloride on a spinning platter and a tiny diamond makes Sly Stone appear in your room. However, buying a turntable can be stressful because there are so many options at every price point imaginable.

It all comes down to what you like, want, and can afford, but a turntable guide can at least help point the way. For this one, the best record players are featured in three categories with different budgets: entry-levelintermediate, and audiophile, which requires quite a bit of expendable income.

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Best Entry-Level Record Player

Fluance RT81 Turntable

Fluance RT81

There were a lot of choices for the entry-level, which made this a tough category. Audio-Technica’s LP60 and LP120 remain the industry’s entry-level darlings, Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon EVO is a go-to, and many people swear by the U-Turn Orbit Plus.

Canada’s Fluance RT81 won because it offers so much for such a low price. When someone is first starting the vinyl journey, it helps to have nearly everything you need in a tidy package.

At $249, the RT81 comes standard with several things that cost extra — or simply aren’t available — on other entry-level turntables. The Orbit, for instance, is a very good turntable but it quickly exceeds $300 once you add things such as a phono preamp and cueing lever. The Debut Carbon costs $200 more and doesn’t have a preamp.

Here’s everything you get with the RT81: A built-in phono preamp that can be bypassed, an Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge, (which is the gold standard of affordable cartridges), auto-stop, and a dark walnut veneer over a reasonably heavy 14-pound MDF plinth. 

The belt-driven RT81 looks a whole lot better than it should at this price and that S-shaped tonearm is sexy AF. In fact, the RT81 is kind of beautiful in a very 1975 living room sort of way.

Specifications are decent enough and not wildly different from substantially more costly turntables. Some might be put off by the +/- 1.00% speed variation but that’s a worst-case scenario and there are plenty of Fluance users who have reported no issues. Same with the wow-and-flutter specs of 0.2, which causes howls of outrage but is par for the course with sub-$500 belt-drive turntables. 

Besides, numbers only tell part of any gear story. If something is built well, performs well, and sounds good, then why worry about percentage points? Fluance makes very good turntables at attractive price points. What’s not to love?

PriceWhere to Buy

Best Intermediate Record Player

Clearaudio Concept Turntable

Clearaudio Concept

The Clearaudio Concept might be one of the most perfect turntables ever produced. Everything about it screams confidence and authority and every revision has made it easier to use. It also sounds fantastic and looks beautiful.

Clearaudio is a German company dedicated to analog — turntables, cartridges, tonearms, phono preamplifiers, and accessories. Nothing they make could truly be considered a budget buy. In fact, their accessories seem expensive and at $1,800, the Concept might be pushing the price limit for mid-level gear.

However, it’s a complete package with a nice cartridge and holds its own next to turntables that cost thousands more. If you already have a cartridge and know how to install and align it properly, then you can buy the Concept without the cartridge for $1,600. 

The Concept’s clean, vaguely Art Deco look is extremely eye-catching and the design is formidable. Compact and stout, it’s a nicely symmetrical 16.5-inches wide while weighing 16.5 pounds. Its DC motor is decoupled from the plinth to reduce vibration and its tonearm uses a magnetic bearing, which may account for its smooth and effortless sound. The electronically-controlled speeds are 33.3, 45, and 78.

I’ve had turntables that do one or two things better, or maybe just differently, but the Concept gets so many things right that it has been the lone constant in my setup for a decade. I’ve used cartridges that cost from $34 to $1,200 and always felt like the Concept was allowing each of them to sound exactly how they were meant to sound. It has an overall neutral quality but does lean toward having some lushness in the midrange, which is exactly where a turntable should be lush.

Clearaudio has offered several variations of the Concept, and once you get into different materials for the plinth or the addition of a built-in phono preamplifier, the cost exceeds what’s appropriate for this guide’s intermediate category. 

The optional materials are gorgeous and the built-in electronics in the Concept Active model are versatile. But let’s just stop there, before the temptation gets too real.

PriceWhere to Buy
$2,200Turntable Lab

Best Audiophile Record Player

Thorens TD 124 DD Turntable

Thorens TD 124 DD

Thorens is one of the most respected names in audio, having started nearly 140 years ago with music boxes before graduating to turntables in 1928. The company, which began in Switzerland and is now based in Germany under the stewardship of ELAC’s Gunter Kürten, is most famous for a handful of legendary models and none are more famous than the TD 124.

The original TD 124 sold for a whopping $99.95 between 1957 and 1965, and has become a holy grail turntable for many, with restored versions selling for $3,000 to $5,000. Audiophiles are drawn to its idler-based drive system, which uses a very powerful motor to turn a shaft that presses against a rubber idler wheel that then presses against the inside of the platter.

You may have noticed that the newest iteration of the TD 124 has a couple of extra letters which stand for “direct drive.” There are those who hate direct-drive turntables, which don’t use a belt but instead a high-torque motor to spin the platter. But idler-drive systems and direct drive systems aren’t that far apart in theory, and when done correctly, they offer tremendous speed stability and musical impact.

There are plenty of bad direct drive turntables that suffer from what’s called cogging, a low-level stutter. Some people are sensitive to it, many aren’t. The TD 124 DD engineers devised their own direct-drive motor. They call it the Super Silent Direct Drive, which is said to eliminate cogging and offer the best of both idler and direct drive systems. It has a lot fewer moving parts than the original, which means fewer things can go wrong.

I’ve had some experience with a TD 124 from the early 1960s and loved it, partly because of its vaguely steam-punk looks but mainly because music seems to leap forward. I’ve not heard the TD 124 DD because of the price tag, but everything I’ve read about this little gem makes it clear that Kürten’s team nailed its goal of achieving a big, dramatic sound combined with exceptional smoothness.

They also took advantage of modern materials dedicated to resonance control while including sensible modern options such as electronic cueing, balanced outputs, and an electronic “braking” system which lets you pause the platter while flipping an LP without actually having to stop the motor (the OG model used actual rubber brakes, which were problematic). The highly-engineered Thorens TP 124 tonearm was made for the 124 DD and comes with two headshells, one for old-school SPU cartridges. An outboard power supply is another smart choice.

And just look at it! It’s gorgeous. Everything about the original’s aesthetics was retained and given a makeover, making the TD 124 DD the centerpiece of a high-end system. Or the centerpiece of 500 high-end systems, as that’s how many were made. Sure, it feels like a gimmick, but it’s also cool. I’d love to be one of only 500 living rooms in the world to have this beauty on display, but for now, I’ll just tack a photo of it on the wall and dream.

PriceWhere to Buy
$11,999HiFi Heaven

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