Best Turntable of 2021
|Price||$400 List||$279 List|
$279 at Amazon
$249.99 at Amazon
|$199 List||$309 List|
|Pros||Exceptional sound quality, high quality construction, easy to use||Great sound, high quality construction, easy to use||Good sound, fully automatic cueing, great vibration resistance||Good sound quality, fully automatic cueing||Good sound quality, high quality construction, good vibration resistance|
|Cons||Susceptible to skipping if bumped, expensive||Expensive||Expensive||Somewhat prone to skipping||Expensive, fully manual, some static distortion at higher volumes|
|Bottom Line||Great for audiophiles that want the best possible listening experience||Great sound quality and user-friendly features will please vinyl veterans and newcomers alike||Automatic cueing and good resistance to skipping offers greater peace of mind when listening to treasured old records||A solid performer that offers the convenience of fully automatic cueing||Good sound and construction that is held back by a higher than average price point and less user friendly design|
|Rating Categories||Pro-Ject Debut Carbon||Audio-Technica AT-L...||Fluance RT81||Audio-Technica AT-L...||U-Turn Audio Orbit...|
|Sound Quality (40%)|
|Component Quality (25%)|
|User Friendliness (25%)|
|Vibration Resistance (10%)|
|Specs||Pro-Ject Debut Carbon||Audio-Technica AT-L...||Fluance RT81||Audio-Technica AT-L...||U-Turn Audio Orbit...|
|Cartridge||Ortofon 2M Red||Audio Technica AT95E||Audio Technica AT95E||Audio Technica AT91R||Ortofon OM 5E|
|Operation||Manual||Manual||Fully Automatic||Fully Automatic||Manual|
Best Sound Quality
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon has a simple look with clean lines that will look attractive on any shelf or table in your home. The care that went into the aesthetics of this device carries over into the sound quality, treating us to the fullest and most well-balanced sound of all the models in our test fleet. The mid and treble ranges have impeccable clarity, with refined sound and evident nuances. And in addition to all of that, it is very well constructed compared to other turntables at this price point.
If you aren't willing to shell out some serious cash for your listening experience, we'd suggest looking elsewhere. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is priced higher than the other models we tested, and is the only model that requires the addition of a separate preamplifier. Those new to vinyl might not be ready to make such a large investment in a turntable. However, if you don't mind spending a little more for top-quality sound, we highly recommend the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon. We'd also point out that this model has options for upgrades if you anticipate becoming more invested in vinyl collecting.
Read review: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
Best For Most People
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB is just a tiny step below the resonant Pro-Ject Debut Carbon when it comes to overall sound quality but makes up for that in droves in utility and its lower price tag. The precision and dynamic range don't quite stand up to the Debut Carbon, but this turntable still puts out a warm and crisp sound. The cue-lever is also very accommodating for novices and helps get the needle onto the record without any worry or hassle. There's also the extra function of a USB port for digitizing any older records that are near and dear to you.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB's sound quality is great, but not out of this world, and we found it to be somewhat more susceptible to skipping than others we tested. Regardless, the price is right, and all in all, it offers a fully featured experience for vinyl newcomers and veterans alike.
Read review: Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB
Best Bang for the Buck
If you just came upon some vintage vinyl and need an inexpensive way to enjoy it, the Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB is your best bet. For a relatively low price, you get a rig that sounds decent and offers fully automatic cueing — the needle moves into place and lowers onto the record at the push of a button, so there's no risk of shaky hands scratching your newly found vinyl treasures. Plus, it offers the option of digitizing records so you can make copies for safekeeping.
The main downside of the Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB is its sound. It is fairly well balanced and has that hint of vinyl warmth that many people cherish, but the experience wasn't all that different from listening to a music streaming service on a decent set of speakers. We would classify the AT-LP60XUSB's listening experience as enjoyable but not memorable. Still, this player offers a simple, straightforward, pleasant, and inexpensive entry point into the world of vinyl.
Read review: Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB
Best Vibration Resistance
If you want to minimize record skipping while dancing with reckless abandon, the Fluance RT81 is a great choice. First, the fully automated cueing eliminates the chance that a slip of the hand will cause a catastrophic scratch. Second, the RT81 was the best performer in our vibration resistance testing, warding off skips even when we forcefully bumped the table on which it sat.
Though its sound quality is just slightly short of premium, the real downside of the Fluance RT81 is its price. Although not overly expensive, it certainly isn't cheap and might be a bit pricey for vinyl newcomers. Still, if you want good sound from a player with greater than average protection for your record collection, we'd recommend the Fluance RT81.
Read review: Fluance RT81
Why You Should Trust Us
To create the most useful sound quality testing procedure, we worked with sound recordist Palmer Taylor. Palmer has more than a decade of experience recording sound. He has worked with such clients as Animal Planet, PBS, and MTV. Joining him on our team were GearLab audio specialists Michelle Powell and Max Mutter. In the past four years, they have tested more than 200 of the best turntables, speakers, earbuds, headphones, and soundbars on the market.
We carefully researched more than 100 of the best-regarded turntables on the market. Then we chose the seven most promising models, bought them at retail price, and took them to our testing lab. We spent more than 100 hours listening to these products, side-by-side, always using the same speaker setup. We listened to dozens of records running the gamut of musical genres (we even found a copy of whale songs on vinyl at a thrift store). Then we did a once, twice, and thrice over of each machine, assessing overall user-friendliness and construction quality. Finally, to test each player's resistance to skipping, we played a record and purposefully bumped into each model with progressively more force.
Related: How We Tested Turntables
Analysis and Test Results
Modern life is fast-paced, and as a result, everything gets compressed. News stories are compressed into easily digestible sound bites, ideas are shared in 280-character chunks, and the music we listen to is warped and mashed into small digital files that can easily be beamed across our wireless networks. In many ways, turntables and vinyl records are an escape from this compression. Not only does vinyl transmit all that precious musical information that is lost in digitally compressed files, but it also forces you to slow down and appreciate the music you're listening to. It pushes you to search the bins at music stores for a good vinyl copy of your favorite album, to marvel at the full-sized album art as you lovingly place the record on the player, and to set the needle down and enjoy entire albums from beginning to end.
There is generally a positive correlation between price and sound quality when it comes to record players, but that doesn't mean you can't be smart with your money. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon offers sound and great performance, but at a high price. The Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK is nearly as good but costs significantly less. If your budget is at the lower end of the spectrum, the Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB offers relatively good performance without a triple-digit price tag.
The warm, crisp sound that a good record player can produce is one of the main reasons people are ditching mp3s in favor of vinyl, so the majority of our testing centered around examining sound quality. We did this by listening to 10 different records on each one of our turntables in a side-by-side manner. We used two identical sets of speakers so we could quickly switch between players and get accurate comparisons. When listening, we focused on each model's overall clarity and dynamic range — the volume difference between the softest and loudest notes played, which gives music depth. Finally, we compared all the models to a standard mp3 played through the same set of speakers.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon was the clear frontrunner in our sound quality metric. It was crystal clear in our testing and had a broad dynamic range that gave the music emotional resonance and room to breathe. The Audio Technica AT-LP120XUSB also supplied impressive dynamic range and clarity but was just slightly shy of what the Debut Carbon could produce.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK, the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus, and the Fluance RT81 sounded quite similar. All three produced a crisp, clear sound on par with the clarity of the Audio Technica AT-LP120XUSB, but they all also had slightly narrower dynamic ranges. The only minor difference we noticed amongst these models is that the Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK offers slightly more powerful bass than the other two. Still, overall they all provide very similar listening experiences.
The Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB provided decent clarity that was a slight step down from the top scorers. It also showed noticeably smaller dynamic ranges, though it could still make loud notes sound punchy. For comparison, this is the same sound quality score we would give to a standard mp3 played through our testing speakers (the kind of compressed audio file you might stream through Spotify or Pandora). However, this turntable adds some of that signature vinyl warmth, so it still provides a better listening experience if you like that flavor of sound.
Unfortunately, in our quest for a truly shoestring-budget record player, we've listened to some discordant models. The Victrola Vintage 3-Speed produces a very muddled sound with no almost no low-end. It sounds worse than listening to a low-quality mp3 with a cheap Bluetooth speaker. It taught us that you should be very careful when shopping for record players in the bargain-basement price range.
A turntable's overall quality and longevity are largely determined by the quality of its components. A light and stiff tonearm ensures constant and correct pressure on the record, a solid platter keeps motor vibrations from reaching the record, and a well-made cartridge will produce a high-quality signal for longer than a cheaply made one. To assess relative quality, we had some of our in-house mechanical engineers examine all of our record players' components side-by-side.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon earned the highest score and is the metric's clear frontrunner. It is the only model we tested that sports a carbon-fiber tonearm. An ideal tonearm would be completely rigid yet weightless, and carbon fiber is about as close as you're going to get to that ideal. The Debut Carbon also has a heavy aluminum platter, a felt mat to insulate the record from vibrations, and a high-quality Ortofon 2M Red cartridge.
Two models, the Audio Technica AT-LP120XUSB and the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus, sat just behind the top scorer. Both of these models have solid, lightweight metal tonearms that are just slightly heavier and less rigid than the Debut Carbon's tonearm. The AT-LP120XUSB has a heavy aluminum platter and a nice felt mat material. The Orbit Plus has the best platter of any of the models we tested, a heavy acrylic number that dramatically reduces vibration. However, the rubber mat material that it's fitted with isn't quite as nice as the felt on other models.
The Fluance RT81 offers a good but not incredible set of componentry. Though its platter is sturdy, the aluminum makes it a bit lighter and thus less vibration-resistant than some of the top-scoring models. The rubber mat is similarly effective but not quite as plush as the top models' felt mats. The metal tonearm feels solid and sports a fairly nice AT95E Dual Magnet cartridge at the end.
Audio-Technica builds even their budget models fairly well. The AT-LP3BK, which scored just above average in this metric, has a nice rubber mat, stiff metal tonearm, and a quality AT91R Dual Moving Magnet cartridge. The only aspect of its construction that we aren't huge fans of is the aluminum platter, which is definitely on the lighter side. The Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB is built almost identically to its sibling, but the tonearm feels just slightly less stiff.
Again at the bottom of this metric was the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed, which employs a lightweight plastic platter and plastic mat that don't provide much vibration resistance. Though it has a metal tonearm, it still feels quite flimsy.
The simple act of placing the needle on a record can be a somewhat stressful task, especially for a beginner. This process can be made easier with simple touches like cue levers, which let you lower the needle by pulling a lever rather than using your hand. Fully automated cueing makes that process foolproof. You may also need to make some adjustments to your turntable if it does not sound good, so things like adjustable needle tracking force and pitch control are great features to have. In our testing, we had multiple people cue and adjust all of our record players and then grade them based on their relative user-friendliness.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB was the easiest model to use in our tests, earning the top score in this metric. First off, it has a well-designed cue lever; all you have to do is swing the tonearm into place and pull the lever, and the needle makes a controlled and gentle descent down onto the record. No worries about scratching — just move and pull. It is also very adjustable with a pitch control knob, a well-designed threaded weight for adjusting tracking force, and an automatic sensor that changes the platter speed for 33, 45, and 78 records. To top it all off, it also has a USB port so you can digitize any album.
The Debut Carbon has a smooth cue lever that makes cueing quite easy, even for a beginner. It doesn't have pitch control adjustability, but you can manually change the platter speed to accommodate 33's or 45's. It also has an anti-skating weight designed to keep the needle from skipping across the record. We experienced no issues with this weight, but many online customer reviews mention issues with it falling off.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK also has a nice cue lever and a fully automatic cueing function, so you can simply push a button, and the tonearm will magically move into position and drop the needle down onto the record. It can play both 33's and 45's and will automatically adjust the platter speed based on which type of record you are playing. Although it does not have any type of pitch control, it does have a nice, threaded weight to adjust the tracking force.
The Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB scored above average for user-friendliness. It has our favorite automatic cueing function of any of the models in our test fleet, making it great for beginners. However, it lost some points because it lacks some adjustability; there isn't any pitch control or tracking force adjustment. It will automatically adjust the platter speed whether you're playing a 33 or a 44.
The U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus offers an average user experience. Because it lacks any sort of cue lever, we found the most challenging aspect of this machine to be the manual cueing. This maneuver isn't super tricky to master, but it can add a bit of stress, especially if you're trying to play an old, treasured, and irreplaceable record. It can accommodate both 33 and 45 rpm records, and though there isn't a pitch adjustment, you can make changes to the tracking force. However, the tracking force is adjusted via a sliding weight. We found this mechanism more tricky to make small, controlled adjustments than with the threaded weights of many other models.
The Victrola Vintage scored the lowest in this metric. The fact that it can automatically adjust to different record sizes is its only saving grace. Otherwise, it lacks any adjustments for pitch and tracking force, cannot digitize records, and utilizes a relatively flimsy cue lever that makes touching the needle to record more precarious than it needs to be.
One of the biggest downsides of switching to analog music is that you have to deal with skipping, and not the fun playground kind. Nothing puts a damper on an impromptu dance party like the music skipping. Not only is it a bummer, but it can also cause damage to your records. To test vibration resistance, we first shook the table that our turntables were sitting on. Somewhat surprisingly, all of them passed this test. We then moved on to bumping into the table with increasing force until each model finally gave in and skipped.
The Fluance RT81 withstood impressively hard bumps to the table it sat on without skipping in our testing. We could get it to skip, but we really had to throw some force into it. Bottom line, if someone bumps the Fluance RT81 hard enough for it to skip, your first instinct will likely be to make sure said person is okay, not to check that your record isn't scratched (depending on the record, of course).
The U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus also prevented skipping in our test quite well, falling just behind the Fluance RT81. It withstood even a fairly strong hip check to its table without skipping. However, we were able to get it to skip via a table bump equivalent to a clumsy stumble.
Most of the models we tested earned an average score in our vibration resistance testing. These models can stand up to general ambling about or even accidentally bumping a hip into the table without skipping. However, anything more aggressive, such as dancing or jumping around, and you could run into some issues. Four different models fell into this category, including the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120XUSB, the Audio Technica AT-LP60XUSB, and the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed.
Turntables can be both daunting and confusing, with most people having very strong (and often very vocal) opinions about them. Our journey through the world of vinyl has been and continues to be a joyous one. We hope that sharing that experience has elucidated whether you would enjoy leaping into the world of records or whether it might be better to stick to the digital realm.
— Max Mutter and Steven Tata