Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
: Belt | Operation
Exceptional sound quality
Easy to use
Susceptible to skipping if bumped
Opting to highlight the elegant engineering inherent in turntables, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon sports sleek and minimalistic aesthetics that look great on almost any table or shelf. It backs that design up with the fullest, most robust sound of all the models we tested. What really sets it apart from the rest of the field is its clarity, which makes everything from classic rock to acoustic pieces sound sharp and brings out all the subtleties of the music. The build quality of this record player is also great, featuring a carbon fiber tonearm and heavy aluminum platter (an acrylic upgrade platter is available as well if you're willing to spend a bit more).
The biggest drawback to the Debut Carbon is its price. Not only is it the most expensive model we tested, but it is also the only model in our lineup that requires a separate preamp. This means you'll have to add a bit to the price if you don't already have an external preamp (if you don't, we've had great luck with this one). It also slightly more prone to skipping when bumped than other comparable models, and lacks some bells and whistles like the ability to digitize records. However, if you're looking to build the best sounding vinyl rig possible, we think this is a great starting point.
Read review: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
: Direct | Operation
High quality construction
Easy to use
Susceptible to skipping if bumped
When compared to the incredible sounding Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB is only a very small step down in terms of sound quality, but a huge step up in terms of convenience and affordability. Though its clarity and dynamic range fall slightly short of the Debut Carbon's, this machine is still able to produce a sharp, fresh, warm sound that will certainly provide a luxurious listening experience. It also has a beginner friendly cue lever that makes getting the needle on the record an easy and stress free experience, and a USB port that gives you the option of digitizing your treasured vinyl collection.
After we finished our testing we had only very minor complaints about the AT-LP120BK-USB. The first was that it did tend to skip somewhat easily when we bumped the table it was sitting on, and the second was that its sound quality fell just somewhat shy of that of the Debut Carbon. However, these issues are far from dealbreakers, and we still feel the AT-LP120BK-USB's mix of great sound and user-friendly features make it the best turntable for people starting their vinyl journey.
Read review: Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB
Best Bang for the Buck
: Belt | Operation
: Fully Automatic
Fully automatic operation
Dynamic range is a bit stunted
If you just inherited some vintage vinyl and are looking for an inexpensive way to enjoy it, the Audio Technica AT-LP60BK is your best bet. For just a double-digit price tag you get a rig that sounds pretty good and offers fully automatic cueing. This means you can just put the record on the platter and press a button, then the player will move the tonearm over and place the needle onto the record automatically. This makes it perfect for beginners, or those that are skittish about scratching a treasured record.
The one area you have to make a bit of a sacrifice in order to enjoy the low price of the AT-LP60BK is sound quality. It sounds quite good, but the clarity and dynamic range both leave a bit to be desired when compared to both of our Editors' Choice winners. Overall the sound quality is about the same as that of a standard mp3, but with a bit more warmth. Despite this drawback, this player still offers a good vinyl experience for less than three digits, making it great for those that want to dip their toes into analog music, but aren't ready to make a big investment.
Read review: Audio Technica AT-LP60BK
Why You Should Trust Us
In developing our sound quality testing process we worked with sound recordist Palmer Taylor. Palmer has more than a decade of experience recording sound, during which time he's worked with such clients as Animal Planet, PBS, and MTV. As the leaders of TechGearLab's audio reviews, authors Steven Tata and Max Mutter have spent the last 3 years using and testing nearly 200 of the most highly regarded consumer audio products on the market. Both are also lifelong musicians and have thus spent countless hours of their lives dissecting music bit by bit.
In completing this review we meticulously researched more than 100 of the most well-regarded turntables on the market. We then chose the ones we felt would be most likely to meet our reads' needs, bought them at retail price, and brought them into our testing lab. We then spent more than 100 hours just listening to these products, side-by-side, always using the exact same speaker setup to keep things consistent. After pouring through dozens of records running the entire imaginable gambit of musical genres (we even found a copy of whale songs on vinyl at a thrift store), we completed a once, twice, and thrice over of each machine, closely assessing construction quality and overall user-friendliness. We finished off by playing music and purposefully bumping into each player with progressively more force to test resistance to skipping.
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 tiny, 280 character chunks, and the music we listen to is warped and mashed into small digital files that can easily be beamed across various wireless networks. In many ways, turntables and vinyl records are an escape from that compression. Not only does vinyl provide all that precious musical information that is lost in digitally compressed files, it 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 appreciate the full-sized album art as you lovingly place it on the record player and put the needle down, and to listen to entire albums from beginning to end.
When it comes to record players there is generally a positive correlation between price and sound quality, but that doesn't mean you can't be smart with your money. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon offers great performance and sound, but at a high price. The Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK is nearly as good, and costs significantly less. If your budget is at the lower end of the spectrum the Audio-Technica AT-LP60BK offers relatively good performance without a triple-digit price tag.
Searching through the TechGearLab vinyl library for the perfect sound quality testing tracks.
The warm, crisp sound that a good record player can produce is one of the main reasons people are ditching mp3's in favor of vinyl, so the majority of our testing was focused on examining sound quality. We did this by listening to 10 different records on each one of our turntables, and doing so 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 each model to a standard mp3, again played through the same set of speakers.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon was the clear frontrunner in our sound quality metric, earning a score of 9 out of 10. It was crystal clear in our testing, and had a broad dynamic range that gave the music an emotional resonance and room to breathe. The Audio Technica AT-LP120BK-USB wasn't far behind, picking up a score of 8 out of 10. It also sported impressive clarity and dynamic range, but both were just slightly shy of what the Debut Carbon was able to produce.
Three different models shared the third step on the sound quality podium, all with scores of 7 out of 10. The U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus, the Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK, and the Fluance RT81 sounded quite similar. All three produced a crisp, clear sound on par with the clarity of the Audio Technica AT-LP120BK-USB, but they all also had slightly narrower dynamic ranges. The only slight difference we noticed amongst these models is that the Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK has just slightly more powerful bass than the other two, but overall they all provide very similar listening experiences.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon was the best sounding turntable we tested.
Two models, the Sony PSLX300USB and the Audio-Technica AT-LP60BK, both scored 6 out of 10 in our sound quality testing. Both of these models provided decent clarity that was a slight step down from the top scorers. They both also had noticeably smaller dynamic ranges, though they were still able to make loud notes sound punchy. For comparison, this is the same sound quality score we would give to a standard mp3 (the kind you'd stream through Pandora or Spotify) played through our testing speakers. However, both of these turntables do add some of that signature vinyl warmth, so they still provide a better listening experience if you like that flavor of sound.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB was a very close second in our sound quality testing.
We included two very inexpensive (in relative terms) turntables in our selection in order to look for a good shoestring budget option. Unfortunately, our testing results indicate that it's not really worth shopping in the bargain basement for a turntable or record player. Both the Jensen JTA-230, which earned a 3 out of 10, and the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed, which fared slightly worse with a 2, sounded no better than listening to a low-quality mp3 through an inexpensive Bluetooth speaker. In fact, both models introduced some annoying distortion that kind of ruined the vinyl listening experience.
Using a stylus force gauge to dial in each turntable's tracking force.
Both a turntable's overall quality and its longevity are largely determined by the quality of their individual 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. We had some of our in-house mechanical engineers examine all of our record players' components side-by-side in order to determine their relative quality.
The clear frontrunner in this metric was the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, which earned the top score of 9 out of 10. It is the only model we tested that has a carbon fiber tonearm. The ideal tonearm is completely rigid yet weightless, and carbon fiber is about as close as you're going to get to that ideal. It 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-LP120BK-USB and the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus, sat just behind the top scorer with scores of 8 out of 10. Both of these models have solid, lightweight metal tonearms that were just slightly heavier and slightly less rigid than the Debut Carbon's tonearm. The AT-LP120BK-USB 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 greatly reduces vibration. However, its rubber mat material isn't quite as nice as the felt of other models.
The titular carbon fiber tonearm of the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon was the highest quality tonearm we came across in our testing.
The Fluance RT81 was the only model that earned a 7 out of 10 in this metric. It has a nice aluminum platter that is just slightly lighter, and thus less vibration resistant, than those of the top scorers. It uses a rubber mat, which gets the job done, though we would refer felt. The metal tonearm feels solid and light and had a nice AT95E Dual Magnet cartridge at the end.
Earning a 6 out of 10, the Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK uses an aluminum platter that is somewhat on the lighter side and a rubber mat. We liked its stiff, metal tonearm and AT91R Dual Moving Magnet cartridge. The Best Buy Award winning Audio Technica AT-LP60BK, which earned a slightly lower score of 5 out of 10, is built very similarly. It has a slightly nicer felt mat, but its tonearm is just a bit flimsier and Audio-Technica Dual Magnet cartridge isn't quite as nice.
The U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus' heavy acrylic platter was the most effective at reducing vibration in our testing.
The Sony PSLX300USB also earned a score of 5 out of 10 in this metric. Its aluminum platter has a good, hefty weight to it, but we weren't huge fans of its rubber mat and somewhat flimsy tonearm. The stock Sony cartridge also didn't seem to measure up to those of most of the other models.
Again at the bottom of this metric were the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed and the Jensen JTA-230, which scored a 3 and 2 out of 10, respectively. Both of these models use lightweight, plastic platters and plastic mats that don't do much in the way of vibration resistance. The Jensen uses a flimsy plastic tonearm. The Victrola uses a slightly higher quality metal tonearm, but it is quite flimsy.
To test user friendliness we examined every aspect of each model's user experience, from the control interface to the cueing process.
Especially for a beginner, the simple act of placing the needle on a record can be somewhat stressful. Simple touches like cue levers, which let you lower the needle by pulling a lever rather than using your hand, can make this process much easier. Fully automated cueing makes that process foolproof. You may need to make some adjustments to your turntable if it's not sounding good, so things like adjustable needle tracking force and pitch control can be 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-LP120BK-USB was the easiest to use of the models we tested, which is a large reason that it picked up one of our Editors' Choice Awards. It earned the top score of 9 out of 10 in this metric. First off, it has a well designed cue lever, so 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 pitch control, a well designed threaded weight for adjusting tracking force, a pitch control knob, 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 record.
Two models, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon and the Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK, shared the second step on the podium, both earning a score of 8 out of 10.
While we didn't have any problems in our testing, many users complain of the Debut Carbon's anti-skate weight falling off.
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 and 45's. It also has an anti-skating weight that keeps the needle from skipping across the record.We had no issues with this weight, but many online user reviews mention issues with it falling off.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP3BK also has a nice cue lever. In addition, it has a fully automatic cueing function, so you can just 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 automatically adjusts the platter speed based on what type of record you are playing. It does not have any sort of pitch control, but it does have a nice, threaded weight to adjust the tracking force.
The Sony PSLX300USB was the only model to score a 7 out of 10 in this metric. It also sports a fully automatic cueing function. This function always worked in our testing, but the mechanical action was jerkier than that of the Audio-Technica models we tested that have this feature. It can automatically sense the type of record you are play and adjust the platter speed to 33 or 45 rpm's. It does not have any sort of adjustment for pitch or tracing force. It can digitize your records, though the digitization quality is much better on the Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB
We loved the convenience of the cue lever of the Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB.
The Best Buy Award winning Audio Technica AT-LP60BK earned a 6 out of 10 in our user friendliness testing. It has our favorite automatic cueing function of any of the models we tested, making it great for beginners. It lost some points because it lacks some adjustability: there is no pitch control nor a 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 earned an average score of 5 out of 10 in this metric. It has neither a cue lever or automatic cueing, so you must place the needle on the record completely by hand. This isn't the most difficult thing to master, but it can be stressful for a newcomer, and even our experienced vinyl aficionados wished it had a cue lever. You can change the platter speed from 33 to 45 rpm's manually. There is no pitch control, but you can adjust the tracking force. However, the tracking force is adjusted with a sliding weight, which makes minute adjustments much more difficult than on the models that use threaded weights.
Having a turntable that automatically adjusts the platter speed based on what type of record you're playing adds a level of convenience. The Sony PSLX300USB, pictured here, automatically changes speed, but you can also override it manually.
Once again bringing up the rear, the Jensen JTA-230 and the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed shared the low score of 3 out of 10 in this metric. The Jensen lacks any sort of cue lever, necessitating that you do all your cueing by hand. We also found the tonearm to be a bit stiff in its movements, making that manual cueing all the more difficult (not to mention stressful). It also lacks any adjustments for the tracking force. On the plus side, it does automatically adjust to 33, 45, and 78 records, offers pitch control, and has a USB port that allows you to digitize your records. However, we were not impressed with the quality of the resulting mp3 files.
The Victrola also automatically adjust to record type and has pitch control, but that's where the positive points end. It cannot adjust pitch or tracking force, and cannot digitize records. While it does have a cue lever, it is quite flimsy and doesn't inspire much confidence. While it still is easier to cue with the Victrola than the Jensen, it is still more difficult than every other model we tested.
U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus ready for some vibration resistance testing.
One of the biggest downsides of switching to analog music is that you have to deal with skipping, and not the fun kind. Nothing can put a damper on an impromptu dance party like a skipping record. Not only is it a bummer, it can also cause damage to your records. We tested vibration resistance first by shaking 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 increasingly more force until each model finally gave in and skipped.
The Fluance RT81 withstood the hardest bumps to the table without skipping, and earned the top score of 8 out of 10 in this metric. Basically, unless you power walk straight into the table the Flaunce is sitting on, or through roller derby style hip check while you're busting a move, the Fluance won't skip. This makes it great for those aggressive dancers amongst us.
The U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus was just behind the Fluance with a score of 7 out of 10 in this metric. It could still handle quite a wallop to the table it was sitting on without skipping, but it still took less force to get it skipping than with the Fluance.
The Fluance RT81 was the most adept at avoiding skips during our vibration resistance testing.
Most of the models we tested earned an average score of 6 out of 10 in our vibration resistance testing. These models resisted light bumps to the table they were sitting on without skipping. By light bumps we mean bumping your hip into the corner of the table because you were looking at your phone. Anything more, like an errant elbow knocking the table when the music inspires some vigorous dancing, will almost certainly induce a skip. Six different models fell into this category, including the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, the Audio-Technica AT-LP120BK-USB, the Sony PSLX300USB, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60BK, and the Victrola Vintage 3-Speed.
The Jensen JTA-230 was the only model we tested that we felt was particularly susceptible to skipping. It could stand up to just lightly shaking the table, but if we actually bumped into it, or shook a bit more vigorously, it skipped quite easily. This is fine if you just like to sit on the couch and listen to music, but might be an issue if you want to get people up and dancing.
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, and we hope that sharing that experience has elucidated whether you would enjoy leaping into the world of records, or that you'd rather stick to the digital realm.