In an era of digital music, vinyl is fighting back with a fanbase that grows steadily each year. If you have decided to take the leap into the realm of wax records, it is now time to choose your turntable.
The models are countless, the price range is vast and there is a plethora of different features to consider, so much so that it is often difficult to know which turntable is the best. How do you choose the right hi-fi turntable? Do you really need a Bluetooth turntable? What is the point of USB turntables and preamplified models? What are the fundamental characteristics that a good deck must have? In this comparative guide about the best turntables, we will provide all of the elements necessary to choose a model that is adapted to your needs and hi-fi equipment.
Choosing a turntable that matches your hi-fi equipment and meets your needs
When choosing a turntable, your decision should be made based on your existing hi-fi equipment and what the turntable is going to be used for. If you want to pair it with an amplifier or a hi-fi system, make sure that your equipment has a phono input. If it doesn’t, it is essential to purchase an external phono preamp or a turntable with a built-in preamp. As with any new addition to a hi-fi system, the quality of the turntable must be in line with that of the rest of the system. That way, you’ll avoid entry-level tables that don’t enhance your installation.
If you have connected speakers rather than an amplification system, a Bluetooth turntable is a good solution to easily listen to your records with Bluetooth speakers, Bluetooth headphones or even Bluetooth earphones.
Lastly, if you wish to digitize your records to listen to them using a handheld device such as a smartphone, a tablet or a DAP, a USB turntable is recommended.
For which types of records?
All turntables can play 33 RPM and 45 RPM records. These are the two most common formats. However, turntables that can play 78 RPM are quite uncommon (Rega RP78 / RB78, Elipson Omega 100 Carbon, Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB HC). It is therefore essential to check which formats are compatible with the turntable if you have 78 RPM records in your collection.
Be aware! 78 RPM records are made from shellac, a material that is much more fragile than vinyl, and their grooves are wider than those on a normal record. Therefore, it is crucial to use a cartridge specifically designed for 78 RPM records, so you may play them without damaging them.
Automatic, semi-automatic or manual turntable?
Three types of turntables exist: automatic, semi-automatic and manual. The operating mode has little influence on the restitution, but choosing the right mode can greatly improve your user-experience. Here’s a look at the differences between each mode.
With an automatic turntable, everything is incredibly simple. All you have to do is place a record on the platter and push the play button. The platter then starts to spin and the tonearm is automatically placed at the beginning of the record. Once playback is finished, it goes back to its initial position and the platter stops turning. A stop button even allows you to pause playback. Rather uncommon until a few years ago, automatic decks are now widespread and very effective. These include the Audio-Technica AT-LP60BT, Denon DP-300F and Thorens TD 190-2 models, all of which are flagship automatic turntables.
On semi-automatic turntables, placing the tonearm on the record automatically starts playback. The arm then comes back to its original position when playback is finished. This feature allows you to avoid wearing out the record and the stylus. If you have a tendency to fall asleep listening to records late at night, choosing a semi-automatic turntable is a viable solution to avoid any unnecessary damage to the cartridge. Reference models for this type of turntable are the Thorens TD-158 and Denon DP-400.
Lastly, with a manual turntable, it is up to you to carry out each step: raising the tonearm, placing it at the beginning of the groove, lowering the tonearm at the beginning of playback, then raising the tonearm and putting it back to its initial position at the end of playback. Manual decks are the model most commonly used for audiophile listening, primarily because they allow total control over each step of the playback process. The best hi-fi turntables, such as the Elipson Omega 100 Carbon, the Elac Miracord 90 or the Rega Planar 3, are entirely manual.
Why choose a turntable with a built-in preamp?
As the output level of a phono cartridge is a lot lower than that of a CD player, a media player, or any other source, it is necessary to preamplify the turntable’s signal so that it can be handled by your hi-fi amp or mini system if they do not feature a phono input with a preamplification module for turntables. This is why many hi-fi, Bluetooth and USB turntables have their own integrated preamp. Consequently, you can connect them to any line input on your amp or your mini system (AUX, CD, Tuner, etc.). If you are looking for a turntable with a high-quality phono preamp, the best models are the Elipson Omega 100 RIAA, the Teac TN-400 and the Rega Planar 1 Plus.
Bluetooth turntables are an excellent alternative to traditional solutions which free you of an amplifier and cables so that you may listen to your records using a Bluetooth speaker, a connected hi-fi speaker, Bluetooth headphones or Bluetooth in-ear headphones. A Bluetooth deck has the advantage of being very simple to set up. Among the best turntables equipped with a Bluetooth receiver are the iconic Elipson Omega 100 Carbon RIAA BT, Elipson Alpha 100 RIAA BT 80e Anniversaire and Pro-Ject Essential III BT.
As with any other Bluetooth source, Bluetooth turntables have some disadvantages, starting with a range that doesn’t exceed 10 meters that isn’t very good with obstacles (especially thick walls). This type of transmission also requires the signal to be compressed. To resolve this problem, some Bluetooth turntables such as the Cambridge Alva TT, Elipson Alpha 100 RIAA BT and Teac TN-400 use the apt-X codec to retain an audio quality close to that of a CD.
Vinyl records are valuable objects that wear out over time and that can’t really be listened to on the go. Therefore, digitizing your records has dual benefits. First, it allows you to enjoy your records on any digital device (DAP, smartphone, tablet, car stereo, computer, etc.) and secondly, allows you to archive rare records. The best USB turntables are the Elipson Omega 100 Carbon RIAA BT, the Pro-Ject Elemental Phono USB and the SONY PS-HX500.
Which are the best turntables for 2021?
Throughout this guide, we have listed the best current turntables according to their functionality. However, it remains difficult to choose the best model, as it varies depending on the needs of each user. Either way, it is recommended to steer clear of lower end turntables and to invest a little more to obtain optimal musicality. Therefore, for a purely audiophile usage, choosing a belt-driven deck such as the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Reference, the Elipson Alpha 100 RIAA or the Rega Planar 3 Elys 2 is often the most suitable choice. For Bluetooth turntables, the market leaders are the Elipson Omega 100 Carbon RIAA BT, Elipson Alpha 100 RIAA BT 80e Anniversaire and Pro-Ject Essential III BT. Lastly, amongst the different USB turntables, the models that stand out are the Elipson Omega 100 Carbon RIAA BT, the Pro-Ject Elemental Phono USB and the SONY PS-HX500.