One of the reasons I was drawn back to vinyl was because it’s the perfect blend of experiencing music hands-on and curating the gear to deliver it. I love the hunt, not only for that vintage album or undiscovered new band, but also for the items that spin and crank the sound in a home system that is all my own.
There are many things to consider when picking up a first turntable. Not unlike other acquisitions of music gear, you’ve got to start with one essential question: pre-loved or brand-new? From here, it’s about landing in that perfect price point for a turntable that provides optimal features and sonic quality within your budget. Honestly, there’s no perfect pick or “best first turntable.” But there is definitely the best turntable for you and your collection.
With that in mind, here’s a few things to consider about the vintage vs. new conundrum if you’re getting into vinyl and have somewhere between $100-$300 USD to spend.
Ironically, this price point can be the hardest to navigate on the new front, since recent years have seen a surge of economical options. Landing your best new turntable, then, demands doing a little homework on where quality and material arguably matter most—and where manufacturers are most likely to skimp on a budget build. While looks don’t always deceive, it’s easy to overlook some short-changed components due to the allure of an all-around trendy design. So here’s three things to look for under the hood of a new buy for a vinyl newbie:
Generally, the heavier the platter, the better. Dense materials for platter construction are easily downgraded in economical builds. You’re likely to find a range of materials used, from aluminum to steel. Give it a tap and a knock to see how solid it is. In short, go dense.
Consider cartridge quality and interchangeability. While you’re unlikely to find a top-of-the-line cartridge and stylus in this range, there’s definitely a spectrum of good to better. Try to land one on the higher end of that sliding scale—and preferably one that can be upgraded later on as your system grows and your disposable income replenishes. This is the point of contact between your entire system and vinyl collection, so make sure it’s up to the task.
One asset of most modern turntables is the built-in preamp, which saves both space and cash. That’s right, just like that that Sesame Street suitcase all-in-one jobby for playing 45s you may have had when you were a kid, these can spin and deliver the right signal out directly to speakers. The advantage of this design now is much the same as then: Minimal setup gets you listening sooner without the added technological considerations of an external preamp to bring your phono signal up to line-level for listening. If you get a turntable without a built-in preamp, you’ll need to make sure your receiver either has a phono input or you’ll need to buy an external phono preamp.
If the new market is flooded with options in this range, a similar problem persists in the used market. There’s loads of cheap turntables lingering around from decades past. Yet your dollars can go further here if you know what you’re looking for—or better, what to avoid. If you need to stay within this price point, be sure to consider a few projected tune-up costs to bring your new-to-you turntable into the new millennium, in addition to giving the item a good eyeball to make sure all the pieces are present and accounted for. Here’s another top three of things to consider before purchase:
Casual listeners, audiophiles, and DJs have different opinions about whether belt-drive or direct-drive turntables are best. (If you’re a DJ or anticipate stopping or scratching records by hand, you’ll absolutely want to find a direct-drive system.) While belt drives are a great option for both casual listeners or budding audiophiles, if you’re kicking the tires on a used belt-driven table, you’ll probably want to consider getting a fresh belt. Changing out a belt is routine maintenance that any stereo repair shop will be able to handle, and you can do it yourself. Do a little Google homework on the fly and figure out issues of availability and interchangeability to save you a headache later.
Even more so than with a new buy, the cartridge and stylus are going to be crucial. If they’re old and worn out, they will need to be swapped out before you place a precious slab of vinyl below. Again, get a sense of the cost of the upgrade and the nature of the minor DIY surgery to make the switch in advance of your first listening session.
If you Google “Best First Turntables,” surprise, surprise, you’ll get a bunch of lists. Which is not at all what I’m giving you here for one simple reason: You’re not buying groceries, you’re buying gear. You’re on a vinyl safari, a quest, an experience, or whatever you want to call it. Like any other gear acquisitions you’ve made for making, recording, or listening to music, buying your first turntable should be about keeping on budget yet finding that balance between quality and character, reliability and durability, and inspiration and authenticity. It can be done for under $300, if you’re willing to hunt for it, so go make your own list.