As sales figures for CDs and digital downloads continue to drop, music consumers are overwhelmingly embracing two other formats — one rather new, the other quite old. According to Nielsen Music, streaming was up 54.5 percent in 2014, and while that’s a big number, not everyone is ready to wave goodbye to physical product. Vinyl accounted for 6 percent of all music sales last year, and with 9.2 million units sold, the venerable 12-inch record had its best showing in decades.
That jump means many more newbies are buying turntables and getting into the game, and there are plenty of beginner models available for budding vinyl enthusiasts. Here, we look at five priced at $249 or less. None are likely to curry favor with the audiophiles of the world, but each has something to offer rookies looking to get started.
Given that these aren’t super-high-end machines, the sound quality isn’t vastly superior on any of them. They’re all belt-driven, which means your records spin around with the help of a black elastic band that can stretch out over time or slip off the platter. Direct-drive models are superior, especially if you’re an aspiring DJ looking to scratch, but they’re also more expensive.
When choosing between the following five models, it’s largely a question of what features you’re looking for. We tested each turntable with a mid-level Yamaha stereo receiver, a pair of bookshelf speakers, and a 10-inch subwoofer — all about 10 years old, none fancier than any novice might own.
With the exception of the Stanton T52, none of these turntables require a receiver with a built-in phono preamp, and all of the others but the Denon allow users to switch between “line” and “phono,” which means you have the option of going through a phono input, if you have one, or a regular AUX. All of them come with RCA cables, cartridges, styluses, and 45rpm converter discs — everything you need to plug in and start enjoying the wonders of analog. [Prices accurate as of publish date.]
Owned by Gibson, maker of some of the most badass guitars on the planet, Stanton specializes in DJ gear, and the T52 definitely has the look of something you’d use to rock a party. There’s a target light, a pitch adjuster that lets you speed up and slow down records, and dual start/stop buttons meant to facilitate “battle setup” — though the fact it’s belt-driven, not direct-drive, makes it less than ideal for scratching. Even so, the Stanton is the sturdiest, best-sounding model we tested, and thanks to the adjustable counterweight on the tonearm, you can modify the tracking force — the pressure of the needle on the record — as you see fit. One potential drawback for newcomers is the aforementioned lack of a “line” output, which means that if you’re plugging into a receiver without a phono input, you’ll need a preamp. Luckily, these generally sell for $50 or less, so that’s not a deal-breaker. Also, there’s no mechanism for raising and lowering the tonearm. (Speaking of that arm, it’s straight, rather than S-curved, and some vinyl experts contend that it’s too short to provide proper tracking.) Also, instead of a clear plastic lid, you get a cloth dust cover.
With a layout almost identical to the Stanton — dual start/stop buttons, pitch shifter, adjustable counterweight (affixed here to a curved arm) — the Numark is a good alternative for anyone looking to avoid buying a preamp and/or transfer vinyl recordings to their computer via the included USB cable. The software the Numark comes with couldn’t be simpler to use, though tech-savvy folks can use more sophisticated programs to create digital files. Plus, there’s a 1/8-inch stereo mini-jack input that lets you digitize audio from other devices, like cassette players. The Numark TTUSB also boasts an anti-skate control — something the Stanton doesn’t have. Anti-skate counteracts the needle’s natural tendency to drift toward the middle of the turntable, protecting the grooves on your records. Unfortunately, there’s no dust cover, so some of that money you’ll save by not replacing damaged albums might go toward buying one.
With its pitch-shift fader, anti-skate control, and curved, adjustable-weight tonearm, this brand-new Crosley model — due out in stores the first week of October — shares much in common with the Numark. What you don’t get here is the USB capability. If you’re looking digitize prized singles or LPs you’re unwilling or unable to stream on Spotify or YouTube, you’re out of luck. One thing the Crosley does have going for it, though, is the lever that lifts the tonearm, which makes it easy for listeners with shaky hands to cue up tracks without accidentally scratching their records. Also, the classic rectangular design, black-and-silver color scheme, and clear plastic cover make it a handsome addition to any entertainment center.
For the money, there’s a lot to like about this turntable. First off, the design: The AT-LP60USB is sleek, compact, and available in black, silver, red, and blue. The classic look wouldn’t matter much if it didn’t perform, and for a belt-driven unit with no anti-skate or adjustable counterweight, it plays through most records — even scratched and dusty ones we tested — reasonably well. Another nice feature is the button on the front that manually raises and lowers the tonearm, which some users may find easier to use than the lever on the Crosley mentioned above and the Denon below. As the “USB” in the model number suggests, it plugs into Mac or PC computers, allowing users to backup their vinyl collections digitally. Plus, unlike any of the above-mentioned models, it’s fully automatic, which means the platter stops spinning and the tonearm returns to its cradle when the record ends. Unless you’re dying to hear the other side, there’s no immediate need to get off the couch and break the mood the music has left you with.
Handy for newbies not looking for bells and whistles, the DP-29F is the most basic unit of the five we tested. There’s no USB output, pitch adjuster, counterweight, or anti-skate control here. After placing your platter on the rubber slip mat, you set the size (12 or 7 inch) and speed (33 1/3 or 45 RPM) and press the start button. That activates the automatic arm, which is definitely the main selling point. According to the manual, the tracking force on that arm is set at 3.5 grams, which prevents skipping reasonably well. The manual arm-lift lever lets you cue up specific points on your records without too much trouble, and if you’re OK with not being able to change or upgrade the cartridge, this lightweight, bare bones, decent-sounding table does the trick.