The Best Turntables
[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best turntables? Really? Everyone knows that modern ‘tables will never measure up to greats like the Garrard 301 or the Thorens TD-124! Let’s clear this up: these are the best turntables that we, the PTA team, have heard.]
Fluance Reference FT-85 ($475 USD)
This Canadian turntable made us reconsider the old $500 Rule, a figure derived from the cheapest–but still listenable–turntables 20 to 30 years ago. How does the rule hold up in 2020? The Fluance FT-85 is the answer, and that $500 even includes an Ortofon 2M Blue, almost half the entire cost. That said, the turntable part of Fluance is well-built and it sounds good and relatively quiet, even considering its semi-automatic operation.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO ($499 USD)
Here’s another strong argument for the world’s best turntable for $500 or less, though Pro-Ject had the advantage of a tested design and continuous modifications applied over the years. The EVO version sports a new motor suspension, height-adjustable damped aluminum feet, a new steel and TPE-damped platter and a Sumiko Rainier cartridge. “This is a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon table taken to a whole new level.”
Rega Planar 3 ($945 USD)
The latest version of this venerable classic is easily the best-sounding P3 yet, with an overall sound quality that surpasses the last-generation RP6 (but not the current P6, of course). This Planar 3 features a stiffer plinth and more bracing, along with a newly-designed bearing and sub-platter. The bearings in the new Rega RB330 arm have remarkably low amounts of friction.
VPI Player ($1,500 USD)
Unbox, plug in power, plug in headphones, and you’re on your way. The VPI Player strikes us as a new category of product in terms of hi-fi tradition. It straddles this murky line between turntable and all-in-one because of its built-in headphone amp. We don’t recall ever meeting a true hi-fi turntable with stand-alone listening capabilities. When has a turntable like the VPI Player been delivered from a serious player in the hi-fi game?
Andover Audio Model One System (starting at $2,000 USD)
The Model One Record Player from Andover Audio is an elegant one-box solution that contains a Pro-Ject turntable and tonearm, Ortofon cartridge, amplifiers, speakers and lots of digital connectivity. This, so far, is the most impressive version of the “good old-fashioned record player,” but it might be difficult to define if you’re the person who needs this–at least until you hear it and you just want it so bad for an office or a bedroom or a vacation spot. Options include a powered subwoofer and additional LP storage racks.
LSA T3 (starting at $2,299 USD)
This simple and visually stunning turntable was designed by Margules Audio in Mexico–it was a project in the works for many years. The final result is a ‘table with plenty of character, solid in the groove, and perfect for the audiophile who doesn’t follow the whims of the crowd. Now imported by LSA and sold by Underwood Hi-Fi, the L3 can be packaged with certain cartridges (the T3 loves Soundsmith) at a great package price.
Thorens TD-1601 ($3,500 USD)
Have you been waiting for decades for a Thorens table that’s as good as classics like the TD-124, TD-125 mk. II and the TD-160? Here it is, the TD-1601, a sprung semi-automatic turntable that will remind you great designs from Linn, Ariston, AR and any other rig that bounces. Based somewhat on the TD-160, the 1601 (and the TD-1600, which offers completely manual operation for $3K) achieves rare and lofty performance at this price point–the fact that the price includes a solid Thorens tonearm makes this deal even sweeter. An Editor’s Choice winner.
Vertere DG-1 (from $3,995 USD)
The Vertere DG-1 (Dynamic Groove) is a plug-and-play turntable system that costs just $3,995 USD complete with arm, DFi cable, and cartridge. It’s a rare turntable that can be up and running in a few minutes after the box is opened. Plug-n-play turntables are common at the low-end, but at this level it might be one of the best turntables to fit this description. The complexity of the design and build in the DG-1 is second to none in this price category and, most importantly, shares technology with everything Vertere has done upstream.
Technics SL1200G ($4,000 USD)
From a distance, the Technics SL-1200G looks just like the old SL-1200, which was the best-selling turntable in history. When you see the G up close, you start noticing little details—especially in the fit and finish. Once you tear it apart, you’ll discover it’s been completely redesigned. For those of us who never liked the sound of the 1200 or thought of it as only a DJ ‘table, the new generation of Technics 1200s is a shock to the system—while still a direct-drive design, it now sounds fantastic courtesy of the new non-cogging motor, upgraded plinth and deserves the significant increase in price since it’s an entirely different animal.
Rega P10 ($5,500 USD)
Do you remember Dave McNair’s review of the Rega P10, his first for PTA? You should, since it was one of the most widely-read reviews PTA has ever done! Most audiophiles are keenly aware of Rega’s top of the line Planar (so we’re not mentioning the rare Naiad yet) with its skeletal lightweight foam plinth and ceramic platter. Dave, a mastering engineer working in the digital domain, wanted to get back into vinyl and this is what he chose and ultimately purchased for himself. “For a lot of folks, this might be as good as it gets.”
Gold Note Mediterraneo ($6,375 USD)
This gorgeous turntable “reeks of European style and panache,” with plenty of engineering and innovation to appeal to analog perfectionists. A high-torque motor, heavy platter, external motor and low-friction bearings deliver performance that does an “exceptional job of extracting those tiny details out of the record grooves…and it was doing so with little to no editorializing.”
Fern and Roby Montrose ($6,950 USD)
Fern and Roby’s Christopher Hildebrand specializes in “heirloom quality” high-end audio, and nowhere is this more evident than with his Montrose turntable and arm combination. Precision machining and industrial materials guarantee that this analog rig looks and sounds like no one else’s. The sound is balanced and sure-footed, and the build quality is so high that “you can leave this virtually indestructible machine to your children or grandchildren in your will.”
Well-Tempered Lab Amadeus 254 GT ($7,800 USD)
This unusual turntable design–does Well-Tempered Lab make any other kind?–seems to rub against some of our firmly held ideas about analog. And yet the proof is in the listening, since the Amadeus “has a liveliness that resembles a live performance.” Every little so-called quirk, such as the now-famous golf ball at the tonearm pivot, results in a thoughtful improvement in sound that we grew to appreciate and even love during its stay.
Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas ($7,995 USD with arm)
“No-frills and kinda plain,” this turntable is based on the well-received Nottingham designs of yore and focuses on performance rather than frivolous bling. The double plinth contains a layer of Sorbothane, and the platter is a heavy monster, but the sound is “lovely” and especially dreamy with the human voice. Overall, we thought that the Kid Thomas was the turntable that sounded most like a 300B vacuum tube, if that makes sense. It does to us.
Clearaudio Innovation Basic ($8,500 USD with TRACER tonearm)
Clearaudio’s patented Ceramic Magnetic Bearing gives the platter a sense that it’s floating on air. Easy to assemble and maintain, the Innovation’s only flaw seems to be the “Basic” designation—we found that this affordable combination, with the Hana ML cartridge, was “anything but basic.”
Kuzma Stabi R ($9,000 USD with walnut plinth)
The new Stabi R looks very different than other Kuzma ‘tables—the plinth is compact and made from a solid block of aluminum, and the platter has a constrained-layer design that reduces vibration and enhances damping. The R is a versatile turntable that allows for multiple tonearm options—you can use up to four—which makes this ‘table both a sturdy workhorse and a gorgeous work of art that makes incredible music. A variety of plinths is also available.
Palmer 2.5i (from $9,490 USD)
For decades we’ve heard from a small contingent of knowledgeable audiophiles about the superb listen-ability of the Palmer turntables from the UK, and now we can officially confirm. Now built by Acoustic Signature in Germany with higher parts quality, the Palmer stands out as one of the easiest of the five-figure (with Audio Origami tonearm) turntables to own–it’s easy to set-up, stable, reliable and so solid in the groove it feels like it will run forever. And did we say it sounds great? Because it does.
Fern & Roby Montrose Heirloom ($10,500 USD)
This is the middle turntable model for Fern & Roby, between the Montrose and the Tredegar–it’s a Montrose with the massive Tredegar platter. F&R is a far from typical high-end audio company—they’re focused on being true artisans in an industry full of technology, and the Montrose Heirloom’s great sound and original looks come from testing and listening and finding out what makes a turntable sound better.
Dr. Feickert Analogue Firebird ($12,490 USD)
The Firebird stands out from the other ‘tables in this German company’s lines because it has three motors, and because it can accommodate two arms. Dr. Feickert’s turntables are easy to set-up, thanks to a built-in protractor and ingenious arm board that lets users attain perfect alignment quickly and with less fuss. The Firebird has a solid, powerful and confident sound that comes from the geometric alignment of the motors, and the reduced surface contact in the bearing allows even more music to come through.
TW Acustic Raven GT SE ($14,000 USD)
TW Acustic turntables are far from inexpensive, and yet they seem to provide far more thrills than we would expect at their respective price points. The Raven GT SE features a plinth that’s machined from a single aluminum billet, and that gives this analog rig extra weight, heft and authority. The platter, feet and motor controller are borrowed from their flagship ‘table, making this an even greater value.
VPI HW-40 ($15,000 USD)
The HW-40, which celebrates the 40th anniversary of VPI, is very similar to the awesome $30K direct-drive DD model that impressed everyone a few years ago. This new model is offered at half the price, a result of buying parts in bulk and learning a few tricks along the way. Plus, you get the latest version of the new Fat Boy tonearm included in the newly reduced price. Despite all this talk about “discounts,” this is a first-class turntable and is capable of a sound that few analog rigs can capture.
AMG Viella V12 ($17,500 USD)
When we asked the owner of a million-dollar system why he chose his AMG over any/every other ‘table in the world, he simply replied “It’s the only one that made sense sonically.” The German-built AMG offers such a refined and beautiful sound from such a compact design—the secret to the success of this ‘table is the extraordinary attention to detail and precision engineering.
SME 30/2 ($41,900 USD)
This massive turntable is a triumph of precision engineering, borne from an English company that started off making precision aviation parts and instruments. This attention to detail results in a turntable that offers incredible pitch stability, dynamics and anything else you can think of that’s essential to the flawless spinning of a record. SME turntables and tonearms are all established designs based on decades of experience in the field. While newer “state-of-the-art” turntables come and go, the SME 30/2 has reserved its place in analog history.
The Buyers Guides of 2021
- The Best Bookshelf Speakers
- The Best Floorstanding Speakers
- The Best Turntables
- The Best Phono Preamplifiers
- The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges
- The Best Reel-to-Reel and Cassette
- The Best DACs, Servers, Streamers, and Disc Spinners
- The Best Preamplifiers
- The Best Amplifiers
- The Best Integrated Amplifiers
- The Best Headphones, IEMs, and Headphone Amplifiers
- The Best Cable, Power, and Racks
- The Best Audio Accessories, Tweaks, and Voodoo
Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.