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Vinyl has seen a resurgence in popularity the past few decades; according to statista, vinyl album sales in the United States have grown for fourteen consecutive years. Audio brands have met that demand with a range of modern turntables in a variety of styles and price points.
In fact, vinyl lovers choosing their first turntable will find that even high end audio brands offer entry-level turntables, with must-have features like a high-quality cartridge and tonearm, solid plinth, and high-quality feet.
When buying a beginner turntable, you should focus on finding a well-constructed model with a solid plinth and high-quality feet. A high-quality cartridge and tonearm are also critical to high performance and quality sound.
Depending on how you intend to use your turntable, you may also want to consider features like a built-in phono preamp and Bluetooth capability for streaming.
Phono cartridges amplify and stabilize sound, and their quality is one of the biggest factors in your turntable’s sonic performance. They are available in a range of body constructions and materials that create a variance in sound. You can use your existing phono cartridge on your turntable or switch it out to get a new sonic performance without having to pay for an entirely new turntable.
When shopping for phono cartridges, it's important that you find a cartridge that can be correctly mounted to your tonearm. Tonearms come in two different mounting styles — a standard mount and a P-Mount. P-Mounts are not as common, so your beginner turntable will likely have a standard mount.
You will also want to be sure that you have a phono preamplifier or built-in phono stage that is compatible with the type of phono cartridge that you purchase.
Entry-level turntables typically use a moving-magnet (MM) type phono cartridge, which has a higher output than the more expensive moving coil (MC) phono cartridges.
Some MM cartridges, such as the Grado Prestige series, have user replaceable styli. This is useful, as phono cartridges are good for a finite number of hours, so it is usually more cost effective to replace the stylus than the entire cartridge. Many companies also offer trade-in/trade-up programs to make the cost of a new cartridge more replaceable, if you want to go that route.
The Concept V2 MM from Clearaudio is a good example of an entry-level moving-magnet cartridge.
MC phono cartridges are more common on higher-end turntables. They do not have replaceable styli and always have to be re-built, although there are often trade-in programs that assist with this cost.
The tone arm holds your cartridge in place and extracts the music from your record. When choosing your beginner turntable, look for a tonearm with low friction and anti-skate for the most consistent sound quality.
The plinth is your turntable’s base. A good-quality plinth will be made of solid material that holds the rest of the turntable steady. Plinths on modern turntables come in a wide variety of materials, colors, and thicknesses, giving you plenty of options when it comes to the performance and aesthetics of your turntable.
The feet of your turntable help isolate vibrations and manage the turntable’s energy. This keeps the tone arm steady and provides greater sound clarity. If possible, choose a turntable that has feet with noise isolation to create a more dimensional sound.
A turntable demands more amplification than digital sources, and the phono cartridge on your turntable also influences amplification demand. For example, a moving coil (MC) phono cartridge has lower output than a moving-magnet (MM) type, so the MC needs even more amplification.
Some turntables have a phono preamp built in, which can be attractive for an entry-level turntable user who doesn’t want to worry about additional components. If there is not one built-in, you must have either a separate phonostage or an integrated amplifier that has a phono section. Some integrated amps will only have a “linestage” which is a preamplifier for specifically line-level source components.
If you don’t have a built-in preamplifier or aren’t happy with the quality of your existing amplification, you can add a phono preamplifier. A phono preamplifier (also called a phono stage) is a dedicated separate preamplifier for your turntable. A good phono stage offers dedicated amplification for your turntable signal, and as a result, better analog sound quality.
There are other optional features you may want to consider depending on how you plan to use your entry-level turntable. For example, users who want to stream their music should look for Bluetooth capability, while users who want a digital file of their music should look for the ability to “rip” their vinyl to their computer.
There are a number of excellent beginner turntables on the market. One popular option for entry-level users is the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO Turntable, which retails for under $500. It features height-adjustable TPE-damped aluminum leveling feet, as well as built-in speed control and a 8.6” carbon fiber tonearm that decreases unwanted resonance. The turntable is available in 3 high gloss colors, 5 satin matte finishes, or real walnut veneer.
A high-quality beginner turntable starts at around $450. High-quality cartridges and phono preamplifiers begin at around $80 each.
You may also want to factor in the cost of turntable accessories for ongoing maintenance, which include cleaning fluids, various brushes, and turntable covers. Even the smallest investment in these accessories can produce a noticeable improvement in your turntable system.