If you thought that the choice of turntables available to you at the sub $500 point was comprehensive, the number of manufacturers competing for your $1,000 is bewildering. This is where high spec products from more mainstream manufacturers lock horns with the entry level offerings from more premium brands. You can buy into a wide variety of technology and design philosophy and picking five decks from the available choices is seriously hard but here is what I feel is the cream of the crop.
Why the $1400 plus starting point though? The reason for this is that if you own an entry level turntable already and you are looking to obtain a meaningful leap in performance, you really do want to wait until you can afford to guarantee a serious result for your money- upgrade not sidegrade. If you've got the burning desire to boost your vinyl playback at more terrestrial money, there are other ways of doing this but if you want to really take a step forward with the source, this is what you should be looking at.
Clearaudio Concept: From $1,400
Based in Erlangen in Germany, Clearaudio has some similarities to German car manufacturers (and, I need to stress, some clear differences as well- Clearaudio has never covered up an environmental disaster for one). Their equipment is beautifully made, technologically advanced and handsome in a Germanic sort of way. The Concept is their entry level model but it is still a very serious piece of analogue.
To this end, the Concept is built around the use of composite layers of different materials to ensure that the deck has no single resonant point and is impressively free of vibration. The patter is made of the snappily titled Polyoxymethylene which is also almost entirely resonance free. The motor is a DC powered device with electronic speed control (including the ability to play 78rpm records). The deck is finished with an arm that makes use of Clearaudio's speciality- a frictionless and contactless magnetic bearing that gives the arm exceptionally consistent action with almost no sonic characteristics of its own.
The Clearaudio looks and feels like a piece of high end equipment, The fit and finish is absolutely top notch and the Concept is also extremely easy to use but above all these things, it is a tremendously accurate and refined performer. The Concept will let you know everything that is on the record but does this without tearing poorer recordings to shreds. Like the Rega, it can be fitted with a Clearaudio cartridge from the family but unlike the Rega, this is an option that is worth taking up as Clearaudio arms usually give their best work when matched with the company's own cartridges.
VPI Scout Junior: From $1,500
Based out of Cliffwood New Jersey, VPI has a set of design philosophies that have resulted in striking looking decks that can deliver startling sound for the money. The company is most famous for their JWM tonearms that do without bearings altogether and balance the arm on the head of a pin. While extremely effective, this can make them a little intimidating to use for the unwary. As a result, in recent years the company has also turned its attention to making some more affordable models that can deliver the VPI sound in a slightly more conventional package.
The Scout Junior is an unsuspended plinth deck that uses a variation on the arm principle where the vertical axis is free but the horizontal is on a captured bearing. The result is an arm that is a great deal easier to live with but that still has some of the open and spacious sound traits of a true unipivot. The motor is also built in a separate enclosure that reduces vibration and feedback to the heavy duty main bearing which supports a one inch thick steel platter.
VPI decks engender a fanatical loyalty amongst their owners and some time with the Junior will demonstrate why. There is a combination of force and delicacy to the Junior that is quite unlike most other decks. Fine detail is beautifully rendered but it is underpinned by a bass response and sense of propulsive force that is hugely entertaining. The Junior is more minimal than some of the decks on this list- it has no lid for starters- but it is built like a tank and it ships with an Ortofon 2M Red as standard- although the deck can see the benefit of considerably more expensive models if you want.
Rega RP6: From $1,500
One of the more confusing aspects of audio equipment is that the further up the pricing ladder you go, the less in the way of facilities that a piece of equipment seems to have. While the bulk of affordable turntables are fitted with lids and covers, this is not a given at these higher price points. The Rega RP6 might be best seen as high performance design that still keeps some of the niceties of real world turntables.
This means that the RP6 has a visible similarity to the baby RP1 that gets our recommendation as a sub $500 design. It is an unsuspended, belt driven turntable with the motor and arm-mount attached to the same plinth. This plinth is then covered by a lid supplied as standard. There are some considerable differences though. The RP6 has a glass platter, high quality arm and an external PSU with electronic speed control.
What this means is that the RP6 is no harder to live with a budget deck but delivers a different level of performance. Pitch stability is rock solid and the Rega has the sense of life and drive that characterises the brand's turntables. For $1,500, the deck is not fitted with a cartridge but you can specify a Rega cartridge fitted from the factory. My advice however would be not to bother and to choose an aftermarket one from companies like Nagaoka or Dynavector who make some excellent designs that fit the RP6 perfectly and really deliver what the deck can do.
Avid Ingenium: From $2,000
Avid is a slightly unusual organisation in that it didn't begin commercial production of turntables until the turn of the century (you know, the point where vinyl was 'dead') and it took a different development path to most rivals. Avid models start with the flagship and work downward taking the smallest possible amount of performance away from the flagship to reach a given performance point.
This means that the Avid Ingenium is the result of carefully paring away the parts of a $20,000 Acutus until it can be sold for a tenth of that price. Although it looks different, it holds to many common principles- a three point 'skeleton' design that dissipates energy away from the main bearing. The chassis is a two piece cruciform that mounts the bearing and arm on the same axis (meaning that the arm 'toes in' to achieve the correct alignment). As the main part of the chassis is a straight line, the Ingenium can be ordered to fit a twelve inch arm or indeed extended in both directions to support two arms. I use an Ingenium in this configuration for review work.
The result is an incredibly minimalist piece of engineering that works absolutely brilliantly. The Avid is the deck you go to when you don't want a 'bright', 'warm', 'fast' -or indeed any such adjective- turntable but instead want to hear exactly what is on the record with nothing added or taken away. It is a device for getting to the music rather than something that puts its own spin on things (no pun intended). The $2,000 price includes a Pro-Ject 9cc arm which is a great partner but Ingeniums can be ordered with different cutouts to suit different arms. If you can stretch to ordering yours able to accept an SME arm, you will have turntable that is likely to last forever while delivering sensational performance.
Michell Gyrodec SE: From $2,500
It is a relatively well known piece of trivia that Steve Jobs was something of an audiophile and there is an often reproduced photograph of him sat in a room with no furniture (a state he apparently lived for some years) but a hifi system in the background. The turntable that fronted the system was an early version of the Michell Gyrodec. Fast forward to 2015 and the Gyrodec is still with us and it still sounds absolutely fantastic.
The Michell is a different proposition to the other decks in this list. It is built around a suspension system of coil springs that suspend the platter and arm away from the vibration of the outside world. The striking looking platter uses brass weights to add mass and this results in the striking appearance- perhaps not too surprising given that John Michell who designed it also built the Discovery space ship model for Stanley Kubrick's 2001- A Space Odyssey. The design is simple and extremely elegant. The 'SE' version is the version without a lid while the 'Gyrodec' is the original version in a large perspex container.
It is also a mighty sounding deck. The Gyrodec will work with almost any nine inch tonearm on the market and the sound has a power, space and sheer presence that is utterly wonderful to experience. There has long been talk of a 'British School' of sound to electronics from the UK and the Gyrodec is a good example of this. This is a turntable that is able to find that tempo and bassline to anything and get you nodding along to it. The Michell a rare beast in that it manages to look spectacular at the same time as it delivers exceptional sonic performance and even after thirty five years, it can still cut it with more modern competition.
None of these decks is cheap and you might well never feel the need to spend anything like the sum of money that they cost to play records. To put that price in context however, these decks are different to almost any other piece of electronics you can buy. All of them are designed to last indefinitely with a degree of maintenance and could easily be the last turntable you ever need to buy- something you'd struggle to replicate in almost any other product category. Furthermore, if you are looking to upgrade, I stand by the observation that the best way to avoid that nagging feeling of buyer's remorse is to actually make a big jump that can really take your vinyl playback up to new heights. Once you have spent out on these models, they are able to reap the benefits of cartridge and phono stage upgrades that will unlock further performance and they can satisfy in a way that few other devices can.