The Best Turntables Under $500

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We are often asked the question, “I’m just getting into vinyl, what turntable should I get?”

The good news is that there are a multitude of companies today turning out excellent beginner, audiophile-quality turntables that won’t break the bank.  Of course you can pick up a lot of great vintage turntables as well, but there’s a certain piece of mind that comes with buying new, thus the list below.

Below are 5 of the best turntables that we recommend for the vinyl enthusiast, any of which would be a very solid foundation to one’s hi-fi system.  Each of them feature high-quality materials, solid tonearms & cartridges and the majority offer a wide range of upgrades should you want to pimp your ride.

NOTE: Something to consider is that none of these have built-in phono preamps so you will need to buy one separately.  We’ve had good luck with the TCC TC-750 ($48).

The list….

Pro-Ject Essential II $299

It has been almost twenty years since Pro-Ject launched the Debut line of turntables and they should be celebrated for almost single handedly keeping the idea of buying a new budget turntable alive. Over the years, the Debut range has climbed in price and become an altogether more sophisticated piece of engineering. This in turn means that the price of the models has increased and left a gap at the bottom. Pro-Ject has come up with the minimalist Elemental for very tight budgets but has carefully re-engineered the basics of Debut to build a turntable that follows the same pattern as the Debut but costs less.

To this end, the Essential II is simple but effective. The platter is MDF rather than Acrylic and the belt is applied directly to the outer edge rather than a sub platter. The arm is the older metal type from the Debut rather than the carbon fibre one used now and the cartridge is an Ortofon OM5 rather than the more expensive 2M models but the basics are all there. Furthermore, the Essential manages to sound good. There is a cohesiveness to the performance that allows the record to be the centre of attention rather than any failings of the turntable.

The basic Essential does without a phono stage built in but you can buy one for an extra $100 that is fitted with one and a analogue to digital converter that allows you to rip vinyl to your computer via USB. Unlike the baby Elemental deck, the Essential II has some scope for upgrades as well including some official Pro-Ject ones like an acrylic platter. This is one of the most affordable new decks that really shows what vinyl can do and it is well worth seeking out.

U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus ($299)

“With the Orbit Basic turntable, U-Turn Audio has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams; their very first attempt is a knockout!” - Steve Guttenberg, CNET

Key Features: Unipivot tonearm, MM cartridge, fully manual belt-drive, two speed pulley (33/45), machined MDF plinth

After turning heads of many audio industry veterans with a whopper of a Kickstarter campaign the young Boston company found themselves slammed with thousands of orders.  They have successfully worked through the initial wave of Kickstarter customers and are now churning out high-quality turntables at a steady clip.  Their basic model ($179) is indeed a wonder at it’s price point, but we’d recommend spending the extra coin to upgrade to the Orbit Plus ($299) which features an acrylic platter and an upgraded Grado Black1 cartridge.

Denon DP-300F $329

If you are looking at the other turntables here and they all come across as bit on the minimalist side, you would do well to look at Denon’s offering in this category. The D-300F is an unusual beast in that it is a fully automatic deck capable of raising and returning the arm but fits these facilities to a turntable that is comparatively stripped back and simple. The result is a turntable that is very convenient to use but that also manages to keep the more purist designs in this list honest.

Much of this seems to be down to the arm. This has been designed for the DP-300F and is a more substantial device than you might reasonably expect to find on a deck of this nature. It is also fitted with a detachable headshell which makes swapping cartridges over a simple business. It can handle cartridges between five and ten grams in weight which should allow for pretty much any budget cart to be accommodated. It also includes a manual mode as well.

This means you get a deck that should stand a little bit of upgrading- many dealers remove the supplied cart and offer the Denon with more expensive models- but that also has a feature set that is well in advance of anything else here- automatic operation, automatic speed change and built in phono stage. The Denon should allow you to have a a degree of convenience without losing performance.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399)

“Most highly recommended. I don’t know what else comes close for $399…”– Michael Fremer, Stereophile Magazine Senior Editor

Key Features :  Carbon tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Ortofon 2M Red cartridge

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is a redesign of the manufacturer’s bestselling Debut III series, a turntable that caught many in the audiophile community by surprise with its ability to go toe-to-toe with much higher end turntables.  The Debut Carbon features an upgraded cartridge (Ortofon 2M Red vs Ortofon OM5e), and upgraded carbon fiber tonearm (lowers resonance), redesigned body and inner suspension, and removable RCA cables should you want to upgrade further.   One would be hard pressed to make a case against this being the best beginner audiophile turntable on the market.

Rega RP1 Turntable ($445)

“Perhaps best of all, the RP-1 is easy to own and to use. It’s not just that I can’t imagine $445 buying more happiness; I can’t imagine so modest an investment in money and effort buying more music.” – Art Dudley, Stereophile.com

Key Features:  RB100 tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Ortofon OM5E moving magnet cartridge

British audio company, Rega Research, has been making turntables since the 1970’s and with a well-earned reputation stemming from their higher-end offerings, it’s not surprising that they’ve managed to create such a simple and well-preforming entry-level turntable.  The RP1 is noted for its great dynamics and performance on the high-end with things like cymbal crashes or piano flourishes coming across very life-like.  The main downside noted by many users is the low-end Ortofon cartridge, but that is something that can easily be upgraded.

In the end, any of the above three turntables would be an excellent starter turntable.  Each has its fan clubs, but most would admit that the differences are quite slight.  For those with a budget under $500 the Pro-Ject, Music Hall and Rega offerings represent the most bang for your buck in terms of design, sound quality and ease-of-setup and use.

Music Hall MMF 2.2 2-Speed Audiophile Turntable ($449)

“Leave it to Music Hall to take its best-selling, Stereophile ‘Recommended’ MMF-2.1 turntable and give it an upgrade, just to make it an even better value.” – AudioAdvisor.com

Key Features:  Adjustable height tonearm, manual belt-drive operation, easy setup, Music Hall Tracker moving magnet cartridge

In almost every audiophile forum you’ll find a discussion about “Best Beginner Turntable” or “Best Turntable for Under $500”.  The same three names always come up: Pro-Ject Debut III (now Carbon), Music Hall MMF 2.2 and Rega RP1.  What makes the Music Hall stand out from the pack?  First, the Music Hall offers an adjustable tonearm, meaning you can adjust the Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) or the relative angle of the stylus to the groove (sometimes necessary when swapping cartridges).  Second, it has leveling feet that can be adjusted when dealing with uneven surfaces.  Finally, the Music Hall features a $100 Music Hall Tracker Moving-Magnet cartridge (not bad for a beginner table).  Overall, the Music Hall is a beautiful turntable that competes well in the low to mid-range audiophile category.

Audio Technica ATH-LP5 $500

While turntable sales are on the up, the choices available to you haven’t changed terribly much since a similar piece was published on the site a while back. The other four turntables in this list have been around for a while and while they differ in the details, they are all belt drive models. Direct drive has almost completely vanished from the market with the exception of more DJ oriented models.

That makes the brand new LP5 from Audio Technica very exciting. Not only is this the most hi-fi oriented deck that Audio Technica has produced in a very long time, it is built around a direct drive motor assembly. This on its own would be worthy of note but the LP5 additionally sports an all new arm that takes design features from Audio Techica’s arms made in the seventies and eighties. Like the Denon, it has a detachable headshell to make cartridge fitting easy. It is finished off by a hot rodded version of the company’s ever popular AT-95 cartridge. The AT-95x promises higher performance than the stock mode thanks to a range of detailed changes.

Of all the designs here, the Audio Technica looks like it might have the most potential to boost performance. Having spent a little time with the deck at the recent IFA show in Berlin, the build quality is exceptional for the asking price and the arm is possibly the best I’ve seen on a turntable at this price point. There is a bypassable phono stage built in and a USB output as well. This has the potential to be a real star.

This is not an exhaustive list of the models available at this price point- it omits the excellent U-Turn Audio Orbit (simply because at the moment, it isn’t available internationally) as well as models from Onkyo, Marantz, TEAC and Thorens. There is more choice at this price point in 2015 than there has been for around 20 years and this should be celebrated. If you choose your new deck with an eye to where you want to go in future, you should be able to find something that will give you years of listening pleasure.