Vinyl is back in a big way. For many audio purists, no sound can compare to that brilliant moment when a stylus first sits down into a gorgeous vinyl groove. And thanks to the current record renaissance, not only are there a bevy of classics available from your local record store, but new artists are also increasingly releasing their latest albums on vinyl, along with a digital download code to give you the best of both worlds — class and convenience.
If you’ve been squirreling away cash to get in the vinyl game or maybe indulge in an upgrade, there are now a ton of options that cater to both your audiophile cravings and your aesthetic sensibilities. For your convenience (and our pleasure) we’ve compiled a list of our favorite turntables on the market under $500 that will bring music to your ears (literally and figuratively), and some style to your pad.
Note: Some of these turntables include a built-in phono preamp, while others do not. A phono preamp is a device that boosts the signal from the turntable so that modern electronics can play it. While many older receivers have a phono input, many newer devices do not. Whether or not you need a preamp will depend on your receiver/amplifier and speaker setup.
It’s hard to argue with a classic. This hunk of sparkling chrome might not be as fashionable as the others on our list, but it still looks and sounds good, and at a very enticing price. Though it sports direct drive as opposed to the audiophile-preferred belt-driven system, this go-to starter turntable is rugged and reliable, and also hosts plenty of features like a selectable internal pre-amp so you won’t necessarily need a phono input, a USB output to capture your vinyl in digital form, and three speeds to handle virtually anything in your collection.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon ($399)
We can actually feel you picturing this beauty in your listening room, trying to decide if you should go with a flashy color from its seven available choices, or perhaps something more resigned. Luckily, with a table this cool, there’s no wrong answer. Designed to set new standards in the affordable audiophile category, this belt-driven table boasts a carbon tube tonearm to reduce unwanted resonance, a quiet-run DC power supply, and a weightier platter to hold your records more securely and rock out optimal sound. One caveat — there’s no dust cover on board for many of our choices, so you’ll have to clean those records diligently to keep your stylus sterling.
Rega RP1 Turntable ($435)
Sometimes the simplest things really are the most beautiful, and it’s hard to argue against the concise elegance of the RP1. This unit gets high marks for reproducing stellar sound on a budget, and boasts unique features such as a manual speed change system that eliminates wear on the belt drive, a hand assembled tonearm, and a low vibration motor that promises to outperform its price tag.
Want to know what a belt drive looks like? Our second piece from Pro-Ject, this minimalist hunk of awesome wears its belt on the outside, so you (and those you’re looking to impress) can watch the action first hand. And if you’re still not convinced, the entry-level Elemental tackles function just as well as form, with sleek features like a DC power supply for ultra-quiet running, gold-plated RCA contacts and cartridge pins, a built-in preamp, and yes, USB output to take your collection digital. Basically, it’s a little slice of hipster heaven.
Sony PS-HX500 ($398)
Those with the rarest stacks of wax will love the Sony PS-HX500 for its preservation abilities. Though it has the chops to playback your favorite records with brilliant clarity and warmth, it’s specifically designed for those who also want to digitize their rarest analog music in high resolution. Paired with a special high-fidelity recording app, the player utilizes a high-quality Texas Instruments DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that transfers at a bare-minimum of 16-bit, CD quality resolution. From there, the sky is virtually the limit in terms of conversion: Sony’s deck can transfer files up to 5.6MHz DSD — the highest quality of any USB turntable of its kind. It should be noted that the PS-HZ500 retails at $600, but it can routinely be found online under the $500 mark. The price is on the high side, but if you want to preserve your vinyl for the coming virtual age, this turntable is the way to go.
U-Turn Orbit Plus ($379)
U-Turn’s Orbit Plus is designed with one thing in mind: superb audio at an affordable cost. This turntable certainly achieves its goal, though it had to make some sacrifices along the way. The table’s construction is solid, with an MDF plinth and acrylic platter. The first thing some may note about this turntable is that it is incredibly basic. There’s no built-in preamp, no USB connection, and no automatic function. There’s no cue lever either, so users will have to manually set the needle, as well as manually adjust the belt to switch between 33 and 45 RPM speed settings. All of this may be daunting for new vinyl users, but those who can accept that will find a sturdy turntable that runs quietly and sounds great. While the basic model only costs $179, splurging for the Orbit Plus is recommended. The Plus comes with a Grado Black cartridge, which is a huge step up from the AT91B that comes with the basic package.
Are you sensing a minimalist theme here? Considering the simplicity of a turntable’s essential operation, it’s a fitting aesthetic. And besides, the MMF 2.2’s high-gloss lacquer finish makes minimalism look good. The belt-driven player comes in black, white, or Ferrari red, and also piles on a host of performance options to accentuate the sound of your collection. Those include a single piece alloy tonearm for “superb tracking ability,” stainless steel and bronze bearing assembly, and an alloy record platter for stable playback.
Teac TN-300 ($249+)
If we’re judging purely on aesthetics, the TN-300’s glossy finish — particularly in cherry red — might just make it the best turntable on this list. Thankfully, it is much more than an attractive desk ornament. This turntable from Teac has a surprisingly wide soundstage for its price range. Bass is hefty and the midrange is decently bright, though the highs can strain a bit. The TN-300 also comes with the features modern record collectors crave, including USB output and a built-in preamp.
Fluance RT81 ($200-250)
Proof that a low price point is no excuse for shoddy construction, the Fluance RT81 benefits from a sturdy body and a stunning walnut grain finish. A thick rubber mat also bolsters the belt-driven aluminum platter, outfitting the RT81 with that belies its price tag. Of course, a turntable — no matter how beautiful it looks — is only as good as its sound, and the RT81 does not disappoint. Equipped with an AT95E cartridge, this turntable produces clear highs and thick bass that’s free of the harsh distortion that often plagues cheaper turntables. The RT81 also comes with a built-in preamp, for those without a phono input.
House of Marley Stir It Up ($199)
Designed and marketed by Bob Marley’s son Rohan, this turntable brings earth-conscious design to the entry-level segment. Almost entirely composed of recycled or sustainably sourced materials, The Stir It Up is great for a first-time buyer thanks to its intuitive, one-knob design. Belt-driven and featuring an aluminum platter, an Audio Technica needle, and a built-in phono preamp, it’s very well-constructed for the money, and it sounds great too. Plus, vinyl lovers who don’t own a nice system will also appreciate the front-facing 3.5 mm headphone jack. That’s the other great thing about the Stir It Up: It’s a great foundation for your growing system. You can start with a good pair of headphones, then buy some decent speakers and an integrated amp, and eventually graduate to an outboard phono preamp and a new stylus and cartridge. In the meantime, this player looks and sounds great right out of the box.