Published On: August 12, 2022

Best Turntables Under $500 - ‘Round and ‘Round They Go

  • William Kanner has more than 50 years of experience writing about and marketing consumer audio and video products. He began his career as a freelance audio gear reviewer and was published in magazines such as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and AudioVideo International.

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Published On: August 12, 2022

Best Turntables Under $500 - ‘Round and ‘Round They Go

To get the most out of vinyl records, you need a good record player!

    Whether you’re just getting into vinyl, looking to upgrade an old ‘table or ready to swap grooves for digits, one of these four turntables under $500 may be your ticket.

    In theory, a turntable is one of the simpler elements in your entertainment system. It’s a device designed to revolve a platter at a specific and constant speed with as little acoustic background or “noise” as possible. And while that sounds like an easy job, some audiophiles spend thousands of dollars to spin their vinyl.

    No doubt the expenditure can be justified and, to be sure, approaching perfection in any arena is expensive. However, for many of us, looking at a turntable as part of a system that is full of compromises with space, budget and family is the way to go. In short, a turntable should be in keeping with the rest of an audio or A/V system and need not be fabulously expensive to deliver performance and enjoyment.

    A Bit of Turntable History

    Turntables have changed little over the years. At the dawn of the stereo era, the way the motor speed was transferred to the platter was “friction drive.” Mechanically, a wheel with a rubber edge was moved to contact a spinning motor shaft AND the inner surface of the platter. The off position moved the wheel away and speed was changed by moving the friction wheel to a motor shaft “shoulder,” which had a different diameter.

    While there are still friction-drive tables around today – and some very good ones – belt-drive models pretty much supplanted the friction units. In these, a belt runs from the motor spindle and around either the full platter or a smaller one on which the larger—generally 12-inch—surface is placed. Audio enthusiasts, often looking for the next big thing, found Direct Drive turntables, which became popular in the ‘70s. The motor itself was the only driver. It rotated at the set speed and in some cases was controlled by a finely tuned quartz vibration.

    The Vinyl Resurgence

    Due to the spectacular and not entirely expected resurgence of vinyl, quality turntables are broadly available to fit a relatively modest budget. These incorporate features to make them compatible with the most modern entertainment systems. They are virtually plug-and-play, saving the consumer from the most complicated set-up and adjustment tasks.

    The following is a quick hands-on survey of a quartet of turntables ranging in price from $249 to $499.99. Though their feature sets vary, all include pre-mounted cartridges, at least two speeds, and in some cases an array of features.

    Best Value

    Monolith by Monoprice Turntable with Audio-Technica AT-VM95E, Carbon Fiber Tonearm, USB, Bluetooth

    Monoprice is a company new to me. Based in California and founded in 2002, the company’s mission was to eliminate layers of supply chain markup and sell quality products to end-users at significantly reduced prices. The first Monoprice product was a 6-ft. HDMI cable it was able to sell for a fraction of what competing cables cost.

    The Monolith turntable ($249) is a belt-driven, two-speed (33/45) model. It comes with an Audio-Technica VM95E ($69 if bought separately) magnetic cartridge pre-mounted into a head shell that neatly screws onto the end of a straight line/offset carbon fiber arm. The Monolith has four output options: Phono, Line, USB, and Bluetooth. Perhaps indicative of how Monoprice expects the unit to be used, the turntable comes with a USB cable, but no RCA cable.

    Unpacking took about five minutes, plus another 35 to properly set up the ‘table. I found the suspension somewhat unforgiving. It has three suspension feet which are placed in such a way that if you make the mistake of putting something like a book or your hand on one corner, the ‘table is in danger of upending. The monolith is a fully manual unit. The stylus must be set down on the disc and removed by hand. An easy-to-operate cueing lever assures those operations can be done smoothly.

    As with all the ‘tables in this survey, power is supplied via the included step-down adapter which converts the standard house current to the 12 or so volts DC required by the turntable’s motor.

    The reason for phono and line outputs is that the unit can be easily paired with amps with and without their own phono sections. I auditioned the Monolith using the line and phono outputs and found the sound to be more than adequate, but isolation proved to be a problem. Where and how you place the turntable can make an enormous difference. If I just placed the turntable on a table nearby my system, in the Phono mode, care had to be taken when approaching the unit. In the line mode, slippers were essential. Placing the turntable on an isolated surface eliminated the problem.

    In short, the Monoprice Monolith is a durable, dependable, and economical choice, but its limitations must be considered in placement and use.

    Best for Purists

    Pro-Ject E1 with Ortofon OM 5e Manual Turntable

    This fully manual, belt-drive turntable is a very recent introduction. The Pro-Ject E1 ($349) was a snap out of the box. It took about five minutes to unpack and 15 more to set up. At first glance, the Austria-made turntable has a remarkably similar look to the Monolith. It utilizes the same three-point suspension system type and a belt drive to deliver its 33 and 45 speeds.

    One of the important differences, however, is that it comes with a pre-mounted Ortofon OM5E cartridge ($69.99 if bought separately) that easily screws into its straight tonearm. Unlike the two other belt-drive models discussed here, the Pro-Ject comes with the platter, belt and counterweight already properly installed and the arm pre-balanced (and set for 1.75g. tracking force – which is the midpoint of Ortofon’s suggested range of 1.5 to 2g.). Those conveniences cut the set-up time considerably and reduce the chance of damage in the process.

    The E1 provides a low-level output that is compatible with electronics that includes a phono input and a pre-amp to bring the signal to line level. In addition, a USB connection and included cable make the turntable ready for partnering with a computer.

    In operation, the E1 worked well. The speed selector is a toggle off the on/off switch and the arm lift effectively and gently raises and lowers the arm in this fully manual table. Again, as with all other models in this survey, if the line level is to be used, care in placement and isolation of the turntable would be a necessity in my house.

    Best Direct-Drive

    Audio-Technica AT-LP120XBT-USB

    Audio-Technica was one of the first companies to get into the low to moderate-price turntables packaged ready-to-play. A-T, best known for its phono cartridges, mounted one in a single disc spinner and was off to the races.

    The model auditioned here, ATLP120XBT ($399), is the only direct-drive unit in our quartet and the only model to provide a 78-rpm speed along with the now ubiquitous 33 and 45. Like the other three, it provides phono and line outputs and adds USB and Bluetooth connectivity. It is a fully manual model, requiring the arm to be set down and picked up by hand. Unpacking took under 10 minutes and set-up took another 30.

    The speed of platter rotation can be quartz-controlled, for precise accuracy, or can be varied by as much as +/- 10% at the push of a button releasing the quartz command and using a slider to adjust the tempo. While it’s nice to have the variability – and the ability to make Pavarotti sound like Alvin the chipmunk – it is probably most useful for 78-rpm buffs, since that speed was more of a suggestion than a standard in the early days of commercial record sales. A built-in strobe is provided along the platter’s outer rim and properly illuminated by a light plugged into the base. In the quartz position, speed was dead-on.

    The Audio-Technica RCA provides a switchable phono/line output and supplies RCA cables and also offers USB and Bluetooth. Four large, spring-mounted rubber feet provide isolation. In the phono mode, they are more than adequate, but using the line output the ‘table requires careful placement.

    The company selected its own AT-VM95E cartridge to be paired with the ‘table ($69 if bought separately) and it delivered good tracking at 2 grams. The cartridge comes pre-mounted in a headshell that easily screws into the S-shaped arm.

    The Audio-Technica ATLP120XBT provided excellent performance in the phono output mode and with the limitations noted – fully manual operation and vibration sensitivity in the line mode – was a pleasure to work with. For those of us dinosaurs still roaming and playing 78s, this turntable provides tremendous value.

    Best Semi-Automatic

    Fluance RT85 Reference

    Fluance RT85 ($499) — Fluance is a Canadian company that apparently specializes in offering audio products that punch above their weight class. I favorably reviewed a pair of their speakers for Home Theater Review in 2021.

    Unpacking the unit took about 10 minutes and set-up consumed another half an hour. At a shade under $500, the RT-85 is the top of Fluance’s turntable line. It is a two-speed (33, 45), belt-driven model featuring an S-shaped arm and comes with the Ortofon OM2 Blue (about $245 if bought separately) pre-mounted in a headshell.

    The first things you notice about the RT-85 are that the platter is a heavy, clear(ish) acrylic – requiring no additional non-slip mat – and that the belt-and-pulley mechanism is fully exposed. Isolation and leveling are achieved via the three heavy spike-type rubber feet. The included bubble level makes that check-and-adjustment easy. A knob at the top left corner of the handsome multi-layered wood base serves as both a power switch and speed selector.

    The RT-85 is the only ‘table in this quartet that provides a semi-automatic feature. With the back panel switch in the off position, the unit functions as a fully manual model. Slide the switch to on and the platter starts to revolve only when the arm is moved over the record and it will stop when the lead-out grooves are reached at the conclusion of the disc.

    On the downside, the RT-85 is also the only model in this survey that lacks a pre-amp and must be used with an outboard pre-amp amp or a receiver or amp with phono or low-level input. It does, however, have a USB out jack, although no cable is provided.

    In use, the RT-85 proved to be a winner. While the lack of a pre-amp may be a deal-breaker for some, since my system has a low-level input, it proved no obstacle for me. The overall sound was true, with the Ortofon 2M Blue providing rich sound. Speed, as measured by my strobe, was accurate for both 33 and 45 rpm.

    Turntables are back – not that they ever really left – and they’re easier to set up and use than ever.  Our current quartet is a hint of what’s out there and hopefully provides guidance on features to look for and think about. But whether you’re just getting into vinyl, looking to upgrade or ready to convert your record collection to a digital library your ’table is ready


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