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.