In just the first half of 2020, there was $232.1 million in vinyl LP and EP sales in the US, far exceeding the total revenue for CD sales during the same time. Vinyl records have had such a resurgence, in fact, that brands like Vinyl Me, Please now offer record of the month subscription services, you can buy your own personalized LP and there’s even an annual Record Store Day when limited-edition vinyl releases can be purchased from local shops. Heck, even Barnes & Noble sells records.
But why the popularity in 2021? Well, for starters, manually playing a record can be an extremely satisfying and intimate experience — a feeling that hasn’t changed in a century. It lends itself to being more engaged with the music and listening to albums in their entirety as opposed to skipping around tracks. And many audiophiles will argue that you’ll get a fuller sound from playing an album on vinyl versus digitally, perhaps even hearing more instruments, tones or other minute details that sometimes get lost in compressed formats (though this is hotly debated). Finally, there are surface-level reasons for wanting to own a record player as well: It’s fun to go record shopping and find hidden gems in dusty bins, build up a collection and show it all off as a unique centerpiece in your home.
Because record players are arguably the most nuanced of any stereo component, high-end ones easily sell for multiple thousands of dollars. However, we tested several entry-level models all under $300 that are ideal for total vinyl beginners looking to buy their first record player or those looking to buy a gift for the audiophile in their life. It’s important to note that not only will cheap $50 systems never sound good, but they could also even damage your records, so in the long run it’s worth it to spend a little more even on a “beginner” turntable.
After weeks of testing, this is our favorite entry-level record player:
Best entry-level record player: Fluance RT82 ($299.91; amazon.com)
All right, before we get into the nitty-gritty of the specs of this record player, let’s get one thing out of the way up front: This is one sexy machine. Sure, we could have said “sleek” or “sophisticated-looking” or even “lustrous” — and it’s all of those things, too — but whenever we returned the Fluance RT82 to our shelf for further testing, we couldn’t help but think, Dang, this is one sexy machine. Its solid medium-density fibreboard plinth, aka base, with high-gloss Piano Black finish looks modern and clean without drawing too much attention to itself.
While its unique S-shaped tonearm (the movable arm that allows the needle to follow the grooves of the record) adds texture and movement to its overall aesthetic, the rest is kept very simple: a motor pulley in the top left corner and a knob for switching between speeds in the bottom left corner. Combined, its simplicity and sheen completely had our attention before we put needle to vinyl. Even our photographer, upon seeing it for the first time, asked, “Is this the winner? Because it looks like a winner.”
It certainly does, and it certainly is, but as we know, looks aren’t everything. In fact, design accounted for a very small percentage of our overall rating for each record player — 5%, to be exact. (More on that below.) So how did the Fluance RT82 beat out the competition? Let’s talk about the most obvious way first: sound.
What the Fluance lacks in connectivity (it doesn’t feature Bluetooth technology and lacks a built-in preamplifier, aspects a handful of the other players in our testing pool boast) it makes up for in pure high-fidelity analog sound. After connecting its included gold-plated RCA cable into our Sony receiver (which itself has a preamp and is connected to two Sony bookshelf speakers — see How We Tested below for more about the setup), then playing a record, we were treated to a robust soundstage that blended low, mid and high tones beautifully, with solid bass to boot.
On Danger Doom’s “The Mouse and the Mask,” the Fluance delivered a full-bodied bass without drowning out the low tones of MF Doom’s raps; throughout Taylor’s Swift’s “Folklore,” the singer’s midrange vocals came through crisply and clearly but never overshadowed the quieter pianos, strings and horns; and despite the busyness of guitars, strings and Jeff Lynne’s falsetto vocals on ELO’s “Livin’ Thing,” we heard the distant dings of a cowbell come through for the first time in our listening history (and we’ve listened to a lot of ELO).
So what’s to credit for this exquisite sound? For starters, there’s the top-of-the-line cartridge, which houses the stylus (or needle) and converts the information in the record grooves into a signal that becomes the music you hear out of the speakers. The one included with the Fluance is the Ortofon OM 10 ($79.99; amazon.com), which boasts a low-mass design and elliptical diamond stylus. Straight out of the box, you’re getting a high-quality cartridge — particularly when compared to the others we tested — that shouldn’t need to be upgraded or changed for some time. Then there’s the player’s overall build. Its sturdy wooden plinth, adjustable resonance damping feet and aluminum platter and accompanying rubber mat work in tandem to help prevent vibrations from the nearby speakers and foot traffic from affecting the sound that comes through. Many of the other players came with a felt mat or no mat at all, which allowed more vibration to alter the sound (not to mention having no mat on the platter at all can even damage your records). The cheaper plastic builds of some of the other turntables’ platters and plinths also contributed to their poor vibration handling.
The Fluance even comes with a small bubble level so you can adjust its feet, which can be raised and lowered to isolate from unwanted micro-vibrations, and ensure the player is completely flat, perfect for not-all-that-straight apartment floors or slightly off-kilter shelving units. What you lose with just a few more minutes added to setup time you gain in long-term audio quality benefits — and if you want to move the player to another location in your home, or if you move homes altogether, you’ll have the security of knowing you can place this player on pretty much any surface without sacrificing sound. These high-quality touches, while adding up to a higher price tag, compose a record player that completely outshined the competition.
Setup gets a little more complicated when tackling the tonearm, as the player features a counterweight and an anti-skate dial that both need to be adjusted before you can start playing anything — but again, this extra setup time pays off in dividends in the long run, and even the layperson who’s never touched a record player will be able to complete this step in about just five to seven minutes, thanks to the easy-to-follow instructions. And what does this extra effort get you? Well, it ensures that the cartridge doesn’t rest too lightly or too heavily on your records. This is called tracking force, and by having the ability to adjust it using the counterweight, you’re not only improving sound quality, but you’re also increasing the longevity of your vinyl collection. We think that’s an extra five to seven minutes very well spent.
Regardless if the records we tested on the Fluance RT82 were old, in not-great condition or brand new, the player handled each with aplomb, with very minimal cracking/popping and superior vibration handling. Even the accuracy of its speeds outshined the competition. We tested this using the RPM Calculator app on our Pixel 4 XL, which allowed us to place our phone directly onto the platter to receive a reading of RPM (revolutions per minute). The Fluance’s speeds were just just 0.2 RPM off from being perfect, while the other players’ speeds had differences between 0.6 RPM and 1 RPM. If a record player’s RPMs are off, it can both change the pitch of playback and even make it sound as if the songs have been slowed down or sped up.
Admittedly, we did notice some intermittent cracking and popping in our early testing, but this problem got better over time; the brand recommends waiting 15 to 20 hours of playback time for the cartridge to break itself in, and based on other customer reviews of the turntable, this doesn’t seem to be a long-term issue.
Overall, Fluance is a brand that cares deeply about providing the best possible listening experience to consumers. Out of the box, you get everything you need (sans a preamp and speakers) to establish high-quality sound at a premium, including a superior (and otherwise pricey) cartridge, gold-plated RCA cables, a grounding cable and even gloves for handling your records. It also provides a two-year warranty, the longest of any player we tested.
Unlike some of its competition, the Fluance isn’t the best plug-in-and-play turntable due to its lack of preamp and Bluetooth connectivity, but those who care most about the quality of audio, who seek a soundstage that’ll make them feel like their favorite bands are in their living room and who don’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a high-end player but want something high-end-sounding (and -looking) won’t miss those features at all. In fact, their ears will be overjoyed when they put needle to vinyl using the Fluance for the first time.
Record player basics
- Preamplifier (preamp): an electronic amplifier that amplifies weak, low-level signals to line level (i.e., the standard level of the audio signal from audio gear). Many record players and receivers have built-in preamps, but they can also be purchased separately.
- Platter: the spinning surface on which you place records when using a turntable. Platters can vary in quality, from cheap (plastic) to midrange (MDF or aluminum) to high-end (acrylic).
- Mat: mats, typically made of felt or rubber, rest on the platter to hold your records in place and keep them from getting scratched. They also help to minimize vibrations that could affect sound quality.
- Stylus: the needle attached to the cartridge that tracks the grooves of the record, often made of diamond or another gemstone.
- Tonearm: the movable arm that allows the stylus to follow the grooves of the record. There are a handful of types of tonearms, including straight, J-shaped and S-shaped, that are thought to provide different levels of resonance reduction. Tonearms can also be manual (the user has to move it onto the record themselves) or automatic (the record player lifts and places the tonearm itself).
- Cartridge: an electromechanical transducer that holds the stylus and allows you to play records on a record player.
- Cueing lever: a lever that raises and lowers the tonearm before one manually moves it over the record.
How we tested
We researched many entry-level record players and selected five top-rated options whose prices ranged between $80 and $300, the price range one should expect to pay for a decent-sounding entry-level turntable. After selecting and receiving our players, we connected each turntable via RCA cable to a Sony STR-DH190 stereo receiver ($148; amazon.com), which itself was connected via 16-gauge Rocketfish speaker cable to a pair of Sony SS-CS5 bookshelf speakers ($148, originally $219.99; amazon.com). We positioned the speakers on either side of each turntable at ear level and on different surfaces to better eliminate vibration interference. For turntables that offered Bluetooth connectivity, we also took into account how well they paired and sounded with our receiver via Bluetooth as well as the Bose Home Speaker 300 ($199, originally $259; amazon.com).
We played a number of records, ranging from much older and in less-than-great condition to brand-new and never before played, to test how each player handled cracks/pops and tracking regardless of each record’s condition. We also played a variety of genres to determine how each turntable balanced (or didn’t balance) low, mid and high tones as well as bass. Records we tested over many weeks included “The Mouse and the Mask” by Danger Doom, “Modern Vampires of the City” by Vampire Weekend, “Folklore” by Taylor Swift, “Skeletal Lamping” by Of Montreal, “ELO’s Greatest Hits” by ELO, “Best of Styx” by Styx, “Sheer Heart Attack” by Queen and “We Have to Go Back: The Lost Concert” by Michael Giacchino, among several others.
In addition to overall sound quality, we paid attention to each player’s build, evaluating the quality of materials used to construct their plinths, styli, tonearms and platters; the number of speeds each turntable was able to play and how accurate each speed was; what was included in the box, from necessary cables to extras that enhanced our setup experience; the overall design of each player; and additional factors including warranty length, number of ports and price.
Here’s exactly how we broke down each category and subcategory:
- Durability and quality: We considered the weight and quality of materials used to construct each record player. Did it feel built to last or lightweight and cheap?
- Tonearm, cartridge and stylus: For this test, we evaluated each tonearm’s shape and material as well as the quality of each cartridge and stylus. We also positioned each record player in a high-traffic walking area to test tracking, skipping and skating when moving around our home. Finally, more points were awarded for how easily needles could be changed, if arms moved automatically versus manually and if the turntable included a tonearm lock.
- Design: Though admittedly subjective, we took into account the player’s overall aesthetic. Could it mesh with any household’s decor, or even elevate it? We also awarded more points for color availability.
- Extras: Did it include additional materials like a dust cover, a ground cable, an extra needle or RCA cables?
- Platter: We inspected the material of each platter and the quality of the mat (felt versus rubber), if it included one.
- Speeds: We awarded the most points to turntables that could play all three RPM (revolutions per minute) speeds — 33 RPM, 45 RPM and 78 RPM — then the second-most points to ones that played two speeds. None of the turntables we tested offered just one speed setting.
- Speed accuracy: Using RPM Calculator by PlayDevelop, the highest-rated Google Play Store app for calculating RPM, we placed a Pixel 4 XL on the platter with the machine turned on to determine the accuracy of each available speed setting.
- Overall: We listened closely to low, mid and high frequencies to ensure the overall sound was well balanced and that one single element (vocals, instruments, bass, etc.) wasn’t overpowering.
- Vibration handling: We awarded more points to turntables that better handled speaker vibration than others.
- Bass: We played bass-heavy songs to determine how deep the bass came through the speakers.
- Scratch handling: We noted how the record player handled older records. Were pops and cracks due to scratches louder and more frequent, or quieter and less frequent?
- Preamp: We noted if the turntable had a built-in preamp.
- Ports: We looked at how many ports (phono, headphone jack, analog) each turntable had.
- Wireless for audio: Could the turntable be connected via Bluetooth, and how easy or difficult was it to connect?
- Warranty: We looked into what warranty/warranties each device came with. Warranties that lasted longer or were more numerous scored better.
How we rated
- Build had a maximum of 45 points: durability and quality (10 points); tonearm, cartridge and stylus (10 points); design (5 points); extras (5 points); platter (5 points); speeds (5 points); and speed accuracy (5 points).
- Sound had a maximum of 35 points: overall (15 points), vibration handling (10 points), bass (5 points) and scratch handling (5 points).
- Connectivity had a maximum of 15 points: preamp (5 points), ports (5 points) and wireless for audio (5 points).
- Warranty had a maximum of 5 points.
Other record players we tested
Sony PS-LX310BT ($198; amazon.com)
The Sony PS-LX310BT was a close runner-up, and depending on what you’re looking to get out of a record player, it may even be the best option for you. Not only is it $100 cheaper than our winner, but it also features Bluetooth connectivity, a built-in phono preamp and even the ability to record tracks directly to your computer via USB. You could technically forgo a more complicated receiver-and-speaker setup and use just a Bluetooth speaker to play records through this turntable. We also liked that it’s fully automatic and will stop records and return the tonearm to its holder at the end of each side without you having to lift a finger. However, its sound quality fell behind the Fluance RT82’s, with vocals getting slightly drowned out by lower tones, and the player’s front buttons, tonearm and overall build felt cheaper and less sturdy. Nevertheless, this is a great entry-level record player that’s simple to set up and use, with a clean design.
Victrola The Canvas ($79.99; amazon.com)
First off, the Victrola Canvas is adorable. All of its parts rest inside a white hardshell briefcase that’s fully customizable: You can paint it, draw on it or cover it in stickers — in fact, it actually includes several ’80s-themed sticker sheets to inspire you and get you started on personalizing it. The Canvas even has a built-in speaker, so you technically don’t need any other equipment to listen to records on it — plus, it’s fully operational out of the box. Where it succeeds in ease of setup and use (and cuteness), however, it fails in build quality and sound. Its internal speakers sound muffled, scratchy and flat, and connecting the player via Bluetooth or phono didn’t do much to improve on that. And aside from its hardshell case, its internal parts felt extremely cheap and flimsy, even for its low cost. We think this would be a great option for very casual vinyl listeners or for college students who want a compact, portable player to show off in their dorm or easily take to their friend’s room down the hall. But those who care at all about sound quality should look elsewhere.
Victrola The Eastwood ($99.99; victrola.com)
Another Victrola option, The Eastwood is almost like The Canvas’ older sibling in that it’s slightly improved but suffers from many similar problems. It has a built-in speaker, which, after testing The Canvas, we didn’t expect much from but actually surprised us with how much better it sounded. In fact, for those who want the easiest pick-up-and-play turntable that doesn’t require outside speakers or receivers, this is the one for you. It was also super easy to pair to Bluetooth speakers and sounded quite good (for its price) on those as well. But this record player suffers from low-quality materials as well; we especially weren’t fond of its cheap-feeling, exposed platter, which could damage records. Records also have to slide under its dust cover, which is squarer than the LPs themselves, and accidentally closing it on the record could scratch or break it; we’d recommend leaving the dust cover off completely to avoid any potential accidents. If you’re looking for an easy-to-use turntable out of the box for under $100, though, The Eastwood is a very reasonable choice and features a fun vintage design to boot.
Audio-Technica AT-LP60X-BK ($99; amazon.com)
The Audio-Technica AT-LP60X-BK is a simple square turntable with a thin profile that’s fully automatic and perfect for smaller spaces or shelves. While it lacks some bells and whistles like Bluetooth connectivity, for its price, it does its job well and in style. There was little distortion when we connected it to our receiver setup, but we did notice that mid tones and vocals slightly overwhelmed background instrumentation, resulting in a flatter soundstage compared to the Fluance and Sony models. It also lost some points for its middle-of-the-road build and four plastic buttons on the front for changing speeds, starting, stopping and raising/lowering the tonearm — we would have preferred a cueing lever and less clutter on the front, where a very large logo is also centered. All in all, though, this might be the best value option on this list.
Read more from CNN Underscored’s hands-on testing: