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Best turntables under $300 – CNET

The time is right to get into budget hi-fi. From amazing, cheap speakers to high quality turntables, it's never been more affordable to get a great-sounding system for vinyl. 

One of the first questions to ask is much to spend on a turntable. Name a price from $40 or up and there's no doubt you'll find a record player to fit your budget. For example, the Audio Technica LP60 (read the CNET review) is a great little turntable for $100 (roughly £75, AU$140). But there are even better choices out there.  

I've chosen $300 as the sweet spot because it opens up the options. These models are no longer simple toys but approach real hi-fi. They offer elevated build quality and high-quality components. With analog music -- the fact that you'll be constantly removing records, moving the tonearm and spinning up an actual motor -- it's worth spending a bit more for something that will last.

Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of products featured on this page.

Here are the five turntables I chose, followed by a longer explanation of the strengths and best use cases for each:

Best turntables under $300

I also considered 'tables from the bigger electronics manufacturers -- Sony, Denon, Yamaha -- but didn't find any below $300 that best the quality of the ones above.

Each of the five of the models I tested has at last something to recommend it, but a couple stood above the rest with solid builds, user-friendly features and excellent sound quality. Let's dive in.

The winners

Best overall under $300: Fluance RT82

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Fluance RT82 offers everything you could want except an onboard preamp, so if you have a receiver or amplifier with a dedicated phono input, this is the model to get.

I was mightily impressed by the well thought-out inclusions with the Fluance. Auto-start on/off, adjustable feet and even a little bubble-level were designed with the user in mind.

The Fluance RT82 had one of the most entertaining sounds of the bunch, with plenty of insight into recordings as well as a healthy bass kick.

See at Fluance

Best minimalist alternative: Pro-Ject Primary ($250)

Best turntables under $300     - CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

I expected the Pro-Ject to perform towards the bottom of the roster: it's the cheapest, the lightest and it has an unusual wooden platter. According to hi-fi folklore "heavier" is supposed to equal "better," so I found it surprising that the Pro-Ject was one of the best sounding. It was also one of the easiest to set up. Most of the work was done in the factory -- I just had to attach the belt.

If you can handle its barebones aesthetic and want to save a little money on the Fluance, the Pro-Ject Primary is an excellent choice. You can also upgrade to the version with the phono preamp for $299, which would make the Pro-Ject even more foolproof. 

See at Pro-Ject

The best of the rest

Best plug and play: Music Hall MMF-1.3

Best turntables under $300     - CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

Arriving in the middle of the pack in terms of both build and sound quality, the Music Hall is a solid turntable at a good price. It had an even-handed response with all types of music but wasn't as engaging as the Pro-Ject and Fluance tables.

If you're looking to plug a turntable straight into any receiver (that is, one that lacks a phono preamp) then this is the model we'd opt for.

See at Amazon

Best design: Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN

Best turntables under $300     - CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

With its carbon-fiber arm and natural wood veneer plinth, the Audio Technica was my favorite design, but a mixed bag in terms of sound quality. The table was the boomiest sounding model when plugged into the same phono preamp as the others. When I tested its own preamp it was much less bassy, though also less exciting, and this was presumably due to a better match with the cartridge. 

Though the Music Hall's onboard preamp sounded better, the Audio Technica could be the one to get if you want an all-in-one package that also looks great.

See at B&H

Best for newbies: U-Turn Orbit Plus

Best turntables under $300     - CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no denying the U-Turn Orbit Plus looked striking with its red plinth and acrylic platter. I also appreciate that the tonearm has been upgraded from the original Orbit with a new gimbal bearing. While it's better sounding than I remember from the original, the U-Turn couldn't compete with the sound of the others. It sounded truncated with a lack of extended high frequencies, and on the hardware side the lack of a cue lever felt like a glaring omission. Note that you can also get this model with a built-in preamp for $70 more.

See at U-Turn

Best under $100: Audio Technica AT-LP60

Best turntables under $300     - CNET
Sarah Tew

If you're just starting out in vinyl, or looking for a turntable to give as a gift, the inexpensive Audio Technica AT-LP60 is a good option. While I didn't test it directly against the other five, I have listened to it previously. Even with speakers such as the Bowers & Wilkins 606, the LP60 was able to give a convincing and musical performance.

See at Amazon Read CNET's review

What does $300 buy you?

Above anything else, sound quality is the main reason to upgrade to a better turntable. Compared to an all-in-one design by the likes of Victrola or Crosley, the lack of integrated speakers means the designers can concentrate on things like better motors and upgraded tone-arms. These are hi-fi components that can stand alongside systems worth many thousands of dollars in a way that a $100 turntable can't.

There are four main elements to a turntable: the plinth or base, the platter on which the record sits, the motor and the arm. Both external and internal noise can affect sound quality and the idea is to ensure that vibration doesn't travel from one to the other of these components.

All five $300-ish turntables offer a belt-drive design which helps isolate the rumble of the motor from the pickup or stylus. They also include either a removable headshell or at least a replaceable cartridge should you want to experiment with a higher-quality cartridge such as an Ortofon 2M Red. 

Some of the turntables other upgrade options such as an acrylic plinth which not only looks nicer but may offer a sound quality upgrade too.

It's worth noting that all of the models I tested had a dust cover, but I used (and photographed) them with the lid off. They both look and sound better that way.

While every other aspect of a turntable is damped, the dust cover usually is not. It's a simple piece of plastic designed to keep dust off your records while they're not playing, and can reverberate and cause feedback if left attached and the volume is up loud enough.

Best turntables under $300     - CNET

The Audio-Technica offers a carbon fiber toneearm.

Sarah Tew/CNET

How I tested

All of these turntables offer a phono-level output -- an unamplified signal which needs RIAA equalization. I plugged them into the phono input on our reference Rotel RA1592 amplifier powering a pair of Q Acoustics 3050i tower speakers.

For receivers and amps that lack phono input, you'll need a phono preamp. Our own Audiophiliac recommends the $100 Schiit Mani as a quality budget option.

Two of the models offered a switchable line level output -- the Music Hall MMF-1.3 and the Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN -- and this is handy if you don't have or don't want an external preamp. You can plug these models into anything that accepts RCA inputs. I also plugged these two directly into the amplifier and compared them against each other.

It's worth noting that only two of the five are available outside North America: the Audio Technica AT-LPW40WN and the Pro-Ject Primary. Between the two I recommend the Pro-Ject.

I listened to four different artists -- Bob Marley, Slint, LCD Soundsystem and Miles Davis -- on each turntable and compared notes. I listened for bass response (was it boomy, or clean?), mid-range detail (low-level instruments and echo effects) and high-frequencies (were they recessed or even too loud?). Skip to the appendix at the end to get a deep dive on how the turntables fared with each song.

Which one should you buy? 

The Fluance is the over-achiever of the bunch with its polished looks, useful features and involving sound, but the only ones that fall far behind are the Audio-Technica and the U-Turn -- their sound quality can't match the other three. 

If you're looking for a more familiar name brand, you'll need to pay a little more. The Denon 300F is well-regarded at $329, the Sony PSH-X500 offers hi-res USB ripping for $399 and audiophile favorite the Rega Planar 1 can be had for $450. But it's arguable whether they would be able to offer sound quality that's markedly better than the Fluance or Pro-Ject -- a test for another day perhaps. In the meantime, happy listening!

Full sound quality notes

If you want to get a greater insight into the performance of each model, here are the notes I took for myself while listening to each turntable with five different songs.

Bob Marley's Revolution

This is the first track I tried on all the turntables. The Fluance offered a warm sound with this track with fine control over the deep bass line.

The Pro-Ject was natural sounding, with a just a smidgeon of bass bloom but the turntable made the instrument sound like a live bass guitar.

This track was my first signal of the Audio Technica's shortcomings. The bass was simply out of control, boomy and unpleasant. However, the midrange offered a good sense of space.

The Music Hall had fuller, less "one note" bass than the Audio Technica. The 'table offered more midrange information than some of the others but this also combined with more surface noise.

Vocals were more forward on the U-Turn, which suggested improved detail but also meant the turntable turned up more surface noise. The bass guitar was deep and relatively supple, but at the opposite end of the spectrum the cymbals sounded clipped, as if it couldn't recreate the high frequency (10kHz and over) information at all.

Slint's Breadcrumb Trail

Compared with the other 'tables the Fluance was better at organizing the sparse scattering of instruments into the space between the speakers. The bass lacked the bloat I heard with the Audio Technica.

The Pro-Ject offered a similar sense of space to the Fluance. However it wasn't able to pick up as much of the narrator's story -- it sounded a little veiled. The track also highlighted some uneven speed issues in the drive; long notes wavered a little.

The Music Hall offered good speed stability but lacked the drama of the leaders. There was lots of high-frequency on display but it wasn't sharp or strident.

The Audio Technica's issues with bass continued with this song's prominent bass. Low end notes stuck out in a way I hadn't heard before.

The U-Turn turned that abundant high frequency energy into something splashy, but detail retrieval was good. Like the Pro-Ject there was some speed-related waver with the long guitar notes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

LCD Soundsystem's Daft Punk Is Playing at my House

The Fluance turned in an enjoyable, toe-tapping performance, with only a shade too much high hat. If you're looking for something a little more even-handed the Pro-Ject sounded balanced and prompted a singalong from yours truly. The Music Hall was also balanced with this song.

The Audio Technica offered up bloated bass notes and lots of noise between tracks.

This song was the one that painted the U-Turn in its best light -- while there was some faint bass bloat the vocals were forward of the mix and the cymbals sounded natural for a change. Maybe this is the turntable for dance-rock fans?

Miles Davis' So What?

The Fluance could get a little bloomy on bass with more midrange forwardness, but less brightness on ride. It sounded a lot like what I'd heard at the Sony mastering studio previously.

This time it was the Pro-Ject's time to shine as the sound was excellent from top to bottom. The ride cymbal was a little bright but the sax felt like it was in the room.

Again the Music Hall put in a good performance, and the bass sounded balanced with an excellent sense of the performance room. It was a very clean presentation with lots of spatial information on the sax especially.

The Audio Technica and U-Turn both exposed more surface noise on this recording.

Bob Marley's Revolution take 2 (phono preamp models)

Lastly, I listened to the Bob Marley track again with the built-in phono preamps (line-level outputs) of the Music Hall and the Audio Technica. The Music Hall had the better preamp, with a more exciting presentation of the song but the bass threatened to become slightly bloated.

In comparison, the Audio Technica sounded much less exciting, and smaller, less impactful, but at least the bass was not as boomy as it had been through our tests.

Best turntables under $300     - CNET

Now playing: Watch this: How to set up a budget turntable


This story was originally published March 30, 2019. 

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