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Carrie Marshall

What to look for in your first turntable in 2024

A girl wears headphones while lying on a couch and listening to a record.

Vinyl records are doing incredible numbers. Sales of LPs are at their highest level since the 1990s after 16 consecutive years of climbing sales, and it's no wonder why – vinyl records don't just sound good, they're wonderfully visual and tactile things too. 

As much as we love the best music streaming services, there's something about selecting a record, putting it on one of the best turntables and putting the needle on the record that's much more satisfying than clicking an icon on your phone. And you can't show off a Spotify subscription by placing it prominently on a shelf.

If you've been thinking about joining the fun but don't have a turntable, we're here to help. Whether you're a budget buyer or want to spend big bucks, here's how to find the perfect turntable for you this Record Store Day.

1. What do you want to spend?

You can spend a lot of money on a turntable. Think of a really big number and it's likely that there are turntables that cost even more than that: some high-end turntables will set you back five figures. But there are lots of very affordable options too, and our current budget pick – the Audio-Technica AT-LP60XBT – is less than $200 / £200 AU$300. 

So before you set out to read up on spec sheets, features, drive types and more, it's important to decide how much you're willing to spend. Don't forget that the records you'll be playing can be expensive too. There's no point having a brilliant turntable if you can't afford any records to play on it. As a rule of thumb, under $100 / £100 / AU$200 is where you'll find the most basic turntables; they're fine, but you may well outgrow them relatively quickly.

(Image credit: Audio-Technica )

Moving up a bracket, turntables in the $100 / £100 / AU$200 to $400 / £400 / AU$500 range are where you'll find the best entry-level models and mid-range ones too. There's lots of choice here, and lots of well-loved brands as well as interesting new manufacturers. And most importantly, the sound quality here will usually be way beyond what the sub-$100 / £100 / AU$200 models can deliver.

By all means go beyond $400 / £400 / AU$500 if you can and want to, but you're in premium territory now. The turntables in this price bracket are wonderful, but they can also be a lot more complex and you don't need to spend quite so much for your first spins.

2. What do you already have?

Do you already have an amplifier and the best wireless speakers, or are you starting from scratch? If it's the latter then you'll need to also get an amp and speakers, or consider going down the Bluetooth route instead. 

(Image credit: Pro-Ject )

Some turntables now come with Bluetooth, which enables you to stream wirelessly to hardware such as smart speakers and the best Bluetooth speakers. The sound quality isn't as good as you'll get from a decent hi-fi (although the most recent, more premium turntable models with aptX HD sound pretty fantastic) but if you're short of space, cash or both and already have good quality Bluetooth speakers it's a very convenient option. 

It's also less stuff to move if you're in accommodation such as student or shared apartments from which you're likely to relocate in the near future.

3. What do you want to play?

Turntables usually come with a choice of playback speeds: 45rpm for seven-inch records (singles, EPs and flexi-discs) and 33 and 1/3 rpm for twelve-inch albums. Twelve-inch singles play at 45rpm. The older 78rpm speed is a pretty rare option these days, but if you want to play vintage singles you may need that option too. 

If your records include some valuable ones or limited edition ones, it may be wise to avoid really cheap turntables. A good turntable requires a lot of careful engineering, especially around the tonearm. That's the long arm that holds the stylus cartridge, and which moves towards the centre as the record plays. A poor quality or badly designed tonearm or stylus can risk damaging your records. 

(Image credit: Pro-Ject)

If the tonearm is too heavy, or is weighted in such a way that it applies too much force, that can cause extra wear and tear on the records and on the stylus too. Some wear and tear is inevitable, because putting a needle on a record creates friction, but you don't want to create more wear than necessary. And if the tonearm is too light or has insufficient force applied, the stylus may skip across the grooves and cause scratches. 

The key here is what's called tracking force, which is how much downward pressure the tonearm puts on the stylus when it's in the groove of the record. Turntables that have a counterweight enable you to adjust that force, which is also really important if you change the stylus cartridge in the future: different cartridges, even from the same manufacturer, often require different tracking force settings. 

Another protective feature that tends to be missing from really cheap turntables is anti-skate. This applies a slight horizontal pressure to the tonearm; without it the tonearm really wants to skate to the centre of the record as it plays. Without anti-skate it can be harder for the turntable to minimise distortion, wear and deliver good stereo sound. Some turntables' anti-skate system is adjustable via a small knob; others are pre-set.

4. Do you want an all-in-one?

When it comes to convenience you can't beat an all-in-one that combines turntable, amp and speakers in a single unit. But what you gain in convenience you might lose in audio quality and you definitely lose in expandability: few all-in-ones have components that you can upgrade in the future, and many are made with comparatively poor quality parts that are likely to limit your audio enjoyment. 

(Image credit: Victrola)

The most flexible and future-proof system is made from separates where you can upgrade or replace your turntable, your amp or your speakers later on.

5. Do you need a phono stage?

If you'll be connecting your turntable to a hi-fi system you'll need to have what's called a phono stage either in your amplifier, in your turntable, or as a stand-alone bit of hi-fi hardware between the two. 

A phono stage amplifies the signal from your records so it's strong enough for the amplifier to do its thing and send the sound to your speakers. If you're planning to go without an amplifier and connect directly to a set of powered speakers, you'll almost certainly need a phono stage in your turntable or to add a stand-alone one. 

(Image credit: Paul Stolper Gallary)

If you're planning to only stream from a Bluetooth-enabled turntable you don't need a phono stage, as there will be one built-in to process the signal before it's sent to the Bluetooth transmitter.

Not sure whether your amplifier has a phono stage? If it has one it will have inputs labelled "phono" around the back and a matching phono option on its input selector. 

If your turntable and amplifier both have phono stages, you don't want to use both of them: that'll turn the signal up too much and make it distort. Some turntables enable you to turn off the phono stage with a simple switch, but if not you'll need to connect it to the normal analogue inputs rather than the phono ones. As much as we love distortion in music, doubling up on the phono stage delivers a very wrong kind of distortion that's really quite unpleasant.

6. Are you confident about buying second hand?

(Image credit: Cambridge Audio)

Second hand turntables can save you a lot of money, and can make previously unaffordable models affordable. There are lots of good ones out there at good prices from people who've upgraded their existing systems. 

But equally, there are lots of bad ones too. If you haven't owned a turntable before, or don't feel confident in assessing the quality of a potential second-hand buy, we'd recommend sticking with new: that way you're getting a warranty and other customer protection.

7. Do you want a belt drive or direct drive?

(Image credit: Lenco)

In order to spin the platter, turntables are either connected to it via a rubber belt – a belt drive – or directly to the platter – direct drive. Many but not all high-end turntables are direct drive.

Belt drives tend to be quieter in terms of the mechanical noise they generate but the belts will need replaced from time to time. Direct drive effectively lasts forever, but the downside is that it can produce more vibration. That vibration can be apparent with budget models that lack the advanced engineering of their more expensive direct drive rivals. 

8. Do you want your turntable to do everything?

(Image credit: Majority)

The next choice is whether you want a manual turntable or an automatic one. A manual one requires you to lower the tonearm onto the record when you want to play it and to remove it when you reach the end of the record. An automatic turntable does both of those things for you. It's like the difference between a manual (stick) car and an automatic one.

This one's really about personal preference (and price: fully automatic turntables are slightly more complex and therefore can cost a bit more), but if you can't decide then consider semi-automatic: that still requires manual operation but will lift the tonearm and stylus for you at the record's end.

9. Who you gonna call?

(Image credit: Victrola)

There is an impressive amount of turntable advice out there, much of it very good. We would of course recommend our very own guide to the best turntables, which is regularly updated with expert insight from our resident vinyl fanatics. And there are lots of great blogs as well as plenty of helpful folks on Reddit's r/turntables and r/budgetaudiophile subreddits too. 

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