Not long ago, our esteemed publisher, Doug Schneider, presented me with a challenge: “I want you to revisit the five best turntables you’ve reviewed for us.”
Of the turntables I’d reviewed in the past few years I had some favorites, as well as two that, on further reflection, I can’t recommend today. So here’s the list of my top seven turntables (all prices at time of review and in USD):
7: Thorens TD 206 ($1499.99) -- This is a fine and worthy turntable, but I rate it seventh of seven for its rather high retail price and too-finicky setup. There’s no question that the Thorens TD 206 puts out a sweet sound, but other turntables do nearly as well for less money, and I can’t recommend it to anyone who’s not a dedicated, experienced turntable aficionado. That said, the TD 206 is a thing of mechanical beauty that elicits every bit of goodness from the groove.
6. U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus ($299) -- This is an exceptionally good turntable for its price. While my review sample was equipped with a Grado Black 1 Plus cartridge, production units today come with an Ortofon OM5e. My guess is that the new cartridge makes the Orbit Plus produce a bit more lively sound, but either cartridge should be a worthy partner for this turntable. A 30-day money-back guarantee and a one-year limited warranty are pluses. The only downside is that the drive belt is round and can be difficult to install.
5. Fluance RT81 ($249.99) -- The RT81 is the least-expensive model of Fluance’s line of value-priced turntables, but offers some very good features, and definitely respectable sound for the price. It’s nicely built, with a glossy wood finish, and includes both a built-in phono stage and an industry-standard Audio-Technica AT-95E cartridge. But don’t expect smooth, suave sound -- the RT81 is something of a party animal, with a largely lively, in-your-face sound. If you’re just becoming acquainted with turntables, this is one you might investigate.
4. Fluance RT85 ($499.99) -- The elder brother to the RT81, the RT85 uses the same basic platform but substitutes a heavier acrylic platter for the RT81’s aluminum, for better rotational stability, and Ortofon’s 2M Blue cartridge over Audio-Technica’s AT-95E. The RT85 also dispenses with the RT81’s built-in phono stage -- no big deal for most purchasers in this price range -- while adding an auto-stop feature. The auto-stop worked well, lifting the tonearm at the end of the side and stopping the platter. In all, the RT85 turned in excellent performance. I liked it very much.
2. (tie) Audio-Technica AT-LP7 ($799.00) -- A-T’s top turntable model is a fine representative of what they do best. It’s fully manual in operation, which can be an advantage -- fewer moving parts, less to go wrong over time. Its packaging of the fiddly bits is topnotch, which assists the setup process greatly. The very good phono stage built into the AT-LP7 can work with MM as well as low-output MC cartridges -- a plus for those who, like me, tend to keep their audio components for 20 years. The supplied cartridge, one of A-T’s new VM series, offers very clear and crisp highs, but perhaps not as much in the low end as some others. Even so, I rate this turntable very highly.
2. (tie) Music Hall Classic ($599) -- With a retro look for so thoroughly up-to-date a turntable, the Classic recalls the great Swiss turntables of the 1960s while including the latest features. Its auto-stop feature is triggered not by the position of the headshell end of the tonearm in its traversal of a record’s surface, but by the silence of the record’s lead-out groove -- here, there’s no cam triggering a gear. The built-in phono stage’s performance nearly equaled that of my Simaudio Moon 110LP v2 standalone phono preamp ($399) -- quite an accomplishment -- and is optimized for the accompanying Music Hall Spirit cartridge, an Audio-Technica AT-95E hopped up to Music Hall’s specs. The sound is similar to that of many A-T cartridges: crisp, clear midrange and highs, and solid if not overly fulsome bass. An attractive turntable that, at this price, can’t be beat.
1. MoFi Electronics StudioDeck+ ($1349) -- The MoFi is priced near the top of my Group of Seven, but in my system it proved itself very much worth it. MoFi Electronics is the hardware side of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, which, since 1977, has produced some of the best-sounding vinyl reissues on earth. Setup was fairly simple, thanks to great packaging, good instructions, and helpful aids along the way. Like three of the other turntables listed here, the StudioDeck+ has no phono stage (for that, I recommend Simaudio’s Moon 110LP v2). Speeds were dead on, wow and flutter nonexistent. The lack of background noise from the turntable amazed me, and the frequency range I got from many of my records surpassed what I’ve heard from those same discs played on any other turntable.
There are no real duds in this group. I reviewed two other turntables, both for SoundStage! Access, that I don’t recommend, largely due to the heavy vertical tracking force (VTF) each requires: the Crosley C6 ($169.95) and the Onkyo CP-1050 ($499, discontinued). Both produced reasonable sound with other cartridges that tracked at a VTF of between 2.0gm (Onkyo) and 2.5gm (Crosley), which will go a long way to preserving your vinyl over time.
There you have them -- my favorite turntables of the last few years, with, I hope, some solid recommendations for you to explore if you’re looking to get into vinyl, or to replace or upgrade an older turntable that has reached the end of its life.
. . . Thom Moon