Best turntables: Record players to get your vinyl sounding great

·8-min read
 (Pro-Ject)
(Pro-Ject)

Five million vinyl albums were sold in the UK in 2021, with new releases from Lana Del Ray and Wolf Alice leading the way – alongside evergreen classics from Fleetwood Mac, Amy Winehouse, Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

It’s helping to keep the high street alive: there’s nothing quite like losing yourself for an hour or two, browsing the latest releases or reissues adorning the shelves of Rough Trade East, off Brick Lane, or Fopp, on the fringes of Covent Garden. With new albums typically costing £20 to £35 a pop, it’s a lucrative trade.

My preference is for second-hand vinyl (it’s cheaper and sounds better). I can recommend Mike’s Records, in Wood Street indoor market in Walthamstow, and the Flashback Records stores in Essex Road, Islington, and in Tottenham Lane, Crouch End (complete with artisan coffee bar).

But for every new convert to vinyl, or older enthusiast returning to the habits of youth, there remains the challenge: what to play them on?

Here we review some of the best budget, mid-price and high-end turntables on the market.

Pro-Ject T1

As the owner of a 10-year old budget price Pro-Ject Essential turntable - which has outlasted the Richer Sounds branch it was purchased from Spitalfields, the Pro-Ject T1 was familiar territory - albeit a step up in quality, specifically the clarity of the sound.

The turntable is a model of simplicity. The thick glass platter sits atop a gloss shiny black wooden deck. There’s no clutter; nothing to disturb the sleek, clean lines. It looks gorgeous, with a sound quality to match. It’s virtually ready to go straight out of the box.

Turning first to Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call, it separated the piano notes perfectly but seemed to struggle with the higher ends of his vocal range (perhaps as Cave does himself).

There was the occasional pop and crackle, as expected with a 20-year-old second-hand record, but in general this turntable was approaching CD sound quality with greater depth and warmth.

On other tracks, it delivered perfect synchronicity between the speakers when an electronic backbeat features, such as in the new Weather Station album. Acoustic guitar notes are picked out. Cymbals, synths, whispered voices - each retain their own identity.

Switching to Raintown by Deacon Blue, there was sparking piano, soaring voices. It took me right back to the Glaswegian rock opera glory of the late Eighties. Anthems for another era.

My only quibble is the tinkering required to switch between 33 and 45 rpm. On my old Pro-Ject (and on the Pro-Ject Primary E, reviewed below), this can be done without lifting the platter. But not so on the Pro-Ject T1, which is a slight disincentive to crack out the 7in singles and spend a session switching between singles and albums (or 12in singles). However, trade up to the Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB and you get a button mounted in the corner of the unit to switch between 33 and 45 rpm.

The only other point to mention is a tendency for the stylus to skate quickly, meaning a sudden start to the opening track. This can be remedied with a more gentle lowering of the tonearm.

Buy now £299.00, Amazon

Teac TN-5BB

This really is a lovely piece of kit, with a deep, warm sound. Opening the box unearths an array of bits and bobs, even down to a set of washers, should there be the need to rebalance any of the sturdy legs if the turntable is laid on an uneven surface.

The deck is a good two inches of thick shiny black, into which are sunk two retro buttons - one controls the power and rpm (including a 78rmp option) the other the automated lifting and lowering of the tone arm.

No more manual dropping onto the entry groove. Instead, you can line yourself up to drop straight onto your favourite track. What’s more, the tone arm lifts itself up at the end of the record (though doesn’t return to its starting position) and stops the record spinning.

The inch-thick synthetic glass platter is driven by a rubber band around its circumference. The tone arm is an S-shape brushed steel and aluminium. It’s all very special.

As too is the sound. Courtney Marie Andrews’s come through strong yet tender, but without compromising the gently strummed acoustic guitar or brushed cymbal. The only thing that seems less defined is the bass, which is perhaps a bit muted.

Switching to Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, the Teac TN-5BB again showed its ability to pick out separate voices in harmonies, to an extent that it’s like discovering previously unheard features of music you’ve enjoyed for decades.

For a final challenge, to the Americana soul vibe of Frazey Ford’s U Kin Be The Sun, which she fabulously recounted live at Union Chapel only a month or two ago (before Omicron had us seeking safety at home).

Let’s Start again, a blissed-out ballad, has the late-night groove accompanied by Ford’s extraordinary voice. Purple and Brown has the bass guitar to the fore, with whispered harmonies atop. Golden, the most joyful track on the album, comes out more human than the same track when streamed on Sonos a minute later. If you live for music, start saving now for this fabulous piece of kit.

Buy now £1599.00, Teac

Pioneer DJ PLX-500

The first thing you notice is the weight. The Pioneer DJ PLX-500 is one seriously hefty piece of kit.

It stands proud on big cylindrical coasters, with an eye-catching aluminium platter. There are big chunky buttons and sliders. It makes you feel like a club DJ. Well, almost.

But it’s pretty simple to get a record playing, though beware if (like me) things initially sound like they’re coming from the back of a non Ulez-compliant Ford Transit.

There’s a small button at the back that enables the turntable to be plumbed directly into powered speakers (or, in my case, via an amplifier): slide this to the correct position and prepare yourself for crystal clear definition as the stylus picks out every detail from your beloved vinyl.

It also has a USB output that enables vinyl to be recorded onto a digital device, should that be your wish.

As for how it sounds, I tested it with a south London classic: Dire Straits’ debut album, recorded while they lived in Deptford. Starting with side two, Mark Knopfler’s guitar-picking on Sultans of Swing comes through exquisitely, and the warmth of the electric and acoustic guitar riffs on Wild West End is a joy.

To my ears, it’s every bit as clear as CD, but warmer and maybe a bit deeper too. There was lots of bass in the final Straits’ track, Lions - and a sense of “space” or separation between the instruments. Lovely.

Buy now £299.00, Argos

Pro-Ject Primary E

The difference with the Pro-Ject T1 is immediately obvious - the shiny gloss deck is replaced with a matt black covering, with the overall tone being one of budget simplicity.

This is a turntable that has won plenty of praise for delivering an audiophile delight for a modest sum – not much more than a pair of designer jeans.

While broadly similar in looks to the T1 but less glamorous – think functional rather than showstopper - the challenge is to close your eyes and think of the benefit to your bank balance and determining whether the £110 saving is worth it.

The Primary E scores well on functionality. The rubber drive-ring device - familiar from the Pro-Ject Essential - is back. This means it is less sleek than the T1 but more practical for easy switching between 33 and 45 rpm, if a little fiddly. It also starts with a bit of a gurgle, though quickly gets into its rhythm.

As for the sound, I chose the Cassandra Jenkins LP An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, one of the most striking albums of 2021, for an aural challenge.

Within five minutes into the record the sound settles down; saxophone and brushed cymbal can be picked out. On to Hard Drive, one of the tracks of the year, the spoken vocal feels at first a little fuzzy.

Similarly with Honest Life by Courtney Marie Andrews: there was a slight imprecision around the edges of the vocal harmonies, but it coped well with gently strummed acoustic guitar and pedal steel.

Buy now £189.00, Amazon

Verdict

If money were no object, then the Teac TN-5BB comes out top. But in times of austerity, when only the lucky few can afford to spend £1,500 or more on a turntable, both Pro-Ject decks are winners. On balance, I’d hand victory to the Pro-Ject T1, which sounds great and has the looks to match.

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