The best record players just keep growing in popularity. Actual sales of vinyl might not be quite at the same peak as it was decades ago, but it's still huge for physical music sales today, and just keeps getting bigger. But not every newcomer to vinyl realises that the best record players make a huge difference to the quality of the sound. Dirt-cheap turntables might be destroying your records, and would certainly use a sub-standard cartridge, meaning detail is lost.
But that doesn't mean that buying one of the best turntables requires spending huge amounts of money. There are excellent cheap record players that are ideal for beginners – you just need to buy one from a reliable brand where they've made the right changes to keep the cost down. We've got some in this list – and don't forget to check out our list of the best turntable speakers, if you're building your first record player setup and want to build a great package, no matter your budget.
We've also got record players that are a great step up from a beginner system, and some more elite options that offer huge sound fidelity that will reveal new nuance from your vinyl no matter whether you're using them with something smaller, like the best wired headphones or the best bookshelf speakers, or going for a bigger and bolder speaker setup.
The best record players we've tried
The mid-market for record players is certainly not empty – there are a host of other turntables, such as the Rega Planar 1 and Audio-Technica's AT-LP5 that work plenty hard in the space – but the Pro-ject Essential III hits the high notes for us. Setup isn't that easy, requiring you to monkey with two individual counterweights on the tone arm, and fit the turntable's drive band yourself.
After that, though, it's joy all round. The Pro-Ject Essential III sounds superb given the asking price, with a poised and wide soundstage producing an enjoyable sound across a range of genres and volume levels.
It's not unkind on the eye either, with a variety of high gloss finishes that will slot into most surrounding decor.
There's a Bluetooth version – Pro-Ject Essential III BT – on the market too. It's not the best Bluetooth turntable going, only carrying SBC Bluetooth, but it sounds remarkably good all things considered, and the lack of cables means you're flush with options on where to put it in the room.
Please note that the Essential III has now been usurped by the Pro-ject T1. It's a similar and similarly priced deck to the veteran Essential, and we will have a replacement review very shortly.
Technics reinvented and revitalised its SL-1200 DJ decks with the launch of the SL-1200GR and SL-1210GR – the former silver, the latter black; they are otherwise identical.
With rock solid build quality, easy set-up by record player standards, immense bass, and a hugely exciting and involving sound, this is much more than just a DJ deck. In fact if you are a DJ, you might be better off scouring eBay for a second-hand SL-1200 from the 90s – these decks last forever.
For home listening, there are few turntables that are more enjoyable to own than the Technics SL-1200GR. Just make sure you have enough space, and that you're strong enough to lift it – these things are hefty.
• Read our full Technics SL-1200GR review
You can get cheaper record players than this, but realistically we would not suggest paying less than £150/$175 for a turntable, unless you just want to use it as a room accessory.
You get what you pay for, and Pro-ject's entry-level player hasn't seen the company going the route of tacking on nice-looking mod cons while skimping in other areas. No, this is the record player stripped down to its most basic form.
Its mains-fed motor runs at a constant speed, for example, so if you want to change from 33 to 45rpm you'll need to manually move the platter-looped belt to a different spindle. There are only three feet on the bottom, which means you'll need to take care lifting the lid if it's attached.
Instead of cramming in the features, Pro-ject has gone heavy on the design – this is clean, attractive stuff – and on creating a very credible playing experience. Everything comes pre-adjusted and pre-installed (apart from that belt), so it's ready to go right out of the box with the perfect tracking force.
- Discover the best wired headphones
- And the best wireless headphones for your Bluetooth deck
- Or the best Bluetooth speakers to use with them
Elipson's top-line turntable pulls down a lot of features from the truly high end and puts them in the affordable price bracket, things like the super-stiff carbon fiber tone arm, which cuts down on arm resonance for a truer, tighter sound. It also packs a newly rejiggered digital belt drive motor, both quieter than Elipson's previous engines and, in conjunction with the two-part platter, made for consistent speed and accurate pitch.
On the end of the tone arm is a not-too-shabby Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, not a cheap item in itself, which uses an elliptical stylus that should (if you get the balance right) prevent your records from wearing out too quickly.
And yes, there's Bluetooth; it's aptX, meaning a much higher resolution than some other record players, and there's USB connectivity too if you're looking to back up your records to a PC. All of this digital tomfoolery is backed up by a RIAA pre-amp, which pulls double duty by enabling you to hook up to any auxiliary connection – handy if your amp doesn't have a phono stage of its own.
You do not have to spend the world to get a record player that sounds like it knows exactly what it's doing. AT's freshly-upgraded AT-LP5X is evidence of this: even with its plastic base it's built well, sounds tremendous, and handles itself with precision and grace.
It's bundled with Audio-Technica's newest generation of its AT-95 cartridge, the AT-VM95E, a moving magnet tucked inside a more rigid housing which apparently gives a higher output and better frequency response, and it's on the end of a J-shaped tonearm that allegedly helps minimise tracking errors. Whatever the science, we know this: the AT-LP5X sounds great.
You have the choice of line or phono level output, along with USB if you fancy transferring your vinyl so something more accessible. Its direct-drive motor can now play 78s, and it's even less prone to interference than before since Audio-Technica has pulled the power supply out of the chassis of the record player and moved it to the plug. This is a turntable that will run and run. Treat it well and it'll stay consistent for years to come.
McIntosh's reputation precedes it like a motorcade precedes a presidential trip to the shops: if you've noticed it, you can't turn your eyes away. This meticulously made, ultra-weighty record player backs the fanfare up with strong leadership. It has a glowing magnetically suspended platter, with high-end bearings that mean incredible smoothness and precision, a tone arm factory-adjusted for perfect playback, an included moving coil cartridge with an elliptical diamond stylus and... well, just look at it. This is gloriously excessive.
You'll need your own pre-amp, but if you're spending £9,000 on a turntable you've probably already got a good pre-amp. If you haven't, you're someone who's prepared to spend £9,000 on a turntable, so you can probably afford one.
How to buy the best record player for you
There's a whole lot of choice in the turntable world, but if you're new to vinyl and want something that's going to get the job done and give you as many options as possible there's certainly hardware out there to suit.
We've chosen a record player with direct drive, meaning the motor spins the platter directly rather than transferring power through a belt. This vastly simplifies setup, and adds a definite bump to longevity – there's much less maintenance required.
You can go belt drive if you like, but our choice also has a bunch of output options, a built in pre-amp so it can be connected to any hi-fi, and a cartridge good enough that you're not going to feel the need to upgrade after five minutes of listening.
It even has a USB output, so you can digitise the sound of your vinyl, if you like. It really is a do-everything unit, for a great price.
Hardcore vinyl enthusiasts may get a little squeamish about using a turntable with Bluetooth; taking that beautiful analogue sound and crushing it into a digital datastream no doubt feels a little sacrilegious. To you, we say you're quite right. You'll hate listening to vinyl that way even if it sounds brilliant, and that's OK. There are countless phono-only options.
For everybody else, Bluetooth offers convenience: routing to different speakers, and even straight to wireless headphones, is easy, and you can put your record player wherever it's convenient (vibration willing) rather than being forced to slot it into an existing hi-fi setup.
You'll notice that the Technics SL-1200GR ranks high in our list. That isn't because we use it for mixing and scr-scr-scr-scratching – although you certainly good use it for that. No, it's because the qualities that made the SL-1200 line of DJ decks so essential in nightclubs also make it a great choice for the home. And that's especially true if you are nostalgic for your rave days, of course…
The Technics also marks the last price point at which record players could be described as 'affordable'-ish. After that, as with any branch of the hi-fi tree, it's possible to spend just about any amount on a record player if you really want to. The law of diminishing returns does rear its ugly head, of course – the difference between a player costing many thousands and one costing around £1,000/$1,500, as the Technics does, is not going to be night and day, to a lot of peoples' ears.
But climb that tree and you'll find its branches contain a whole lot of incredible design, beautiful sound, and turntables deserving of hosting your precious vinyl collection.