2019 High-End Audio Buyer's Guide: Turntables $10k and Under

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Turntables
2019 High-End Audio Buyer's Guide: Turntables $10k and Under

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC
$399
The most significant upgrade to Pro-Ject’s latest Debut is found in the model’s name, which refers to the lighter, more rigid, single-piece 8.6" carbon-fiber armtube that replaces the Debut III’s aluminum tube. Pre-mounted with Ortofon’s 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge, the Carbon offers all one expects from a modestly priced ’table. It doesn’t excel in any one area but gets the basics so right that it’s hard to criticize what’s lacking—because, after all, that’s what good entry-level models should provide: a solid foundation for musical pleasure. New DC model offers a higher-precision power supply.


Rega Planar 1 
$475
It’s notable that Rega’s entry-level ’table today sells for roughly the same price it did some 20 years ago. That doesn’t mean the Planar 1 performs at exactly the same level as the original Planar 2 or 3, but it does mean that Rega’s commitment to value remains paramount. Perhaps even more remarkably, Rega is able to achieve this while keeping all manufacturing in the UK! Building on success, the P1 uses the classic Rega motor, drive system, and main bearing, but instead of a glass platter this one is made of MDF. The ’arm is the new RB101, which comes pre-mounted with a Carbon moving-magnet cartridge. You won’t get much frequency extension or wide dynamics here, but what you will get is the pace, musical interplay, and involvement that make analog special.


Rega Planar 3 
$945 w/o cart, $1145 w/Elys2
With a phenolic-resin “double brace” creating a “stressed beam” between the main-bearing hub and tonearm mount, Rega’s Planar 3 is a significant step forward. Thanks to a phenolic-resin skin and upgraded particulate core-material, the plinth is also lighter than its predecessor, while the new RB303 ’arm features a newly designed tube said to increase rigidity. The result is deeper bass, lower noise, more dynamic pop, increased detail, and improved staging. Things get better yet with the optional TT PSU power supply ($375).


Rega Planar 6
$1595 w/o cart, $1995 w/ Exact2 MM, $2195 w/ Ania MC
Rega’s Planar 6 offers the same phenolic-resin “double brace” found in the Planar 3, the same RB303 ’arm, and a whole lot more. Replacing Rega’s traditional glass platter/felt mat is a two-piece, 16mm-thick flywheel/platter made of two joined pieces of float glass. An outer ring adds mass to the circumference, increasing the platter’s natural flywheel effect, thus improving speed stability, accuracy, and consistency. The new subplatter adds an aluminum “top hub adaptor” with six-raised plateaus to ensure the flattest possible surface for LPs to rest on. The aluminum/rubber feet, too, are a step up from Rega’s standard rubber-cup-like units. Moreover, the Planar 6 comes standard with the TT PSU power supply, a must for top performance. Note the large improvements in dynamic nuance and explosiveness, tonal and textural detail, size and depth of stage, and sheer musicality.


Clearaudio Concept
$1600 ($2000 with Concept MM cartridge)
Clearaudio’s Concept turntable and cartridge offer a hugely rewarding analog experience at a very attractive price. The sleek, belt-drive ’table and magnetic-bearing Concept ’arm, which the company calls “friction free,” sell for $1600; when bundled with the Concept MM cartridge, the pre-set-up package sells for a trim $2000. And though the Concept’s performance may not equal that of the very finest out there, its combined strengths in resolution, dynamics, low-noise, and sheer musical engagement won’t leave you wanting. Couple this with terrific German build and finish, and the Concept is a hands-down bargain.


SOTA Comet IV with S303 tonearm
$1750 in wood finish
SOTA, which stands for State of the Art, has been building some of America’s finest turntables for well over 30 years. Its top-end models use the company’s well-known floating seismic isolation system, which hangs from a four-point sprung suspension. Because that technique is costly to execute, SOTA’s more affordable models, such as the Comet, use internal damping to isolate the chassis from vibration. Rounding out this excellent design is the Comet’s bearing cup, which is made from a Teflon-impregnated self-lubricating polymer; the platter assembly consists of a high-density polymer main platter sitting atop a polymer-based sub-platter driven by a 24-pole AC synchronous motor. The resulting sound is at once easy and authoritative, warm, rich, and solid, with wide and nuanced dynamics, and a large 3D soundstage. A great sounding ’table at a great price.


GEM Dandy PolyTable
$1795
If you’re an analog lover who doesn’t have a massive living space and/or a massive budget, this high-value, small-footprint, belt-driven turntable could be just your ticket. From setup to playback to overall musical enjoyment, JM found this American-made ’table to be user-friendly in every way. It comes with a Jelco tonearm of your choice: SA-250, SA-750D, or 10" SA-750E (the Japanese maker’s SA-250 ’arm was supplied with the audition unit). Like any ’table/’arm worth its salt, the PolyTable allows for VTF, VTA, and azimuth adjustments. Deceptively simple in design, it avoids fuss and frills, boasting a sleek, modern form, while its elegant two-piece platter, easy-to-install bearing, and adjustable feet (with a built-in bubble level) make for streamlined functionality. With both the mm and mc cartridges JM tried, the PolyTable delivered serious analog pleasure worthy of far bigger bucks. A gem, indeed.


MoFi Electronics UltraDeck+
$1999
When Mobile Fidelity decided to create a line of hardware they wisely brought in Allen Perkins of Spiral Groove to design the turntables, and they deliver a lot of bang for the buck. Setup is simple, especially with the “+” option that comes with the Japanese-made UltraTracker mm cartridge preinstalled at the Ann Arbor factory. The belt-driven ’table features an isolated AC synchronous motor, a hefty Delrin platter, and a contrained-layer-damped chassis with feet designed by Mike Latvis of HRS. Smoothness, imaging, musicality, pitch stability, and presence emerged as strong themes. The UltraDeck is a smartly conceived and finely honed design that’s already earning its place as an instant classic.


Clearaudio Concept Black w/ Satisfy Black tonearm
$2000
Beautifully proportioned, light but not insubstantial, Concept Black is a model of how a mid-priced, belt-drive turntable should look and perform. Easy to set up, the ’table works like a fine Swiss mechanical watch, offering overall musicality, tight image focus, transient authenticity, and dynamic conviction. With the optional high-precision Satisfy Black tonearm, mistracking was rendered essentially theoretical, and speed stability was rock solid. Images were locked down with little to no smearing even when the player was challenged by a tightly packed chorus or complex symphonic instrumentation. Weighty in tonality, the Concept Black balanced inner detail and instrumental solidity with the best of them. When it’s time to come back down to earth and consider a real-world record player, analog lovers need look no further than the Concept Black.


Pro-Ject 6 Perspex
$2100
This mid-priced record player (turntable, ’arm, and Sumiko Blue Point Special Evo III cartridge) offers a significant step up from the company’s vast array of lower-priced products. The upgraded features include an acrylic plinth and Corian subchassis that is magnetically suspended for greater vibration isolation, along with adjustable isolation feet. The conically shaped carbon-fiber armtube is mounted on an inverted bearing. The 6Perspex has very low noise and good speed stability, and is easy to set up and use. The review sample was fitted with a Sumiko Blue Point Special, but this turntable is good enough to support a significantly better cartridge.


Pro-Ject RPM 9 Carbon
$2499 ($2999 w/Sumiko Blackbird)
The RPM 9 Carbon is Pro-ject’s “tuner” special, with significant upgrades over the stock RPM 9.2. There’s a new motor, a new DC-driven power supply that features an improved AC generator for speed stability, and a newly upgraded platter and carbon-wrapped chassis. Sonics are devilishly good. Backgrounds are jet-black with timbres softly tinted to the warmer end of the tonal spectrum. Arpeggios are liquid and articulate, and there is an impressive sense of air and lift in the upper octaves. With the RPM 9 Carbon’s overarching sense of balance across all sonic criteria, LPs sound elegantly composed and well-nigh effortless. Without qualification, this is a terrific package, certain to give a great many lucky owners years of vinyl-spinning thrills.


Acoustic Signature Wow XL
$2897
If you’re looking for a solid foundation upon which to build your analog front end, the German-engineered-and-built Acoustic Signature Wow XL is about as rock-solid as you get in this price range. Precision bearings and speed control technology from Acoustic Signature’s flagship Ascona, and build-quality are what make this turntable one killer setup. Choose your favorite tonearm and cartridge combo, and you’re ready to go. The possibilities are endless when you have a solid base for your vinyl, and the Wow XL is it.


Rega RP8
$2995 ($3490 w/ Exact2 MM, $4195 with Apheta2 MC cartridge)
An example of the recent, rapid evolution of Rega’s designs, the RP8 is a “skeletal” design, which includes not just the shape but also the material of the plinth—a sandwich of phenolic resin skins over a core fabricated from “featherweight, nitrogen expanded, closed-cell polyolefin.” A three-piece, “super flywheel” platter made of float glass and the newly fashioned RB808 ’arm are also found in this (for now) top model. The sound of the RP8 brings new levels of transparency, fine detail, soundstage definition, and drive to the always engaging—now more so—Rega sound, along with a tonal richness, weight, and dynamic thrust that we’ve never before experienced from any Rega design. In the past, one often qualified a Rega recommendation as “good for the money.” The RP8 is simply one of the best mid-priced designs on the market.


SOTA Sapphire Series V
$3500
The Series V upgrade of this venerable David Fletcher classic, thirty-years-old and getting younger with each new iteration, boasts improvements in parts, engineering, machining, fit ‘n’ finish, and performance—all retrofitable to earlier versions. Its time-proven four‑point hanging suspension is still the ultimate in isolating the ’arm /pickup/groove from external disturbances. For PS, the Sapphire is the least expensive turntable in his experience to reach the echelon of what the so-called “super-turntables” are all about, sacrificing only a bit of ultimate resolution and control, most of which you get back by adding vacuum hold-down or by getting instead SOTA’s Star/Nova models ($4850), both of which are already fitted with the vacuum system. Recommended without qualification.


Pro-Ject Xtension 10
$3799 with 10cc Evolution tonearm ($4299 with Sumiko Blackbird)
Pro-Ject is onto something wonderful here: A turntable that hits all the right sonic notes, while providing a rare combination of intellectual and emotional connection to the music. A slightly scaled-down edition of the Xtension 12, the 10 offers a smaller footprint but similar weight. The design features a mass-loaded, magnetically floated sub-chassis, a 3"-tall, 12.6-pound vinyl/alloy platter, a precision ceramic bearing, and a three-speed AC motor. The Xtension 10 can be purchased with a SuperPack option ($3699) that includes a Sumiko Blackbird cartridge and an upgraded ’arm cable. Regardless of cartridge, the Xtension 10 provides not only a high level of musical satisfaction, but does so in a way that delivers a powerful emotional wallop.


EAT C-Sharp
$3595 ($3995 with Ortofon Black Quintet cartridge)
The combination of the C-Sharp and the Ortofon Quintet Black cartridge produced appealing sound that had rhythmic drive and made nearly everything reviewer AJ spun fun to listen to. The combo simply played the music on nearly everything he threw at it. Although the EAT lacked the ultimate resolution and neutrality of pricier analog front-ends, AJ still found its “sins” of omission more than acceptable. Indeed, he found himself spending more time listening to complete albums during the review period than what he’d originally allocated for the evaluation.


Bryston BLP-1
$3995 (including BTP-1 outboard PSU)
Supplied with record weight, integral dust cover (three cheers!), and the company’s proprietary BTP-1 outboard pulse-width-modulation power supply, this belt-driven two-speed turntable boasts exceptional speed accuracy and spot-on rendition of pitch, timing, rhythm, and togetherness. Bass is deep and powerful with remarkable resistance to external disturbances despite its fixed plinth. All up and down the scale the BLP-1 provides a neutral platform of great composure, grip, and dynamic range with commendably quiet backgrounds. The tube of the nine-inch gimbal-bearing tonearm is constructed in seven segments of differing diameters the better to deal with unwanted resonances. The BLP-1 affords the pleasures of vinyl at a level of performance that gets you to the threshold of the so-called “super” turntables without the fussiness, the need for continual adjustment, and the sheer anxiety that all too often accompanies some esoteric setups.


Technics SL-1200G
$4000
This turntable, which shares the historic name and appearance of the long-running SL-1200 series but is in fact a new design, offers performance at the very highest level, belying its relatively modest price. (The included ’arm is acceptable but is not quite at the same pinnacle.) Its silence and speed stability are competitive with any turntable available and are far superior to most, even very high priced ones. The turntable’s sound is rock solid, very pure, highly resolved, and very lively in the positive sense. One has very much the sensation of hearing what is actually on the record. The Technics is not the only turntable in its price range (or lower) to have challenged the high-priced world, but it has an important feature offered by few of its high-end competitors at any price, namely, adjustable speed. This is a turntable for musicians and those who share musicians’ sensibilities.


Acoustic Signature Challenger Mk3
$4997
Analog fans might already be familiar with Acoustic Signature—and maybe you’ve even read JV’s glowing review of the maker’s mighty Invictus flagship ’table. Though the Challenger Mk3 may not have the sheer low-end weight and power of the esteemed German manufacturer’s upper-tier designs, reviewer JM found that it still delivers remarkable purity, focus, elegance of presentation, and exceptional musicality. Drums, for instance, may not have the ultimate punch, but are still terrifically fast, textured, and explosive. The turntable’s small-footprint cylindrical chassis is clean, solid, and elegant. The Challenger Mk3 is also remarkably simple to set up and maintain; its first-rate build-quality (all parts are machined in-house and assembled by hand) has clearly paid off in the solid performance of this very low-coloration turntable. Call it a Challenger that punches above its weight.


Rega RP10
$5495 w/o cart, $6695 w/Apheta2 MC, $9495 w/Aphelion MC
Via a “skeletal,” amoeba-shaped plinth, Rega tried to create the lightest and most rigid platform possible for the RP10’s motor, platter, and ’arm to work from. The plinth’s core is made from a nitrogen-expanded, closed-cell polyolefin foam core, sandwiched between Rega’s time-tested phenolic skins. Rega says that the core material was created exclusively for this use over a three-year period, and that this new plinth is a remarkable seven times lighter than the one found on the original Planar 3. A new motor and power supply are employed here, as well as the new hand-built RB2000 tonearm, which sets an impressive standard for a Rega ’arm. All told, there’s a feeling of immediacy, transparency, detail, bass control, depth, and musical involvement here that sets the RP10 far beyond the already impressive results Rega has achieved with other members of the RP family.


Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas
$5995 (packaged with Cornet 2 tonearm and external power supply, $9995)
Based on the pedigree and designs of the late Tom Fletcher (of Nottingham Analogue fame), the Pear Audio Blue Kid Thomas is an advancement over Fletcher’s older products. Pear Audio’s goal with the Kid Thomas is “sonic harmony.” In this case, every aspect of the Kid Thomas’ design was tested, down to the smallest parts, in an effort to optimize performance. The act of merging art and craftsmanship with measurements and science allows this turntable package to become a subjectively quiet playback system that can reproduce music in a way that is similar to more expensive turntable systems.


Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101.2
$6400 ($1200 for clamping system)
Analog innovator George Merrill’s turntable, designed in collaboration with Robert Williams, breaks ground in its approach to energy management, ingeniously and effectively damping and dissipating resonances wherever they lurk. Music emerges with such exceedingly low coloration and distortion that transparency, fine detail retrieval, openness, and clarity are surprisingly close to what one experiences when listening to mastertapes. The motor, platter, spindle/bearing, and tonearm are effectively isolated, and the energy developed by each part is absorbed and dissipated by the 14-pound rubber-compound elastomer forming the core of the plinth. It supports virtually all types of ‘arms, and comes with an advanced speed controller and optional clamp and periphery ring. The MW-101 turntable system should be a revelation to those who want to get closer to the sound of a live performance without breaking the bank.


Clearaudio Ovation
$5900 ($8000 with Tracer tonearm)
Continuing the trend of bundling together ever more sophisticated turntables, ‘arms, and cartridges into fine-sounding but relatively hassle-free combinations, Clearaudio recently released what may be the most ambitious yet of such packages. Utilizing techniques found in the company’s $10,000 Innovation Wood—such as the light and exceptionally rigid Panzerholz wood-laminate plinth material, and optical speed-control—in a package with the elegant size and ease of setup found in the $2000 Concept, the Ovation, with its magnetic-bearing Clarify ’arm and Talisman v2 Gold cartridge, is a terrific deal. It is very well balanced, with excellent detail that emerges from silent backgrounds, exceptional pitch stability, and sweet, extended highs—though not the powerhouse bottom-end found in the highest-end models. The Ovation nicely bridges the gap between high-end sound and real-world convenience.


Dr. Feickert Woodpecker
$6500
The gorgeous-looking Woodpecker ’table with black-anodized brushed-aluminum top and bottom plates, a high-gloss piano-black main body (rosewood as a $500 optional finish), quick-release sliding-armboard system (capable of supporting 9"–12" tonearms), and High Inertia Platter is more than the sum of its appealing parts. Incorporating a host of purposeful updates, the Woodpecker proves itself capable of performance that is appropriate to good design execution. Using a 12" Jelco tonearm/Arché headshell combination, the Woodpecker revealed the unique characteristics of the Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Lyra Skala, and van den Hul Colibri cartridges. While it has a slightly higher noise floor than much more expensively executed designs, the Woodpecker proved itself to be a very capable platform for vinyl playback that should serve its owner far into the future.


Palmer 2.5
$8990 (Baltic birch finish w/o tonearm) 
As with most turntables, there isn’t a lot that is innovative as such about the Palmer 2.5, just a number of tried-and-true principles (belt drive, constrained damping) in a fundamentally simple design executed to the nines in every aspect. Sonically it’s a neutral platform that is dynamically very powerful and rhythmically precise with an impression of solidity and control, yet also quite relaxed, warm, and rounded. Beautifully finished in a light wood plinth, superbly made, completely reliable and idiosyncratic, this is one of the most completely pleasurable turntables PS has ever used. (It makes for an especially strong synergy with the Origami PU7 tonearm.)


AMG Giro
$10,000 with 9W2 tonearm
Based on AMG’s Viella, the less pricey Giro consists of a circular plinth with an offset platter. Both have been CNC-machined from aircraft-grade aluminum, and the Giro shares the Viella’s bearing design: “a hydrodynamically lubricated radial 16mm axle with PFTE thrust pad and integral flywheel.” The platter’s high-mass stainless steel machined pulley is paired to a precision Swiss-made DC motor, and the 9W2 tonearm uses the same unusual and highly effective dual-pivot bearing design of the Viella’s 12J2. As with the ’table itself, the sleek black ’arm tube is machined from aircraft-grade aluminum that’s been anodized to reduce resonance. Low-noise is a key to the outstanding performance here, as this Giro combo pulls a tremendous amount of detail from the grooves. Recorded ambience, dynamic pop as well as nuance, plenty of low-end weight as well as power, and an extended, airy treble offer enough of the illusionary “realness” to make us forget about the gear and become immersed in the beauty of the music.


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