In addition to this piece, a buyer’s guide to the best premium audiophile turntables on the market today, we here at Speakergy recently published two other newly written articles on this same subject:
But in many ways, this article, listing our choices for the very best turntables on the market between $500 and $2,000, is the most exciting of them all.
Yes, the super-budget turntables can sound fantastic, with not only that warm, musical analog quality everybody wants these days but also a glimpse of the wonderful world of high fidelity stereo listening. And yes, the more expensive ‘tables, say from $100 to $500, are often truly great machines, with real audiophile sound, superb engineering, and material quality, and a whole new level of fit and finish.
But now we get into the big guns, with no-compromise engineering and construction which leads to truly astonishing levels of detail, uncanny imaging and presence, pure tonal accuracy, perfectly flat and extended frequency response, the lowest levels of distortion and coloration, and a sense of timing and rightness lesser beasts can only imagine or, on their best days, barely hint at.
So yes, we are excited to present our all new 2021 buyer’s guide to the best high-end audiophile turntables on the market today, and hope it is as much fun to read as it was to research and write.
Are High-End Turntables Really Worth the Money?
As part of this series on the best turntables available in 2021, I spent extended periods of time listening to the wonderful Rega Planar 1, my choice for the best medium-priced audiophile turntable on the market today. It has a musicality, a sense of rightness, and a delivery of timing, musical dynamics, and realism that really blew me away, and is featured heavily, and enthusiastically, in our article on the best turntables under $500.
Then later on I spent time with the Rega 2, the Rega 3 and the Rega 6, and was struck by just how powerful the subtle improvements in sound can actually be. The Planar 1 has a great soundstage, but the upper models offered so much more precise, and yet so much more relaxed, sense of space, and in fact so much more space overall, that this factor alone totally changed my relationship with the music I was listening to.
And it’s not just space, of course – the units we have included in our list of best premium turntables have incrementally better dynamics and micro-dynamics, more resolution of detail and micro-detail and a deeper silence from which the details emerge. Their sense of timing and of music occurring in a coherent time/space reality is often stunning, and the extension of both bass and treble not only allows for all of the notes to be fully reproduced, but also all of the intricate and terribly important harmonic interactions. Attack and decay, physical presence, phase coherence, everything is better, and everything brings you a little closer to the music.
And indeed, especially with the stellar models we’re recommending here, I often forgot all of the jargon and technical details and found myself sitting in a room with music and musicians – to me, at least, that is what it is all about, why this is the best hobby in the world and why even the most expensive gear in the world – if it is also the right gear – is more than worth the often considerable investment.
How Can You Find the Best Turntable Under $2,000?
But how can you find the “right gear”? I mean, so many of the turntables in this price range are good, many are great and quite a few are special, but how do you find that one ‘table in a particular price range that allows itself to disappear, and inspires the rest of your system to do the same, leaving just you and the music?
In other buyer’s guides we generally rely on a combination of our own experience, the feedback we get from friends and colleagues, and lots of reviews from around the web, but at these rarified levels we turn much more to our own ears and our own listening experience.
And while I, for one, have a strong technical understanding of what makes an audiophile turntable good, and have more than a passing familiarity with the specifications, technology and engineering behind each and every turntable reviewed here – and the many, many ‘tables we didn’t include – I ultimately want to let that stuff go and just listen.
If a turntable sounds good, that’s nice. If a turntable sounds amazing, that’s great. If a turntable doesn’t have hardly any particular sound at all, well now we’re getting somewhere. And if I can’t hear the turntable at all, but just the music – and especially if I hear more of the music and feel closer to it than ever before – that turntable makes the list.
The following 7 turntables are among the best turntables on the market today, and represent the best sound and the best value available at their respective price levels, and they all receive our most enthusiastic recommendation.
Please enjoy our 2021 buyer’s guide to the best turntables under $2,000, and here’s hoping that you too find yourself that much closer to the music!
Best Premium Audiophile Turntables – from $500 to $1500
This superbly made turntable represents a bit of an oddity in high-end record playing – a true audiophile turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier.
And while something like the Rega 2, just below, offers a more coherent and transparent overall musical picture, the U-Turn Audio Orbit has astounding detail, timing, imaging and soundstage, with pure and accurate tonality and wide, flat frequency response. Even with the inclusion of a very good preamp, the Orbit somehow sounds better than pretty much anything else I know at this price, and it is a plug and play package that will work with essentially any audio system without purchasing extras.
All this adds up to a thrilling listening experience in an all-in-one package and makes the U-Turn Audio Orbit a really special value – an ideal introduction and entry into the highest levels of high fidelity sound, and a beautiful product in every way, each unit proudly handmade in the United States.
Something special happens when you play a record on the Rega Planar 2 turntable, something natural and unforced which defies description as much as music itself defies description.
With other turntables in this price range you certainly get a great sound – good dynamic energy, pace and timing, musical momentum, emotion, as well as low distortion, abundant detail, deep bass and shimmering highs, and it all seems to be put together with near perfection.
But with the Planar 2, nothing is “put together”. Indeed, while you can hear how much detail there is, how tight and extended the bass, how low the distortion, how impactful the musical energy, how big and precise the soundstage and how everything emerges from an undisturbed silence, these are not somehow elements in a picture that are correct and in their proper places. There is just music, natural, unforced and beautiful.
I would probably guess that certain turntables in this price range have better specifications, and maybe even more impressive engineering and innovations, but I am certain that nothing at this level – or even significantly more expensive – presents music more clearly, accurately and engagingly. With the brilliant Rega Carbon cartridge pre-installed, the Planar 2 is a near-perfect machine, and by far the best value at this price point.
Another giant-killer, like the Planar 2 above, the Pro-ject X1 has also been compared with gusing enthusiasm to turntables sometimes twice as expensive, and stands clearly as one of the great bargains in high end audio.
With the lovely Sumiko Rainier cartridge, which itself offers musical playback that is lightning fast, silky smooth and stunningly coherent, the Pro-ject X1 offers even more resolution of detail and micro-detail than the Rega, and arguably less distortion and coloration overall, and somehow manages to deliver a sonic experience that is at times quite overwhelming in its power and energy without ever missing the expressive and emotive range of music in both the loudest and softest passages.
Incredibly accurate and analytical and yet warm and musical, the Pro-ject X1 is the best kind of high end audio gear, which makes moderate gear sound much better and is the match of even very high end systems as well. The Pro-ject X1, hand built in Europe, is also a masterpiece of craftsmanship, and will surely deliver its superb sound for many, many years.
If the Rega Planar 2 is more natural, relaxed and musical, and the substantially more expensive Pro-ject X1 is more accurate and analytical and reveals even more musical detail and information, the Rega Planar 3 is both.
The Planar 3 comes perfectly set up with the Rega Elys 2 cartridge, which itself is renowned for its sweet musicality and incredible resolution of detail, and the synergy between ‘table, tonearm and cartridge really moves this package to a new level of not just high fidelity analog playback but pure musical pleasure – nothing anywhere near this price can give such a complete and correct musical picture, and few turntables even hundreds of dollars more offer such a palpable experience or such absolute realism.
One of the most highly regarded and positively reviewed premium turntables on the market today, the Rega Planar 3 is amazing in every way – sound quality, engineering, material quality, and reliability, fit, finish, and style. And while it is not an inexpensive unit, comparisons to even far more expensive gear reveals it to be not just one of the best values on the market today, but one of the best turntables period.
Ok, so the Cambridge Audio Alva is not on the level as the slightly less expensive Rega Planar 3 above, but it is a better “budget” turntable, and one which can in its way offer a better value.
For one thing, the Alva has a built in preamp – and not just some hastily added afterthought, but a beautifully engineered and lovely sounding high gain phono stage designed for the included moving coil cartridge.
Offering both analog and digital outputs, this turntable also has a superb analog to digital convertor on-board, and AptX Bluetooth streaming, allowing for truly lossless playback to Bluetooth speakers or any Bluetooth receiver as well as easy and top-quality audiophile conversions of your records to lossless digital files – really, you would have to spend lots, lots more with other gear to approach this quality of digital conversion, and still not have anywhere near the convenience the Alva offers.
The Cambridge Audio Alva has a warm, rich sound which sparkles with detail, presents an astonishingly holographic soundstage and delivers incredible dynamic power and excitement. The Alva works great with both really high end audio and moderate systems as well, making lower priced gear (and lower priced, or older, records) sound much better and revealing its own high resolution glory more and more with better and better associated gear.
The best all-in-one digital/analog playback, streaming and conversion system on the market today, the Cambridge Audio Alva is also an extraordinary sounding turntable and an over-built workhorse that should provide many years of service.
In stark contrast to the Cambridge Audio Alva above, with its Bluetooth streaming, digital and analog outputs and all kinds of other tech, the TD 206 turntable, from the legendary German manufacturer Thorens is as basic as it gets, going back to the design philosophy of not adding anything which doesn’t improve the pure sound reproduction, and eliminating everything that might detract from it.
As such, the TD 206 turntable has a startling level of clarity, a revelation of detail which is shocking even if you are quite used to the highest levels of audiophile gear. With LPs I had heard many times before, and on the best systems, I began to hear details and subtle interactions I had never before noticed, and aspects of space and time, dynamics and energy, tonality and timbre became more apparent and, I’m sure, closer to what the original master tapes captured.
The Thorens TD 206 is not a forgiving turntable, and in fact has received some negative reviews from even major audio review sites, but, to be fair, with this much clarity and detail, with such a revealing and analytic nature, it does not play well with average equipment or mediocre records.
But with good source material, and especially in association with great gear, the TD 206 absolutely blossoms, with a sound that reaches whole new levels of both accuracy and beauty, and one of the most remarkable balances between those two often seemingly irreconcilable qualities I’ve ever experienced.
Since the Thorens TD 206 does not have a built-in phono preamp stage, you may want to consider the Vincent PHO 701 Phono Preamplifier, which has a truly magical sound – warm and energetically alive – and which complements the TD 2006 extraordinarily well, and makes the balance between intensely revealing accuracy and intensively emotive musicality even more successful.
I’m going to reveal my cards right at the beginning here. The Rega RP6 is my favorite turntable on the market today – maybe my favorite turntable ever.
Does the Linn Sondek sound better? Well, yes, perhaps a little if you modify the hell out of it. Are other ‘tables perhaps more beautiful to look at? Yeah, the Thorens TD 309, for example, is a stunner. Does anything anywhere near this price range sound so perfect out of the box, though, without painstaking calibration and alignment, without replacing motors or cables or headshells or feet? Absolutely not – the Rega 6, which comes perfectly set up with the Rega RB303 tonearm and the Exact 2 cartridge, is the most satisfyingly musical package available, and a superb ultra-high-end turntable.
Yes, I am happy to call it “ultra-high-end” based on what I hear, and what I don’t hear, even though it is thousands of dollars less than many UHEs on the market today.
Everything is there and everything is effortless. There is such an easy and unforced depiction of both bold and subtle sound cues on every single level, of spatial-temporal reality, that the musical picture is not convincing but real and actual. I have never heard a turntable less, or music more, than with the Rega RP6, and can understand why it is one of the most highly regarded, most awarded, most positively reviewed and most loved pieces of audio gear on the planet.
Of all the premium turntables on our list of best audiophile turntables under $2,000, the Rega Planar RP6 is the only one I can unhesitatingly recommend for any level of equipment – the most advanced system, the most expensive system, the most painstakingly assembled, tweaked and optimized system and, especially, the best sounding system – the Planar 6 will make them all sound better.
Please note that you will need a phono preamplifier stage, and if your amp or preamp does not have a phono stage built-in you will need to get a separate unit. And although I almost universally recommend the Vincent PHO 701 Phono Preamplifier, and it will work splendidly with this RP6, Rega’s own Aria V2 Phono Preamplifier is admittedly a far better unit – especially with the RP6 and the Exact 2 Cartridge, which have a synergy with the Aria that has to be heard to be believed. The Aria V2 is almost as expensive as the Rega 6, but the combination is widely considered to be among the finest analog playback systems at any price.
Final Thoughts: Mods and Accessories – How Can You Make a Great Turntable Sound Even Better?
Things have changed a lot in the premium audiophile turntable market. It used to be pretty much standard procedure to get a staggeringly expensive turntable, hand-made with pride, blood, sweat and tears by the most brilliant, dedicated and talented audio engineers and craftspeople in the world, and immediately upon pulling it out of its box tweak and modify the hell out of it.
The time and effort people put into first of all making sure they had the best cartridge, arm and headshell for that particular turntable – often from three different companies – and aligning them with absolute precision, and then replacing the tonearm wires, the belt, the suspension feet, even the motor or platter… The resulting Frankenstein may have very little in common with the original turntable, but assuming the person had made the right choices and implemented the changes in a skilled and correct way, it might sound a little better.
These days, even with the highest of high end turntables, it is much more common to see a ‘table with not just the tonearm but the cartridge as well already installed, and the whole package carefully set up in the factory and completely ready to go. And with such thought put into the synergy between the turntable, arm and cartridge, and such care put into selecting and using the very best platter, motor, power supply, belt, feet, plinth and bearings, even the tweakiest of tweakers has to admit that there is little or nothing that can be done to make a new turntable sound better.
That said, you may still be asking a few basic questions:
- What are the Best Accessories for Audiophile Turntables?
- What are the Most Important Turntable Accessories?
- What is the Best Way to Improve a Turntable’s Sound?
And yes, there are a few basic accessories which I find to be pretty much indispensable, and which will really make a difference in various ways, and I will mention the most crucial ones here:
Vincent PHO 701 Phono Preamplifier – not so well known (yet, at least), this is a truly magical sounding phono preamp which will work beautifully with any turntable on the list and with any audio gear – even if the ‘table has a built in preamp, or if your stereo amplifier or preamplifier already has a phono stage, the Vincent will offer a serious upgrade, with its ease, fleetness, fluidity, immense power and sonic neutrality.
Pro-ject VC-E Record Cleaning Machine – any record cleaner is a must-have, and will make your precious discs sound better and last longer, but the Pro-ject VC-E cleans so much more deeply and thoroughly than anything else I’ve tried, and reveals details and qualities in records that were previously completely missing – an upgrade that can be equivalent to the purchase of a premium audiophile turntable.
IsoAcoustics Delos Turntable Isolation Butcher Block Series – even with the best isolation feet and most inert and non-resonant materials, any turntable can benefit from more acoustic isolation, which will clarify and focus the sound, as well as greatly reduce noise and distortion, even in the face of tremendous acoustic energy from subwoofers, large speakers and big amps. The massive IsoAcoustics Delos is the best and most effective choice, and for the relatively modest cost can make an enormous difference.
Salamander Designs A5/W Archetype 5-Shelf Audio Stand – incredibly strong and rigid, this Salamander equipment stand is actually not just for your new turntable, but will keep all of your gear better isolated and improve the sound of each and every component – making an enormous and dramatic difference overall.
Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Inner Sleeves – still the very best choice for protective LP sleeves, the Mobile Fidelity sleeves are carefully designed and made to not damage your precious LPs in any way, and will protect them from the elements and keep static charge from building, which will further protect the record’s surface, keep playback noise to a minimum and markedly improve sound.