Analog vinyl records and record players are back and seem to be back to stay! Vinyl simply sounds better than digitally reproduced music. And it's not just an opinion; it's a scientific fact.
Here’s why -- digital sounds reproduced in formats such as MP3, Wave, and even FLAC, are only as good as the number bits per second used to produce them.
Think of bits as the number of pixels per inch that make up a picture on a television. The more pixels you have, the smaller the individual graphics units and the better defined the image becomes.
But it can still never be as sharp as looking out the window at actual objects.
Sound works the same way. Natural sound, when produced, creates a wave. Analog music has a perfectly smooth wave because it's generated in a continuous wave and not broken up into bits.
Producing digital sound requires a series of small blocks of data or bits. The more bits per second, the smaller they become. The more of them used to create the wave, the smoother the sound.
But, no matter how many bits make up the sound, that wave can never be perfectly smooth. To come close to a perfect wave takes so many bits per second that the size of the file becomes too large to be practical. Otherwise, it will always be a series of steps instead of a true wave and, therefore, never perfect.
The Return of the Record and the Record Player
Many record companies and groups are releasing, and re-releasing, their best works on vinyl. Not just the vinyl you may remember, but on much heavier 180-gram hi-fidelity vinyl, because, as we have seen, vinyl offers the fullest and richest sound reproduction available.
According to Billboard.com, “Vinyl LP sales accounted for 14 percent of all physical album sales in 2017, The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely-Hearts Club Band' being the top-selling vinyl LP. Once again, yearly vinyl album sales have hit another Nielsen Music-era record high, as the configuration sold 14.32 million (up 9 percent) in 2017. That’s up from the previous one-year high, registered in 2016 with 13.1 million.”
Choosing Record Players
With the return of vinyl records, record players seem to be making a big comeback. There are many older, high-quality record players available that have re-sale prices that are even higher than their original MSRP at the time or their manufacture. Manufacturers are also producing new record players that can be connected either by Bluetooth or accessed directly through your desktop or laptop via USB cable.
As with any piece of electronics you purchase, you should first decide what features you want and how much you want to spend.
Are you going high-end and get a belt drive, automatic or a direct-drive manual turntable? Do you want one with an upgradeable cartridge? Do you need a pre-amp to connect it to your system, or do you have an amp with this feature built in?
We will try to clarify these and other questions you may have as we list some of our picks for the best record players of 2018. No matter which one you choose, be prepared to experience music in a way you never have before. Hopefully, you'll gain a new appreciation for the music and the format.
Here are a few examples of the best of the bunch, listed in no particular order.
The Best Record Players
ION Audio Max LP
Fluance RT81 High Fidelity
Many new companies are suddenly jumping on the vinyl revival bandwagon, but Audio-Technica has been making quality turntable cartridges for over 50 years.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP60 comes in as an amazingly full-featured turntable for the price. It comes with a metal platter, built-in phono pre-amplifier, and a clear dust cover.
Most record players don't have pre-amped phono outputs, which means you'll need a phono amplifier or high-end AV receiver to use them.
The AT-LP60 features a belt-drive turntable with permanently attached 24-inch-long RCA cables and also has a pre-set tonearm counterweight and a preset stylus tracking force.
The front panel has buttons for Speed (33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm), Start, Stop, and Cue (to raise and lower the tonearm). The selector switch for 7-inch and 12-inch records drops the needle in the correct place for 45s or LPs. MSRP: $99.00
An excellent choice for beginning record collectors as well as old vinyl junkies with stacks of wax, the Sony PSLX300USB has everything you need to get started except a high price tag.
This low-profile, fully automatic turntable connects quickly and gets you spinning without delay. It has traditional RCA crown plugs to connect to a conventional amplifier (with or without a phono input) and a USB connection to hook it up to your PC.
Although the PSXL300USB doesn't possess a lot of unique features, it has everything you would want in a basic turntable. It plays 33 and 45 rpm records, and the manual auto drop function can accommodate to either one, so the needle drops in precisely the right place for the platter you are spinning.
It has a sleek, black finish and front panel with easy-to-use controls for Speed (33/45), Start, End, and an “Up/Down” button to raise and lower the tonearm manually with the lid closed.
Fully automatic, the drive belt will quickly begin to rotate the turntable when you press the start button, and the tonearm will return. And the system will turn off when your record has finished playing.
The PSXL300USB comes with a permanently mounted cartridge on the tonearm, which you can't upgrade, which is one downside. However, the cartridge comes with a high-quality Sony N-6516 diamond stylus, which you can upgrade if you choose.
Using a standard moving magnet cartridge, you can upgrade the stylus itself to a higher-quality model, such as the Audio-Technica ATN-91. This turntable looks good, operates smoothly, and sounds great. MSRP $129.99
ION Audio Max LP
The name ION has been synonymous with budget DJ equipment for years by providing very nice, inexpensive, reliable equipment. Now, ION produces a very nice turntable with speakers that seems to be getting rave reviews and ratings.
The ION Audio Max LP 3-speed belt drive turntable was designed to be a gorgeous piece of equipment with blond woodgrain finish and a curved, clear plastic dust cover. However, don’t think the ION will settle for the MAX being just a pretty face.
It will not only function as other stand-alone record players, but it can also connect to your PC or amplifier. The ION MAX will handle 33s, 45s, and 78s and comes with a 45 adapter for playing the hits. It even has speed marks around the edge of the platter for checking the actual rotation speed.
The plug and play USB connection for attaching to your PC for transferring vinyl to CD or digital audio files makes this model worth the money all by itself. One of the few record players on this list with a 1/8-inch aux input, it will connect to other devices so they can play through the internal amp and speakers.
The dual stereo speakers sound good, but certainly not great, with virtually no bass. You'll get much better performance running the sound through a PC or amplifier.
More appealing in some ways to the eyes than the ears, the ION MAX shakes out as a serviceable turntable for beginner record collectors or those of you who may have a limited record library. MSRP: $99.99
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB delivers excellent sound quality at a great price. Perfect for starter record collectors and for dedicated vinyl junkies getting back into the mainstream of collecting who want a serious turntable for a serious record collection.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB will play your 33s, 45s, and 78s and has a built-in pre-amp so you can connect it to any system. While easy to operate for new users, audiophiles will appreciate such advanced features as the vertical tracking angle adjustment, tracking force adjustment, and a 1/2-inch mounted headshell. Both the AT95E Dual Magnet™ cartridge and diamond stylus are upgradeable if you so desire.
The AT-LP120-USB comes with a USB output that allows you to digitize any of your records and save them for playback on any MP3 device. A high-torque direct-drive motor ensures lightning-fast platter response time, which means no dragging when the needle drops.
The cast aluminum platter provides solid and stable performance with no waffling. Other professional quality features are a quartz-controlled pitch lock and pitch control slider and a hydraulically damped S-shaped tone arm with lockable rest. Available in a silver finish (AT-LP120-USB) or black finish (AT-LP120BK-USB), it also features a pop-up stylus light that provides record cueing in low light levels. MSRP: $299
Fluance RT81 High Fidelity
The Fluance RT81 comes fitted with a high-performance AT95E Audio-Technica Dual Moving Magnet cartridge, and a diamond elliptical tipped stylus that delivers a frequency response of 20-20,000 Hz.
The cartridge and stylus are upgradeable if you see fit, but the one it comes with should suit you just fine. The chestnut base provides a stable platform to minimize external vibration, and the cast aluminum platter with a rubber slip mat offer reduced reverberation.
This beautiful and responsive belt-driven Fluance RT81 turntable can play 33 rpm and 45 rpm records and has a cartridge weight of only 3.5 grams. MSRP: $249.99
The PL-990 may have a surprisingly low price tag, but that by no means makes it a stripped-down model. This fully automatic turntable connects to a line input or aux input, which removes the need for an additional pre-amp.
The moving magnet diamond cartridge provides long lasting performance and brings your old dusty vinyl back to life.
The elegant design of the Pioneer PL-990 provides a throwback to the timeless Pioneer turntable designs of days gone by. The all-black appearance and sleek, low-profile design will enhance any décor. You'll find the easy-to-operate controls located on the front of the case for easy operation with the lid closed.
The Pioneer PL-990 has a belt-drive system that creates much less vibration when compared to direct-drive record players. MSRP: $179.00
The Complete Experience
Once you immerse yourself in the vinyl experience, you may find that digital music seems flat and a bit soulless. The richness of vinyl along with the tactile experience of physically holding your actual music in your hands as you gaze at the liner notes or the album information can make you see your music in a whole new light.
Granted, nothing can be as quick and easy as downloading MP3s of your favorite songs, but you may now feel something missing when you possess only the song. In some cases, you may only want to download hit songs and miss out on other great songs on that album.
Imagine how many wonderful Beatles songs you would have missed out on if you only downloaded the top 10 hits and ignored the rest.
Take the Pink Floyd album, “Dark Side of the Moon,” for example. Downloading all the songs from that album may cost less than purchasing the actual LP. You'll end up with the songs, but nothing else that makes the album exceptional.
You won't get the two posters, the two stickers, the complete lyrics, the heartbeat graphic on the inside cover, or the iconic prism cover art that folds out into a mini poster. These things made the album iconic. And as you have seen here, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to envelope yourself in the complete music experience, not just the songs.
Hopefully, this list of the best record players currently on the market will help you get started. If you have a favorite model or tips on high-quality cartridges or styluses, please share them in the comments below.