With ever more efficient and easy ways to store and play music it's remarkable that vinyl, the format that started the whole music reproduction thing, is still around. Yet it is and for one simple reason it sounds fantastic. But just how fantastic depends on the quality of the turntable, arm and cartridge.
Here we have four examples that span the range from budget to aspirational and which reveal the increase in sound and build quality as you ascend the turntable ladder. Just how far you want to ascend that ladder is up to you, but this feature should give you soem idea of what those extra pounds will get you.
Goldring's GR1.2 is actually manufactured by one of the best established brands in budget turntables, namely Rega, which means that you get the base version of a high quality tonearm and an all round fit and finish which is outstanding at the price. This is the more affordable of two models and as such has a fairly modest moving magnet cartridge that usually retails for £30 and a version of the Rega RB250 arm with a plastic rather than metal base. The motor has two spindles and you change speed by lifting the MDF platter and moving the drive belt from one to the other, which is slightly fiddly but a common technique at this end of the market.
Given its price, this Goldring does a remarkable job of playing 'records', delivering a lively and entertaining sound that is surprisingly assured and devoid of the excesses that can afflict inexpensive designs. It needs good isolation to give of its best, that solid plinth does little to keep out vibration in the supporting surface but on a wall shelf it will kick out some highly engaging beats. Its limitations are to be found at the top and bottom of the spectrum, don't expect bone crunching bass or sparkly highs but do expect a beguiling introduction to the potential of vinyl.
Incredible value, you've really no need for one of those vinyl to USB devices when you can have this
It can't really be criticised at the price but inevitably wider bandwidth and better isolation would be nice
Pro-Ject Xpression II
Pro-Ject turntables are made in the Czech Republic and because of a distributor tie-in with Ortofon they are always to be found sporting needles from this established Danish brand. Pro-Ject has a very strong presence in the affordable end of the turntable market with models at virtually every price point. The Xpression II competes head on with the likes of Rega's P2 and Goldring's GR2.2 but unlike them offers features like a removable arm cable, a funky carbon fibre tonearm and cast metal platter. Xpression 2 is a solid plinth design but has feet that combine metal and rubber in an attempt to keep out vibration. The OM10 moving magnet cartridge normally retails for £40 and can be easily upgraded with a better quality stylus.
Pro-Jects as a rule have an appealingly calm and clean delivery and this one is no exception. It may not have the sonic muscularity of UK-built competitors but it probably does a better job when it comes to the fine details that produce a more believable sound. It can deliver a luxurious and open soundstage that's full of subtle cues about the character of the recording and the capabilities of those making it. It does energy too but in a style that suggests what you are hearing is not too heavily influenced by resonances within the turntable itself. The Xpression II is the least expensive complete record player that reveals how subtle and refined a sound the format is capable of. Combine this with its easy upgradeability and you have a tough act to beat.
A lot of clean vinyl sound quality for the money, this deck can easily be improved with a better cable and/or stylus but is damn fine value as it is Minus points
Doesn't have the bass solidity offered by the best at the price and the on/off switch is rather well hidden (under the plinth)
One of the most radical turntable designs to come along in quite some time is Arthur Khoubessarian's Funk. It eschews the usual preference for the high-mass platters and springy subchassis designs found at higher prices and replaces them with minimal mass and a three point drive system. The Funk V is based on a carefully shaped MDF plinth into which are fitted acrylic feet with Sorbothane isolation, a very high quality inverted sapphire bearing and atop this an Anchrolat expanded foam platter. If this weren't odd enough, the V in the name stands for Vector drive which is a system of two pulleys which stretch the drive belt so that it drives the subplatter at three points rather than pulling the whole thing in one direction.
It sounds left field and it is but strangely enough it works extremely well. Put this turntable up against competition at twice the price and more and you'll be surprised how crude that competition can sound. The Funk V extracts huge amounts of detail from the groove and delivers the dynamics of an acrylic platter alongside the calmness and control of high-mass designs. Underpinned with excellent isolation and a top-notch cartridge it can produce a sound that will make you wonder why they ever invented CD.
Stunning sound quality for the money, this does what designs at twice the price can only dream of by turning accepted thinking on its head and delivering the joy and high definition of analogue in no uncertain terms Minus points
The style of the Funk is like Marmite - not to all tastes. It is also hard to keep clean as there's no dust cover, and you can also get fancier build for the price
Price: £2,775 More info: SME Cartridge: Not supplied Speed change: Electronic Tonearm: Optional SME M10
SME Model 10
SME is the oldest independent company not only in this group but in hi-fi as a whole, and when you see the build quality it invests in even its most affordable products, it's not hard to figure out why. It makes Rolls Royce grade without even trying. The Model 10 is SME's 'entry-level' turntable but it still uses the highest quality bearing, motor and power supply that money can buy and with the exception of the electronics is entirely made in the company's West Sussex factory. Features include a clamp to damp resonances in the vinyl, a 4.1kg alloy platter and a multistage polymer isolation system. SME makes a range of tonearms to fit but its M10 is designed specifically for the job and is usually supplied along with it. Cartridge choice is up to you but don't feel inclined to cut costs for this crucial element.
When fitted with a suitably fine moving coil cartridge and hooked up to a commensurately capable hi-fi system the Model 10 delivers precisely what's in the groove. It has very little character of its own which means that what you hear is the character of the recording studio, the microphones and fundamentally the performers and their instruments. Some people want a record player with pace and or dynamics, perhaps even killer bass, the Model 10 will give you all these things if they are on the vinyl but won't enhance or exaggerate to create a particular flavour. This, combined with extraordinary build quality and stunning design, make the SME a must-have among turntables. Do you really need a new car that much?
Totally neutral turntable that lets all the glory of music flood through with a good arm and cartridge. It will also last several lifetimes and deliver genuine customer satisfaction
SME supplies only a soft cover which does nothing for the deck's looks but does keep dust out. The 10 also needs reasonable isolation for best results
So what do you get when you pay more for a turntable? You get higher standards of engineering and that means reduced distortion which in turn means more of what's on the record gets through to the loudspeakers.
You also get an easier to use turntable with switchable speed change. In other respects more expensive designs can be less practical, both SME and Funk would be better off with an after market dust cover and neither offers dramatically better isolation from vibration which is the nemesis of good vinyl sound.
However the build quality clearly improves which is good for both sound and pride of ownership, the SME 10 is up there with a Bentley when it comes to engineering and you don't often get that for under three grand.