Let me tell you kids, the vinyl record is a demanding lover. She's a girl you have to take out and paint the town red all the time. But if you love her right, she will reward you...nicely. But, good heavens, is it expensive. Say what you will on the battle between CD and LP, but I'll give digital music its due - digital is a hell of a lot cheaper.
My current turntable is a Pro-Ject Debut III, a $300 entry-level turntable that's perfect for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the water. If you used to own vinyl records way back in your teenage years, or if you're newly curious about what these big 'ol vinyl albums are about, the Debut III is a good place to start.
Funny enough, for $329 you can have a Debut with a colored table, painted with an attractive shiny gloss. Red is the most popular - duh - and that's one of those things that immediately made me wonder to myself, "why didn't I grab one of those?" My basic black is drab and lifeless in comparison. I really wish the glossy paints were available on more turntable models.
Ah, well. By all rights I should be perfectly happy with my table, but a number of cheap-to-free tweaks - speaker placement; sandwich pucks made of cork, foam, and vinyl tiles; custom platter mats - have dramatically improved my sound. Now that I see what a few novel tweaks can do, I've become, well...edgy. How much better can the sound become on the more expensive tables? Just how much am I missing out on? Naturally, this is never something I can just let go of, and it becomes a gnawing obsession. Which means it's time to start hunting for an upgrade.
The cruel hoax of this hobby is that, for a little more money, there's always something better. There's always going to be another rung on that ladder, if you only saved another $100, another $200. And that's not just the table; it also means the needle cartridge, the platter, the tonearm, interconnect cables, yadda yadda. You see how this sorry game never ends, right? If you have the knack for tinkering, stay the hell away from turntables. You'll never make it out alive.
So, since I'm going to need any number of weeks to save up the money (depending on whenever I get that $600 bribery check from our politicians), let's look at a few contenders from the mid-priced range. "Mid-range," meaning, of course, somewhere under $1,500. It's a good thing I don't own any credit cards.
So let's look at some turntables, shall we?
Let's start off with the name brand most dropped by audiophiles and vinyl junkies: Rega. Rega's tables are always praised endlessly, especially their tonearm, which is something of a gold standard in the industry. At least, that's what I've read. Rega fans are among the most fiercely devoted audio fans around (although Technics freaks are a pretty groovy bunch).
This is one of the newer Rega models, and is also their entry-level table - the P1. Available for $350, it's the direct rival to my ProJect Debut III. I have to admit, I am curious to find out just how these two tables compare. Who comes out on top? Are they evenly matched? Reviews from various magazines and websites are pretty divided, which really surprised me. I wonder if much of the praise leveled at the Rega P1 is due to brand loyalty.
Interestingly, both tables are packaged with the same cartridge, an Ortofon OM-5E, so at least you've got an even match. At $50 cheaper, you're in a better position to equip your Debut III with a better cartridge (change the cartridge, please change the cartridge). Beyond that, I wouldn't advice spending money to pimp out these tables. They're both entry-level players, and they're really just meant for that. A quality budget cart is all you'll need.
Now here's the next serious player - the P3-24. Priced at $895, this is where Rega built its sterling reputation. Keep in mind that the price does not include cartridge. That's extra, and for a table like this, you're capable of spending $500 for a top-notch cart. Isn't this an insane hobby? All this money to play those Led Zeppelin songs you've already memorized and burned into your brain a thousand times over.
Ah, well, such is life. Most audiophiles will immediately pounce on P3-24 as the must-buy table. They'll point to the legendary RB300 tonearm, they'll point to the sterling sound quality pouring out of your speakers. Then they'll play the Rega trump card: upgradability. Rega players are a hacker's paradise. Everything can be tweaked, altered or upgraded. Dedicated fans will eventually switch the glass platter for acrylic, pay several hundred more for a metal sub-platter, talk of rewiring the tonearm, if not upgrading it entirely, and so on and so on.
If you like the idea of hacking your turntable - that is, if you're a car junkie - then you're in heaven. Me? I do like the idea of tweaking here and there, but at some point I just want to forget about the damned machine and just play records. I'd much rather scour Ebay for a vintage Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality.
I'll keep my eyes open, in case a used model appears. Still....pricey, pricey.
Moving up one level further, we find Rega's P5 table. It retails for $1,395. What?! Are you freaking kidding me?! Am I the only audiophile who isn't loaded? Okay, considering the prices on the two remaining Rega tables, the R7 at $2,695 and the R9 at $4,995....P5 seems like a real deal.
The big selling point with P5 is something called a TT-PSU, which is an external engine. It's standard on the top two models, but for this table, it's extra. This is a major upgrade, since the name of the game when it comes to turntables is vibration. Cutting out vibrations from your room, from your speakers, from the engine itself - all of these are factors. And the higher-level tables remove the engine from the rest of the table entirely. This is really where you end up in the top-tier of music players.
This is why I keep that $3.20 sticker on my copy of Led Zeppelin IV. It also helps that I have no money to speak of.
So...I'm sure the Rega fans will heap their praises, and good for them. Project is a little newer, so perhaps their fans haven't built up as large a following yet. Certainly the cottage industry for spare parts and extras is tiled heavily in Rega's favor. But, again, this is largely built on how much you want to tweak your table...and how much cash you've got on hand.
I'll close this off before it gets too long. I really don't intend this to be some online buyers' guide. You should only trust your hi-fi dealer or friends who have direct experience. My notions and opinions are all second-hand, at best. I wish I could sit down someplace and just listen to all these tables. I'm sure you'll have an opinion or two of your own.