Today music lovers are finding more and more of their friends have returned to a beloved 1960s listening form: spinning vinyl. Hearing a great album on vinyl for the first time is like cannonballing into a frigid pool of water after a dusty all-day trudge. Analog has a shocking vibrancy, a sudden clarity that’s absent from digital. You’ll think, “Holy shit, Carlos Santana really was so high on acid at Woodstock that he thought his guitar was a giant snake!” There are other perks. You get to own a music collection that can actually be sorted by hand; you can show off cool album cover gimmicks like a well-endowed jean wearer whose fly can be zipped and unzipped. You’re pessimistic if you haven’t experienced it yet. Trust us: it’s a great thing.
Unfortunately, buying a turntable is daunting. In this age of iTunes and MP3s, the balance of our knowledge has shifted firmly away from analog and toward digital. The segment also tends to idolize incredibly expensive hi-fi gear, which is all well and good, except that few newcomers or even seasoned vinyl listeners can afford the tippity top of the quality pyramid. Truth is, for the price of an iPod you can be the proud owner of a turntable with great sound and the chops to convey every form of jammery until you yourself are a vinyl
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Linn Majik LP12
Because a record player’s sound depends so heavily on the needle running through the grooves of the record, vibration is enemy number one. It’s the attention to the little things, then, that makes Linn’s Majik LP12 the best turntable in its price range. The Majik is actually a more accessible version of the absolutely iconic LP12; Linn, a company that’s been in the business of making audiophiles lose their minds for over 35 years, has done an incredible job of trimming the top-tier standard in the right places without turning the Majik into a poseur table. The Majik has top-notch components across the board; tortured over is a good way to describe its construction and design. Its belt-drive power supply has been precision-machined for accuracy and speed, ensuring the heartbeat of the player is steady (“wow” and “flutter” along with “speed error” are some of the prime ways to ruin a vinyl listening experience). A solid platter foundation in the form of a heavy-gauge stainless steel plate and subchassis further reduce interference from vibration. Linn designed the cartridge, which goes for just south of $500 on its own; the top-of-the-line carbon fiber tonearm is made by Pro-Ject, which is telling — more on that soon.
All of these bits are highly adjustable and can be upgraded easily, things hi-fi nerds preen about. Lest we forget amid this sea of tech specs, the Majik LP12 is gorgeous, surrounded by a plinth of black ash, american cherry, rosenut, maple and walnut. Show it to your woodworking father who still has boxes of dusty records mummifying in the basement and he just might have a heart attack.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon
The elite tonearm that the Linn uses comes from Pro-Ject, a younger Czech company that’s earned high standing in the industry and among fans and reviewers. Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon uses a very similar Pro-Ject carbon tonearm; in fact, the specs across the board for the Debut Carbon continue to be impressive for all but the most finicky of listeners. Its belt drive is precise and well isolated, its cartridge is excellent, and its tonearm has azimuth and tracking force adjustments, touches usually reserved for high-end tables. This is the perfect portrait of baseline excellence pulled off at the minimum price.
The Debut Carbon is missing a few things when compared against the quality-obsession Linn: there are no adjustments for vertical tracking angle on the tonearm, it doesn’t have the bombproof stability of the Linn’s suspended platter and subchassis, and without wood its aesthetic is far less vintage (though it pulls off a sleek and modern look well, especially with eight different colorways, and those looking for wood chic and a quality boost can explore the Pro-Ject 1Xpression Carbon Classic for three hundred dollars more). It also lacks the ability to upgrade that mad scientist audiophiles can scheme over; still, unlike the Linn, it has an easy out-of-the-box setup. Reasonable tradeoffs like these are why Debut Carbon sells for 10x less and what makes it the perfect turntable for beginners looking to get — and stay — serious about their new hobby.