The past two years have been great for me, as a reviewer, having had the opportunity to audition a good number of fine turntables, from entry level to the top of SoundStage! Access’s purview. (You can find my turntable reviews on SoundStage! Access almost every month.) For this posting, I revisited my reviews for the past two years, selected the finest examples of the science and art embodied in high-value turntables, and summarized my findings in reverse order of preference.
8. Pro-Ject Audio Systems E1 Phono ($399; all prices in USD)
Pro-Ject bills the E1 as a “turntable made for everyone,” an apt characterization. It comes in three versions: the base E1 ($349); the BT, with built-in Bluetooth connectivity ($499); and the E1 Phono, the one I reviewed, which includes a phono preamplifier. The E1’s most unusual feature is its lightweight ABS platter. Usually, a turntable platter has some heft to it to help maintain a steady speed. But motor technology has improved to the point that it can largely compensate for low platter weight. The E1 is easy to set up, and it plays music just fine. The inboard phono stage is extraordinary for a turntable of this price. At its retail price, the E1 is made accessible to almost everyone, and to the casual listener, it is worth every penny.
7. Thorens TD 102 A ($1099)
The TD 102 A is an elegant-looking unit that has many fine qualities. It features automatic operation, which allows the user to play a record without having to find the lead-in groove by hand or pick up the featherweight, carbon-fiber tonearm at the end of playback. The TD 102 A includes an inboard phono preamp, which I found to be good but not quite as good as my APT Holman preamp. Overall, setup and operation are easy with this turntable. Its only shortcoming is the mounted Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge ($69 retail), which produced lackluster sound. If I were to buy the TD 102 A—and I was tempted—I’d budget, at a minimum, for an upgraded stylus. This would undoubtedly improve its sound.
6. Dual CS 518 ($799.99)
I’ve long been a fan of the Dual brand. In fact, Duals have graced my systems from 1970 through most of 2022. In 2018, when the company, under new management, came out with a new line of manual and automatic turntables, I was eager to hear them. The CS 518 was the first of the current offerings I had the chance to review, and I was pleased with what I heard. It uses the firm’s classic twin-gimbal arm mount, which maximizes tracking ability. It comes with an excellent, factory-installed Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and a built-in phono preamp, which combine to produce great sound. The CS 518 is definitely worth its price.
5. Dual CS 429 ($799.99)
The automatic CS 429 differs from its manual sibling, the CS 518, described above, in one important way: it’s automatic. Purists deride automatics, saying the mechanism creates drag on the tonearm, which degrades the sound. This may have been the case in the past, but in my experience, not anymore. I found the CS 429 to produce very satisfying sound, with very good dynamics. It, too, includes a phono preamplifier and is fitted with the popular Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. As with the CS 518, 78 rpm speed is available for playing your grandparents’ (or possibly, great grandparents’) collection of 1940s Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, or Toscanini 78s (you’ll need an optional 78 rpm stylus). Setup is about as simple as it gets, and operation is equally straightforward. The tonearm is not as refined as that of the CS 518, but it certainly isn’t cut-rate. As with the CS 518, the CS 429 is well worth its price.
4. Thorens TD 402 DD ($1299)
For much of my life, I lusted after one of the classic Thorens ’tables from the 1970s. I’ve never managed to acquire one, so when I had the chance to review the new TD 402 DD, I was stoked. It carries on the midcentury-modern look of those classics but with tasteful updates. The DD stands for direct drive, quite a change from the firm’s longstanding reliance on belts. It is equipped with an inboard phono stage and with an Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge, the same cartridge supplied with the TD 102 A. Again, I was disappointed with the sound of the cartridge and replaced it with an Ortofon 2M Red, which provided a much richer, more compelling sound. With a better cartridge, the TD 402 DD would have ranked higher on this list; still, it’s a beautiful, fine-sounding turntable.
3. Pro-Ject Audio Systems X1 ($1099)
Paired with the excellent Sumiko Oyster Olympia cartridge ($199), the Pro-Ject X1, without question, is a terrific turntable. Its design includes an exceptional platter-bearing system that minimizes speed variations and rumble. Its tonearm is carbon fiber, but its cartridge headshell is not interchangeable. To me, this is a major drawback—a non-starter—because I use different cartridges for different kinds of music. To those who don’t burden themselves with swapping cartridges, this is a non-issue. The antiskate system of the X1 is something of a nightmare: it uses a small counterweight suspended by a fine nylon thread, unlike the spring bias used in many other turntables. If your hands are a bit unsteady, your eyesight a little flawed, or your coordination a bit off (I’m blessed with all three), you’ll need a pair of needle-nose pliers and a magnifying glass, and much perseverance, to thread that line and set this up. Setup ergonomics issues aside, the sound the X1 produces is simply stunning. The X1 is an outstanding turntable worthy of your consideration.
2. U-Turn Audio Orbit Theory ($999–$1249)
U-Turn is a real success story: three college friends wanted turntables but couldn’t afford anything good, so they decided to build one themselves. The result of that effort drew attention from friends, who wanted a similar deck. The trio then crowdsourced funds, formed a company, and went into production. In September 2022, as U-Turn approached its tenth anniversary, the company introduced its most advanced turntable yet, the Orbit Theory. Building on the simplicity and quality of existing designs, U-Turn incorporated in the Orbit Theory much of what they’ve learned over the past decade. The redesigned tonearm is now made of magnesium, with a polymer headshell for rigidity; speed is now controlled electronically, with outstanding accuracy—there’s no more moving the drive belt to change speed (my major bugaboo about the Orbit Plus and Special turntables). The basic Orbit Theory comes equipped with a fine Ortofon 2M Blue moving-magnet cartridge, but you can upgrade to the 2M Bronze as an option. It is available with an inboard phono preamp, one that I found to be exceptionally good. The Orbit Theory stands out among U-Turn’s offerings and is among the best sounding turntables in its price range. One wonders what’s going to be on the table when U-Turn approaches its 20th anniversary.
1. Music Hall Stealth ($1649)
I reviewed some pricy units this year. I had realized that my 30-plus-year-old Dual CS 5000 had been outperformed by many new turntables near its price; it was time to upgrade, and for a reference-level turntable, I had to be looking at pricier models. For me, the Music Hall Stealth had the ideal price-to-performance ratio. It has several attractive features: direct drive, interchangeable headshell, and auto-stop that turns off the motor at the end of playback, to name a few. Physically, its hulking chassis weighs in at 24 pounds. The Stealth name reflects its appearance: it’s almost entirely black. The tonearm, at 9″, is a bit longer than usual, which helps reduce distortion and mistracking, and is equipped with a $239 Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, a significant upgrade from the 2M Red. The Stealth allows you to change the vertical tracking angle simply and on the fly, handy if you go from a standard-thickness LP to one pressed on thicker, 180-gram vinyl. The Stealth’s performance, with many musical genres, completely outclassed my Dual CS 5000, offering a full, rich sound with great frequency extension. As it also bettered all the other models at this price level that I auditioned, it is now my system’s reference turntable. Notably, the Music Hall Stealth was both a SoundStage! Network Reviewers’ Choice award recipient and one of the Exceptional Value winners in the SoundStage! Network Products of the Year awards for 2022. Yes, it’s the most expensive turntable I reviewed in 2022, but it’s worth every penny.
None of the turntables in this select group is a dud—they are all great-sounding turntables. Those I ranked lower (due to their cartridge) may sound perfectly fine to others—different people have different sonic preferences. As I compiled this summary, I reflected on how far turntable technology has come. If you’re considering jumping into the record pool, don’t hesitate; this is a great time to start building a record library. There are fine turntables aplenty within reach to play your records!
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!