Audio | April 14, 2020 10:22 am

The Best Vinyl Setups From $500 to $5,000

You've been thinking about getting into vinyl. There's never been a better time.

The Best Vinyl Setups From $500 to $5,000

During quarantine, music has become more important than ever. We have more time to listen, of course, as we work from home, are cooking more meals and generally just hang out indoors more. But it’s not just casual listening that’s been on the rise. We find ourselves with more time than ever to sit down and really listen to music. Uninterrupted, dedicated listening.

That being the case, it occurred to us that there’s never been a better time to get into vinyl. For our money, it’s the format that’s most conducive to and rewarding of dedicated listening — and no, we’re not looking to make any big argument about whether it is or isn’t technically the superior format.

We realize we’re not saying anything new here, but we’re still of the opinion that there’s something nice about picking up a record and dropping a needle on it, then sitting down — preferably in a position where we form an equilateral triangle with our speakers — and poring over the record sleeve and liner notes while letting the music wash over us.

And fortunately, there are currently more great, audiophile-level pieces of gear being made at a wider range of prices than ever before. The cost of entry into the hobby has never been lower — and nor the possibilities for upgrades and expansion. Below, we’ve given some suggestions for entire systems ranging from beginner to advanced. We think all of them will sound great and provide every bit as much comfort and enjoyment as you ask of them.

Under $500

Turntable w/ built-in phono pre-amp, powered speakers

It’s true: there are even more affordable ways to get into vinyl, but we don’t recommend any of them. I’m talking, of course, about the all-in-one Crosleys they sell to college kids at Urban Outfitters or to old-head nostalgists on QVC or wherever. They sound bad, are terrible for your records and don’t look nearly as cool as anyone thinks they do. What we’re recommending here butts right up against the $500 limit, but includes pieces you’ll be able to enjoy for years. It consists of a turntable with a built-in phono preamp and a pair of powered, wireless speakers — and that’s it. You’re off to the races with a system that’s going to sound very good for not a whole lot of money.

Audio Tecnica LP3

With its built-in phono preamp (or phono stage, as it’s also known), the LP3 from Audio Technica is a breeze to set up and therefore suitable for anyone who’s new to the hobby. But what really makes it stand out is how it’ll grow with you if you want it to. The onboard preamp can be bypassed for a superior external unit, and the included AT91R cartridge (the “needle” and its housing) can easily be upgraded. There’s a lot to like about the LP3 and really nothing worth complaining about.

Peachtree M24 Wireless Speakers

The M24 is among the best-sounding speakers you’ll find at the $300 price point, full stop. What makes them so impressive, though, is that they sound so good even despite how many other features they bring to the table: they have a built-in phono preamp if by chance you’re using a turntable that doesn’t, plus they offer Bluetooth connectivity, so you can stream directly from your phone, computer or other digital source. And get a load of that genuine bamboo housing.

Under $1,000

Turntable, entry-level phono pre-amp, powered speakers

Once you’re willing to drop $1,000 on a setup, you’re probably in it for the long haul, and this is where stuff really starts to get fun. You’ll get a more refined turntable with higher-quality materials and construction that cuts down on unwanted resonance. Further helping in that department, you’re now looking at an external phono-preamp, which is your first step toward a more customized setup. Your speakers at this level will offer a lot more power and a more impressive soundstage.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC

The Debut Carbon DC from Pro-Ject is probably the best-selling audiophile turntable on the planet, and with good reason. It’s got a belt-driven motor with impressive suspension, an 8.6” carbon-fiber tonearm, and it comes standard with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, which is worth $100 on its own. The Debut Carbon also comes in a bunch of snazzy colors for a more modern look if that’s your thing.

Audio Engine A5+ Wireless

When it comes to bang for your buck, it’s tough to beat the A5+ Wireless, which packs an impressive amount of smooth, powerful bass and a whole lot of features: aptX Bluetooth HD capabilities and wireless functionality chief among them. There’s an intangible quality to these that just makes you feel like you’re listening to the real deal, because you are.

Pro-Ject Phono Box

There are a number of phono preamps available in the $100-and-under range, and the truth is you’d be fine with pretty much any of them — they’re not going to color the sound all that much at this price point; rather, as stated above, their primary function is to separate your components to keep all your signals as clean as possible. We recommend the Pro-Ject because it’s the only one at the price that will accommodate a moving-coil cartridge as well as a moving-magnet cartridge.

Under $2,000

Upgraded turntable, integrated amp, passive speakers

As we creep up in price, we’re still in the process of separating out as many functions as possible, so that each of your components is performing a single task, which they presumably do better than components that are asked to multitask. Here we introduce the integrated amplifier, the name of which would seem to contradict what I just said. What’s integrated into the unit is a power amp and a pre-amp, which … is hard to explain and probably not super relevant right now. An integrated amp is basically a receiver, but without a radio tuner built in. Also at this price point, you’re going to want to get speakers that are just speakers: no bluetooth, no wireless functionality.

Music Hall Audio MMF 2.3

Real talk? There’s not a whole lot separating this Music Hall from the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon we recommended in the sub-$1,000 category. In fact, they’re made in the same factory and even feature the exact same tonearm. With the Music Hall, you get some added heft and a cartridge produced by Audio Technica, which doesn’t sound better or worse than the 2M Red you get with the Debut Cabon, just different. We owned the 2.2 for a decade, and it treated us brilliantly. You really can’t go wrong with either. Or the Rega Planar 1, for that matter.

Focal Chora 806

Outside of audio-dork circles, Focal is not particularly well known. It’s a French brand that designs sleek, modern-looking products that are innovative on the inside and out. Their new Chora line has a lot of people very excited, and the bookshelf version, the 806, features a “slate-fiber” cone and an aluminum/magnesium tweeter. They’re also available in a cool beige color that sounds like it should look old-fashioned but somehow doesn’t.

Marantz PM5005

OK, so here’s your new piece of gear, the PM 5005 from Marantz, a company that’s been a favorite of audiophiles for decades. While this integrated amp may not have the cool neon lights and big silver dials of the brand’s ’70s products, it’s still a really great performer. You get up to 40 watts of power per channel, dedicated front-mounted controls, a high-quality built-in phono preamp and enough connectivity options that it’ll easy handle anything you throw at it for years to come. (Except Bluetooth. You’ll need a Bluetooth transmitter for that.)

Under $3,500

Premium turntable and speakers, upgraded integrated amp

Things are getting pretty serious here. For this amount, you’re getting into the middle tier of audiophile products, which is to say products that will sound as good as just about anything else on the planet to probably 95% of people. You’re getting better motors and cartridges on your turntables, more lifelike reproduction of sound from your speakers, and pure, clean power from your amplification.

Rega Planar 3

Rega is a British audio brand that’s been around forever and has the utmost respect of everyone in the hi-fi community. Their Planar 3, which was updated in 2016, features the company’s RB330 tonearm, which boasts lower resonance and heightened stability over previous models. You also get a heavy glass platter that helps dampen unwanted vibrations and, let’s be honest, looks fucking killer. For $1,145 it comes mounted with the Rega Elys moving magnet cartridge. You can get it without a cartridge for $945, but priced at $400 on its own, the Elys is a pretty great value.

KEF LS50

KEF’s LS50 was first released back in 2012, and it was a revolutionary design at the time, featuring three co-axial drivers mounted concentrically, giving it an appearance that has now achieved icon status. The resolution and clarity you’ll get from the LS50 is eye-opening, similar to what you’ll find on speakers that cost considerably more.

Rega Brio

The Rega Brio is an absolute stunner, offering up 50 watts of power per channel with as much musicality as muscle. It’s also got a built-in phono preamp that sounds incredible. It’s a bit of a one-trick pony, in that it doesn’t offer any of the features some of its competitors do — there’s no Bluetooth and no DAC — but that should tell you everything you need to know about how well it does what it does.

Under $5,000 (OK, $6,000)

Turntable, speakers, integrated amp, tube-driven phono preamp

By the time you get up into this price range, there are so many options and such a limitless amount of money you could actually spend that it’s almost silly. But only almost. You’re going to continue getting better materials and more innovative proprietary designs on your turntables, and, should you choose to go this route, higher-quality components included in your amplification, which will help bring your entire system up to snuff, not just your analog sources. And just for kicks, we’ll introduce some tube amps into the mix — because you’ve clearly shown that you’re not afraid to enter some wildly ill-advised rabbit holes. Good for you, we say.

Clearaudio Concept

At $1,800 it may seem crazy to say that the Clearaudio Concept is a great value, but it is. With the Concept, you get serious industrial German design, near plug-and-play ease of use, and sound quality that far outperforms anything in the price range with its bright and responsive moving coil cartridge.

Revel Performa3 M106

We are well aware that the Revel M106 isn’t a particularly sexy or new choice for this price point — it came out in 2012, after all, and looks like any old run-of-the-mill bookshelf speaker — but it’s possibly the single most of impressive piece of audio gear we’ve ever heard. It’s kinda bullshit whenever anyone says a speaker makes them feel like they’re in the room with the musicians, but the M106 is the closest we’ve ever come to even thinking about saying that out loud.

Cambridge Audio CXA81

We’re huge fans of Cambridge Audio around here, and they make so much great affordable audiophile gear that it’s actually pretty surprising they haven’t appeared on this list until now. (Spoiler alert: there are many, many different configurations for each of these price points that would still be really, really awesome; arguing about it is part of the fun.) The CXA81 is everything we could ask for from an amplifier in 2020. It’s got a whopping 80 watts per channel, Bluetooth connectivity, a no-joke built-in DAC (digital to analog converter), and a sound that’s detailed and warm. You could spend $1,000 more and still not come close to what you’re getting here.

Tube Box DS2 Phono Preamplifier

So … one thing about the CXA81 we just told you about is that it doesn’t come with a phono preamp onboard, which means you’re going to have to buy one. And since we’ve come this far, why not dip your toes into the wonderful world of tube amplification? Allow us to recommend the Pro-Ject Tub Box DS2, which will serve as a perfect introduction to the category. You’ll get classic tube warmth and that will convince you once and for all that there’s nothing the slightest bit old-fashioned about this decidedly old technology.

Accessories and Add-Ons

Now that you’ve spent a bunch of money on your actual system, it’s time to … spend some more money. No one said vinyl was an inexpensive hobby, and while none of these items are totally necessary, we think they’ll add to your experience.

AM Clean Sound Record Weight

Record weights screw onto the spindle of your turntable and help apply extra force to the center of your records, creating better, more consistent with the platter. This cuts down on resonance and can help flatten records that may have become warped. There are some models on that market that cost three times as much as this one, and we don’t see a big enough difference to recommend those. At $60, though, this one’s worth it.

Acryl It E Acrylic Platter Upgrade for Pro-Ject Essential Turntable

For people who’ve gone with any of Pro-Ject’s more entry-level tables — and many, many people do — this is by far the most popular first upgrade people make. Replacing the aluminum platter with the acrylic one means you no longer have to use that annoying felt mat that’s always getting stuck on your record when you go to flip it. It also means your turntable looks about 60 percent cooler.

Blue Jeans Cable Canare 4S11 Speaker Cable

Of all the very, very dopey things audiophiles argue about, speaker cable is far and away the dopiest. The amount of money you can drop on the stuff is absurd, and while we cannot in good conscience recommend any of the really high-end cables unless the rest of of your system warrants it (and even then … we don’t know), we do recommend going for something a bit more substantial than the real bargain-basement wires. Best case, you get a slightly less distortion. Worst case, it looks a little tidier and more put together.

OREA Indigo Isolation Puck

Vibration is the enemy of any turntable setup, and if your listening area is small enough that your turntable and speakers are on the same surface, you’re definitely going to want to cut down on vibrations as much as possible. Or if you happen to have two young children who are constantly running past your turntable and causing it to skip. Place these under the already-included feet and you’ll cut down considerably on all that.

Pyle Pro Rackmountable Power Strip Surge Protector

You’ve spent a lot of your hard-earned money on all this gear, so you should probably drop another $60 on a high-quality surge protector to make sure none of it gets fried. This will also help with cable management and keep everything looking nice.

MDR-1AM2 Wired High Resolution Audio Over-Ear Headphones

For those late-night listening sessions, you’re going to want a good pair of headphones. And please, no wireless shit here. Get yourself a traditional pair of wireless cans and open up a whole new world of music.

Invest In Vinyl Clear Plastic LP Outer Sleeves

If your cat scratches the spines of your unprotected record sleeves, you’re going to be really fucking pissed.

AudioQuest Anti-Static Record Cleaner Brush

There’s much debate about whether these things actually do much to cut down on static, but in our experience, they’re pretty useful for removing unwanted dust or paper particles from inner sleeves. This should not be your only cleaning tool, though …

Spin Clean Record Washer System MKII Package

If you’re buying a lot of older records, or if you’re spinning any of your new records more than others, you’re going to want to give them a good cleaning, after which you’ll be amazed by how much better they’ll sound. The Spin Clean gets mixed reviews from some diehards, but this package will do just fine for most people.

Ortofon Carbon Fiber Stylus Brush

What good is a clean record if you’re just gonna drop a dirty-ass needle on it? (Hint, no good at all. Get a stylus brush and make sure your needle’s clean.)

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