There are some great choices of new turntables for those getting into (or back into) vinyl. Some great choices are the Teac TN300, Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, and Rega RP-1 for $300, $400, and $445 respectively. Those decks will get you pretty solid analog sound with decent speed stability sent through an analog signal (meaning you need a phono preamp). The Teac even has a built-in preamp and USB output, although to many, running your awesome analog signal through you computer speakers seems to negate the whole point of listening to records.
For the same money, with a little diligent shopping, you can get way more “bang for your buck” with a vintage turntable. Also, your deck will be a conversation piece, especially if you match it with a vintage amplifier or receiver like the Pioneer SA8500 or Marantz 2230. Probably the best places to find a good vintage turntable would be estate sales or vintage hi-fi shops. With estate sales, the stereo system will often be displayed where it’s been for the past several years, ready for you to give it a test spin. Hi-fi shops will usually test the equipment and do any necessary restorative work before putting a turntable on their shelves. However, getting to an estate sale before someone else grabs the goods can be a daunting task and hi-fi shops sometimes charge more than you’d pay looking for a turntable on Craigslist or eBay. The internet is a good “easy” way to shop for vintage turntables.
The Technics SL-1200 series turntables are probably the most bulletproof of vintage turntables, but their desirability means finding one in decent shape for less than $500 can be nearly impossible. If you do find one for cheap and it works, grab it quick; worst case scenario you flip it on eBay or Craigslist. Thorens, Dual, Marantz, and Pioneer have made some great turntables that can be had for under $500 and that should, with proper care, stand the test of time and outperform most newer turntables.
My weapon of choice is the Dual 1229. A decent one in good working condition should cost between $350 and $500 if you’re shopping eBay. If you’re lucky with Craigslist, you could often nab one for as little as $150. I scored mine for $300 in 2014. Including the dustcover and optional flip-front plinth, the 1229 cost $300 new in 1972, which is $1725 in “2016 money” when adjusted for inflation.
What I got for my money is a German-made, rock solid turntable that weighs just under 20lbs with the plinth. A good chunk of that heft comes from the 7lb dynamically balanced platter that acts as a big flywheel, knocking wow and flutter down to .06% (way better than any of the modern turntables I mentioned). That massive platter is driven by an idler wheel instead of by a belt or via direct-drive, so motor noise is low while the time to reach proper rotational speed is very quick. Signal to noise is 63dB, which is pretty much on par with most sub-$500 turntables available new today.
Unlike the modern units I mentioned, the Dual 1229 is fully automatic and can actually be operated as a changer, meaning you can stack records on a spindle and automatically play up to six discs. The tone arm automatically adjusts it’s height to accommodate for the added height, keeping the stylus at the proper play angle. That tone arm, by the way, has 4-point gimbal suspension and anti-skate. The 1229 also features pitch control with an illuminated strobe, three playing speeds, and the option of quickly changing cartridges via the skeletal headshell (necessary if you’re into playing old 78rpm records).
The 1229 is a great soundstage for pretty much any choice of cartridge with the exception of Grado, which can cause excess hum in this turntable. An Audio Technica AT95E is a fine enough “basic” cartridge and can be had for $40. Mine has a vintage Stanton 680 with an original Stanton stylus (by the way, if you’re considering a Stanton or Pickering cartridge and find it has an aftermarket stylus, skip it).
The “cons”? Well, sometimes the automatic start doesn’t hit the lead-in on the record and starts a few seconds into the song. This usually happens with newer pressings and can be avoided by holding the cue lever until the automatic mechanisms lets go and then dropping the arm manually. Some people actually convert their 1229 to fully manual operation, but really you should just look for a manual turntable if it drives you that crazy. Also, some people complain about the noises that come from the automatic operation, which remind me of an old clock, but those only happen before the record plays, no during playback, and as I said before, if it’s a problem, look for a manual turntable.
Overall I’m extremely happy with my Dual 1229. The only upgrade I’m considering is swapping the smoked-grey dustcover for something clear to better showcase it in my living room.