Q: I am looking for an inexpensive turntable for my father as a gift. He has a very good receiver with built-in phono preamp and Axiom speakers. What do you recommend under $400?
-- B.H., Pittsburgh
A: I commend you for introducing your father to the wonderful world of vinyl records. I have long been a fan of records for the warm, natural sound and the wide variety of music available very inexpensively on the used market. Under $400 there are only two turntables I know of that are worth considering. Fortunately, both are solid choices and you won't go wrong either way, even in his high-quality system.
The first is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB, which lists for $299 but can be found online for under $220. It provides a true taste of vinyl magic and is exceedingly well made for the price, having solid heft and looking like a clone of the legendary Technics SL-1200. The turntable has a USB output for transferring records to a computer and also has a built-in phono preamplifier so you can use it with any receiver, even those lacking a phono input. Your father's receiver has a phono preamp so if you get him the AT-LP120-USB instruct him to turn off the turntable's phono preamp and use the receiver's instead. Audio-Technica upgraded the mediocre DJ cartridge originally fitted to the turntable to their well-regarded AT-95E HiFi cartridge, which makes this turntable an even better buy than it was when I first recommended it two years ago.
Mark Twain had a saying that "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." In the $200 turntable pecking order, this turntable is lightning. The sub-$200 USB turntables that you find in department and big-box stores are the lightning bugs -- cheap junk that you should stay away from. Anyone who wants to play records should seek this product out and spend a bit more rather than buy one of the cheapies. You will be very glad that you did. For more information, visit www.audio-technica.com.
The other choice is the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon for $399. This is a true audiophile product and though entry-level by audiophile standards, you have to spend $1,000 or more to clearly outperform it. It has an excellent Ortofon 2M Red cartridge mounted to an exotic carbon-fiber tonearm and the whole package looks and sounds great. Pro-Ject makes accessories like an acrylic platter and a motor controller so your dad can tweak and upgrade it as time goes on. It does not have a built-in phono preamp, which is OK in your case but readers considering this turntable will need one. For more information, visit www.sumikoaudio.net
You are lucky to live in the same city as Jerry's Records, one of the very best used record stores in the world. Jerry's is an audiophile landmark and many vinyl record fans make pilgrimages there to spend a day looking through the incredible inventory, most of it sorted, cleaned and priced for under $5 per album. My website has a feature about Jerry's Records that you can see at http://tinyurl.com/jerrysrecords. Be sure to pass on the link to your dad as I am sure he will want to visit once he has that new turntable hooked up.
Contact Don Lindich at www.soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.