Q I am looking for an inexpensive turntable for my father as a gift. He has a good receiver with built-in phono preamp and Axiom speakers. What do you recommend under $400?
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 inexpensively on the used market.
Under $400, there are only two turntables I know of worth considering. Fortunately, both are solid choices, and you won't go wrong either way.
The first is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB (www.audio-technica.com), 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. Your father's receiver has a phono preamp so if you get him the AT-LP120-USB tell 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 its well-regarded AT-95E Hifi cartridge, which makes the turntable an even better buy.
The sub-$200 USB turntables that you find in department and big-box stores are cheap junk that you should avoid. 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 glad that you did.
The other choice is the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon for $399 (www.sumikoaudio.net). This is a true audiophile product and though entry-level by audiophile standards, you'd 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 such as an acrylic platter and a motor controller so your dad can tweak and upgrade it as time goes on. It doesn't have a built-in phono preamp, which is OK in your case, but readers considering this turntable will need one.
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