Q: I would like to buy a new turntable that includes the highly recommended LP Gear the Vessel A3SE cartridge. It seems like all the turntables I am considering include some sort of Audio-Technica cartridge or an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Am I forced to buy the A3SE cartridge separately and mount it myself? I don't know how to mount and align a cartridge, and I have heard it is difficult. I would like to stay at $750 or less for everything.
A: I'd love to see the A3SE come pre-mounted on more turntables, and I hope that sometime soon we will see manufacturers start to offer this cartridge as standard equipment. But until then, you have to go directly to LP Gear for a turntable with a pre-mounted A3SE. There are several models available, and I suggest you check out two in particular.
The first is the direct-drive Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB, which comes in a version that's "improved by LP Gear." This $349 turntable includes the A3SE pre-mounted on a better headshell (the mount that connects the cartridge to the tone arm) and an upgraded platter mat for better isolation from vibration. There is a built-in phono preamp and a USB connection for use with a computer.
For those of you who already own this turntable, you can get the A3SE pre-mounted on the better headshell for $148. It's a simple plug-in upgrade that will dramatically improve the sound over the stock cartridge.
Given your budget, I strongly suggest you step up to the belt-drive Music Hall MMF-1.5. Through Dec. 31, LP Gear has the MMF-1.5 with the headshell upgrade and pre-mounted A3SE for $499. It is called the "Deck the Music Hall MMF-1.5 Ultimate Package." (It's also available for $399 without the LP Gear upgrades.) It has a lustrous cherrywood base, and the high-quality, beautifully finished tone arm has smooth cueing and a dial for anti-skate settings. Assembly and setup is simple and easy.
The MMF-1.5 includes a precise electronic speed control with a 78 RPM setting. To get this kind of control with competing belt-drive turntables you usually have to buy a separate accessory that costs at least $100, and even then you don't get 78 RPM capability.
A built-in phono preamp allows you to use it with any receiver or powered speakers, and it can be bypassed if you have your own phono preamp or a phono input on your receiver or amplifier. It does not have a USB connection, but you can get one by adding the NAD PP4 USB Phono Preamp for $199. This will provide even better sound quality while staying within your budget.
You could buy a more expensive turntable, add the A3SE and still be under $750, but, as I considered all the possible combinations, none of them led me to changing my recommendation. When I reviewed the MMF-1.5, I said, "You won't find a better sounding, better looking or better feeling turntable for $399, not even close. It is easy to imagine it selling for $1,000 if it had a more exotic nameplate." The great sound, beautiful appearance, class-leading tone arm and comprehensive feature set make it an exceptional value. See both the AT-LP120-USB and MMF-1.5 upgraded turntables at lpgear.com.
Send questions to Don Lindich at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.