Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

What do you do when you’re shopping for a product in a category you know nearly nothing about? It’s a question I’ve spent most of my career in hi-fi journalism attempting to answer, and it’s my hope that readers perceive me not as someone who tells them what to buy, but who helps them figure out how to decide what to buy.

So back in the autumn of 2023, when SoundStage! founder Doug Schneider casually commented at the tail end of a wholly unrelated conversation, “Hey, we need to add vinyl playback to your reference system, if only so you can actually test phono preamps,” I figured I had this covered. I know how to shop for electronics. I’ll find something in the $500 to $1000 range, I told myself, buy it, and be done with it. How hard could this be?

Buckingham Nicks

And yes, I know I’ve been paid good money to write articles about my complete lack of meaningful adult experience with and interest in vinyl. Seriously. In an article dated 01 June, 2023, I concluded by saying:

Put it all together, and I’m probably not going to fuss with vinyl anytime soon, and I apologize to those of you affected by this. I might at some point add a record player to my setup again, especially if Buckingham Nicks doesn’t come out on CD soon (unlikely) . . . If I do fall to the Dark Side, though, you can rest assured I’ll almost certainly be bringing a separate phono pre to the party. So I suppose, at the very least, I could say something about the relative merits of the onboard and outboard solutions. But even still, you probably should ignore anything I say about the performance of vinyl, because I’m just not a fan.

But the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ Wookiees gang aft a-gley, eh?

Back to my original point: When I was trying to decide which new reference integrated amp to add to my system last year, once I made up my mind that the time had come to finally decide, it took me maybe a day of deliberation to settle on the NAD C 3050.

It was really the tried-and-true pros-and-cons list that did it. What features mattered to me? What was essential and what was optional? What would give me the flexibility I needed to do different sorts of product reviews? The C 3050 checked all the right boxes for me, except for a few minor quibbles with BluOS, which I nonetheless think is the best multi-room wireless music streaming ecosystem.

At any rate, I set out to make a similar pros-and-cons list for vinyl playback. And I quickly realized that, beyond a few truisms—such as the fact that transducers always make the most difference in any signal chain—I had practically no idea what made one turntable better than another, nor what my preferences might even be. So all I had to go by was a rough budget range and a chip on my shoulder.

I asked some industry friends for shopping advice, and I got bombarded with questions I didn’t understand and flooded with contradictory advice: Never buy a direct-drive turntable; belt-driven or GTFO. Never buy a belt-driven turntable; direct-drive or GTFO. Definitely get an Ortofon cartridge. Get literally anything but an Ortofon cartridge. Semi-automatic operation is a must. Don’t buy anything that’s not completely manual.

It quickly became apparent that the answer to the question “How do I decide which turntable to buy?” was simply “You should buy the one I bought,” which changed depending on the person to whom I was speaking. And there was a pervasive notion that anyone who has been into hi-fi as long as I have is already a vinyl expert and perhaps just needs a refresher on the latest developments, whatever those might be. I found myself getting more confused by the minute.

After a few months of floundering, I stopped by the then-relatively-new Village Green Records in Montgomery and interrogated owner Travis Harvey (whom you may remember from a later visit I documented in last month’s column about Record Store Day 2024). What should I look for in a $500 turntable? What’s the difference between, say, a $500 ’table and a $1000 one? What features are important? What should I ignore?

“I would recommend staying in the $500-or-less range, frankly,” Travis told me. “Typically, I would recommend even less than that for most people, because I come across so many who think they’re going to get into vinyl, and then a year goes by, and they’ve used their turntable five times. It’s just not right for them, and that’s 100 percent OK. So if I’m giving people buying advice, I don’t want them to make an expensive mistake. To me, even spending $300 on a mistake is too much.”

The coolest thing about this visit was that Travis didn’t make any assumptions. He showed me how automatic and manual turntables differ, operationally speaking. I got some real hands-on experience with the mechanics of it all in a way that started shaping my opinions and preferences. All of it was, in a word, invaluable.

For more of that, I headed up the road to Classic Audio and Records in Prattville, where owner Stephen Rich kindly offered to walk me through the process that he’d go through with any customer who came in looking for turntable-buying advice.

Classic Audio

The first question he asked me threw me for a loop: “What kind of music do you listen to?”

Not that it should matter, I said, but I kinda listen to anything and everything.

“Yeah, everybody says that, but really—talk me through, say, what you’ve been listening to today.”

Not a problem. I started the day off with some good ol’ Grateful Dead. Like ya do.

“Makes sense.”

Followed that up with some selections from a Flying Burrito Brothers / New Riders of the Purple Sage playlist.

“Ah, OK, I’m starting to get it.”

Next up, during my morning swim: Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Visions of the Emerald Beyond.

“I get you!”

And on the way home, I threw on N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton.


Then some early solo George Michael.

“Uhh . . .”

A bit of Merle Haggard on the way up here.


And depending on whether or not I turn on, tune in, and drop out, maybe some Circles Around the Sun or some early Shpongle. Or possibly some KMFDM.

“I get it. OK. You really are all over the place. That’s good to know.”

But why? Why does it matter what I listen to? I would never ask someone shopping for speakers that question. Certainly not someone in need of a good integrated amp or receiver. A good component should sound good with everything, right?

Right?! I’ll admit, I didn’t expect Stephen to have a satisfying answer to this, but he did:

To me, the sonic characteristics of your system really come mostly from your cartridge, and I’ve found that people who listen exclusively to one genre or style of music tend to have very specific preferences in terms of cartridges. I’ve noticed that people who are into jazz, especially vocal jazz, really like Grado cartridges.

But a lot of rock guys tell me that Grado doesn’t do it for them. They’re more likely to dig something like Audio-Technica cartridges, which are frankly good for anything you want to listen to. I’m not here to judge; I’m here to guide you toward a purchase you’re going to feel good about, and asking that question helps me figure out what you might like or not like.

Classic Audio

Dang, that’s sensible. Given that I was looking for something more neutral, I asked where he might guide me if my budget were, say, $500? He replied, quite correctly:

$500 is a lot of money—unless you have a massive budget. The average person out there doesn’t have thousands of dollars to put into a system. But if you have $500 to spend and you want the best bang for your buck, the first thing I’m going to ask is whether you care if it’s new or vintage. Are you open to a used ’table? If so, you’re going to get a lot more for the money. It’s like buying a car: you drive it off the lot and immediately the depreciation is significant.

The other thing about new tables in the $500 range is that they’re so much alike. There are more similarities than differences because a lot of them are made in the same Czech factory. A lot of them have the same designs, the same motors, the same tonearms. They don’t have a lot of personality in the $500 range.

But in that same range, look at this pre-owned Music Hall MMF-5. It has a very nice Goldring cartridge on it that would cost you $550 if you bought it new on its own. But that’s what I’m selling the entire turntable for.

You don’t really see cartridges that good on new $500 turntables anymore. Which is why I would tell someone shopping for a new turntable with a $500 budget to spend $300 tops on the turntable itself and then upgrade it with a $200 cartridge.

Music Hall

Talking with Stephen and getting hands-on experience with such a variety of turntables, new and old, unlocked something for me. I started to get things I didn’t get before. I started to really grok features like vertical tracking angle (VTA) adjustments and different types of tonearms because I could see them. I could touch them. For the first time, I started to form preferences that I could articulate rather than merely feel in my lizard brain.

I kept up with the interrogation, though. I asked Stephen a question I’d asked a few industry gurus in my initial hunt-and-peck phase of trying to find the right turntable: “What do I get for spending, say, $1000 instead?” Typically, the answers from industry friends had boiled down to “better build quality, better cartridge, better everything,” with no real sense of what “better” actually meant. But Stephen’s response was very concrete and hands-on:

“This Yamaha PF-800 is a little over that price point at $1200, but it’s a good example of the things you should expect to get when going up in price like that. It has a very nice tonearm—go ahead and touch it, feel it, see how smoothly it moves—but more importantly, it has this undermount three-point suspension, which I absolutely love. I think it’s the best suspension ever designed.


“This is what started it,” he said, pointing at another lovely vintage player. “This is an AR turntable. They invented this three-point undermount suspension. It’s sheer engineering genius. They didn’t patent it, though, so other companies ran with it. And other companies actually did a better job of it than they did. I’m a big SOTA fan, and they have one of the best undermount suspensions on the market, in my opinion. And they’re American-made. My SOTA ’tables at home? I could slap the plinth while they’re playing and it doesn’t skip. All you hear is my hand hitting it. Fabulous suspension.”

Another realization was unlocked: American-made. Those words hit my dorsal anterior cingulate cortex like ASMR porn. I try hard not to let my politics influence my journalism, because the instant I use the word “socialist,” most people stop listening to anything I say about any subject, political or otherwise. But this quest to find my perfect turntable—while it started as a purely technical exercise—had become a very personal decision very quickly. And if I’m spending my money, it’s important to me to live my values. The thought of getting an American-made turntable was instant catnip. And that’s not a jingoistic thing, as I’ve said before. If I were English, a Rega turntable would blow wind up my skirt. Were I Glaswegian, a Linn would be the unattainable white whale I longed for.

Recording cleaning

My thoughts drifted in that direction while Stephen continued with truly meaningful advice, including some revelatory hands-on demonstrations of different cleaning techniques (like running my original pressing of Buckingham Nicks through a schmancy ultrasonic cleaner), all of which put a lot of Joseph Taylor’s maintenance advice into sharper focus.

As we were talking about the cleaning supplies, Stephen said one last thing that resonated with me: “An important thing to consider and something we don’t talk about enough: Do you like the way it looks? Does it fit your décor? Because it can be a technically great turntable, but if you don’t like the way it looks, soon enough you’re gonna stop interacting with it as much. You’re gonna get tired of it.”

And I guess, in some respects, that was the permission I needed to ignore the Technics turntables a lot of people on Reddit were screaming at me to buy. I’m sure they’re technically solid. Technics is one of my favorite brands for electronics. I’m sure I’d be happy enough with the performance. I just find myself turned off by their looks.

As I looked over the tableful of ’tables in Stephen’s shop, my eyes were drawn to those with wood plinths, or MDF covered with faux-wood vinyl wraps. Or even those with a splash of color. The ones that looked like they paired best with a second turntable and a microphone, on the other hand, just weren’t doing it for me.

Vintage and used

Those thoughts were in my mind as I left Classic Audio & Records and called my SoundStage! Access brother-in-arms Thom Moon for some further insight. And in many ways, he reflected and amplified all of the advice Stephen gave me. He started off by pointing out that I should be shopping for a phono cartridge and working backwards from there. And he also quizzed me about my music preferences. When I pushed back against that, he gave me a rationale remarkably similar to that Stephen gave me:

It sounds like you’re an Ortofon kind of guy. Grado cartridges are smooth as silk, but they’re just kind of—and I’m speaking as someone who owns a Grado cartridge I don’t use as much—they’re just a little unexciting when playing exciting music, if that makes sense. Boy, if you’re into listening to chamber music, though, the Grados are dynamite! Just beautiful. They pull all the instruments out and make them sound just gorgeous.

But on rock’n’roll, it’s kind of like, “OK, when does the rockin’ start?” Now, I love the fact that Grados are made in an old storefront in Brooklyn, and they make really good cartridges. But it really depends on your style of listening and what you listen to. It’s a very personal thing.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Ortofon 2M Red is a rock’n’roll animal. It is rather bright, but it has a lot of dynamics. It shows off a lot of detail. And sometimes, depending on what volume you’re playing the record at, it can get to be a little much. I like the Red. I think it’s a great cartridge, particularly for the money. It’s one of the best values you can get. But the 2M Blue has smoother performance. It renders things that might sound screechy with some other cartridges much more tolerably.


I have a Blue on my Music Hall Stealth. It pulls a lot more detail out of the groove than even something like the Sumiko Oyster Moonstone. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily smoother or mellower. It’s just a less-jangly signal.

Here’s the thing, though: I used to have like five cartridges, and for some kinds of music I would use my Shure, and for other kinds of music I’d use my Grado, and then I had an ADC I’d use for some things. And at some point, I just decided, my life is too short for this kind of thing. Find a cartridge you like and stick to it, you know? Bottom line? It sounds like you need an Ortofon 2M Blue.

The SoundStager with whom I have the deepest musical connection agreed. Xperience’s aforementioned Joseph Taylor got right to the point on the phone: “You would like the Ortofon 2M Red. You’d love the 2M Blue, though.”

Even my podcasting partner, Brent Butterworth, who has exactly zero patience with me on any subject, but especially when I’m being indecisive, told me to just get something with an Ortofon and STFU about it. So I did some direct comparisons, and it turns out Joe, Brent, and Thom were all correct. I liked the 2M Red. I loved the 2M Blue. I thought the upgrade from there to the 2M Bronze was digging way into diminishing-returns territory and nowhere near worth the price delta. So that settled that. I didn’t even consider the 2M Black. I’m not writing for oligarchs here.

Getting back to my conversation with Thom, at some point during our long and rambling palaver, I mentioned that the whole American-made thing resonated with me hard, and he reminded me of U-Turn Audio in Woburn, Massachusetts. “It’s a fascinating story, U-Turn,” he told me. “I mean, they were three college buddies who couldn’t afford the turntables they wanted and didn’t want the turntables they could afford, so they decided to get together and build one themselves. And people in the dorm kept asking, ‘Where’d you get that turntable? That’s really hot. Would you build me one?’ So they crowdsourced the money to turn it into a real company.”

I looked over the U-Turn website and fell in love with the customization options. The Orbit line of turntables starts at $249, and what I really dig is that, from there, you can add upgrades piecemeal, swapping up for isolation feet and an acrylic platter, and so forth and so on, building an upgraded turntable in much the same way Johnny Cash built his first Cadillac. Just, you know, legally.

The Orbit Custom also lets you mix and match features of the Basic, Plus ($399), and Special ($549) to home right in on the features that matter most to you right up front. The company also sells replacement parts where possible, directly from the website. And for not a lot of money at that. A replacement power supply is, sensibly, $15. A drive belt is a mere $9.

Speaking to friends who own U-Turn turntables, I heard story after story about exceptional customer service, when needed, and great communication. I wanted to know a little more, so I reached out to the customer service email and got a reply back directly from cofounder Ben Carter, who answered a laundry list of questions, including “Just exactly how American-made are these things?” He told me:

Our products are assembled in the USA using parts from domestic and international suppliers. Generally speaking, the larger/heavier components like the plinth, platter, tonearm, dustcover, many machined metal parts, etc., are custom made for us by US suppliers. Smaller parts and electronics mostly come from overseas (motors, PCBs, cable assemblies, cartridges).

We prefer to use domestic suppliers and materials whenever possible, but for things like PCBs and motors, it’s hard to find quality domestic suppliers without paying a very high premium. Cartridges are a bit of a different story. Theory comes with Ortofon (Denmark) 2M Blue or Bronze because we think they are excellent cartridges and a good match for Theory’s tonearm. But we also offer Grado (USA) and Audio-Technica (Japan) options on other models.

At this point, I was torn between two ideological drives: the desire to buy locally from a mom-and-pop shop and the desire to buy American-made without breaking the bank. Frankly, if they had been a purely personal decision, I would have driven back up to Classic Audio & Records and headed home with that Music Hall MMF-5 and zero regrets.

But it’s not a purely personal decision, is it? It was around this time that I remembered the whole reason this adventure started was so I could evaluate phono stages. And when I looked around online, it certainly appeared to me that most people could at least claim to have a point of reference for an Ortofon cartridge, which the MMF-5 doesn’t have.


I spent the evening building a U-Turn Custom online with the features I thought might help me do my job better, including a built-in phono preamp that I could use as a point of comparison for other phono stages. And I felt really good about this decision. It was in my $500-to-$1000 budget window. It was red, which is just objectively the best color for a turntable.

But right before I pulled the trigger, I decided to read Thom’s Top Turntables Today on SoundStage! Global to see if there was anything I would regret overlooking. The write-up about the U-Turn Theory sent me into fits of analysis-paralysis all over again, and Thom’s review of the same made some points I found really compelling.

The Custom, decked out like I wanted it, was sitting at around $745 USD. For an extra $336, I could get the more advanced one-piece magnesium OA3 Pro tonearm, with its more sophisticated counterweight, an upgraded acrylic platter, a machined aluminum spindle, a more advanced stainless-steel gimbal bearing, and a higher-performance motor. I lost the shiny red finish and had to pick between solid walnut and oak (“harvested from sustainably managed forests in the USA”). I decided that all of the above seemed worth the extra coin, though. I checked in with Thom, who replied, “It’s my pick for a $1000 table, no question.”

So here we go. “Leeroy Jenkins!” as the youths used to say 20 years ago, when I was already an old man. I checked with Ben really quickly before adding the Theory to my cart, just to make sure there wasn’t a sweet cherry finish coming soon—how I would love to have a turntable that matched the finish of my favorite guitar, a beloved 2008 PRS Core Mira—and he assured me twice that no new finishes were being considered anytime soon.


So I pulled the trigger, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. Am I going to regret this in a month? Who knows, honestly. I might. But for now, I don’t think I could have made a better decision, given that I had no choice but to make some decision. At least not for my wants and desires and professional needs.

I doubt I’m going to become a complete vinyl convert in the near future. But there’s one element of this that’s exciting—and that’s putting it mildly. Since I started all of this research, the person who’s been pestering me the most to make up my mind and just buy a freaking turntable has been my wife, who has never had any interest in my stereo system but seems super-invested in the idea of vinyl playback. I had no idea that she’d been squirreling away a burgeoning record collection in her office for years now, just in the hopes that one day I’d review a record player the company didn’t want back.

Honestly, if I can hook her into the hobby and convince her to sit beside me and share my music, quietly, attentively, actively, on rainy Saturday mornings over a cuppa and some peanut butter toast, it’ll all have been worth it. Y’all, I might be married to a hi-fi enthusiast soon, and I won’t even have to get divorced to make it happen!

. . . Dennis Burger