The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXIII: The Return of the $500 Rule
Back in the early days of the Vinyl Anachronist--we're talking about the first four or five installments written back in 1998--I came up with two specific rules for having the kind of analog rig that would beat the sound of the average CD player at the time. The first rule had to do with taking good care of your records. That meant storing them properly, cleaning them with a wet record cleaning machine and properly mounting and aligning a cartridge so that it didn't carve new grooves into your favorite LP's.
The second rule, known as 'The $500 Rule,' stated that you had to spend about $500 on a new turntable (less if you were going with a recommended vintage table in very nice condition) that was good enough to convince you that LP's sounded better than CDs. I picked that price point because that was the cost of a Rega Planar 2, and I hadn't heard a turntable with a lower price that met the conditions of this rule.
So why revisit this now? First of all, it's 2020 and it seems very unlikely that this rule would still be relevant--but it is. Even the mildest inflation should have driven up the price of a decent turntable in the last 22 years and converted the $500 Rule into a $1000 Rule. If you told someone in 1998 that you could still buy a decent turntable in 2020 for $500, they'd probably laugh.
Second of all, I just finished reviewing a $500 turntable, complete with arm and cartridge, for my magazine Part-Time Audiophile. I picked this turntable, the Fluance RT85, for the simple reason that it retailed for that exact price and I wanted to see if my rule was still relevant. In my review, which should appear on the PTA website in a few weeks, I cover much of the same points I presented in the first two paragraphs above. Since I'm usually averse to recycling articles for different publications--I'm the guy who once had to write one Vinyl Anachronist column for US readers and an entirely different one for New Zealand and Australia--I'll stop rehashing my experiences with the Fluance. I really wanted to discuss the $500 Rule in broader terms here, something that I couldn't do in the review because I think it's poor form to directly compare one audio product to another.
(I know, a lot of reviewers do that. I don't because you rarely have the opportunity to compare two audio products side by side in identical systems. There are too many variables. Plus, one product might have a synergy with your system that the other doesn't, and vice versa. Finally, in a "comparo," someone has to lose. You gain more insight by examining everything on its own, and whether or not you enjoy its presence.)
Let's get back to $500 turntables. In 1998, there weren't a lot of them. Those were the Dark Ages of Analog, when most of the 'tables had disappeared from the market after the compact disc took hold and the only new models were much more expensive--usually because they were assaults on the state of the art designed for the remaining vinyl lovers, the die-hards. While the Rega Planar 2 certainly was good enough to satisfy The Rule, you could buy a Rega Planar 3, an all-time classic and budget champion, for just $599. That included the arm, and if you had a good dealer they'd throw in the entry-level Rega cartridge, the Bias, for next to nothing. I did exactly that in 1991.
In 2020, that's still a good option. The prices of the current Rega 2 series and Rega 3 series aren't a lot more expensive--$650 and $945, respectively--but these models also happen to be much better players than they were 22 years ago. Rega's a company that always searches for cost-effective improvements to the motors, tonearms, bases and such. In my opinion, the current Rega Planar 2 is as good as the previous generation's P3, and the current Planar 3 is as good as the previous generation's RP6. That's pretty constant up and down the line. The current Planar 3, by the way, is simply spectacular for the money.
The only Rega that's still $500, however, is the P1, which is now in its third version. I really disliked the first one--lots of corners were cut to make that price point. The platter was made from machined MDF, and it was prone to wobble. If there's a major design objective for turntables, it's having a platter that moves at a constant speed without wobbling. The only way to fix this was to buy the original glass platter used in most Regas, and that sent the price far above $500 and closer to the cost of the P2.
Fortunately, Rega fixed the P1 rather promptly, kept the upgrade package as an option and raised the price of the P2 so it wouldn't cannibalize sales of the P1. I listened to that version several times and found it rather pleasant and inoffensive to my ears. But if I was writing the check, I'd go for the Planar 2 or 3... again (I've owned one P2 and two P3s in my life). The current Rega Planar 1 costs $475 with arm and cartridge, and it's the best version yet in the series. It satisfies the $500 Rule, but in 2020 it has a lot more company.
In 1998, Pro-Ject and Music Halls were just appearing on the US scene. They were interesting competition, made in the same factory in Eastern Europe under different design teams. They seemed to offer similar performance for less money than Rega, but there were reliability and performance issues in the early days. I got into a lot of trouble recommending them on sound quality alone, which is decent--I had a lot of angry emails saying they arrived broken or weren't set up correctly. I backed away from those two brands, at least for a little while.
These days, both brands are still around. I don't have the exact figures, but I've been told that Pro-Ject has turned into the largest turntable manufacturer in the world, much larger than Rega. Many audio dealers sell Pro-Ject these days, and quite a few sell Music Hall. Why? Because they've become really good over the years (sort of like Hyundai). A few months ago I heard the Pro-Ject Signature 10 turntable ($6500 with arm), and it floored me. It sounded beautiful. Both brands have come a long way.
Both Music Hall and Pro-Ject still sell turntables under the $500 mark. The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, which has become a classic in its own right, still retails for $400 (that means you can spend the extra $100 on a better cartridge and still comply with The Rule). In fact, Pro-ject has several 'tables under $500 including many models in both the Essential and Carbon Debut series. Music Hall's entry-level turntable, MMF-1.5, is a much finer machine than the MMF-1 that first appeared a couple of decades ago. It's also $400, You can even buy the more stripped down 1.3 for $299. I've recently heard the Music Hall MMF-7.3 turntable ($1200), and again I was really impressed with the sound.
I've talked about the no-frills U-Turn Orbit line of turntables before. These designs are minimalist and focus on the engineering rather than cosmetics. So they're funky-looking, but they sound surprisingly good. I have a couple of audiophile buddies who bought them for a second system, and they always recommend the U-Turns to their non-audiophile buddies. These turntables garnered a lot of buzz when it was rumored they'd cost just $150. The final product finally came in at a more realistic price--close to Pro-Ject and Music Hall. The Orbit starts at $179, and that's with an MDF platter (meh) and a very inexpensive Audio-Technica cartridge. That doesn't comply with The Rule. But you can customize your Orbit with cartridges (up to the excellent Ortofon 2M Red), an acrylic platter, hardwood bases, cue levers and even a built-in phono preamplifier. This top model retails for $459 without the phono stage and $529 with, and it sounds good enough to make the cut.
Finally, I'll mention Fluance. This Canadian company offers a full line of turntables that start at just $250. As I mentioned, I went with the top-of-the-line RT85 which comes with an acrylic platter, a speed control motor and--get this--an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. It's a wonderful cartridge that I recommend quite often, and it retails for $236 on its own. The entire turntable, again, is just $499, so almost half the cost is tied up in the Ortofon. And yet the RT85 is anything but minimalist--it has great fit and finish and it even sports a dark walnut plinth that's very attractive.
It's amazing that after 22 years, the $500 Rule is still very much in effect. Over the last couple of years I've been discouraging people from buying cheap plastic turntables that sound terrible right up to the day they fall apart. STOP BUYING THOSE. You won't be a real "vinyl person" if you do. You'll be a poser.
Yes, $500 is still a lot of money for most music lovers, especially when we're talking about a turntable that doesn't include a phono stage, a built-in amplifier, a pair of speakers and, in many cases, a cartridge. After 22 years, there are more decent $500 turntables than ever. You have more choices. It's still a great time to get into vinyl as long as you aren't looking for shortcuts.
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