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The very best record players of the 21st century

Rega Planar 3: best turntables of the 21st century
(Image credit: Rega)
Vinyl Week on What Hi-Fi?

Technics

(Image credit: Technics)

Welcome to Vinyl Week on What Hi-Fi?, in association with Technics. You can find out more about how Technics has been defining turntable culture for half a century and the company's SL-1200M7L Limited Edition turntable.

As the vinyl revival continues to grow, turntables have once again become one of our most popular product categories, with as many being made at the lower end of the market than ever before as manufacturers hope to get more and more people onboard the hobby.

Every year we dish out several What Hi-Fi? Best Buy Awards in the turntable category, and the one we feel offers the absolute best value gets our special 'Product of the Year' gong.

The record players you'll see below are all Product of the Year winners (i.e our favourite decks of each year), representing the best performance-per-pound turntables you've been able to buy this century over the past 22 years. Naturally, you can spend more money and often get a better deck for doing so, but these are our picks of the best-value ones based on our strictly enforced reviewing criteria.

As you'll see, the turntable category has had plenty of repeat winners over the years – and from the same handful of manufacturers too – which just goes to show the long-term value of a high-quality deck. So don't throw those LPs out any time soon.

2000

Pro-Ject Debut II: best turntables of the 21st century

Pro-Ject Debut II Tested at £110

Back at the turn of the century, turntables had to make do with a cursory mention in the Accessories section of the Awards issue.

Our pick for the year 2000 was a simple and straightforward set-up from Pro-Ject. It produced a “rich and detailed soundstage” and good dynamics.

At the time we said that the budget price tag would allow you to “keep that old vinyl collection in employment for a good few years yet”. Well, we were kind of right...

2001

Pro-Ject Debut Phono: best turntables of the 21st century

Pro-Ject Debut Phono Tested at £140

Combining the turntable above with the phono stage Award-winner, Pro-Ject's very own Phono Box, made this a great one-box solution for anyone looking to take their first step on the vinyl ladder.

Needless to say, we were impressed by the sound quality, especially the "finely layered midrange, low-frequency punch and impressive detail".

2002, 2003

Audio Note TT1: best turntables of the 21st century

Audio Note TT1 Tested at £725

In 2002 we went up a price point or three for our Product of the Year. The TT1 was based on a previous Award-winner from a company called Systemdek (the IIX). Audio Note swapped the glass platter for an acrylic alternative and tweaked the bearing, suspension springs and power supply.

The Audio Note also used a tonearm based on Rega’s much-loved RB250, and a customised Goldring cartridge called the IQ1.

The results spoke for themselves, with the turntable moving us to all manner of superlatives. Amazing dynamics, masses of detail, taut bass: the Audio Note had it all.

We liked the TT1 so much that we invited it back for another Product of the Year gong in 2003. As we put it, “it’s rare to find a complete turntable package in this price category, but Audio Note’s TT1 delivers the performance to match its convenience. That’s why it’s a winner… again.”

2004, 2005

Clearaudio Emotion: best turntables of the 21st century

Clearaudio Emotion Tested at £655

The TT1 found its reign as Product of the Year halted in spectacular style by the Clearaudio Emotion. The Emotion was cheaper, the build quality was in a different class and the sound it delivered was out of this world. It had a huge range of sonic talents, from brilliant dynamics to outstanding timing.

Our only grumble was the lack of a lid - and the consequent realisation you'd need to get your duster out every so often.

The combination of the deck, the Clearaudio Satisfy tonearm and an Aurum Classics Wood cartridge helped it stay at the top of the class in 2005, too.

As we said back in 2005: “We’ve lived with the Clearaudio for over a year now and it continues to thrill and delight every time we take it out.” It may have looked like a Philippe Starck special, but we were under no illusions just how talented this turntable was.

2006

Pro-Ject RPM 5: best turntables of the 21st century

Pro-Ject RPM 5 Tested at £400

Pro-Ject’s Debut range of decks was dominating the budget turntable arena, but it was the new RPM5 that stood out as one of the finest products we’d tested in 2006.

The asking price bought you a deck and a carbon fibre tonearm, although you did need to budget for the cartridge. The end result was a turntable that delivered “all the detail you could reasonably expect for the money in a very musical manner".

2007, 2008

Rega P3-24/Elys 2: best turntables of the 21st century

Rega P3-24/Elys 2 Tested at £500

Rega’s P3 was based on the company’s Planar 3 turntable, but with the addition of some serious upgrades - the plinth, arm and motor were all improved.

You could buy just the turntable and arm for £400, but our sample was also fitted with Rega’s own Elys 2 cartridge, a model that would become part of the Rega furniture for years to come.

It was a terrific-sounding package, with class-leading and rival-obliterating drive and rhythmic ability. It’s fair to say this turntable left a lasting impression, so much so that it won the Product of the Year Award twice in a row.

2009, 2010

Clearaudio Concept: best turntables of the 21st century

Clearaudio Concept Tested at £1050

Another Clearaudio Product of the Year, but in 2009 (and keeping its crown for 2010, too) there was a new model in town: the Concept.

At £1050 it wasn’t for the faint of wallet, but this ‘plug and play’ turntable was a package that was hard to resist. Everything from the cartridge weight to the bias adjustments were set at the factory to make set-up easy.

It was a well-engineered, desirable deck that turned out an excellent performance, sounding at home “with everything from Nirvana to an old mono recording of Ravel's Boléro". 

2011 - 2021

Rega RP3/Elys2: best turntables of the 21st century

Rega RP3/Elys2 Tested at £550

Rega Planar 3/Elys 2 Tested at £625

This is, frankly, getting a bit ridiculous now. But Rega's unchallenged winning streak has been decades in the making, and this model can trace its lineage straight back to the original Planar 3 from 1977.

Since 2011, the Rega 3 has been among the most successful Award winners in recent memory and has definitely earned its place on this page.

Essentially a refined version of the Rega P3 winner from 2007, the RP3 introduced minor adjustments to its RB300 tone arm and extra structural reinforcements.

The current Planar 3 underwent more "seismic" changes in 2016 – redesigned main bearing, sturdier plinth, new finishes, a new RB330 tone arm – raising the performance to untouchable heights in this price range. To this day, it continues to set the benchmark for all other record players at this level because a) it's so easy to use and b) it delivers a fantastic sound for the money.

Can it be stopped in 2022? We'll have to wait and see.

MORE:

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Ketan Bharadia
Technical Editor

Ketan Bharadia is the Technical Editor of What Hi-Fi? He's been been reviewing hi-fi, TV and home cinema equipment for over two decades, and over that time has covered thousands of products. Ketan works across the What Hi-Fi? brand including the website and magazine. His background is based in electronic and mechanical engineering.