A Rega P1, or a Music Hall 2.2, either is a good choice in your price range, 300-450 new. You might get lucky and score a used one for a few dollars less.
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What is the current table you have and what cart is on it? Could it just be that it could just needs a new stylus or cart even?
For phono preamps under $400 new I would say look at the Jolida JD9 phono preamp (There have been many a thread posted here praising this preamp). A phono preamp that I currently own and enjoy is a Cambridge Audio 640P phono preamp. Best of all it can be found for under $200.
As for budget TTs the recommendations are what others told me when I was looking for new budget TTs. I'd also add the Pro-Ject Debut III TT.
Spend more on the table and less on the cartridge and you will be better off and positioned to upgrade when funds permit. The Ortofon Red is $99 or less and quite good; the Musical Fidelity V series phono stage is $179. Buy these or equivalents and spend the rest on a good used table. I have sold tables for over thirty years and am still a dealer for several brands but my personal tables are both ones I bought used.
Even though u r entry level u sound like u want high end sound. I would recommend a used Linn turntable and the Jolida tube phono preamp. I think that would be your best combination for the lowest price. If u want cheaper then a used rega turntable and an NAD PP-2 mm/mc phono preamp should do the trick for a lot less money. I would still go for the first suggestion which will sound better.
Belt drive Rotels are underated and not in denmand,
I have a Rotel 850 that sounds better than my Rega 2.
One of the biggest myths in Audio is that Jap DD's don't sound good,A Sony X-5,6,7 or top Sansui will better a Linn,I've seen it proved more than once.
A DD Dual 701 is very sweet but no secret so not easy to find or cheap when you do.
In your shoes, I wouldn't spend equal money on the table and phono stage. The cheapest ($150 or so used) phono stages can be very acceptable sounding as a stop-gap. I'd put the bulk of the money into the deck, as that'll give you a good foundation to work from - upgrading the cart and phono stage down the road. The lowest end dec will only take you so far, and you'll most likely have to replace the deck if you upgrade anything around it to hear differences.
I'd be a bit Leary of used decks, but that's just me. People buy and sell them all the time, so I know I'm in the minority on that one. Too many things can go wrong in packing, shipping, set-up and breakdown IMO. Then you're at the mercy of the seller's honesty about cartridge life and wear. For me to buy one from anyone other than a local dealer, it would have to be in the original box and packed they way it came from the factory.
Not sure of exact prices, but I'd look into a Rega RP-1, or see if anyone has a P2 left around. I'm pretty sure the P2 was discontinued, but maybe not.
I'm not a fan of the Music Hall decks, but the MF 2.2 is a good deck. I own and really like the Pro-Ject decks. They're made in the same factory as Music Hall decks and share a lot of critical parts, yet for some reason, several dealer's I know have nothing but negative things to say about them. They all dropped them and carry Pro-Ject, and praise Pro-Ject's track record. I think it has to due with some design flaws.
I own a Pro-Ject 1Xpression that I upgraded the platter and cart on, and added a Speed Box to over the course of a year or two. Couldn't be happier, but then again if I had it to do all over again, I'd buy a Rega P3.
If you're looking for a solid deck that'll stay with you for a while, you can tinker with it, and it'll show improvements every time, buy a Rega. If you want to set it and forget it, and vinyl will be a change of pace rather than a major source, a Pro-Ject may make more sense.
I've owned the Debut III and 1Xpression. The 1Xpresion is far better and easily worth the extra cash. The Debut doesn't do much better than the stock cart; the 1Xpression easily showed me an improvement with my Dynavector 10x5, which cost almost as much as the deck itself.
Just a few thoughts.
WOW, thanks for all the info! I was actually considering a Project Debut III to get started with. Luckily I know a dealer who sells them locally... United Home Audio in MD. Aren't they and Jolida one and the same?
To those curious, My current deck is a JVC DD from some time in the 80's...with a low end Audio-Technica cart. It sounds pretty crappy.
The Debut III is a very good deck for the money. I know several people who've owned them, and every one of them upgraded rather quickly. It's not because it's a bad deck, it's just that the tonearm doesn't really do well with a better cartridge. The Xperssion has a far better tonearm that'll handle a few steps up the ladder.
But it must be said that the Xpression's stock Sumiko Oyster cart is garbage. Plan on scrapping it almost immediately for something else. The dealer I bought my Dynavector cart literally thought it was broken when I brought the deck in. After putting the cart under a microscope, he said "this cartridge isn't shot, it just really sucks!" That wasn't a sales pitch, as he's earned my trust.
There are some excellent carts out there that won't cost an arm and a leg. Ortofon and Goldring come to mind. Grados do to, but they have hum issues with Pro-Ject's and a few others in my experience.
Sorry if that's getting side tracked. In a nutshell, if you're considering an Xperssion, budget an extra $100 - $150 for a suitable cart. But again, the Xpression easily justifies the extra cost over the Debut.
The Music Hall 2.2 is an interesting deck that's a bit cheaper and comes with a far better stock cartridge than the Xperssion. I know a few people who've been happy with the 2.2 for quite a while.
You are lucky to have a dealer that has both the Pro-Ject Debut III and Jolida products so close. You can audition and possibly try them out in your set-up without having to buy and then re-sell if it doesn't sound good. I believe Jolida.com is in MD as well so they could potentially help you out as well.
Any idea as to what AT cart you have? The reason I ask is that I found that a TT I'm trying to fix up has an Audio Technica AT10 cart and I read that even if it is a budget cart one can change the stylus to make it sound very good.
It could be a potentially good way to save some $ and have decent sound while you are researching things for your vinyl set-up.
I also own a Cambridge 640P...bought for about $179 new (fairly recently) as I wanted/needed that rumble filter (not readily available in most phono preamps). I did an experiment yesterday where I A/B/Cd it with some other sources...CD player and Wifi Apple Lossless through a Dacmagic and my Linn Basik/Akito/AT440MLA all adjusted for level playing Steely Dan's "Aja"...and damn if there wasn't striking similarity between all of 'em (the TT sort of won the battle, but it was cool they all were SO close)...that 640p is a steal at its price and is a really well made sonic charmer.
I've been in their show room before...Absolutely incredible. Staff is incredibly knowledgeable, well, the one guy that was there. And showed me some absolutely incredible stuff, and I sat down with him and listened to some of the earlier Stones stuff on a Reel to Reel that they had set up, which, I've never heard sound quality quite like that, or the TT that he was using for that matter. I believe a Clear Audio Reference if I'm not mistaken. And also showed me some other amazing stuff that I'm pretty sure I'll never be able to afford. I believe Jolida and UHA are one in the same, and are ran out of the same offices.
He also was suggesting to me PROject decks to me when I was there, which is now the way I'm leaning, and I'm really happy I could go in there and pick one up when I have the cash to do so.