Welcome back to analog. There are few turntables depending on your budget that I recommend (in order of my preference):
1. the VPI scout
2. Basis 1400
3. Pro-ject (Sumiko)
I have also heard very good things about the MMF and the Rega tables, but have not had any serious listening time with either of them, so I don't think I can make very meaningful comments.
I own a VPI TNT and have found their products and service to be terrific--so I am probably somewhat biased to their tables.
One thing that hopefully others can comment on as well is cartridge choice. Since you have a MM phono section you may want to start with a MM cartridge. Ultimately you will likely move towards a MC cartridge and would then have to invest in another phono stage (or perhaps Plinus has an upgrade--I'm not sure). So when shopping for cartridges consider whether or not it will be with you a long time (as you did with the techniques p-mount). Hopefully, others can give some good recommendations on MM cartridges.
As for decent MM cartridges:
Goldring 1042 and Shure V15 (check revision #) are classic, current-production MM cartridges for $250-$350. For an excellent "value" cartridge, I love my Shure M97xE. That cartridge costs about $90 and replacement stylus runs about $50. For the price, you can start out with a decent cartridge, and later use it as a backup if you decide to buy a better cartridge. For the price, you just about can't lose.
As for starting out with a new table, I have the Music Hall MMF2.1 and it's a nice table for the money, but beware the tonearm (bearings, mass, counterweight) isn't designed for MC carts - the MMF 1.0 wouldn't be either. These two tables won't exactly grow with you. I think the 5.0 is fine for MC carts, but I am not positive. As far as your concern about long-term purchases, this sort of thing speaks to "Yes" - buy a little more table now than you think you need, and you'll be happier you did later on.
I would start with Rives' suggestions. Some Rega owners may also be able to name some good Rega tables that might be in your price range. I haven't played with one, so you'd have to get an owner's perspective.
Lots of fun,
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Tim, relative to other types of components (e.g. amps, CDPs) the return in good sound for higher quality, more expensive TT rigs is high. I am not you, but I would and have bitten the bullet. Are you in a position to listen to some players at a dealer(s)? Just something for your RADAR, the rig that I own and am now very happy with is a Nottingham Interspace ($999) w/ Origin Live modified RB-250 ($450) and Dynavector DV-20x-H (~$450) (10x4 as a substitute (~$300)). This is a solid combination at the same price-point as the 1400 & P25 and better than the P25/Exact that I heard. Good luck
You say this may be turning into an obsession, but obviously you are enjoying it.
all of the above recomendations are good, but as you say you want something that will endure, I would definitely get something that is upgradeable, and is interchangable.
The VPI hw19jr is only a little more money than a rega with the same arm, is upgradable, can be found used as well as new, and parts are all over and easily replaceable, and will be for many years, I'm sure. Same with any Sota, from the jewel up. Both can use virtually any arm. I think the Basis you mention also falls into this catagory.
Another suggestion; check on a benz-micro mc20e2 I think they may still be only $150. It may leave enough in your budget to get a better table, and good enough to get the sonic benifits of the money you spent on a better table.
Check out Grado's cartridge offerings since you need high-output. Their moving iron (variable reluctance) designs offer output levels at low, medium, or high levels, some cartridges within the same model-name even offer different levels of output depending upon your needs.
Tim regarding long term satisfaction: if possible, try to shoot for ther next level above what you're presently considering. Your Maggies & Plinius are more in that league than the bargain stuff.
You mentioned you were on a budget, but you didn't mention what that budget was. If it's over 500$, then I'd second the VPI suggestion made by Basement; if, however, your budget is sub-500$, then I'd suggest a used Rega Planar 3 w/ standard RB300 arm and mm cartridge of your choice (check previous threads for a good list of budget mm cartridges). There are a number of Regas for sale in the classifieds right now in the 300-350 range. The Rega will give you a nice taste of what quality vinyl playback can be like, and if you later decide to upgrade, you won't take much of a hit (if any) on the resale price. Let us know what you decide.
I'll 3rd Basement's recommendation. I really like my HW-19 Jr. Vinyl is a second source for me, but I bought the 19 because it is upgradeable. While I don't think I'll ever want vinyl playback to progress to the TNT, Master Reference or Simon Yorke level in my system, the Jr has some room to grow.
I would heartily recommend the TERES AUDIO turntable line. It is higher priced than REGA 25, but is one hell of a TT for the money. For $1350 for the TT, and about $250 for a RB250 arm, and the cart of your choice, you have a top-end contender, with room to upgrade. The TT can be upraded to lead shot-filled bases and platters. The RB250 can be upgraded with the Origin Live Mods, which transform the arm into a real great one. Add a Heavyweight, and a Incognito wiring kit, and you've got it. A rig like this would be competitive with tables costing well over $5k. It would cost you about $2k-$2.5k with all the mods. Plus cartridge. But you could get started real well for $1600. I have a TERES TT, and alot of really high-end TT owners would freak out if they heard how good this thing sounds for $1350. And it looks super too. It looks almost exactly like a Clearaudio Reference. And I think it sounds at least as good, and maybe better than the Clearaudio Reference at $6k. It's all acrylic, with a 2.75" thick clear acrylic platter, a huge, ultra-close tolerance bearing, Stand-Alone DC motor with microprocessor controller. Just beautiful. Check out their website, at www.teresaudio.com
I just purchased a VPI HW19 MK. II, with a Rega RB600 arm for $700 in perfect condition. Also, it ends up the Plinius is set up for hi output MC cartridges, so I have my eye on a used Dynavector 20X-H which is priced the same as their 10x4.
Some of the tables mentioned (Oracle Delphi, Teres) are just astounding, aesthetically speaking. I just couldn't justify making the additional jump up in expense to buy one of those works of art, but I am very pleased with the VPI and my records have never sounded better.
Thanks again for everyone's input and help. Of all the audiophile forums out there, the analog folks on Audiogon have consistently provided the best, most insightful and accurate advice. I'm very grateful.