With vinyl coming back, and with my interest and love of music, I decided I would get a turntable. So I got a cheap USB turntable like you can buy anywhere, and it played my records. But in the process of shopping for it, I saw many players that cost 10 or even 100 times as much. What finally pushed me over the edge was reading an article somewhere that asserted that the cheap USB players were actually damaging my records every time I played them. Since I only listen to old vinyl (more on that later), I felt like it was my duty to protect the records, even from myself, so I went out and bought my first 'audiophile' turntable. It cost approximately five times what the cheap USB turntable had cost, which obviously led me to ask the question 'was that worth it'?
There are probably a billion definitions, and there's a further complication between DJ turntables (meant to play records in a club) and what I'll call 'listening' turntables. For my purposes, I'll define an 'audiophile' turntable as one with a straight tone arm that can be rebalanced (to adjust how much weight presses on the record), and a cartridge that can be changed. There are lots more fun filled details that can be played with, but this gets you a general idea.
Great question! I'm going to set the bar low, because I'm cheap, but turntables can sell for as much as a car. I'm
not there, and may never be. For me, the question is between the cheap, and the not-quite-as-cheap. I'll let others
explore the higher end. For an entry-level audiophile turntable, expect to pay between $350 and $500 (US dollars).
2013 update: A project on kickstarter launched a new turntable company called U-Turn Audio, which offers an entry-level turntable at $179. I've not seen reviews for this table yet.
My initial search when I started looking turned up this old article from Sound and Vision, which listed Rega, Music Hall, and Technics (though Technics is often considered a DJ turntable). Searching further revealed other companies at a similar price point, like Pro-Ject, and in fact my turntable is a Pro-ject Debut III (review). Other companies you may hear mentioned include VPI, Goldmund, Linn, and Thorens. Basically, if it's for sale on Audiogon, and in your price range, it'll probably do the trick.
Let's start with the obvious: if it's true that cheap players are damaging your records, and these aren't, they're better. End of story. But I don't know the truth of that, so let's get to what you probably really care about: the sound.
You know how there's that one subtle music sequence in your favourite song, that you love for no particular reason? For me it's the bass line on 'Ramble On' by Led Zeppelin. I don't know why. What I do know is that on some music systems I can hear it perfectly, and on others it gets muddied away. And it bothers me when I can't hear it.
I offer this example because it shows how subjective 'better' can be. And finding anything other than 'subjective' reviews in this area is nearly impossible. Nuforce has a PDF in which they describe 'what an audiophile listens for', in which a lot of fancy words like 'Resolution', 'Transparency', 'Color', and 'Layering' get thrown about. Although you can use lots of words to describe each of these terms (and in the document they do), it's one of those cases where you have to hear it to really get what it's about. There's no question that, to my ear, the audiophile turntable has a more three dimensional sound, and more clarity and cohesion. It's better. But it's also subtle - the sound from the other turntable seemed 'flat', but it wasn't something I noticed until I actually compared the two side by side. This might make me a philistine, but it's worth saying - if you don't know (or care) what you're missing, you probably won't miss it.
A side note: one of the records I used to compare turntables has scratch that, on the USB table, causes skipping. The audiophile table was able to play through the scratch. I attribute this to all the fancy technology on the upmarket turntable.
I mentioned earlier that I don't buy new records, for the most part. This is because, to my mind, a completely digital workflow, as most modern productions are, that ends in an analog record seems a bit silly. It may be that the sound quality would be amazing, and much better than listening in digital, but I'm not sure I buy it. On the other hand, older stuff that was built for vinyl I would expect would sound better on vinyl. All of this is total speculation - at the end of the day, I imagine nice equipment and a good recording would sound good regardless of whether it's a CD or a record or whatever.