New or vintage?
Though it may not be the case with an amp, you aren't exactly at a disadvantage buying a new turntable versus vintage. Once you get out from the sub-$100 range, your firsthand options open up considerably. It's just a matter of how much you want to spend. Unlike older models, many new turntables offer modern conveniences like Bluetooth and USB output for digitizing your collection.
Our friends at Wirecutter recently weighed in on the topic in response to a reader's letter, saying that advances in electric-motor and speed-control technology have trickled down from more expensive models to those that are easier on the budget. In fact, the publication says its top pick would cost several times as much in the seventies than it does today.
However, many modern turntables skimp on creature comforts that were prevalent in vinyl's original heyday -- conveniences like auto-stop, which lifts the tonearm and stops the platter from spinning when that side of the record ends. It might not sound like a big deal, but it's a solid way to prevent unnecessary needle wear when you don't jump up to flip the record immediately. Of course, older turntables are going to sound a little different too ("warmer," according to our resident expert Jon Turi), so you have to decide if that's important as well.
If you go the vintage route, the same warning applies to turntables as it does amps. Quality matters, and buying from eBay or pulling your mom's old deck out of the attic could cause more frustration -- and eventually cost more money in repairs -- than buying used from the local stereo shop. You also need to check cartridge and replacement-needle compatibility, given that those wear out over time.
Belt drive versus direct drive
You have one more choice to make when it comes to your turntable: direct drive or belt-driven. With direct drive, the motor mates directly to the spindle. On a belt-driven model, the motor sits off to the side and is connected to the platter by a rubber belt. There are pros and cons in each case; how you plan to use the deck should be a factor in your choice.
DJs tend to favor direct-drive models because they're heavier-duty, their speeds are more accurate and the motor can withstand more abuse than a thin rubber belt can. For the everyday listener, they're great because you don't have to replace belts. On the other hand, the motors can introduce additional noise to the playback.
That's why belt-driven turntables tend to be favored by high-end audiophiles. The problem, though, is that belts can stretch and slip, which will prevent the record from spinning at the proper speed, thus affecting how the record sounds when you listen.
What you'll get for the money
Regardless of whether you go modern or vintage, you more or less get what you pay for. The important thing to keep in mind when you're looking at a record player is that if you invest wisely now, you won't need to keep replacing it (or repairing it) as time goes on. Aside from replacing the cartridge and/or needle, a good turntable won't require much effort after initial setup. If you go for a belt-driven model versus a direct drive, you'll have to replace said belt, but that's about it.
If your budget is tight, it's better to look for a good secondhand model ($100–$250) at your local stereo shop than buy a cheap new one. Lower-end turntables like some from Crosley are convenient, packing everything needed for listening into a briefcase-size box, but they're not made from quality components and can actually damage your records. Budget-minded decks typically skimp on things like adjustable tonearm weights, anti-skate settings and sturdier construction.