- Built-in (defeatable) phono preamp
- Auto-stop feature protects its stylus after the music ends
- Classic vinyl sound
- No USB port for ripping vinyl
- No Bluetooth radio for streaming
The Fluance RT81 is a high-quality, entry-level turntable that sounds great out of the box. You can upgrade its cartridge and pre-amp with higher-end components down the road, which makes it a great value.
Over the past few years, friends and colleagues have repeatedly mentioned the Fluance RT81 as one of the best entry-level turntables on the market. Its reputation is as close to a consensus as I’ve encountered in the audio world. So, I set out to determine if the Fluance RT81 turntable lives up to those kudos.
The good news is that it’s an outstanding turntable that deserves every bit of the praise that it’s received. The fact that it’s a huge bargain for the price is a major bonus. The belt-drive unit requires a bit of setup, but Fluance provides excellent instructions, and even more helpful YouTube videos to make it easy for a novice to get started with the RT81. It is missing two features another great entry-level turntable—the similarly priced Marley Stir It Up—comes with: A USB port for ripping your vinyl, and a Bluetooth radio for wirelessly streaming your music to Bluetooth speakers.
This review is part of TechHive’s in-depth coverage of the best turntables.
Fluance RT81 build quality
The RT81 is a belt-drive turntable that measures 5.5 x 16.5 x 13.75 inches (HxWxD) and weighs 14.1 lbs. The plinth is MDF with a high-gloss veneer made of real walnut. The platter is aluminum and the mat is rubber.
There’s a balanced S-shaped tonearm, a counterweight, and a headshell with a moving magnet Audio Technica AT95E cartridge. Until it was discontinued, that was the industry standard cartridge for quality entry-level turntables. The RT81 comes with a 3-foot RCA cable with a ground wire, a 100V – 240V (50/60Hz) AC power adapter with a 5-foot cord, a dust cover, a 45 rpm adapter, and a user manual.
A built-in Texas Instruments phono preamp is controlled by a switch, so you can defeat it to use your own discrete phono stage. Unlike many other inexpensive turntables, this one’s line-out setting bypasses all internal electronics to maximize the sound quality of your external preamp.
Setting up the Fluance RT81
The Fluance RT81 requires some basic setup out of the box. It might seem complicated for a first-time user, but this is almost as simple as it gets for a quality turntable. Since this is a belt-drive model, you’ll need to use the attached ribbon to guide the belt over the pulley once you’ve put the platter on the plinth and then added the rubber turntable mat.
Next, slide the counterweight onto the back of the tonearm until it clicks. Take the headshell (the piece attached to the cartridge and stylus) and slide it onto the front end of the tonearm before tightening the locking nut.
After removing the stylus protector, unlock the tonearm and position it over the platter. While making sure the stylus doesn’t touch the mat, rotate the counterweight until the tonearm is perfectly balanced. Return the tonearm to its rest and then rotate the indicator ring on the front of the counterweight until 0 aligns with the center line on the top of the tonearm.
Finally, turn the entire counterweight counterclockwise until you have a tracking weight of two grams. Set the anti-skate control to 2 grams and you’re ready to go. I’ve found that the ease of performing these steps is usually an excellent indicator of how good the turntable will be. Fluance’s setup is almost as easy as it gets.
Your next step is to decide if you want to use the built-in preamp. I found the labels a bit confusing, but you will set the preamp switch to Line if you’re using the included preamp. If you want to use your own phono stage, set the switch to Phono (bypass). I would have thought the preamp would go with the Phono side, and the bypass setting would be labeled Line, but that’s not how this one works. Read the manual and pay attention at this step.
After plugging in the power and connecting the RCA cable, slide the hinges onto the dust cover and then insert them into the hinge mounts on the back of the plinth. The last step is to decide if you want to use the Auto Stop function that stops the turntable from spinning when a record has finished playing, and starts it to spinning at the selected speed when you move the tonearm from its rest. If you turn off the Auto Stop function, you’ll need to set the speed knob to “off” to keep the turntable from spinning.
Auto Stop seems like the right choice unless you have a specific reason for turning it off. Choose your speed (33 or 45 rpm) and you’re ready to go.
If any of these instructions seem intimidating, Fluance has created helpful YouTube videos that demonstrate how to how to install the cartridge, how to properly balance the tonearm, how to adjust the speed, and even how to use the turntable with a wireless speaker.
Judging the Fluance RT81’s audio performance
Listening to “Welcome to New York” from Taylor Swift’s 2014 album 1989, the Fluance RT81, its Texas Instruments phono stage, and the Audio Technica AT95E cartridge deliver what I can best describe as a tight presentation. There’s a real sense that the mix hangs together as a coherent whole rather than as a collection of individual tracks.
That denseness is one of the factors that contributes to the romance of “natural” analog sound. The AT95E is an excellent entry-level cartridge, but it’s the Texas Instruments phono preamplifier that’s creating that pleasing “vinyl” sound.
I switched off the preamp and routed the turntable through the outstanding Andover Audio SpinStage phono preamp I reviewed recently. The SpinStage is tuned more for contemporary ears that value the details revealed by high-res digital audio streams. There’s more differentiation between instruments with the SpinStage, and an overall sharper sound.
If you’re nostalgic for the way LPs sounded on a good home stereo in the 1970s, or just for the idea of the old days if you’re not old enough to have lived through era, the built-in phono stage will be perfect for the long haul. And if you ever want to upgrade to a more advanced cartridge or phono stage, the RT81 will be ready for that as well.
Is the Fluance RT81 a good value?
Fluance offers a wide range of turntables. For $50 more, the RT82 offers a cartridge upgrade but loses the built-in preamp. The rest of the line improves the cartridges in $50 increments until the Fluance RT85, which TechHive reviewed in 2019, swaps in an acrylic platter at $499.99. Since the RT81’s phono preamp is the feature that the more expensive models don’t have, you’d need to provide your own phono preamp if you made the upgrade, and that would significantly increase your investment.
The Fluance RT81 is a stellar entry-level turntable, one that offers a far better experience than other low-priced options. Can you spend $100 on a turntable that will get the job done? Sure, but stretch your budget to $250 and you’ll get a unit capable of delivering the vinyl experience that the format’s proponents champion. Better yet, the RT81 is the kind of gear that will grow with a listener. Upgrade the other components in a system over time and this turntable will still be up to the task, especially if you give it a cartridge upgrade.