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Reviewers' ChoiceIt’s a great era for analog, with accessibly priced record players that let you join the fun without betting the farm. Many audio manufacturers, new and old, are entering or reentering the field, and we’re covering as many of their offerings as possible.

This time we have Fluance’s RT81 turntable, very competitively priced at $249.99 USD, including an Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge with elliptical stylus. In the past, Fluance has offered some great audio bargains. In 2012, I reviewed Fluance’s XL7F floorstanding speaker, which I thought amazing for $469.99/pair (now $499.99/pair). The RT81 may be low-priced, but it’s not the cheapest Fluance turntable. The RT80 ($199.99) has a lesser Audio-Technica cartridge, the AT91, which has a conical stylus.

Fluance RT81

Cheap the RT81 may be -- but is it any good? Read on, analog compatriots!

Description

At first glance, the Fluance RT81 is a fairly typical modern, entry-level turntable. It has a well-developed, industry-standard, S-shaped, “static-balanced” arm; a much-better-than-basic cartridge, Audio-Technica’s AT95E; a built-in phono stage, so that the RT81 can be used with amplifiers lacking same; and a useful Auto-Stop feature.

The RT81 is visually attractive. Its MDF plinth has a distinctive gloss finish of dark walnut that makes it look like a much more expensive model, and the included dustcover is heavy and stable. In the lower-left corner of the plinth’s top surface is a combination Off/Speed knob with LED power indicator. The knob’s center setting is Off; twist it to the left for 33 1/3rpm, to the right for 45rpm. When either speed is selected, the LED glows. The only other significant operational control is the cueing lever, which raises or lowers the tonearm. We’re talking simple and basic.

The lightweight platter is of cast aluminum topped with a thick rubber mat that grips the record firmly and should help minimize rumble. The attached dustcover operates seamlessly. The tonearm is finished in a black-powder coat, as are its ancillary attachments.

Purchased separately, the Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge costs about $50, so it’s a better-than-basic solid performer. All else being equal, its elliptical stylus will trace the groove more gently and more accurately than the conical styli of many cartridges at or near this price. It tracks at a reasonable 2.0gm. (As you might imagine, the lower the tracking force at which a cartridge can effectively trace the record groove, the less damage it does to that groove.)

On the RT81’s rear panel are the features you set and forget. From left are two RCA jacks for the audio output, and a ground lug -- if you want to use a fancier phono cable than the 6’-long one Fluance supplies, you can. (That said, the cables that come with the RT81 seem a couple steps above the usual wires supplied with inexpensive turntables.) Then there’s a slider switch, to turn the RT81’s phono stage on or off, and next to that a switch that toggles between Auto-Stop and fully Manual modes. In Auto-Stop mode, the platter spins only when the tonearm is moved away from the arm rest. In Manual mode, the platter starts spinning as soon as a speed is selected. The only other thing on the rear panel is the jack for the power supply, a small, 12V wall wart.

Fluance RT81

The RT81’s specifications are competitive if not class-leading. Wow and flutter is 0.2% -- a bit higher (i.e., worse) than some other ’tables in the $200-$300 range, but not a deal breaker. The weighted signal/noise ratio is 67dB -- right in the ballpark with much of the competition. In operation, I heard no problems in these areas. The RT81 measures 16.5”W x 5.5”H x 13.75”D, weighs 14.1 pounds, and comes with a spindle adapter for 7” 45rpm singles. Fluance offers a free 30-day in-home trial period, a two-year limited warranty for factory defects, and “lifetime” customer support.

Setup

Fluance has done a great job of packing the RT81 for shipment. When opened, the outer box reveals a second sturdy container. Open that and the ’table’s parts are revealed, easily available. The usefully comprehensive manual instructs the owner how to set up the RT81 in eight logical steps. The manual is one of the best I’ve seen -- even an analog tyro should find setup pretty simple.

Place the platter on the spindle, then loop the flat rubber drive belt around the platter’s rim and the motor’s pulley. This can be a tricky operation with some turntables -- see my review of the U-Turn Audio Orbit Plus in September 2014 -- but Fluance’s solution is brilliant: a red ribbon taped to the platter’s rim and hooked over the drive belt. You remove the tape, then use the ribbon to loop the belt over and around the pulley. It’s simple yet elegant -- about the best method I’ve seen so far.

Next, you install the counterweight on the back end of the tonearm, then connect the cartridge and headshell to the arm’s other end. Remove the stylus guard, balance the tonearm, then adjust the vertical tracking and antiskate forces. (I set VTF to the recommended 2.0gm.) Set the phono stage and Auto-Return switches on the rear to the desired positions, connect the signal and ground cables to the RT81 and your amplifier, and plug in the wall wart and power cord. Play a record!

Use and listening

As with many other types of audio gear, it’s a good idea to break in a turntable -- actually, the cartridge, its cantilever, and the stylus connected to it. For this review, I played about 30 hours’ worth of various LPs as background music before beginning to assay the Fluance’s sound. During this period, the Auto-Stop feature was a real treat!

I listened to a variety of genres, from classical to early-1960s folk, then moved on to ’70s pop/rock and more recent jazz. From the start, the RT81’s accuracy of speed and quiet operation stood out. My other initial impression was that the AT95E cartridge sounded pretty bright, seeming to overemphasize the upper midrange. But as time wore on, either I grew accustomed to the sound or it mellowed out, or both. (But I think the cartridge mellowed.)

One shortcoming was evident: The RT81’s plinth offered little resistance to shock -- not uncommon in inexpensive turntables. When I tapped a finger on the top of the equipment stand the ’table sat on, I could hear it through the speakers.

The cueing device worked perfectly. Even on some expensive turntables, the tonearm can drift, usually inward, as it descends to the record surface. That didn’t happen with the RT81, and it made selecting inner tracks much easier.

The first tune I seriously listened to was “You Can Call Me Al,” from Paul Simon’s Graceland (LP, Warner Bros. 1-25447). It’s one of my reference tracks, for the contrast of the relative sweetness of Simon’s voice with the percussive bass and backing line. This often creates problems for a cartridge and turntable, which must accurately reproduce both without artifact or distortion. The RT81 performed well with this track: There was no smear in the bass, no tonal coloration of Simon’s voice, and the other instruments were reproduced realistically. I was impressed.

I also often use “Finally Found a Reason,” by Simon’s former partner, Art Garfunkel, from his Fate for Breakfast (LP, Columbia JCT 357870) -- largely for Garfunkel’s light, clear voice and the acoustic-guitar accompaniment. The RT81 reproduced both with extremely good detail, good soundstage depth, and cohesive blend of backing voices.

Fluance RT81

Continuing my vintage kick, I pulled out Roger Nichols & the Small Circle of Friends, first released in 1968 (LP, A&M 1217). Nichols, a staff songwriter for Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, wrote, with Paul Williams, a little tune called “We’ve Only Just Begun.” It was picked up by the Carpenters, and Nichols is probably still pulling in royalties. That song doesn’t appear on this album, but Burt Bacharach’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” does. (The 1976 hit of this title, sung by Kiki Dee and Elton John, is a different song.) The Friends featured three singers, two men and one woman, with a small instrumental backing group, and made nice late-’60s adult pop à la Fifth Dimension, Association, Friends of Distinction. But A&M probably spent more effort on the sound of their recordings than did any other pop label of that era. The sound is wall-to-wall, up front but not in your face, pleasant but not wimpy.

The Fluance got it all right. The singers were nicely out front. The players were spread across the stage -- none of that crude, early-stereo “singers on the left, instruments on the right.” The studio sound was tremendous -- live, clear, with lots of presence and a bit of echo -- all hallmarks of the A&M sound. So far, I was pretty enthused about what I was hearing from the Fluance.

For the first time in a long while, I pulled out Steve Winwood’s Roll With It (LP, Virgin 86069) and played the title track -- I thought the heavy accompaniment and Winwood’s blue-eyed soul might present the RT81 and Audio-Technica with a challenge. “Roll With It” is no lightweight performance. It starts with a soulful drum riff that could have been set down by Al Jackson Jr., the great Stax drummer. Winwood’s bass line sounds like the best efforts of Motown’s bass genius, James Jamerson -- it’s all over the fretboard. Then his Hammond organ comes in and just wails. Add to that the flavor of trumpets tossed in as counterpoint at appropriate moments -- they sound like the famous Memphis Horns -- and you have the quintessential blue-eyed soul song. As reproduced by the RT81, it absolutely wowed me. There was absolutely no slop to the sound: The bass and drums had exceptional slam. The trumpets were tight, Winwood’s voice was plaintive and searing, and the soundstage was huge. It was all very engaging. But a challenge? The RT81 took it all in stride and did a fantastic job.

Then I read the liner notes. Turns out Winwood’s “backing band” is a technical mirage. He created most it on a Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI), which in 1988 was the latest thing -- one of the first computer-based music machines to effectively sample other instruments; e.g., those trumpets, the pulsing bass line, the drums. There were two additional keyboard players on the album, but their roles are unspecified. In fact, the only real instrument in this track is the tambourine. Roll With It won the 1988 Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical. I can hear why.

Comparison

My classic Pioneer PL-516 and the Fluance RT81 have interchangeable headshells, so I could easily compare the two turntables, using the same headshell and cartridge in each -- the only variable was the turntable. The tune was “Roll With It,” the spectacular conflagration mentioned above. The PL-516, Pioneer’s second-from-the-top model in the late 1970s, costs $150-$200 used, so the two models are basically comparable in price.

“Roll With It” on the Pioneer was a different experience from “Roll With It” on the Fluance. The Pioneer’s sound was smoother -- it was the adult in the room, the Fluance was the party animal. The Pioneer may be the more accurate reproducer, but the Fluance was more fun.

I went back to the Art Garfunkel cut. In this case, the Fluance RT81’s sound was a bit more “rorty,” as the Brits say -- looser, more boisterous and high-spirited -- but toned down by comparison to what it did with “Roll With It.” Again, the Pioneer was slightly more refined.

For classical and jazz, the Pioneer might be my turntable choice. But for overall sound quality with all sorts of music, the Fluance RT81 did just superbly. It reminded me of a cousin of mine who was so charming and cheeky that he could get away with stuff that would get me grounded for a month.

Conclusions

I expect a turntable that costs only $250 to sound nondescript. There are exceptions -- for $50 more, Orbit’s U-Turn Plus has fine sound -- but the Fluance RT81 has more features. Its reproductions of recordings may not be absolutely duplicates of the originals, but I found it always engaging, and it did many more things right than it did wrong.

The RT81 has features rarely found at its price: a good tonearm, an accurate and gentle arm-cueing system, a good-looking plinth and dustcover, and low levels of mechanical noise. And the included Audio-Technica AT95E is a fine cartridge around which the Fluance RT81 seems to have been designed, so well does cartridge complement ’table.

Fluance RT81

The RT81 has one shortcoming: a relative sensitivity to physical shock. But at this price, that is acceptable -- like the Fluance XL7F speaker I reviewed in 2012, it’s a fabulous value. It can’t compare with megabuck turntables, or even with ones that retail for just twice its price, but it’s not designed to. It plays vinyl, plain and simple, and it does it well. It’s the best entry-level turntable I’ve heard.

If you’re looking for your first turntable, take advantage of Fluance’s 30-day in-home free trial, get yourself an RT81, and see if it doesn’t do just about everything you want a turntable to do.

. . . Thom Moon
thom@soundstagenetwork.com

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable -- Pioneer PL-516 with Grado Gold cartridge
  • Preamplifiers -- Linn Majik 1P, Rogue Audio RP-1
  • Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
  • Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
  • Analog interconnects -- Dayton Audio, Fluance, Linn Silver, Straight Wire Chorus
  • Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research

Fluance RT81 Turntable with Audio-Technica AT95E Cartridge
Price: $249.99 USD.
Warranty: Two years parts and labor.

Fluance
4080 Montrose Road
Niagara Falls, Ontario L2H 1J9
Canada

Fluance USA
840 Aero Drive
Cheektowaga, NY 14225
USA
Phone: (888) 617-6863

Website: www.fluance.com