Fluance RT81 Turntable – Performance On A Budget?
So when I got my Pro-Ject DC EVO, I told my editor it would be my last turntable review. He replied that I was a liar and would have another turntable before the new audiophile smell was off my EVO. And he was right. But let me qualify this by saying it wasn’t to scratch some upgrade itch. Instead, I wanted to expand my knowledge of turntables, and my wife wanted vinyl upstairs. So here were are—a brand new Fluance RT81 Turntable – Performance on a Budget? Priced at $249, it might be budget-friendly, but it doesn’t lack features. Let’s discuss.
The Looks Of The Fluance RT81
So I have said it before, and I will repeat it, looks are wholly subjective. That said, I think the Fluance RT81 is damn good-looking for any price tag. Offered in gloss walnut, black and white, you can match it to any decor. Mine is the gloss walnut finish, and while I know it is not natural wood, the veneer and finish are so good that no one will question it.
I have a love/hate relationship with gloss finishes. When done well, they look amazing and showcase a product’s beauty. When done poorly, they highlight every defect in the finish and stick out like a sore thumb. I am happy to report that Fluance has done a great job on this finish, and it is flawless.
And there is also a very minimalist design at play. Aside from the on/off/speed knob, there are no other switches. The tonearm/anti-skating/lift mechanism is equally as compact and minimalist. Had I had this turntable in my youth, I would have passed over it for something with more buttons and functions. But as I mature, I appreciate and gravitate towards simple, clean designs.
In The Box
Ok, so we are clear, this is not an unboxing article. I know that some folks love those, but I find them a chore to write and boring. So what is in the box? Just what you need to get up and spin vinyl!
The entire unit is well packed, with the plinth, dust cover, and platter well secured. It comes with the Audio Technica AT95E cartridge already mounted and aligned on the headshell. As with every turntable I have owned, the counterweight is also not installed.
Lastly, it has the rubber platter mat (good choice here), a 45RPM adapter, an RCA phono cable, a rubber belt (pre-installed on the platter), and the power adapter.
Features of The Fluance RT81
Simple is the name of the game here. As I said above, I have come to appreciate simplicity in my setup, and the Fluance RT81 is a mix of quality and ease of use.
The plinth is substantial! I was not expecting that much weight, but it was a pleasant surprise for a $249 table. Yes, I know it’s a slab of very thick MDF covered in a slick veneer, but I was not expecting 14lbs! A heavy plinth means you are less susceptible to vibration from the motor and its surface.
A simple on/off speed selector knob is on the top left. You have 33 and 45RPM only, so those of you with fancy 78RPM vinyl are out of luck. But for 99.99% of people, not having 78RPM is of no consequence.
The platter is aluminum and a bit on the light side. However, don’t get wrapped up in the audiophile hype. So, I have owned turntables with plastic, glass, steel, aluminum, and acrylic platters. And aside from the plastic platter from a CHEAP all-in-one ’90s system, I am still waiting to hear any objective differences. This has led me to believe that the mass/material of the platter is not the deal-breaker that some claim. In any case, it spins vibration-free and smoothly.
Lastly, the motor is quiet and spins smoothly. The turntable motor has no substantial wow and flutter, which translates to clear playback. I confirmed that with my RPM app, which matches Fluance’s spec sheet.
The back of the Fluance RT81 is also straightforward. You have the RCA inputs, grounding lug, built-in phono preamp on/off, auto stop on/off, and power input. An auto stop is a nice feature for anyone who has fallen asleep while playing an LP and wakes up to it spinning on the outro track for hours. It does not lift the tonearm. Instead, it stops the platter. Either way, it’s a quality-of-life feature.
The tonearm offers a removable headshell mounted to an aluminum S-type design. However, I need to be better-versed to get into a debate on S-type vs. straight-arm designs, so if you want an opinion on which is superior, someone else is your guy.
The tonearm on the Fluance RT81 is rigid, tracks smoothly, and drops gently – all positives. Vertical tracking force is taken care of with a 100g counterweight, allowing you to use cartridges that weigh between 3.5g and 6.5g. So what does that mean in English? It will enable you to use the most popular cartridges (Audio Technica, Ortofon, Sumiko, etc.) without changing your counterweight. The anti-skate mechanism (lateral tracking) is magnetic, so rather than attaching a little weight to the tonearm, I dial the knob to the correct weight.
If you are the kind of person that likes to change out their cartridges frequently, the removable headshell will appeal to you. All you need to do is buy the correct bayonet-style mount headshell, mount and align your cartridges, and you can swap out and reset the vertical/lateral tracking force quickly. I thought I would be that person, but I am lazier than expected. Still, it’s a nice-to-have but not essential (for me).
The Fluance RT81 comes with the moving magnet Audio Tecnica AT95E. Audio Technica discontinued the AT95E and replaced it with the AT-VM95E. I am sure Fluance will eventually replace the AT95E with the new version. But don’t worry. You can still get styluses if you need to replace this one. However, I suggest you grab the $49 AT-VM95E when it’s time to replace it.
I am a big Audio Technica fan, and it will check off most of the boxes for the masses. Unfortunately, because of its low cost, it is not a massive hit with the audiophile crowd because, to them, more expensive=better. Don’t let its inexpensive price tag fool you. It’s clear and smooth and performs as well as more expensive cartridges.
Setting Up The Fluance RT81
So once you have set up one turntable, each successive one becomes that much easier. The Fluance RT81 is no exception. I started by putting the plinth on my cabinet. Then goes the platter, and attaching the belt to the appropriate pully. Connecting the belt is the most challenging part. But because of my newfound love for vinyl, my friends have gotten into it, and I have set up at least a half-dozen turntables this year. A quick check with a bullet level and a few turns of the feet level it.
Install the headshell by inserting it into the end of the tonearm, and rotate the locking collar until it seats itself firmly. Screw on the tonearm counterweight, and balance it until it floats parallel to the plinth. Once balanced, set the tracking and anti-skate force to 2 grams, and you are ready to rock-n-roll. I know this doesn’t sound very easy, but it is. But don’t worry. Fluance has you covered with some videos.
Performance of The Fluance RT81
So let’s get this out there now. By all accounts, the Fluance RT81 is an entry-level turntable. My Pro-Ject DC EVO is considered “budget,” which is double the price! So I am betting you think I will say this thing is terrible. Well, you would be dead wrong!
I had the Fluance RT81 hooked up to my Onkyo TX-NR7100, Paradigm Premier 200B’s, and my SVS PB1000 and Monoprice M10 V2 THX subwoofers. Since my 7100 has a phono stage, I tried the RT81 with and without the built-in preamp to see how it performed and which I preferred. But, as confessed earlier, I am naturally lazy, so I will not start swapping out cartridges. Once I get to the point where I need to buy new styluses, I will invest in some headshells and swap them around. But not today!
My song choices will surprise no one. The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Miles Davis, Norah Jones, and Linkin Park are always my go-to system testers. I know them like the back of my hand, and my vinyl is pristine, meaning I will pick up any issues.
The verdict? I like the Fluance RT81 – a lot! The AT95E continues to be one of my favorite cartridges to date. It has an incredibly clean and detailed soundstage, meaning there isn’t a hint of distortion. Even some of my more loved (used) LPs sounded great. I found that the Ortofon 2M Red was unforgiving with used records and suffered from many pops. The AT95E handled them better and minimized the distortions from damaged LPs.
Nitpicks Of The Fluance RT81
So as good as this $249 Fluance RT81 is, there are a few things that I would have preferred.
First, I like the preamp in my Onkyo better; it sounded slightly clearer at high volume (-5db) to my ear. But, again, I need to be better-versed to understand why. The treble was a bit muted and lacked detail when using Fluance’s built-in preamp and line-in on my Onkyo. I know that sounds incredibly subjective, and it is. I didn’t measure any response, and I can admit there might be some confirmation bias, but I preferred the Onkyo. But at average volume (-15dB), they were identical.
Secondly, the feet on this do not match the premium finish. They are solid, adjustable, and keep the table level and vibration free. But they are so “practical” they could easily be off the bottom of a refrigerator. So the closest comparison I can give you is putting a set of steel wheels on a luxury car. Sure, they will perform as well as the fancy alloy wheels, but they just don’t fit the image. But they are adjustable, so I can forgive that.
So the more I listen to turntables, the more I realize that the price delta between a budget turntable and a really “high-end” turntable isn’t about performance. Instead, it’s about materials, prestige, and perceived pedigree. There is no significant difference, aside from looks, between the Fluance RT81 and my Pro-Ject turntable. And the Fluance has features, such as a built-in preamp and autostop, that my Pro-Ject doesn’t have. So to answer my question, is the Fluance RT81 Turntable performance on a budget? Yes, it is! But I would have a hard time justifying that you “upgrade” to a higher turntable.
And the other bit that I had yet to mention is that this turntable is Canadian. Being a Canuck, I am very proud that Fluance competes well against the big names in the turntable space and does it with a meager price tag.
So if you want a turntable that a) looks good, b) sounds good, c) is feature-rich, and d) is inexpensive, the Fluance RT81 is a solid choice.