Sound Advice Column Week 6, 2011 : Audio-Technica AT-120-USB Turntable

Sound Advice
By Don Lindich

Week 6, 2011

Q. I know you are a fan of vinyl records fan and I need some help getting a new turntable for my sound system. Besides sound system duty I may want to transfer some of the music to my computer as well. My receiver doesn’t have an input for a turntable, so I will also need a phono pre-amp unless the turntable has one built in. Do you recommend any of the USB turntables I see selling in stores for $125 to $200?

-Susan Greenberg, Murrysville, PA

A. The USB turntables I see selling in big-box stores look like, to put it bluntly, junk. They are made of flimsy plastic and are equipped with extremely crude tonearms and no-name cartridges. As much as I love vinyl and encourage people to enjoy records for the sound quality and tremendous variety of music available at low prices, if you plan on going with such a turntable I am inclined to tell you to just pass and stick with CDs. You will never know what vinyl is capable of if you use one of these turntables.

I did test an exceptional turntable recently that sells for about the same price as the flimsy cheapies. It looks good and is well built, it sounds great, and at the current selling price of under $200 complete with cartridge it is absolutely the only way to go if you are looking for a really inexpensive turntable. It is the AT-LP120-USB from Audio-Technica, a company long associated with quality vinyl playback. Though it lists for $429, I regularly see the AT-LP120 USB selling for $198 at sites such as Amazon.com. It is worth the suggested retail price of $429 and at under $200 purchase price it is the vinyl record bargain of the 21st century.

The AT-LP120-USB looks like a clone of the famous Technics SL-1200, which was, sadly, discontinued recently. While the AT-LP120USB does not duplicate the solidity and performance of the iconic SL-1200, your $200 gets you a quality turntable with a built-in phono preamplifier and USB connection for your computer. If you receiver has a phono input you can bypass the turntable’s preamplifier if you prefer.

I found the AT-LP120-USB very simple to set up. Given all the features for the price I was somewhat skeptical when I hooked the turntable up to my evaluation system, but this skepticism disappeared the moment the needle hit the groove and the music started playing. The AT-LP120-USB can produce that warm, listenable vinyl magic! It has a very smooth, listenable, solid sound with good bass, a quiet background, and a decent amount of detail retrieval. My only concern is the supplied cartridge tracks at 3 grams, which is more than the typical tracking force of 1.25-2.0 grams for most cartridges. This extra force will wear your records sooner, and the stylus (needle) used on the cartridge is a primitive design that is not optimal for extracting fine detail from the record grooves. When you are ready to upgrade the cartridge the Shure M97xE for $55 or the Audio-Technica AT440MLA for $99 are good choices. It is worth your while to upgrade the cartridge as soon as possible. Just take care that it is installed correctly for best performance.

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