Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Turntable : A real find at $200!

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Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB Turntable Review

By Don Lindich

I recently tested the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable and the experience was quite delightful!  It’s nice to find a component that delivers performance and quality beyond its selling price and which is dramatically better than its like-priced competition.  As vinyl records are a subject near and dear to my heart it makes this turntable extra-special, and this review one I am very happy to write not only to give credit where it is due but also with the hopes that people reading this will be encouraged to give vinyl records a try.  The warm, natural sound quality has something that digital sources lack, and there is a wide variety of music spanning generations that can be purchased at very low prices.

Though it is far from the ultimate turntable, the AT-LP120-USB stands out and makes me smile for two primary reasons:

  • The AT-LP120-USB is dramatically better than the sub-$200 USB turntables selling in big-box stores. How much better?  Comparing them is like comparing a Yugo to a new BMW, if an entry-level BMW.   You get good build quality and performance in an entry-level BMW though, and the AT-LP120-USB has both of these in spades.
  • The AT-LP120-USB lowers the cost of entry for quality vinyl record playback to a new low.  Though it lists for $299.99 and is well worth the price, you can find the AT-LP120-USB online for $200 or less.  Before the AT-LP120-USB I usually told readers that if they wanted a good turntable that had to pony up $369 for a Pro-ject Debut III. Though the Debut III does have better sound quality (comparing the two with the factory installed cartridges) the Audio-Technica turntable costs a whopping $169 less and provides a USB port and a built-in phono preamp, to boot.  The Pro-ject Debut III USB has a USB port and phono preamplifier, albeit at a price of $499.  Again, the Debut III has a more detailed, richer sound, but at two-and-a half-times the price.

Read on to learn more about the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB!

A Technics SL-1200 lookalike

If the AT-LP120-USB looks familiar, it’s with good reason.  It looks just like a Technics SL-1200, an iconic turntable that was introduced as a hi-fi component but later found favor with DJs for its fine sound quality and near-bulletproof construction and reliability.  Jerry’s Records has an SL-1200 that has been playing non-stop for almost  25 years, with no maintenance or repair ever required!  I myself have an SL-1210M5G that I use with an Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II cartridge and it is fantastic. Unfortunately the SL-1200 and it brethren were recently discontinued by Panasonic.  Sales are down (though vinyl as a whole has been going up) and some of the analog parts required to make it are no longer produced by their suppliers

Understandably given the huge price difference, the AT-LP120-USB does not match the sound quality, fine craftsmanship and quality of materials of the SL-1200.  It is nothing to sneeze at, though. It weighs in at a hefty 23 pounds and you get the USB port and phono preamp in the deal.  It will look great on your audio rack and compared to the usual sub-$200 junk out there, like I said… BMW vs. Yugo.

In the box

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The turntable comes well-packed in an attractive, full-color box that hints at the quality product inside.

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The box includes Audacity software for recording with your computer as well as a USB cable.  If you are a Mac user, forget about Audacity and download  Griffin Technology Final Vinyl. It’s free and a lot more user friendly than Audacity.  Don’t forget to download the Final Vinyl User Manual as well.

Actually, if you are a Windows user you may want to forget about Audacity as well as most of my readers have not been very happy with it.  I am currently looking for a better solution and will update this site when I find one.

Setup was very simple, much simpler than the inexpensive belt-drive turntables I have tested.  Just put on the platter and the mat, attach the headshell with mounted cartridge to the tonearm, balance the tonearm and set the tracking force and ant-skate controls with two simple twists of the dials, and you are ready to plug it in and connect it to your sound system.  There is a switch on the back for bypassing the internal phono pre-amp if you have a better one you want to use.

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Here it is, set up and ready to go!  Let’s take a walk around and look at the hardware.  I took pictures of my Technics SL-1210M5G to show the differences. One of the most pronounced differences can’t be seen, and that is the nature of the direct drive system used in each turntable.   In the Technics, the platter is part of the motor which leads to smooth, noise-free operation.  The AT-LP120-USB mounts the platter on a spindle.  This does not isolate the platter as well as the Technics does, which impacts sound quality.

It isn’t really fair to compare these two back-to-back as the Technics sells at a much higher price point and given the way its direct drive system works they really are apples and oranges, despite the very similar appearance. The AT-LP120-USB is NOT an SL-1200 at a much lower price, nor is it a clone.  It is an excellent budget turntable that used the SL-1200 as a template.  You don’t get SL-1200 performance but you do not pay the price, either.

The Audio-Technica is in the top pictures, the Technics comparison directly below it.

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Here you can see the base and the isolation feet.  Here the cost-cutter nature of the AT-LP120-USB become apparent.  The base is made up of shiny plastic that looks kind of cheap compared to the base of the Technics, which has coated plastic with a premium look and feel that seems expensive, and probably is. At least this is an out-of-sight area, and a good place to cut costs.

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Similarities can’t get much closer than the Off/On, Start/Stop, and 33/45 switches!

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Pitch sliders.  Unless you are a DJ, do not mess with these and use the defeat setting so the speed is always right on the money.

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The tonearms.  Despite the similar appearance, when you see them in person and touch them the much higher quality of the Technics is quite evident.  That would apply to the bearings inside of them, as well.

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My SL-1210M5G has a fluid damper from KABUSA installed, so that is not a difference between the ‘tables as they come stock.  Again, you can see the similarities. The cuing arm lever on the Technics feels as smooth and precise as a Swiss watch.  When you are used to the Technics arm and cuing lever the AT-LP120-USB feels a bit cheesy in comparison.

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The Audio-Technica’s ATP-2 cartridge, supplied with the turntable.  It ships mounted on the headshell so all you have to do is attach it to the arm to have it aligned perfectly.  No need to depict the Technics here as it looks identical and does not come with a cartridge.

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Both turntables use removable headshells for ease in mounting and changing cartridges.  Above is one of my Technics headshells with a Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 attached.  If you ever buy a cartridge you may want to find a vendor that will mount it on a headshell and send it to you ready-to-go. Mounting cartridges can be a pain and most non-audiophiles do not know how to align them properly.  More on this later.

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Tracking force

The Audio-Technica ATP-2 cartridge supplied with the turntable has a recommended tracking force of 3.0-5.0 grams.  This is very high compared to the  1.5-2.0 grams usually recommended for most typical hifi cartridges.  The higher tracking force will cause more wear on your records.

I did some research and it turns out that the 3.0-5.0 grams is to accommodate DJs who may use the turntable for scratching.  Hifi fans with the AT-LP120-USB are using 2.0 grams with fine results.  I tried it and it works well.  So, if you get the turntable, after you balance the tonearm set the tracking force and anti-skate controls to 2.0 grams.

Ease of use and sound quality

I wrote “Ease of use” up above, and then I realized that if I could use a single word to describe this turntable, it would be “easy” and that is a compliment.  It is easy to buy, it is easy on the wallet, it is easy to set up, it is easy on the eyes, it is easy on your system (no phono preamp required) and it is easy on the ears with its pleasant, eminently listenable sound.  All of this makes a winning combination for the people who are likely to buy this turntable.

The AT-LP120-USB sounds solid and smooth with good, if not great retrieval of detail and respectable bass definition.  What makes it great is it creates a proper analog experience that is immediately distinguishable from digital.  The music has a warmth and presence that tells you it is analog and there is no harshness whatsoever.  You can listen to it all night without fatigue.  What’s more, I found it to be very forgiving of older records that had some wear, or weren’t spotlessly clean – again, ideal for the target audience who isn’t likely to buy a record cleaning machine, and do not want to deal with the hassles of analog that audiophiles accept and deal with for the payoff in sound quality.  There is also something romantic and charming about watching that record spin and hearing the music come out!  As I said, all part of the analog experience.

The shortcomings of the AT-LP120-USB are sins of omission, not commission. Compared to better turntables like the Debut III and up it lacks some detail, warmth, richness, air, and three-dimensionality.  The fact that it isn’t the last word in resolution probably contributes its forgiving nature.  It doesn’t lay bare the flaws in the recording or the record surface itself the way a premium analog setup will, but it won’t provide the same sound, either.  Given the selling price and the target audience I do not think this is a big deal and I don’t hold it against the product.   It  may not be perfect but it punches way, way above its weight.

Upgrading the stylus or cartridg

Though the installed ATP-2 cartridge sounds decent and most of the general public is likely to be satisfied with it, this cartridge is definitely the weak link in the AT-LP120-USB as it comes shipped.  Upgrading the cartridge will yield an immediate improvements in sound quality.

Mounting cartridges can be fussy and most readers would probably get better results by simply changing the ATP-2 stylus to a better one, as no cartridge alignment is involved.  (If the new cartridge is not set up properly the older, inferior cartridge will likely sound better.)  The way for most people to go is to simply replace the included stylus with the ATP-N3.  The ATP-N3 sells for $65 and will both sound better and keep your records in good condition longer.  Installing it is very easy.  Just pull off the old stylus and plug in the new one, and your upgrade is finished.  There is no fussing with screws and tiny wires and no need to re-align everything. If you choose not to upgrade soon after getting the turntable, this is definitely the stylus to get when your original stylus is worn out.

Still want to get a whole new cartridge? You can spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a phono cartridge, but that does not make sense on a turntable selling for $200.  There are modest choices that will serve you well.  A couple of good choices are the Shure M97xE for under $60 and the Audio-Technica AT95e for the same price .  The $99 Audio-Technica AT440MLA is a good match and probably about the highest end cartridge I would put on this turntable.

You may want to consider getting an extra headshell for your new cartridge.  Then you can swap them in and out whenever you want.  It may be worth your while to buy your new cartridge and headshell from specialty retailer like www.lpgear.com or www.needledoctor.com . They may be willing to install the cartridge on a headshell for you and ship it to you ready to plug and play.  As I said, unless the cartridge is set up properly it probably won’t be an upgrade at all.

Of course, you may just want to keep it stock and be happy with what you have!  Chasing the vinyl holy grail can be expensive, time consuming and take away from your enjoyment of the music.  I know this as well as anyone, as I have been there and have a cabinet full of cartridges to show it!

Should you buy the AT-LP120-USB?

If you are a serious audiophile or want to become one, if vinyl records are going to be the primary source in your sound system, if you have a lot of records and are growing your collection, sure…  spend more and get a Debut III or better. Turntables are one area where spending more can yield big differences if you choose wisely. As much as I like the AT-LP120-USB for what it is and what it does, as an audiophile with thousands of records and a system with expensive electronics and speakers I want something better in my system.  If I didn’t have a bunch of turntables already I would certainly consider one for a secondary system or to use exclusively with a computer.  I’d upgrade the cartridge, though I have a feeling that most of the general public will hook it up, hear how good it sounds out of the box, and be happy with it the way it is without going through a bunch of upgrading and chasing the vinyl holy grail.

If you do not have a turntable and want to see what vinyl records are all about, if you want good sound but are on a tight budget, if you want to pull out your old records and give them a spin, if you are building a vinyl-based system and you want to save money towards better speakers, or if you need a turntable for a second system or to dedicate to use with your computer… or maybe you just want a good quality, affordable turntable?  Then the AT-LP120-USB absolutely belongs in your equipment rack.  The installed cartridge and built-in phono preamp means it is the only thing you need to buy and it will match well with home theater receivers, which usually do not have a phono preamp.

Hope you enjoyed the review.  Now I am going to go out and buy some records!

Questions? Email Don

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UPDATE: LP Gear sells an AT-LP120-USB with some nice upgrades in place already.  You get a new platter mat for improved isolation and lower noise, as well as an excellent Audio-Technica AT95SE cartridge installed and adjusted by LP Gear’s vinyl-loving experts.  The difficulty in properly installing and adjusting a cartridge is one reason I recommend readers just switch out the stylus.  At $289.95 the upgraded turntable strikes me as a fine value and with the better cartridge and platter mat it will certainly sound better than a stock AT-LP120-USB.  Just bear in mind that at almost $300 you start getting in striking distance of the Pro-ject Debut III, though a $369 Debut III will lack the phono preamp and USB port of the AT-LP-120-USB. If you want the most from your AT-LP120-USB right out of the box and do not mind the extra $90 this is the way to go. The modifications are good ones and most importantly, experts will be installing them and adjusting it for you.

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