The Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB Turntable Shames the Plastic Competition

Off the audiophile pedestal and into the “real world” we go, with a review of Audio Technica’s easy to set up $299.95 ("street" price $250) AT-LP120-USB turntable.

This feature-packed turntable bears more than a passing resemblance to the Technics SL-1200, the final iteration of which was the MK6. Citing dwindling sales and parts procurement issues, Panasonic/Matsushita absurdly discontinued the 1200 in 2010. What next? They’ll stop making plasma TVs? Oh. They did that too (they had rational reasons in both instances, though plasma still far surpasses the picture quality of LCD IMO).

A-T’s LP120 is a Quartz PLL (phase locked loop) direct drive design capable of spinning its relatively light-weight cast aluminum platter at 33 1/3, 45 and 78rpm. You can disable the Quartz speed lock and via a slide switch adjust the speed ±10% or ±20%. A built-in strobe light and pattern incorporated in the platter casting makes easy setting and monitoring speed.

You can even spin the platter backwards to decode secret messages found on some ‘60s and ‘70’s era drug-soaked albums. For instance on David Bowie’s terribly underrated The Lodger he sings “All the Young Dudes” backwards on the song “Move On”. With this turntable you can play it backwards and clearly hear it. But I digress.

The gimbaled “S” shaped arm incorporates a knurled VTA/SRA adjustment platform similar to the one found on the SL1200’s arm. The plinth includes a 45rpm adapter holder as well as one for a second head shell. There’s even a pop up “stylus target light”.

A MM phono preamplifier is built in, and can be disabled at the flip of rear-mounted switch allowing you to use your choice of phono preamplifiers. A built-in analog to digital converter capable of 44.1 or 48K 16 bit resolution connects via a USB port adjacent to the “line-phono” switch. Audio-Technica includes Audacity software for both Mac and Windows computers though of course you can use your software choice.

Finally, the ‘table comes complete with a range of useful accessories including a sturdy, hinged dustcover as well as an installed-in-the-head-shell $40 Audio Technica AT95E MM phono cartridge that tracks at 2 grams, which is Audio Technica’s “secret weapon.” The 95E has long been one of my favorite “el-cheapo” MM phono cartridges.

Out of the Box And Quickly Up and Running

Few audiophile quality products are packaged and documented as well as is this turntable, which weighs in at 23.5 pounds and rests on solidly constructed, damped feet. The packaging is smartly done and aimed at making sure that even neophytes can have it quickly up and running. The software and its computer interface is also well-explained.

Once the ‘table has been situated on a level surface all that remains to be done is to balance the arm and set the VTF to 2 grams and the anti-skating to “2”. Actually the most difficult part was to find the A.C. socket tucked into a rear panel fold that’s not well-documented in the instructions. And of course you have to plug the hard-wired RCA cables into either a line level or phono input depending upon how you’ve set the “line-phono” switch.

Does Speed Accuracy Guaranty Accurate Sonics?

If you look at the measured speed accuracy using the Feickert Platterspeed app and test record, this budget turntable produces impressive specs. It runs precisely at the correct speed and while its deviation is ±10Hz, once it’s been low pass filtered to remove record eccentricity issues, it looks fine. And in terms of speed stability and “wow” the AT-LP120-USB performs well.

In terms of its overall sonics, with the supplied cartridge, well considering the price it sounds pretty good but way on the soft side of the sonic fence. Top to bottom transients are soft. So cymbals sound soft, bass lines sound soft and the rhythmic results are soft as well. This makes for a very pleasant but hardly exciting or detailed listening—and that’s with the built-in MM phono preamp or with a variety or external phono preamps I tried.

I did note that despite the relatively high mass plinth, it was quite “lively” and even a gentle tap on it with the stylus in the groove produced a pronounced “thump” through the speakers.

However, backgrounds are quiet and if the goal is easy listening or converting to CD quality digital for less than “archival quality” archiving, the AT-LP120 does the job well.

I installed a low output Adcom Cross-coil cartridge that I’d had rebuilt some time ago that was already installed on a compatible head shell, and while it usually sounds fast, detailed and perhaps slightly aggressive, installed in the AT-LP120 it too sunk into the soft but pleasant ooze.

What accounts for this? I cannot be certain. In fact, my sonic recollection of the old Technics ‘tables was of a somewhat hard and aggressive sound, which many surmised was the result of the constant “hunting and pecking” by the servo controlled motor as it overshot and undershot the correct speed; those micro speed changes producing an edgy quality. Is that true? I don’t know. It’s just what some people surmised.

Here the results were the opposite—even when the supplied felt “slipmat” was replaced with any of the mats used in the just concluded mat comparison. The sound was soft and sweet. But because it was uniform from top to bottom, it was actually quite pleasant, though of course diffuse and lacking in focus.

I played a clean original of Dave Brubeck’s Time Out and the performance was unusual and unique. I certainly did not fear for the record grooves because the arm is clearly well-made and low in friction.

Conclusion

The Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB is a well-made, feature packed, “ready to play” inexpensive turntable that is a significant step up from the plastic crap competition. The lightweight platter is clearly one place Audio Technica saved some money, and perhaps it more than anything else accounts for the startlingly soft, but pleasingly lush sound.

In no way does this turntable compete sonically with a more costly belt drive design such as the $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, or even with the less expensive U-Turn Orbit in my opinion though those (especially the U-Turn) can’t begin to compete with the Audio Technica’s build quality, feature set and ease of use. It all depends upon for what you are looking.

From what I experienced with this turntable, Audio-Technica has hit a bulls eye with its target audience—the casual record spinner—especially those seeking to give their vinyl an archival digital final spin.

The AT-LP120-USB is extremely well made, packaged and presented equally well, including excellent instructions for both vinyl playback and computer interface, and with its generous accessories should make casual vinyl spinners very happy with their purchase.

COMPANY INFO
Audio Technica U.S. Inc.
1221 Commerce Drive
Stow, Ohio 44224
(330)686-2600

COMMENTS
Russo7516's picture

I see these fly out of many record stores in Brooklyn. Reason being plug in and play. Most of the younger listener's can't afford $ 999 entry level TT . So these babies go quickly . Plus you can tweak them a bit to get a better sound . Pre amp , cartridge , head shell , slip mat etc etc. Resulting in a better sounding Turn Table .

sammy11's picture

I've heard of people ripping out the built in phono preamp in this turntable completely, and saying how much it improves the sound. Do you know why this would be and is it worth trying?

Michael Fremer's picture
Of course you can flip a switch on the back and bypass the built-in phono preamp but perhaps depending upon how its internally wired, if you just remove all switches and circuitry and run the tone arm leads directly out it might sound better. With such tiny voltages involved, the simpler the route, the better.
Ortofan's picture

...the simpler the route, the better.

Keep that thought, watch the YouTube video demonstrating how to remove and bypass the internal phono preamp and then decide if wire nuts are really the best choice for making connections between wires carrying those "tiny voltages."

Siana's picture

As a matter of fact, the switch does not bypass the phono preamp, it switches the output. The preamp has high input impedance compared to the pickup, so the effect it has is quite low, but indeed it exists. Voltages have nothing to do with this, this is completely an impedance thing. I wager a guess that the drive of this turntable is no smoother than Technics, which have a heavier, rubber-dampened platter and better motor coupling going for it, and that the main difference you have been hearing compared to SL1200 is due to the preamp input loading the pickup, and it would affect treble the most. At high frequencies (above 16K whereabouts), threshold of hearing nears the threshold of pain, so a possibility that high-frequency noise causes the perception of something sounding sharp always needs to be considered.

hagcel's picture

a while back I posted some needle drops before and after modding my AT LP120

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/dmnv6901vkv0x8g/2-dUBySoqO

v1 is LP120 using the built in preamp
v2 is LP120 in phono mode going through a ART preamp
v3 is with the preamp removed from the LP120 and going through the ART

Ortofan's picture

It'd be interesting to find out how much better might be the ~$500 AT-LP1240-USB. Maybe A-T could loan you an AT150MLX to try along with it. Also, does the just introduced Pioneer PLX-1000 represent any further improvement for ~$700?

Fuzzsonic's picture

I'm seeing recent street prices for the AT-LP-1240-USB at around $330-$350. This looks to be a much better table. I've seen plenty of positive reviews by those using it for DJ work. Would love to see a proper review of its audiophile potential. Tables such as these are far more robust, less expensive and much less fiddly and fragile than the usual audiophile-oriented devices. This makes them much more sensible for use by the whole family.

recordhead's picture

I bought an AT turntable a few years ago just to get the 78 RPM feature and returned it the next day. At that speed the platter would wobble and it was next to impossible to get it to track. Either way, thanks for the review. On a side note, I've got a question about an LP that I've seen you with in a few pics. It's Dionne Warwicks "Make Way For.." Other than the songs, is there another reason why you like this record?

Michael Fremer's picture
I like most of the Bacharach-David songs (though Dionne's version of "People" can't compete with Barbra's) and the arrangements but in addition, the SOUND is astonishing. It was recorded at Phil Ramone's A&R Studios where "Getz/Gilberto" among so many other great records, was recorded. Of course the album has "Walk on By", which is a classic and the sound on that track is amazing---especially for people old enough to have heard it only as an AM radio single. BTW: if you look for a used copy it should have the original red/silver label AND the "Bell Sound" mastering stamp. Copies with the Columbia mastering stamp sound lousy.
otaku2's picture

It's Mac (Macintosh) not MAC (Cosmetics)

Michael Fremer's picture
SOrry. Will FiX!
Big Cap's picture

Did Panasonic license/sell the rights of the SL1200xx to Audio-Technica?

Michael Fremer's picture
Not that I'm aware of… it just looks similar….
Michael T's picture

Thanks Michael for providing a review of an affordable turntable for the masses. Many people out there think that the only affordable options out there are the crap Crosley turntables. Between turntables like this and the U-turn Orbit, there is no reason someone who wants to get back to (or start) with LP's should not be able to without resorting to garbage that damages records.

StonedBeatles1's picture

Never in my life did I expect a review of this turntable since it's a poor man's knock off, and a far cry, of the legendary Technics SL-1200 (which I believe Mikey hated sonically). It's good to know that it sounds sweet and is built well. A much needed steal.

Michael Fremer's picture
I don't hate the 1200 and never did. I just don't think it's as good as the cultists claim!
ArthurZenithTransoceanic's picture

Most of the folks raving about the 1200 have never heard one, or have embellished it with almost a psuedo mythology. I did get the AT120 based in part on your review, and really think it represents a nice step up from ceramic cartridge-based players that are out there. This has also encouraged me to dust off my college era Technics belt driven player, get a P-mount AT cartridge for it, and start listening to that as an alternative.

Growing up, I was always under the maybe false impression that a direct driven table was better than a belt driven machine. I can't now say that "belt drive sounds better", as there are so many variables in such an evaluation. But it is really nice to have two alternative sound curves and reproductions to choose from. -Arthur

malosuerte's picture

Great review, and it really is worth the price. I had installed the 44mla cart on this turntable, and it really did a great job.

Neverenough's picture

Mr Fremer,

Based on your review here, I was wondering if you ever compared a Technics 1210Mk5 vs 1210mk5g (analog vs digital servo control)? Plus the MK5G has tonearm improvements targeting better sound.

Thanks!

vinyl listener's picture

... and frankly any improvements were incremental.
the last one was a mk5g with a kaboodle of kab mods and it was still lightyears away from a good sp10mk2.

Jade Boyle13's picture

I have Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB for three years and all this time it was eating John Frusciante vinyl awesomely while I was writing my essays for me.I had even some jams and parties with it. So, I still don't understand all you guys arguing over it. It is great musician tool!

TheThing72's picture

I had an AT120LP for about a months or so last year when I was getting back into vinyl after a long hiatus. I actually agree that the table was well built and actually performed well for me in my modest setup at the time. The one problem I ran into with the unit was that the platter was severely warped and especially noticeable on 45rpm. AT actually did their best to remedy the problem by sending me 2 new platter to see if it would fix the issue. Unfortunately the platters were also warped.. but a bit less than the one that had shipped with the deck. In the end I decided to return the turntable and upgrade to a Music Hall MMF 2.2 which as worked without a flaw from day one.. and I have been using it for just about a year now pretty much every day. I think that AT has a solid unit.. if they have fixed the warped platter issue.. which actually at the time I had bought mine.. was plaguing quite a few other customer. Just wanted to put in my experience to help other aspiring audiophiles and vinyl lovers.

Ben Adams's picture

Hi Michael, I'm one of the folks who has removed the built-in preamp from this 'table. I wrote about it at my (very) sporadic blog:

http://scouringthebins.blogspot.com/2013/03/tweaking-audio-technica-at-l...

Any number of folks have also removed the preamp and have talked about it at the Steve Hoffman forums. The universal consensus is that this table's sound brightens up considerably and solidifies once the internal preamp is entirely gone from the outbound audio.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Thanks for taking the time to do it. Pretty easy DIY project.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Another Hoffman forum member said that the switch still leaves some added capacitance on the phono cables, much like adding additional cable lengths to a Shure cartridge to tame the highs. I wonder if that is happening here?

Wonder what a Shure M97 or M92 would sound like on that table?

Ben Adams's picture

All I know is that tonally my carts sound pretty much the same on my modded AT-LP120 and my vintage Denon DP-37F, whereas before I removed the preamp from the AT-LP120, they didn't even come close.

wgb113's picture

I bought my dad one of these a few years back. He used to DJ dances back in the late 60s, had sold off his turntable but kept his 45s. He's been able to digitize them in a quality he's happy with.

I couldn't agree more that this is a fine table for people that want plug and play as well as higher quality than what Crosley has to offer.

Bill

Ben Adams's picture

Thanks for reviewing this. It's nice to see this good table get some deserved press.

mrrobivan's picture

I have an AT-PL120 that I purchased about 7 or so years ago--before the USB models were available. I removed the built-in pre-amp completely and routed the cartridge output to the RCA connectors, and this resulted in a huge improvement in the sound. There are some excellent videos on Youtube that show how to do this.

The reasons that I choose to do so were: 1) proper grounding, as the pre-amp had no ground wire and one could not be added, and 2) there was audible hum, because the pre-amp was still powered (even when switched "off") and the cartridge output was routed through the pre-amp. Of course, you must have a pre-amp or an amplifier that has phono-level inputs for this to work once the internal pre-amp is removed.

It took about 2 hours to make the changes, and for me it was time well spent.

sammy11's picture

Time for part 2 of this review..minus internal preamp! Just kidding. (sort of)

Devil Doc's picture

He's sold a lot of these TT, now he figures he sell a lot more.

jblackhall's picture

So how does this compare to a Pro-Ject Essential or Debut Carbon? Any reason someone would want the A-T compared to these, other than wanting a DD table?

RobWynn's picture

Essential not compared but Debut Carbon was: "In no way does this turntable compete sonically with a more costly belt drive design such as the $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, or even with the less expensive U-Turn Orbit in my opinion though those (especially the U-Turn) can’t begin to compete with the Audio Technica’s build quality, feature set and ease of use. It all depends upon for what you are looking."

anomaly7's picture

I wonder, given the platter stability, if you could conclude that the weak link sonically would be the arm?

Jim Tavegia's picture

The platter might be an issue, but many of the loser cost tables have speed stability and platter concentric issues and that is before buying a $40 belt.

It might make more sense if you are looking at a $1K table to buy this table, pull out the phono board, and mount a Ortofon Black on it.

Or, better yet buy this table, pull the phono stage out of it, buy a Lehmann Black Cube Statement phono stage and spend the rest on a $300 Cart.

Ortofan's picture

For the same $1K, wonder how the LP-120 + 2M Black combo versus, say, a Rega RP-3 + 2M Red would play out?

recordhead's picture

I'm 45. My first "record players" were whatever my grandparents, parents or uncles had at the time. Most were consoles or GE Wildcats. I didn't get a real table until I was in my late teens and that was a plastic Technics P Mount. And that's exactly what this table / review is. A step up from GE's and Emersons (now Crosley) to something a little bit better. It's not meant to compare to any other table above this units cost. It's only job is to say "I know you think you're OK with that Crosley but try me!" I still remember going from a JC Pennys all in one to that Technics connected to a Arthur Fulmer receiver with built in 8 track. So rather than worry about tonearm specs or tweeks, just share this review on other sites (3rd man) with others and let them know for a few extra bucks, you can do better.

Catcher10's picture

I had this table a few yrs ago when I was digitizing some vinyl. It performed very well in my 2nd system, I bought it early on when it came with the ATP2N, horrible DJ cart tracked at like 3-5g.
I replaced it with a Nagaoka MP-110 and the table jumped a couple notches in sound quality.
There were tons of haters on this table and their claims never made sense, just old fogy furrow browed vintage loving farts. This table held its own against other entry level tables, once over the $500 level its noticeable...as expected.

This feature loaded table is worth the money for sure...

Paynesgrey's picture

Thesis: Entry level products don't get the attention they need or deserve.

I bought my son a Denon 300F last year and it was very difficult to find any trustworthy reviews of entry-level tables. He wanted the automatic function because he likes to put on a disk and crawl into bed, and that was really the only one. Hard to argue. Could have bought an older table, I suppose, but wanted a new one.

The cartridge that came with it was an utter piece of junk—very frustrating—so I replaced with an Ortofon OM10 I had. It all sounds pretty good now, and my son (13 yrs old then) was thrilled.

If this review had been out a year ago, I might have bought the AT. He's a musician, and one of the things that gets overlooked about the speed change feature is that the listener can change the pitch of the record to match that of a keyboard or a horn so he can play along or transcribe. Musicians I know demand this of a table. (Yes, software will do the same thing, but playing along with Roy Eldrige on an vinyl album is way cooler.)

Getting a kid to love vinyl is worth making a decent entry level table. Getting a kid to love vinyl is worth an entry-level table review so the dad can know what the hell to get. Thank you Mr. Fremer.

Vinylghost's picture

The turntables in the $150 to $400 dollar range are what I'm interested in. Thanks for the review. And I anxiously await a review on the Elemental.

drbrowning's picture

I realize that there is no comparison with a machine like this to a high-end audiophile turntable. The high-end turntable will out perform a table like this every time. There is something to be said about bringing good quality sound to the masses and making it affordable. I am a big fan of the Panasonic's famous Technics SL1200 series and was very upset when they discontinued these wonderful machines. I own a Technics SL1200M3D and have been very satisfied with it. This table featured here, I have read the reviews and even watched UTube videos on it and have come to the conclusion that it might be a table worth considering for someone who is under a tight budget and cannot afford a high-end table. If I didn't have the turntables I have now and could not afford much, I would go with a table like this. I am not really excited about the USB thing and hooking up my phono to a computer.To me, digitizing vinyl doesn't impress me at all. I have tried it and maybe I didn't have the right software at the time, but I didn't like it. Now as far as the built in preamp, I too would want to get a separate phono preamp. I would also replace the cartridge that comes with the unit with a higher grade cartridge. With a few minor adjustments this machine might sound pretty good.

One thing I have always been disturbed about the budget turntables is the cheep materials that they are made out of and the unwanted resonance that comes from a cheep plastic casing. You tap on the casing and it sounds like it is hollow. All the unwanted vibrations get pickup through the casing into the plater and into the arm. My first table was like this and it was not a very pleasing experience. I eventually got rid of it and got a CD player and took my years of convincing to finally get another turntable.

Reticuli's picture

The Technics without the DSP didn't "hunt and peck" as stated here, but used a phase locked loop (PLL) frequency generator servo rather than a pulsing switch back induction drive... the latter being a solution to wanting more torque at the expense of speed stability. Most of these high torque tables also have lower-mass platters so that start and stop times are reduced, but this further worsens speed stability by reducing inertia. So when it is quartz-locked, a properly-functioning non-DSP Technics 1200 should have a W&F close to the limits of the test gear.

The LT120 has its already poorly-designed (unshielded and with sound-obscuring power gating to compensate) phono preamp's loading capacitors actually along the main path to the outputs and not prior to the preamp bypass switch, so the caps are always in the path even if you want to use it with an outboard phono stage, adding about twice the capacitance you would usually want for a MM or MI cart. This will tend to sound soft and polite, even worse than on old A&H DJ mixers.

The bearings on the AT tables are also not as

drbrowning's picture

I was curious about this table and so I bought one to see what all the hype is about. When I listen to it for the first few days I was thinking, "Not Bad!!", but after awhile I began to see all the flaws. The unit itself is not bad for the price range, but it is not perfect by any means. The platter does wobble at the 78 speed. I don't have any 78's to try out. I was mainly buying it to hook up to my computer and have it in another room. I am using an amplifier that has a built in phone stage. I have occasionally used the preamp that is built into the turntable. It comes in handy to plug into a portable dock system or other portable speaker system. If I were to compare it with my SL1200 table I would say that the SL1200 is built better, especially when it comes to dampening and the solid construction of the unit. I believe the SL1200 is heavier. When I tapped on the casing of Audio Technica while a record was playing you can hear it very strong, but not with the Technics SL1200. I am I going to keep the table, I believe so for now. I am not going to take it back.

Boltman92124's picture

Having fun with this TT. My first since late 80's. I upgraded the headshell to an LP Gear HD and the Cart to an AT120. Finally, picked up the Emotiva XPS-1 Phono Pre Amp- running it using the bypass setting. I did not notice any capacitance issues- Just much beefier sound with the Emotiva/AT Cart combination.

hellfried's picture

I am waiting for my Schiit Mani to be shipped to me. I also plan to just switch off the built in preamp and play it through the stand alone phono stage. Hope it improves the sound.

Boltman92124's picture

Yeah the Mani is supposed to be great too. I have since picked up the AT-618 record clamp/stabilizer as well. It is heavy but works well on the LP120. LP Gear has the best price for the AT-618.

refmpclp's picture

I checked out the sound of many $1,000 systems deciding on how to get back into vinyl as so much music I love has been reissued on quality labels - MFSL, MOV, Speaker's Corner, etc. Then I came across the AT-LP120. Granted, even after upgrading the cartridge, it doesn't sound like a $10,000 system but compared to anything less than $1,000 I think the sound is excellent. Took the money I saved and bought $500 of new beautiful vinyl releases. I may upgrade to a better more expensive system in the future but for now I'm more than content with the AT-LP120 + I have tons of new vinyl!

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