The Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB has been around for awhile now, and there's a reason you see it for sale at so many of your local record stores: at $299 (£279, AU$389), it offers customers an affordable way to listen to records without a complicated set-up process. Its built-in preamp means that no additional accessories are required when connecting the turntable to a stereo or set of powered speakers, and it includes a replaceable precalibrated cartridge and needle that sounds great with all kinds of music.
While its entry-level sibling, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60 -- which can be had for less than $100 (£140 in the UK)-- remains a favorite of ours for vinyl newbies, the LP120 steps up to modern upgrades like a USB port on the back to convert your records into digital music files and the ability to fine-tune the amount of downward force on the needle.
The LP120-USB models its direct-drive design after the classic (and now discontinued) Technics SL-1200MK2 that earned popularity with DJs after its introduction in 1978. Fast-forward three decades and the argument for belt-drive vs. direct-drive turntables is still a divisive issue among vinyl enthusiasts.
Belt drive turntables rely on an elastic belt that connects the motor to the record platform, also called a platter, to rotate the record. Old-school audiophiles prefer belt-driven turntables because they don't transfer motor noise to the needle as much as direct-drive turntables do, but the latter are favored by DJs and casual listeners for their strong torque, quick start and stop times, and the ability to reverse the rotation direction. Additionally, some of the cheaper belt-drive turntables require manual belt adjustments to change the rotation speed between 33 and 45rpm records.
Either way, the direct-drive motor on the LP120-USB isn't a big deal if you're just trying to buy a turntable for listening to records at home. The plastic base explains the budget-friendly price tag, but turntable is sufficiently sturdy at 23.5 pounds (about 10.7 kg), and the four feet holding the turntable in place give a solid platform for dampening external vibrations.
The aluminum platter (the disc that rotates the actual record) is a unique performer in the budget turntable field because it can spin at either 33 1/3, 45, or 78rpm. While most listeners won't likely go through the trouble of swapping out the cartridge for a wide groove 78rpm stylus, it's nice that AT gives you the option.
There's a sliding switch to change the pitch of your music by 10 percent and 20 percent increments, and you can lock it in using the pitch lock button on the right side. If you really want to go nuts, you can even engage the "DIRECTION" button above it and play a record in reverse to check for secret messages.
The base of the turntable, also called a plinth, has a few convenient details that music nerds will appreciate, including designated spots to hold your adapter for 45rpm singles (included) and an extra cartridge and needle (headshell) assembly, as well as a target light that pops up to illuminate record grooves in low-light environments.
Similar to the Technics series, the platter also features 33rpm and 45rpm strobe dots to help you gauge the turntable's speed accuracy.
Two hinges on the back of the plinth hold the removable cover in place, which prevents dust and dirt from touching your records. The all-plastic design is very prone to scratches, as you can see from some of the photos included in the slideshow above, but that's expected and it certainly doesn't take away from the listening experience.
The LP120-USB incorporates an S-shaped pivoting arm (also called a ton earm) with an adjustable counterweight to balance it over your records. This cylindrical weight is also used to dial in the proper amount of downward force on the record groove: if the vertical tracking force (VTF) is set too lightly, the needle won't properly sit in the groove and your music will skip and distort; too much weight and you could cause permanent damage to the record.
Proper setup is essential to get the best sound out of your turntable, so be sure to follow the instructions carefully when you take it out of the box. If you're a newcomer, the manual does an excellent job at breaking down the process, and if you're still confused after that, this instructional video from the company will help.
If you're the kind of listener who likes to treat your records with the utmost care, you'll be happy to see a hydraulically damped cue lever on the side that gently lifts and lowers the tone arm down.
Finally, there's a small plastic latch that locks the tone arm in place, but be careful when you're using it because it's plastic and could easily snap if mishandled.
The LP120-USB has an integrated phono amp built into the unit so you don't have to buy a separate preamplifier to get the signal up to line level. Most people would consider that a handy feature, but it's also worth noting that you can also bypass it to hear how the table sounds with an upgraded external phono stage. If you're confused by this paragraph, then don't worry about it -- you can hook up any powered speakers (that have a separate power cord) to the turntable and play music straight away.
The only downside to this system is that the RCA cables are hardwired out of the unit so you'll go through a lot of trouble to replace them if they ever malfunction. In all likelihood that won't be a huge issue for most users, but it could happen if you plan to move the turntable around a lot.
To make things a little easier for users opting for the line out, the company includes two short dual RCA-to-stereo 3.5mm cables in both male and female plugs that are necessary to connect the turntable to an amp (or receiver) through the line-in or auxiliary inputs.
This model also has a USB port on the back that's used to convert vinyl records to a digital format. That's a common feature with modern turntables, but AT goes a step further and includes a free copy of the open-source audio recording program Audacity, which you can also download online. Of course, you're not limited to using that software title exclusively if you have a different one you prefer.
As with all turntables, the sound quality of your vinyl setup is dependent on a number of factors including the cartridge and stylus, amplifier, speakers/headphones, and the quality of the record used for listening, but in general the LP120-USB has a very well-rounded sound that pairs well with a variety of music genres.
The AT95E cartridge that comes in the box is a preferred choice among casual listeners for its aural abilities relative to the low price point, though you'll certainly get more nuanced frequencies out of an upgraded styli from Ortofon or Shure.
One concession in the argument for direct-drive versus belt-drive turntables is that you can often hear the faint rumble of the motor at low volumes, and this is indeed a symptom with the LP120-USB but only if you put your ear right up next to the platter. In my experience testing this unit for several weeks, I couldn't hear a sound coming from the motor through the speakers and headphones.
The Audio-Technica LP120-USB is a worthwhile turntable for record enthusiasts, amateurs, collectors, archivists and everyone in between.
Its versatile design can easily connect to a pair of powered speakers for plug-and-play simplicity, or you can bypass the internal preamp and use your own bookshelf speakers in a traditional setup.
Either way, you can depend on this turntable for quick spin-up time, easy switching between rotation speeds, and an excellent cartridge that plays well with any music you throw at it.