Audio Technica AT-LP120-XUSB Review
The AT-LP120XUSB is an updated offering of the former AT-LP120/LP120USB. Not exactly a revered high-end turntable in audiophile circles, but it does have some merit that make it worthy of consideration. Some feel that’s a cheapened version of the LP120, but it still weighs a respectable 17 pounds, and offers several significant upgrades over the original that lend themselves to better sound. The tonearm and drive method are unchanged, and are identical to those on the next level LP140XP. The most significant improvement is the built in phono preamp....it’s been upgraded with a defeatable switch and is no longer an issue as was the preamp on the former LP120. It can still also be plugged into an outboard phono preamp of your choice, but now with no degradation of sound due to problems with the built in phono stage. Possibly of equal significance, is the new stock AT-VM95E elliptical cartridge. It’s not only a nice upgrade from the former AT-95E, but there are three impressive full diamond shank ("nude") stylus upgrades that are plug and play replacements - 1. VMN95EN (nude elliptical- $99), 2. VMN95ML (nude microline- $149), 3. VMN95SH (nude shibata - $179). The stock VM95E is a great value in a very good cartridge, but the step up to either of the nude shank options is significant....especially the line contact ML or SH shapes. The LP120XUSB includes the new AT-HS6 headshell. The problematic vertical tracking angle adjustment from the former LP120 has been removed in the 120XUSB. It also offers a new lower torque motor that’s quieter....not DJ material, but is a non-issue that’s actually a plus for sound quality. Other upgrades include external RCA jacks for easy removal and replacement with upgraded interconnects. Add an outboard power supply, and the new AT-120XUSB has the makings to become a very respectable performer.
Years ago I sold my excellent AR-ES1 with Premier MMT tonearm and Grado Signature 8 cartridge, and have been wanting to get back into vinyl ever since. I’d been researching most of the usual suspects in the sub-$500 price range (Fluance, Rega, U-Turn, Project, A/T, used, etc. ). My Lazarus Cascade Basic preamplifier was acting a bit finicky so I wanted built in phono pre-amp just in case I needed to rely on the AT’s phono stage. I also liked the idea of ripping files from vinyl, so the USB output had some appeal. A removable headshell was a must. I was a bit skeptical about going with a direct drive table, but read several convincing articles that it would not pose an audible problem (and it didn’t). Flush with some birthday cash from my kids, an open box deal on the AT-LP120X for $140 prompted me to take the leap. My first move was to add the AT-VM95SH nude shibata stylus upgrade. Next was a new set of decent RCA interconnect cables. Then I added a cork/rubber slip mat to replace the flimsy stock felt mat, and a Brutus record clamp/weight. Always wanting to optimize my system, I sprayed several heavy coatings of flex seal under the platter to add mass and help dampen vibration....it’s not necessarily a recommended move, but it takes the AT-120XUSB a step closer to the AT-140XP, which comes with a factory applied undercoating. My AT-120XUSB now had the bones to be a respectable low cost performer in a fairly evolved audio system.
In a nutshell, this humble turntable and cartridge have far exceeded expectations and sounds surprisingly good. Speed control is excellent at 33 and 45 rpm, though I haven’t tried the 78 rpm option, and the other features are great and function as they should. The built in preamp is acceptably good for those with only line level inputs, but you can do better with a good after market phono. The VM95SH shibata stylus is top notch for it’s price range, and I continue to be beyond impressed at the level of performance I’m getting from it through the phono stage of my Lazarus Cascade basic pre-amp. Every upgrade Audio Technica made to the LP120XUSB is a nice improvement that offers the opportunity for better sound. The stock cartridge and configuration is really good for ~ $250, and should satisfy most people perfectly well. The low price point allows for some pretty significant stylus upgrades that ultimately offer "next level" performance. A few of the aforementioned tweaks and accessories, and you’ve got yourself a very low cost hot rodded setup. There are certainly "better" more prestigious tables and cartridges on the market, but they also tend to cost A LOT more money, and offer diminishing performance returns per dollar spent. If you’re looking for a low cost way to get unexpectedly good sound from vinyl, LP120XUSB offers a lot of performance for ~ $250, and even more with every incremental stylus upgrade. The tweaks are optional, but I’d at least spring for the cork/rubber mat.