By Jeffrey Lee Puckett
Choosing vinyl as a way of life means making a lot of decisions, from which turntable to buy to which pressing of Abbey Road sounds more like 1969. For many, the turntable part is easy: The Audio-Technica LP120.
Even a cursory tour through vinyl-related forums will turn up endless mentions of the LP120, which has become the go-to entry level turntable for people serious enough to get a real taste of what vinyl is all about.
Now in its 10th year of production, the LP120 appeals to casual newbies, gear heads who love to modify, and bedroom DJs learning to mix beats. It has become a sales “juggernaut,” said Bob Peet, AT’s consumer product marketing manager.
Is it perfect? No. But at $300 it’s an ideal plug-and-play gateway drug that offers convenience, versatility, and familiar good looks based on the venerable Technics SL-1200. The looks are no coincidence.
When news began spreading in the late 2000s that Technics was discontinuing the fabled 1200, an iconic piece of gear that launched a million dance parties, vinyl lovers the world over wept. It was the turntable equivalent of John Bonham — powerful, pitch perfect, relentless — and losing it hurt. Audio-Technica was ready to help ease the pain.
Best known for its range of phono cartridges and headphones, Audio-Technica responded to Technics’ news with turntables based on the 1200 and built by Hanpin Electron using an OEM template popular for decades. Of those models, the LP120 has become the company’s sweet spot for an entry-level turntable.
The LP120 is leagues beyond the all-in-one suitcase record players that have become a generation’s ubiquitous introduction to playing records, and while it’s fine in stock form, some industrious owners have taken them to another level with modifications that range from easy to ambitious.
It comes with everything you need to start spinning records in short order. It arrives already equipped with an Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge, which has rightly earned a reputation as a giant-killer at its widely-available price of $50.
Like its iconic inspiration, the 120 has a pop-up light to aid in cueing records, and a pitch control that’s essential if you plan to use the LP120 for bedroom mixing. Its torque is great for the price, but professional DJs shy away from the 120 for club use, still preferring the heftier 1200.
A problematic anti-skate mechanism was upgraded last year and, finally, it comes with a built-in phono preamp and USB output, which makes it easy to transfer your grails to a hard drive. The built-in preamp lets buyers connect the turntable directly to a pair of powered loudspeakers, bypassing the need for additional gear.
That’s all part of the fun, the tweaking, and that’s the good thing about this turntable. You can grow with it.
That’s the set-up that graces tens of thousands of dorm rooms and first apartments worldwide, but what makes the LP120 a juggernaut is its popularity with a demographic of older record collectors as well as newbies.
“It was everything a beginner’s turntable was supposed to be,” said Claude Benshaul, 48, of Israel. “Nothing needed to be purchased [other than] what came in the box. No need to worry about speed issues, fussing with belts and pulleys to change speed, no motor noise and the pleasure of having a dust cover with actual hinges! Everything played correctly and it was even easy to tweak to make it better.”
Here’s the thing about vinyl: It can be a real pain in the ass but it can also be a path to analog bliss. Suitcase players and plastic-fantastic models such as the LP60 will definitely give you the experience of playing records — and that’s more than enough for a crowd content to post photos of their Paramore collections on Reddit. But to get all vinyl has to offer, you need to spend more and try harder, and the LP120 will work with you.
While you can simply flick a switch and bypass the LP120’s internal phono preamp, that’s not enough for the DIY modifiers. They remove the 120’s preamp altogether, saying that even in bypass mode it pollutes the delicate signal that turns your living room into the Hammersmith Odeon.
The removal requires only a few cuts and splices, but that’s more cuts and splices than most collectors have made in their life. Plenty of YouTube videos show the process step by step and take some of the mystery/anxiety away.
Reviews of the mod differ. Some call it profound, others say it’s more subtle. Seattle collector Jamil MacConnell paid a technician to remove the preamps in both of his 120s and said it’s the best $150 he’s ever spent.
“The improvement was somewhat startling, and I would not at all call it a minor change,” he said. “It was a night and day difference especially in the higher frequencies. What sounded very good before just became mind-blowing.”
Simpler upgrades include replacing the felt mat with one made of rubber, cork, or even leather if you’re a Priest fan! Rubber O-rings, normally used as gaskets in pipes, cost only a few bucks and can be slipped onto the tonearm to dampen resonances — they also look kind of “Beyond Thunderdome.”
You can also upgrade the headshell to something more substantial, although that could conceivably add so much weight at the cartridge end that you’d need to add AT’s heavier counterweight to compensate. And since you have a new headshell, why not think about a new cartridge. Oh, and then…
You can see where this is going.
“To me, it’s a great learning ‘table, because each step I’ve done I’ve noticed things,” said Dan Wonsowski, who has removed the preamp on his LP120, upgraded the cartridge and taught himself to align cartridges. “That’s all part of the fun, the tweaking, and that’s the good thing about this turntable. You can grow with it.”