Although audiophiles were convinced that LPs still provided the most accurate rendition of original music, most people had moved fully into the digital age and had left analog music far behind. Virtually all music is now produced digitally, and most tracks are distributed online via music streaming services or online stores.
Yet many music lovers have a question that has few good answers: “What to I do with my old collection of LPs, 45s and my parents’ 78RPM records?”
The best answer is to digitize the songs yourself using a high-quality vinyl record player that has the capability to convert the analog signal to a digital one that’s compatible with modern playback devices.
We recently tested the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 USB Direct Drive Professional Turntable. Audio-Technica has a long history of producing innovative stereo system components – and the AT-LP120 does not disappoint.
The AT-LP120 actually serves as a double-duty turntable. It performs admirably as a traditional turntable in addition to creating excellent digital copies of your favorite music. We tested the unit in both roles – connected to a home entertainment system via RCA analog connectors as well as connected to a computer via a USB port.
Notable AT-LP120 Record Player Features
The AT-LP120 USB is one impressive piece of technology. Solidly built, the turntable has a classic and clean design that’s sure to be familiar to stereo buffs. There are many features – typically found on much more expensive top-end turntables – that are often missing from competitors’ offerings.
The first thing you notice when unpacking the turntable is how heavy it is. This is a very good thing! The heavy base – housing an impressive motor – is coupled with isolator feet to limit external vibrations that cause records to skip.
One of the key features is the Direct-Drive high-torque motor. In the past, only high-end turntables had this drive mechanism. There is no belt that can loosen over time, slip or break completely. Unlike belt drives that delivered famously variable playing speeds as the belt expanded or loosened over time, the direct drive system plays records at a much more constant, dependable speed.
The solid cast aluminum platter has raised indicators along the perimeter that are lit by a red light whenever the turntable is in motion. When the set speed is right on, the dots that appear in the light remain static… if they appear to “drift’ in either direction, you know that the speed needs to be adjusted. It’s easy to make any necessary adjustments by using the custom controls on the top of the turntable base.
The vinyl turntable is a traditional “one play” design that does not have a mechanical system to automatically return the tone arm when the side has completed play. This “no-load” (manual lift) tone arm is actually of great benefit in preserving records and providing quality playback. Although you have to manually place the tone arm down on the record and lift it off at the completion of play, there is a dampened lift mechanism to make sure the tone arm does not hit the record surface too violently.
When setting up the unit, it’s important to properly balance the arm, set the tracking force and anti-skate (the recommended default values of around 2 grams worked well). With calibrated balance, tracking force, and anti-skating controls, the arm keeps the stylus precisely in the record grooves to minimize record wear or having the stylus “skip” across the record surface.
The elegant “S” shaped tone arm securely connects to a head shell that houses a quality Audio-Technica cartridge with a replaceable oval-tipped stylus. If you wish, you can purchase additional head shells to house other cartridge/stylus combinations that are tuned to specific types of music. The easily removable cartridge head shell allows you to change head shell assemblies quickly. In fact, the unit has a convenient sleeve built into the top surface of the base to house a second cartridge ready to swap out when needed.
AT-LP120 as an Analog Record Player
The AT-LP120 performs superbly as an analog turntable. The sound is clear, there’s no discernable distortion, and the signal strength is sufficient to mask minor imperfections at normal listening volumes. Even at higher volumes, the sound was clear and voice recordings were robust. Of course, before playing albums you should always clean the records with a brush and cleaner specifically designed for that purpose. As we all know, the cleaner the records, the clearer the sound.
The AT-LP120 can be used with powered speakers without an external amplifier by taking advantage of the built-in preamp. This feature also allows you to use the turntable with sound systems that have no dedicated turntable input. The pre-amp feature can be accessed via a toggle switch on the back of the turntable base.
The AT-LP120 is supplied with a fixed set of RCA stereo plugs that are compatible with most stereo systems that allow analog input. The turntable can also connect with devices that have a mini plug input by using the included dual RCA female to mini-plug male or dual RCA female to mini-plug female adapters.
A nice feature is the pop-up stylus target light that illuminates the tracks from the side so it’s easier to cue tracks in low-light conditions.
If you want to play grandpa’s old 78s, you’ll need to switch from the cartridge/stylus supplied with the unit to one specifically designed to play 78 RPM records. Since the turntable has a handy holder for an extra cartridge shell, it’s easy to swap the head shells out when needed.
The dust cover opens to a 45 degree angle for easy access to the platter and controls. If the location of the turntable is tight – or you really like the uncluttered look of this fine looking component – the dust cover can be removed entirely in a matter of seconds with no need for tools.
The AT-LP120 USB for Digital Sound
The AT-LP120 seamlessly combines a quality analog turntable with the bundled Audacity audio digitizing software to create a robust platform for digitally recording tracks from your favorite records. The turntable operates exactly the same as if you were playing the recording over your analog stereo system. The conversion to digital sound is accomplished by the software loaded onto the digital device.
The setup is simple. Leave the turntable connected to the output device of your choice (powered speakers or amplified stereo system). This allows you to monitor the sound as you record and digitize.
Then connect the USB cable from the port on the back of the turntable to the USB port on your computer. Open the Audacity software program and you’re ready to digitize the recording.
Audacity Digital Audio Software
The turntable comes bundled with Audacity – a third-party audio editor and recording program that handles capturing digital versions of the music played on the turntable. The program is compatible with recent versions of both PC as well as Apple operating systems.
Audio-Technica provides a separate manual that gives clear step-by-step installation instructions for both Apple and PC platforms. Given how often Apple updates OS X, the screens in the manual did not perfectly match the actual screens as displayed in the latest release of OS X. Nevertheless, all of the settings menus were clearly visible and set up only took a few minutes. In fact, in most cases the default settings worked fine.
After taking a few minutes to install the software and make sure the preference settings were correct, the next step was to cue up a track and record the song on the Audacity viewer. A simple set of recording controls – pause, play, stop, forward, back and record – appear across the top of the screen. After starting the turntable and cuing the song, pressing the “record” button with the cursor starts the recording process. A sound waveform for both channels is displayed in real time so you can monitor the progress of the recording.
When the track is finished, you hit the stop button to end the recording process. Before saving the file, you have an opportunity to save the key “metadata” for the recording – information that includes the artist’s name, album name, song title, genre, and year of recording. This data accompanies the file when you add it to your music library and is displayed when you play the recording back on your device.
The Audacity program exports the recording to several popular formats for PC or Apple platforms. The resulting digital file can be played on your computer using popular software such as iTunes, or on a multitude of portable music devices such as iPods or smart phones.
AT-LP120 USB Turntable Availability
The AT-LP120 has a MSRP of $299, but is widely available for around $249 from online sources such as Amazon, Best Buy, or online stores that cater to professionals such as B&H Photo & Video.
The Vinyl Revival
There is a clear revival of interest in the vinyl experience. Young people are discovering the unique sound quality of vinyl recordings. There is an increase in production and outlets that carry records. Here are two articles, one by NBC News and one from the Audio Technica blog.