AT-LP120 Review with AT95E vs. VM540ML Cartridges
In this article, I will review my Audio-Technica AT-LP120 turntable and compare how it performs with the standard AT95E cartridge to how it performs with the more expensive VM540ML cartridge upgrade.
So, you will see how the LP120 performs as it comes as standard out of the box. And what kind of increase in sonic performance that it is possible to achieve down the line with an easy upgrade like a higher-quality cartridge.
(I recently did a lot of research to find the best cartridge upgrade for the LP120. I ended up choosing the VM540ML. You can read about the research I did in this article.)
I will also compare the LP120 to my more expensive Rega Planar 2 turntable to make it easier to evaluate the sonic performance of the LP120.
The LP120 is one of the most popular and best-selling turntables on the market today. And it has been so for about ten years now. It mimics the legendary Technics 1200 but sells for a much lower price.
The LP120 is definitely a good turntable for the price. I often talk about the LP120 as the best beginner turntable. It also has a huge following among seasoned record enthusiasts that have been true to the vinyl format for a long time.
But the LP120 is not perfect. And in this review, I will take an honest look at both the pros and cons of the LP120. I will test and review how it sounds. Both with its standard AT95E cartridge and with the higher quality VM540ML cartridge. And I will give it a final verdict.
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120
Before we start the review and cartridge comparison, let’s take a closer look at the LP120 and its competition.
The LP120 sits in the middle of the affordable turntable category. It is not the cheapest turntable on the market, but it is still an affordable turntable.
And for its price, the build quality and list of features are impressive. It is heavy as a rock and it is built in a way that makes it feel like it will never break. I guess it can very well break, but it doesn’t feel like it can.
And being a listening/DJ turntable combo, it comes with an arsenal of features that is very rare for a turntable in this price range. Pitch control, reverse play and scratching capability with its high torque direct drive motor. It plays 33, 45 and 78 rpm records. And it has a built in preamp and USB connectivity if you want to digitize records.
If you are looking for a simplistic turntable design, the LP120 is not for you. You will probably be much happier with the slightly more expensive Pro-Ject Debut Carbon or a Rega Planar 1 if a simple minimalistic design is what you prefer. But for someone that is just starting with vinyl spinning and wants a turntable with every feature possible, the AT-LP120 is a great choice.
Good alternatives on the cheaper side will be the AT-LP60 if you want to get into vinyl records as cheap as possible without the risk of buying something that will destroy your records. Another popular option is the Sony PS-LX310BT.
But as an affordable turntable that work well for both music listening and DJs, the LP120 is almost without competition. And that is probably the main reason it is such a big hit among vinyl collectors and has been so for more or less a decade now.
– Direct Drive
– Manually Operated
– Built-in Phono Preamp
– Phono/Line switch
– USB Output
– 33RPM, 45RPM and 78 RPM
– Pitch control
– Forward and Reverse Play
– Replaceable AT95E Cartridge
– Fully adjustable tonearm
Audio-Technica AT-LP120 Setup
If you are not technically savvy, it might be a bit scary to unbox and set up the LP120. Here is what it looked like when I had gathered all the included items on my kitchen table.
So a bit of assembling is necessary. The instructions are, however, very good. So if you take your time it will be quite manageable to get it up and running. But the LP120 doesn’t get my highest score when it comes to easy setup and install.
How does the LP120 sound?
Alright, we have reached the essence of this review.
How does the LP120 sound with the original AT95E cartridge?
And how much does the sound improve with a VM540ML cartridge upgrade over the standard AT95E cartridge?
The gear I used for the test is my Denon PMA-1600NE receiver and my B&W 705 S2 speakers. I played Diana Krall (Jazz) and Pink Floyd (Rock/Alternative).
Tested: LP120 with the original AT95E Cartridge
The first thing I will point out is that there is no noise coming from the LP120. It is dead silent. I cannot hear any more noise from the LP120 that has a direct drive motor than from my Rega Planar 2 that has belt drive.
So for anyone that are scared that a direct drive turntable like the LP120 produce unbearable levels of noise, that is not the case at all. It is nothing to worry about.
And, in general, the sound quality is good for the price. Hooked up to affordable powered speakers or a decent home stereo, the LP120 will sound good enough for most people. No problems.
For those that are picky on sound quality and have invested in a higher-end home stereo, like I have, the LP120 might, however, not be exactly what you are looking for.
The sound is a bit dark and boxed in. It doesn’t fully open up. Also, the control and dynamic is not great. It is ok in the bass range, but it get a bit lazy in the mid-range.
The LP120 sound quite good for rock, but when Diana Krall is put on, I would like more openness, presence, and dynamic in the mid-range.
To conclude, the LP120 with its original cartridge is a good match for powered speakers and home stereos on the affordable side of the price spectrum. But it might under-perform in higher-end home stereo setups.
Alright. Let’s see what happens when I switch to the higher quality VM540ML cartridge.
Tested: LP120 with upgraded VM540ML Cartridge
The VM540ML replaces the discontinued AT440MLA/B cartridge that has been the go-to cartridge for many vinyl enthusiasts around the world for a long time. After lots of research I found the VM540ML to be the best cartridge upgrade for the LP120. So that is the cartridge that is mounted on my LP120 most of the time.
You can read more about popular cartridge upgrades for the LP120 in this article. And why I selected the VM540ML.
When changing cartridge from the original AT-95E to the VM540ML everything tightens up.
There is a lot more dynamic and control. Punchier bass. More accuracy in the mid-range. The music opens up and the musicians become more present. The whole music listening experience is more engaging. The increase in sonic performance is fascinating.
The difference in sound quality is quite noticeable from the very second I lower the tonearm and the stylus meets the first groove.
Does the LP120 become a high-end turntable with a cartridge upgrade? No, that is to take it a bit too far. But it becomes a very good home stereo turntable that will fulfill the need of most vinyl spinners.
Compared with my $700 Rega Planar 2 that has a $600 Rega Exact cartridge fitted, the LP120 with the VM540ML cartridge is still a fraction behind when it comes to precision, dynamic, presence and engagement. And I guess that is to be expected as that Rega turntable/cartridge combo is more than twice the price of the LP120/VM540ML combo. That said, the difference is not huge. Actually smaller than I had expected.
The VM540ML cartridge upgrade is definitely money worth spending if you like to get more sonic performance from the LP120.
Audio-Technica AT-LP120 Pros and Cons
Below are the main pros and cons I have found with the LP120 after owning it for quite a while.
- Many cool features that vinyl beginners and coming DJs might love
- Solid built
- Removable headshell makes it easy to fit different cartridges
- No competition in the market for a listening/DJ turntable at this price point
- Kids and teenagers LOVES it!
- Looks almost exactly like the legendary Technics 1200
- Sound is a fraction lazy, muted, and boxed in with the original AT95E cartridge
- Could be easier to set up
Verdict: Is the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 Good?
The Audio-Technica AT-LP120 is definitely a good beginner turntable for its price. And with a cartridge upgrade, it becomes a very good sounding Hi-Fi turntable as well. A turntable that will be a good match for a Hi-Fi home stereo. With an arsenal of cool DJ features as a bonus.