Sound Advice: Audio-Technica turntable is a bargain

  • Article by: DON LINDICH , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2013 - 2:08 PM

Q: I’m buying a turntable to use with my stereo and to create digital files on my computer. I was going to get the $299 Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB that you reviewed on your website, but then I saw that the Pro-ject Debut Carbon is available in a USB version for $499. Is the Debut Carbon worth the extra investment?

A: First, the AT-LP120-USB sells for only $219 on Amazon, a significant savings. If you’re going to compare the two, use real-world prices rather than list prices so you have a more valid comparison. Both turntables are fine values, and you won’t go wrong either way.

Audio-Technica’s AT-LP120-USB (www.audio-technica.com ) is one of the biggest bargains in audio. It is a direct-drive turntable that looks a lot like the famous Technics SL-1200. It features a USB computer connection and a built-in phono preamp, so you can use it with any receiver or amplifier. The turntable is solid, looks good and sounds good.

Most $200-and-under turntables are junk, and comparing them to the AT-LP120-USB is like comparing a convenience-store microwave hamburger to Ruth’s Chris steak house. You can see my original review of the turntable at tinyurl.com/mea96kf, where you will find my only real criticism was of the fitted cartridge, a DJ cartridge of middling quality. It has since been replaced by a much better hi-fi cartridge, the Audio-Technica AT95E.

The belt drive Pro-ject Debut Carbon ($399) and Carbon USB ($499, www.sumikoaudio.net) are the latest versions of the famous Pro-ject Debut series of turntables. I have long considered the Debut series to be the best entry-level audiophile turntables on the market. The Debut Carbon is the biggest upgrade the series has seen.

The arm has been upgraded to a full carbon-fiber design, and the standard cartridge is the excellent Ortofon 2M Red. You can add a speed control box, called the Speed Box II, that improves sound quality by stabilizing the motor speed and allows you to change between 33 and 45 rpm with the touch of a button. It sells for $129. Without the Speed Box II, you change speeds by moving the belt to a ­different pulley.

The Debut Carbon will provide better sound than the AT-LP120-USB. If you have high-quality speakers and electronics, it’s worth the investment if you plan on making vinyl record playback the centerpiece of your system. You will probably want to add the Speed Box II eventually, which will bring your total cost to $628.

At $219, the AT-LP120-USB will provide excellent sound and doesn’t need any other accessories to control the speed. Since it is direct drive, you never need to change a worn-out belt. If you want to improve the sound, you can simply upgrade the cartridge.

Send questions to donlindich@gmail.com. Get more recommendations and read past columns at www.soundadviceblog.com.

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