A Review of the Audio-Technica AT-PL120
Former Crutchfield staff writer Barry Montgomery studied English and psychology at Indiana University and received a master's degree in English literature from the University of Virginia.
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While rummaging around in a charity flea market a few months back, I overheard an argument between a mother and daughter (I'd guess their ages to be about 40 and 15, respectively). The disagreement concerned a used turntable the daughter was holding. It ended with the mother stating emphatically, "We were listening to records back when I was your age. It's a dead medium. You are not getting this record player. Case closed." If the insistent mother had looked over her shoulder, however, she would've seen me and four or five other folks (all in our twenties or thirties) crammed into one of the flea market's smaller rooms, eagerly thumbing through a huge selection of LPs.
Even though vinyl is marginalized to non-existent in most modern-day music shops, it still plays an important role in many a music lover's collection. And it's not just used LPs and turntables that aficionados are snapping up — production and sales of new LPs has increased significantly in the past few years, and new turntables continue to sell to the relatively small but very devoted legion of LP lovers.
When I was given the chance to review one of several new turntables, I opted for the Audio-Technica AT-PL120. Why? Because it's easily one of the most versatile models in its price class, offering a built-in phono preamp, 3-speed operation, and plenty of DJ-friendly special features. And, as I found out after spending some time with this turntable, it also sounds great.
The AT-PL120 offers good looks and great sound.
Like all turntables fresh out of the box, the AT-PL120 requires minor assembly. To those unfamiliar with the process of setting up a turntable, some of the tasks involved might sound intimidating — assembling the platter, mounting the cartridge on the tonearm, balancing the tonearm, setting the tracking force, and adjusting the tonearm height. But the included literature explained everything in detail and the entire procedure took only about 20 minutes to complete.
One of the AT-PL120's handiest features is its built-in phono preamplifier. Many turntables do not include such a preamp, and therefore can only be connected to a receiver or preamplifier with a designated phono input. If you switch on the AT-PL120's phono preamp, however, you can plug it into any auxiliary input on a receiver — a very useful feature, since a good number of latter-day receivers do not include a phono input. And for LP lovers who are interested in archiving their albums to CD via a computer CD burner, the built-in phono preamp is great news, since it lets you connect the turntable directly to your PC, without having to employ a receiver as a "middle man." You'll most likely have to buy a stereo RCA-to-miniplug adapter to achieve the connection to your soundcard, but this is an expense of only about $4.
Bringing out the best in your LPs
From the first notes of the first record I put on the AT-PL120 — Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July — I was impressed with the warm, rich sound of this turntable. The bass was punchy and well-rounded. The drums were dynamic and sharply defined, with a crisp cymbal sound that steered well clear of the brittleness you often hear from lesser turntables. Each instrument in the mix came through clearly and cleanly, and Wonder's vocals were reproduced with real presence. So far, so good.
I played a variety of records on the AT-PL120, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it handled every genre in my collection with aplomb. I tried a number of different jazz records — ranging from the astringent free jazz of Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music to the richly layered harmonic palettes of Duke Ellington's early 40's classics — and was pleasantly surprised at how good each one sounded. Undercurrent, an album of duets between pianist Bill Evans and guitarist Jim Hall, sounded especially gorgeous. In this case, I was able to compare the LP to a CD version of the same album. The CD had slightly better definition, but sounded thin and brittle when compared to the fuller, warmer, more intimate sound of the LP.
When I sampled the spectrum of pop and rock albums in my collection, the AT-PL120 demonstrated similar versatility. The textured layers of strings and brass that slowly build over the course of John Cale's Paris 1919 were recreated with precision and a palpable sense of depth. Switching gears, I next sampled the bracing (but surprisingly well-recorded) art-punk of Pere Ubu's The Modern Dance, and was knocked out by what I heard. This album is a series of sonic maelstroms, with siren-raid synthesizers blasting aural shrapnel across the upper end and massive, monstrously propulsive bass lines anchoring the bottom. The AT-PL120 brought each track to life with visceral punch and a convincingly three-dimensional soundstage.
Plays 45s and 78s, too
Of course, this turntable isn't just for LPs. Naturally, it also offers 45 rpm (rotations per minute) operation so you can enjoy your classic 7" singles all over again. More unique, however, is the AT-PL120's ability to play 78 rpm 10" records — very few modern day turntables in this price range offer that capability. I don't own any 78s, so I couldn't test out this feature myself. But for anyone who's got a stack of old 10" records stashed away somewhere (perhaps formerly owned by your parents or even your grandparents), this turntable can open up a door into the dimly lit musical past.
A cartridge and needle for most occasions
A contributor to the great sound of this turntable is undoubtedly its phono cartridge, Audio-Technica's ATP-2. This is a significantly nicer cartridge than you'll find included with most turntables in this price range (many turntables don't even include a cartridge at all). As a bonus for DJs, this cartridge uses an elliptical stylus that's capable of playing records both forward and backward. Many needles aren't designed for backward play and you'll damage both your needle and your album if you "back up" a track in cueing it up for play.
However, what makes a good playback cartridge doesn't always make a good cartridge for the popular DJ practice of "scratching." I spoke with DJ Select, a professional DJ who had also tried out the AT-PL120. He found that, using the ATP-2 cartridge, he needed to set the tracking force at 5 grams in order to prevent frequent skipping. At such a high tracking force, scratching will tear up both the needle and the grooves of the record. However, DJ Select noted that cartridges designed specifically for scratching are relatively cheap, and for straight playback of LPs can't compare to the ATP-2's fine sound.
The AT-PL120's pitch control offers impressively speedy response, and gives you the choice of ?10% or ?20% speed adjustment.
Features for DJs
Otherwise, the AT-PL120 is loaded with DJ-friendly features. It's got a large slider that lets you adjust the playback pitch by ±10% or ±20% you can toggle between these two ranges with the press of a button. There's also a Quartz Lock button that instantly zeroes out the pitch adjustment, letting DJs achieve seamless track segues by instantly switching from beat-matching mode to perfect pitch. DJ Select tested the AT-PL120 side by side with the Technics SL-1200, widely regarded as the reference turntable for DJs. He was impressed to discover that the response speed of the Audio-Technica's pitch control held its own against the venerated Technics, and noted that he actually preferred the AT-PL120's wider range of pitch adjustment.
While the included cartridge isn't designed with scratching in mind, the AT-PL120 is otherwise very well suited for that task. It comes with its own slip mat another crucial component for scratching and DJ Select reported that he was pleasantly surprised by how good the mat itself was. He also found that the aluminum platter offered an excellent, very sturdy platform for scratching.
The AT-PL120 also offers a pop-up light that illuminates the path of the tonearm across the grooves handy for cueing up tracks in dimly lit clubs and dance halls. Another feature of potential interest to DJs is the reverse play button, which allows this turntable to play records backwards at any of its three speeds (for further variation, the pitch control can also be employed for reverse play). DJs that specialize in mixing will undoubtedly find the reverse play feature a handy way to blend some very unusual sonic textures into their performances.
The build of the AT-PL120 would best be described as moderately sturdy. My apartment, the first floor of an older home with wood floors, presents a pretty serious challenge to turntable stability. I've abandoned several fairly inexpensive turntables because merely walking within ten feet of them caused serious skipping. When I tested the AT-PL120, I found that it was impressively resistant to these sorts of external vibrations, not skipping at all unless the stand on which I'd set it up was bumped directly.
DJ Select agreed with me that the build quality was superior to a lot of inexpensive turntables, but added that the build can't really compare to the famously sturdy design of the Technics SL-1200. (To be fair, it should be noted that the Audio-Technica turntable costs about 60% of what the Technics goes for.) The base is constructed of plastic, with a heavy sheet of metal inside that supplies weight but not true stability. For situations where there is a lot of vibration very typical of such common DJ scenarios as raves and frat parties a DJ may have to use some additional means of isolating this turntable to prevent hum and feedback (many DJs employ a turntable case that is specially constructed to absorb external vibrations). Even if the turntable itself is completely isolated, however, merely tapping on the base will create audible noise in the output.
The AT-PL120 has plenty to offer a wide spectrum of LP lovers. For anyone looking for a turntable exclusively for home use, the impressive sound quality and reasonably sturdy build make this model a great choice. For many folks, the built-in phono preamp will supply crucial hookup flexibility, while for others the ability to play 78rpm records may be a real bonus.
Of course, there are plenty of features here for DJs to love, too the pitch control is especially quick and flexible, and the stable platter offers a great platform for scratching. The two DJs I spoke with about the AT-PL120 agreed that it is an excellent choice for the beginning or intermediate DJ. The less-than-rock-solid construction, however, limits its appeal to professional DJs who are primarily turntable-focused. But for the growing number of pro DJs who principally rely on laptops and CD players, using a turntable only as a secondary source, the AT-PL120 will serve as a good, affordable substitute for a Technics SL-1200.