Audio Technica AT-LP5 Turntable Review
Sometimes it pays to be direct
What is the Audio Technica AT-LP5?The last turntable to pass through AVForums was the rather wonderful VPI Prime- a device sufficiently impressive in performance and general desirability to have a Reference badge pinned on it. At £3,750, the Prime is quite sanely priced in the bold world of high end analogue but not exactly the sort of product that most of us are likely to kick off our vinyl playback careers with.
As such, this review is about a turntable that costs less than a tenth of what the Prime does and is equipped in such a way that it should get anyone up and running with analogue playback even if they have no supporting ancillaries. This is a far from unusual design decision in this day and age- the Pro-Ject Essential II Phono USB that kicked off the AVForums turntable category was another model that could this.
What makes the Audio Technica AT-LP5 rather more unusual, is the way it spins its platter. The overwhelming majority of budget turntables- in fact turntables full stop- are belt drive. The platter is driven by a motor that is separately mounted and connected only by the tension of the belt. The alternative is to build the motor assembly into the spindle and directly rotate the platter. Doing this is simpler in some ways and rather more complex in others and while there has been a considerable resurgence in analogue, direct drive remains rare. So, confronted with the Audio Technica, two questions have to be answered- is it a great starter turntable and does direct drive give it any advantages?
Design and specifications.The Audio Technica is a full size turntable that is built around a direct current motor that spins the platter via fixed connection. The advantages of this should be a level of pitch stability and accuracy that are challenges with belt drive. Equally, with the motor acting directly on the playing surface, any noise in this process risks being transmitted directly to the stylus of the cartridge. The reputation of direct drive as a home audio concept suffered from decks with cheap motors introducing audible rumble into the playback. As a direct deck, one immediate bonus of the design is that speed control is available via a switch rather than changing the position of a belt.
To avoid this, the LP5 has been designed from the outset to minimise the chances of this happening. The motor is isolated in the chassis which is in turn tuned to reduced resonance and the LP5 is fitted with a three pin IEC mains connection that enables the deck to ground properly (that has another interesting benefit we'll cover in a bit). The platter that the spindle acts on is in turn made from aluminium with a heavy rubber mat on top that creates a playing surface that is inert and set up in such a way that specific resonances are cancelled out.
The LP5 mounts a tonearm that is specific to it and rather unlike any other design at this price point. Audio Technica historically made tonearms but ceased production in the late eighties or so. This new model borrows heavily from those designs which means that instead of being a straight armtube with an offset mount for the cartridge, it is instead a J Shape type with a curve in the arm and the catridge mounting straight. Neither is this mounting completely conventional. The Audio Technica uses a detachable headshell which attaches to the armtube by a bayonet connection. This does make the business of alignment simpler because the cartridge mounts in a straight line.
Supplied with a HS10 headshell , the LP5 is supplied with a cartridge which like the arm is unique to the deck but does have a more recognisable and recent point of origin. The AT95X is a tweaked version of the company's long running AT95E cartridge. Improvements to the suspension have yielded a better performance and the 95X is identified by its deep red colour in contrast to the pea green of the normal model.
In order to bypass the issue of many modern amps not being fitted with a phono preamp, the LP5 has one built into the chassis. Where the Audio Technica has an advantage over many rivals is that thanks to the use of a full size IEC plug with three pins, the LP5 has an internal ground that means that no connection is needed on another device and the LP5 is completely silent in use. In order to give you a bit of room for expansion (or if you already have a phono preamp), you can switch the preamp out of the circuit via a rear panel control. Connection in both cases is via a pair of RCA phono sockets and Audio Technica supplies an RCA phono cable.
One last fitment to the Audio Technica is a USB-B connection that together with bundled Audacity software is able to create 16/44.1 rips of your vinyl. This is a function that I have historically found people get very excited about right up until the point where they try it out, whereupon they realise it is fiddly, easy to screw up and usually less convenient than listening to the record, but having it bundled for free is welcome.
AdvantagesThe AT-LP5 is an incredibly hefty bit of kit for £330. It is bigger, heavier and altogether more solid than belt driven rivals at the price. As a company Audio Technica generally builds their products to a high standard and the LP5 is no exception in this regard. Some details of the design are truly excellent. The feet are the best I've seen on any deck anywhere near this price point and everything feels like it is going to last for a long time.
This is good news because the design of the LP5 is more amenable than most rivals to being upgraded and tweaked. Thanks to the detachable headshell, changing the cartridge on the Audio Technica is likely to be easier than with most rivals and as Audio Technica moving magnet cartridges are much the same size, weight and basic design as the AT95X, you should have no problem changing for another cartridge and there are several other brands that should fit without issue. The counterweight and antiskate arrangements should be up to the job of working with them. When you then consider that the LP5's phonostage can be switched out of the circuit and a higher quality external model used along with the possibility of changing the mat, headshell and cabling, you have a deck with much more 'stretch' in it than any deck up the level of the Rega RP3.
The AT-LP5 is an incredibly hefty bit of kit for £330
DisadvantagesWhen the asking price of the Audio Technica is taken into account, there isn't much you can complain about. I'd hesitate to describe it as 'pretty' and the result is fairly black with little in the way of highlights but the LP5 does look purposeful. The spec is comprehensive for the price but Audio Technica does not supply a dust cover as standard although one will be available as a cost option.
How was the AT-LP5 Tested?Setting up the LP5 is impressively simple. Set the plinth on a level surface, drop the platter and mat onto the spindle and connect the counterweight to the back and the headshell to the front. Decide if you are going to use the internal phono stage or not and set the switch accordingly and you are away.
The LP5 was connected to a Naim Supernait 2 integrated amplifier, itself connected to a pair of Kudos Super 10 standmounts via a standard RCA interconnect and the internal phonostage engaged. It was then additionally tested with the phono stage switched out of the circuit and an Alpha Design Labs GT40a phono stage used to give a more absolute perspective on the performance of the AT95X on the LP5. In all cases, the material used was vinyl.
Sound quality.I had managed to have a quick listen to the LP5 during my visit to the IFA show earlier in the year. The conditions weren't exactly ideal and Audio Technica had decided to run their £330 baby into a phono stage worth about three times that but there was still a sense that the performance of the LP5 was noteworthy. Having now spent some time with one in more familiar surroundings, I can expand on this and confirm that the LP5 is rather special.
First up, none of the gremlins of direct drive are present. The LP5 is impressively quiet with no sign of any noise from the motor making its way to the stylus. This is sufficiently effective that the Audio Technica is one of the quieter sub £500 turntables of any type I've tested at home. At the same time, the pitch stability of the Audio Technica is almost CD like. Play something that normally represents a problem for affordable belt drive designs like Fink meets the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with its sustained string notes and the LP5 is absolutely pitch stable.
The effect this has on the realism of presentation is considerable. I've found that your brain tends to dial out fractional pitch instability pretty effectively but listening to a deck where it is absent is deeply satisfying. If this was all that the LP5 was able to gain from its motor, that would still be good news but there is a further benefit that is a little harder to describe. The quickest shorthand way of describing it would be 'grip.' The LP5 has a propulsive force to the way it handles faster and more complex music that is quite different to belt driven rivals.
This force is thanks to the detail and control that the LP5 exerts over lower frequencies. One of the reasons why the Technics SL1200/10 decks have such a loyal following is down to this same control and the LP5 manages to do the same thing but- possibly down to the arm being set up for domestic use rather than professional- does so with a daintiness that keeps it sounding open and spacious.
Listening to the dense and complex Motion by The Cinematic Orchestra on the LP5 is faintly revelatory. There is a cohesion and sheer joy to the way it makes music that are close to the rather pricier Rega RP3. I have frequently gone at length about the curious construct of timing and the LP5 is bit of a star in this regard. The naturalness and sense of space that vinyl specialises in is present in spades but the LP5 seems determined to avoid the softness and fuzziness that can sometimes bedevil the format when used cost effectively.
Judged by absolute standards, the only real weaknesses of the LP5 can be found at the upper registers. The AT95X is a surprisingly substantial upgrade on the standard AT95 but there is still a sense that the top end can be a little hard and brittle especially with poorer recordings. Switching to the Alpha Design Labs GT40a- a tremendously talented and flexible phono stage DAC and ADC- doesn't really rid the performance of this slight top end aggression suggesting that the issue is down to the cartridge rather than the phono stage. In fact, the internal phono stage of the LP5 is very good indeed and you shouldn't feel you have to rush to stop using it.
Often with a budget turntable, a problem with the supplied cartridge would be a problem because many tonearms at this price point don't take too kindly to the cart being changed. The detachable headshell and the arm's flexible antiskate and counterweight setup mean that you can easily get another cartridge working with the LP5 and unlock more performance from it. Think of the AT95x as a capable way of getting you going and look ahead to putting something more capable on when funds and timing allow.
The LP5 has a propulsive force to the way it handles faster and more complex music that is quite different to belt driven rivals
- Powerful and entertaining sound
- Impressive build
- Scope to upgrade
- Cartridge can be a little bright
- Not exactly pretty
- Lid a cost option
Audio Technica AT-LP5 Turntable ReviewAs with any market where the growth in sales figures tempts new arrivals, there is always a danger that some of these new turntables turning up will be rather 'me too' products that don't really do anything to stand out from the competition. The Audio Technica AT-LP5 is not one of these products. Audio Technica has carefully and deliberately designed a turntable that has almost nothing in common with the competition- a pretty bold move when confronted with the success of the existing dominant brands
The result is a slightly sober looking deck that is realistically the new class of the field below £500. It is satisfying to use, built like a truck and delivers a sonic performance that does a fine job of delivering the promise of vinyl without reverting to stereotypes. I have been critical of the cartridge in the copy pretty much because it is the only real weakness in a truly exceptional turntable. This is a brilliant one stop shop to get going with analogue (or back into for that matter) and it is an unquestionable Best Buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £330.00
Ease of Use9
Value for Money10
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