In 1962, a gentleman named Hideo Matsushita (no relation to the Konosuke Matsushita who founded Matsushita Electric Industrial Company, aka Panasonic) saw that, to faithfully transmit the full fidelity of LPs they played over the air, the Japanese broadcasting industry needed better phono cartridges than they had. To fill this need he founded the Audio-Technica Corporation, which to this day hews to that heritage: many of their products, while serving the audio community well, are aimed at broadcasting operations. But while Audio-Technica offers a wide range of phono cartridges, only recently have they begun to make turntables -- such as the subject of this review, the AT-LP7 ($799 USD).
The two-speed AT-LP7 is Audio-Technica’s top turntable model. As audiophile ’tables go, it’s compact at 17.72”W x 6.18”H x 13.86”D, including dustcover, and weighs 18.3 pounds without dustcover. It’s relentlessly black -- the only bits of color are the aluminum 45rpm adapter and the label on the arm’s counterweight.
The AT-LP7’s sturdy plinth is made of 40mm-thick MDF. Its 20mm-thick platter is made of “anti-resonance polyoxymethylene,” to minimize the effects of external vibrations.
The controls are simplicity itself -- this turntable is fully manual in operation. In the front left corner of the top deck is a three-position knob: turn this counterclockwise for 33⅓rpm, clockwise for 45rpm. Select either speed and a small LED just above the switch glows blue. In the rear left corner of the deck is the motor pulley for the drive belt.
The AT-LP7 is powered by an external supply that plugs into the ’table at the far right of its rear panel. Moving leftward from there are the ground post, then a slider for selecting the cartridge type: moving-magnet/iron or moving-coil. Then come the RCA output jacks for the phono cable, and leftmost is a switch for engaging the AT-LP7’s built-in phono preamplifier.
The AT-LP7’s price includes one of Audio-Technica’s newer MM cartridges, the VM520EB, which alone retails for $119 (or $159 with headshell) and replaces the AT100E, which won rave reviews in its day. The VM520EB features an elliptical stylus (0.3 x 0.7 mil) bonded to an aluminum shank, in turn affixed to an aluminum cantilever. A-T recommends a range of vertical tracking force (VTF) of 1.8-2.2gm, and 2gm when this cartridge is used in the AT-LP7.
The dustcover isn’t hinged or otherwise attached to the plinth -- you just lift it off. A-T cautions that the cover is to be used only when the ’table is not -- using it during play could result in “record damage or sound degradation.” Not quite following their reasoning, I asked A-T’s Kurt Van Scoy about it, who responded via e-mail:
What we are referring to is that moving the dustcover (DC) on and/or off the turntable (TT) while playing a record, the user could jar, hit, or drop the DC on the tonearm causing record and or stylus damage. A dustcover can cause resonances on the plinth or wherever it is attached. If it is on the TT when playing an LP it acts like a drum skin. We don’t recommend playing the TT with the DC down or on the TT as the vibration or resonance caused by the DC contact with the ’table could also affect the audio quality. I experimented with the cover off and on and since then I always remove the dustcover when playing vinyl.
A word to the wise.
The AT-LP7 is warranted for one year.
The AT-LP7 comes very well packed, and nearly every little box or bag containing a part or parts is clearly labeled -- something I wish other turntable makers would do. The comprehensive and well-written owner’s manual instructs the user to set the platter on the spindle, then loop the flat drive belt first around the platter and then around the drive pulley. This took me a few tries -- the belt was not especially keen to be mounted.
The next step is to level the turntable by turning its four round feet left or right to, respectively, lower or raise that foot’s corner, until a bubble level indicates that the platter is perfectly horizontal. This was easily done; the feet are designed for quick setup.
Then you mount the cartridge and headshell on the tonearm, and lock the headshell to the arm. Be sure to secure the arm to the armrest with the arm clamp, which is just in front of the arm’s gimbal bearing. Only then should you go on to the next step of threading the counterweight onto the tonearm stub. Turn the weight clockwise a few turns to ensure that it’s fully on the stub.
Now comes the fun part of setting up any turntable: balancing the tonearm and setting the VTF. To keep from damaging the stylus, A-T suggests gently holding the headshell while releasing the arm clamp, to keep the stylus from falling to strike deck or platter. Then, still gently holding the headshell, adjust the counterweight until it floats in air on its own, parallel with the surface of the platter.
Now it’s time to set the VTF -- by adjusting a ring or disc on the front face of the counterweight that rotates independently of the weight -- to “0.” Turn counterweight and gauge counterclockwise until the line on the gauge corresponds to the recommended VTF -- in this case, 2.0gm. You then set the antiskate control -- a small dial just to the right of the gimbal pivot -- to the same value as the VTF; in this case, again, 2.0gm.
The final steps of setup involve the rear panel. First, check the MM/MC switch to ensure that it’s in the MM position (assuming you’re using the included VM520EB cartridge); it should already be set properly, but check it anyway. Then determine whether or not you need to use the AT-LP7’s built-in phono stage: If you have a preamp, integrated amp, or receiver with its own phono stage that you’d rather use, set the preamp switch to Phono; if your preamp/integrated/receiver has only line-level inputs, set this switch to Line.
The only time you might need to set the MM/MC switch to MC is if you install a moving-coil cartridge, and even then, only if you use the AT-LP7’s onboard phono stage. Van Scoy explained:
The MM/MC switch does change the gain for a MM and MC -- 36dB for MM and 56dB for MC. More gain is needed for an MC due to the low output for MC cartridges. Basically, there are separate MM and MC circuits that are switched, as not just gain is adjusted but also some loading parameters. Since A-T does have a fairly extensive MC offering, our reason for including the MC stage on this TT was to provide the customer with many cartridge options and ease of changing between cartridges when you take into account the universal headshell and MM/MC switch. It affords a very easy and quick change of cartridges depending on music or users’ preference for cartridges.
Finally, connect the substantial ground cable to the turntable and the amplifier, connect the outboard power supply to the ’table, and plug the supply into an AC outlet. You’re done.
You may or may not have to adjust the height of the tonearm. Normally, you’d do this only if you use a different cartridge -- one that’s taller or shorter than A-T’s VM520EB. This is to ensure that, when you play a record, the arm is absolutely parallel to the record/platter. Oddly, though I was using the included VM520EB, I did need to adjust the arm-height mechanism to its highest position before continuing. But it took me only about a minute to achieve near perfection.
Once I’d finished unpacking all of the AT-LP7’s parts, setup then took about 25 minutes before I was playing my first LP. If you’re new to the vinyl game, it may take a bit longer, but probably not more than 45 minutes. I salute Audio-Technica for their clear and thorough setup instructions.
Changes to the system
Since my last review, the greatest change in my system has been the listening room itself. In August, my wife and I moved from Cincinnati, Ohio, back to our hometown, Dayton. We bought a condominium whose large if almost square master bedroom is now my office and music room. We’re thankful that our neighbors tell us they can’t hear my stereo, and I suspect they can’t -- our building is made of prestressed concrete beams 8” thick, and they seem to be very good at deadening sound.
The room is 22’L by 18’W, with windows in two walls; I have shelves for books and for CDs along one long wall, and shelves of LPs and an equipment rack along the other. My speakers are set up on the long axis, about 6.5’ apart and 4’ out from the front wall, each speaker about 3.5’ from a shelf full of books or LPs. A subwoofer splits the distance between the main speakers, but because this new room is fairly live, the sub seldom turns itself on at the volume levels I normally use. But that may change with more trials of speaker positions, which I’m still experimenting with. At least the equipment itself has remained a constant.
As I mentioned last December, in my review of the Thorens TD 206 turntable and TAS 267 cartridge, one of my favorite albums is Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. I have it in four forms: original LP, original CD, FLAC download, and my favorite: a 45rpm vinyl pressing (2 LPs, Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-441). When I played the MoFi edition, I was immediately struck by the articulation: taut as a bowstring. Snare-drum strokes sounded like pistol shots, and bass notes were as tight as a drum should be. Voices were crisp, with no sloppiness. There were multiple layers of depth, Mark Knopfler’s lead vocal well out in front. This combination of turntable and cartridge was superb on this album -- the quality of sound urged me to dig out and play my very best-sounding LPs.
One of those is another MoFi 45rpm remastering: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (2 LPs, Columbia/Legacy/Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab MFSL 2-45011). I love the first cut, “So What,” and listened to it critically. One thing that caught my attention was the delicacy of Bill Evans’s piano playing -- throughout almost the entirety of this 9:25-long track his playing is very subtle, and behind Davis is often barely audible. But through the AT-LP7 I noticed a trick I’d never heard before. On several chords he attacks but then almost immediately depresses the leftmost or soft pedal, to soften the sound. His part is a bit more in the foreground when he’s backing John Coltrane on tenor sax and Cannonball Adderley on alto sax, but not by much. The AT-LP7 reproduced all of these passages beautifully, turning in a mighty fine performance.
Though the track is perhaps not the epitome of recording excellence overall, the guitars at the beginning and end of “Love Alive,” from Heart’s Little Queen (LP, Portrait JC 34799), are exquisite, and this turntable brought out all of it. As in the Miles Davis, there are bits of musical filigree that less detailed record players might mask -- here, the touches of flute behind the guitars, which the A-T reproduced clearly. The voices -- Ann Wilson’s in front, backed by her sister, Nancy -- were also clearly reproduced. As usual, however, due to the album’s original engineering, the tom-toms and bass drum sounded as if filled with oatmeal, with no real power in a track that demands a powerful drum line. This wasn’t the fault of the AT-LP7 -- it played what was on the record.
The Manhattan Transfer has been making the finest close vocal harmonies for more than a half century now. Recently, I came across a used copy, in great condition, of their Live album from 1978, in an early MoFi half-speed-mastered edition (LP, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 1-022). They perform “Four Brothers,” written in 1947 by Jimmy Giuffre for the four-man sax section of Woody Herman’s Second Herd, with words by Jon Hendricks. On this recording the tempo is a bit slower than on the Transfer’s later recordings of the song, and that and the fine articulation of the VM520EB cartridge made the words much more intelligible than usual. The voices remained stably in position, and, unlike the instruments of the backing band, sounded full-bodied and right up front. Mighty fine listening!
The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out (LP, Columbia PC 8192), recorded in 1959 -- the same year as Kind of Blue, and in the same studio -- is old enough that the two stereo channels are almost discrete: alto sax, drums, and bass on the left; piano on the right; and nothing in the middle. This lets the listener easily check a cartridge’s channel separation, and the VM520EB’s was superb. I often play recordings of acoustic piano during evaluations because it’s perhaps the single most difficult instrument to flawlessly record. Its sound can be out-and-out percussive, or sweet and melodic, or both at once. And the small number of instruments in an acoustic jazz quartet let the listener clearly hear the contributions of each. “Three to Get Ready” begins with a fairly simple melody picked out by Brubeck on the piano, with some backing from double bassist Eugene Wright and drummer Joe Morello. Paul Desmond on alto sax picks up and doodles around for a while in the left channel. Each player solos in turn, the sound bathed in the natural reverberation of Columbia’s enormous 30th Street Studio, in Manhattan. Through the AT-LP7, Brubeck’s staccato playing provided beautiful counterpoint to the smoothness of Desmond’s alto. And near the end, I could clearly hear Morello’s delicate taps on his cymbals, which set them shimmering in my room. Overall, through the AT-LP7, this track sounded the way it’s supposed to sound.
I set out to compare what I heard from the AT-LP7 and VM520EB with the sound of my Dual CS5000 and Sumiko Oyster Moonstone cartridge, the latter called in to replace my deceased Shure V-15 Type V-MR. The CS5000 (late 1980s edition) and Moonstone ($299) seem a complementary pair. I played Brubeck’s “Three to Get Ready” again. The Dual-Moonstone combo offered somewhat more heft, bringing out Wright’s bass a bit more while still delivering great, detailed sound from the other instruments, especially those cymbals at the end. The AT-LP7 and VM520EB were just as detailed, perhaps even slightly more so in the highs, but a wee bit lighter down low. Overall, the comparison was a draw -- both turntable-cartridge combos provided beguiling sound. I could easily live with either.
Audio-Technica makes a wide variety of turntables for home use, all of which sell by the boatload because they offer good value at reasonable prices. The AT-LP7, however, is more than a cut above the other models in their line. It provides easy setup, stable performance, and a sweet sound -- a combination hard to beat. A fine turntable and a great value.
. . . Thom Moon
- Turntable -- Dual CS5000
- Cartridge -- Sumiko Oyster Moonstone
- Phono stage -- Simaudio Moon 110LP v2
- Preamplifier -- Linn Majik-1P
- Power amplifier -- NAD C 275BEE
- Speakers -- Acoustic Energy Radiance 3, Advent ASW-1200 subwoofer
- Phono cables -- Dual (captive), Fluance
- Interconnects -- Straight Wire
- Speaker cables -- Acoustic Research (14-gauge) terminated with Dayton Audio banana plugs
Audio-Technica AT-LP7 Turntable with VM520EB Cartridge
Price: $799 USD.
Warranty: One year, limited.
Audio-Technica US, Inc.
1221 Commerce Drive
Stow, OH 44224
Phone: (330) 686-2600