Upgrade Turntable or Cart

I am at a pivotal point with my vinyl listening, where I need to make a decision to upgrade the cart or turntable. My current table is an Audio Technica AT-LP120XUSB, which is known to be a great entry level TT. I have a Decware ZP3 coming in December and want to be sure everything plays well together, whichever direction I go. My understand is there can be an issue with a carts output voltage if not matched correctly. I want to stay with MM and would consider MI. I don’t want to mess with a SUT for MC at this time. Music wise, I am all over the place, so would need a new TT to have a removable head shell to have an optional cart later on for different genre of music like jazz, 80’s alternative, and 1970’s rock and Krautrock. If there is a single cart that would play most all music genre well, that would be great!

The cart I am thinking of is a VM750SH or something similar, Shure, Ortofon, Grado, etc. The VM540ML might be too bright for me. This TT is my first, so I have no experience with anything else out there—purely reading forums at this point and no specialty store nearby.

If I go the new turntable route, I want to be sure it is a noticeable change. New, used, or vintage are all considerations and I would like to not go too far over $1,200’ish if possible.  I do have some room though.  The TT would need to have a removable head shell. I have seen Thorens mentioned several times on forums. Certain models seem better with better bearings it seems.

Would love to get great feedback from the huge knowledge base out there.

Technics Premium Class SL-1500C with the VM750SH would work. You don’t have to use the built-in phono amp. If you’re really serious, and with the phono amp you are getting, you should save a little longer and get the Technics SL-1200GR. It’s the real version of what your AT-LP120 is pretending to be.
Excellent choice on the ZP3. I would recommend the Soundsmith Otello high output MI as one that will bring you the magic with all your music and avoid the expense and hassle (and sound quality sacrifices) of swapping carts. https://sound-smith.com/cartridges/fixed-coil/otello  

Yea, I could never figure out switching to different carts for different music types. A good cartridge should play anything well.

I had that TT for years, it is a great starter TT, with a very standard cartridge. Only 20 db separation, poor channel balance of 2 db


1. Upgrade to a better cartridge, I like your idea of 750SH, it will be a big change now, and on any future TT you use it on. 30 db separation; tight 1 db channel balance.


2. get a 2nd headshell that allows Azimuth adjustment for the new cartridge


3. alignment skills are paramount for ANY arm/cartridge, you need those skills now and for the rest of your vinyl life. you need some simple in-expensive tools and practice (with the old cartridge). Especially important for advanced stylus shapes like the 750SH, or any other SAS, Shibata, ML you go with.

how are your skills?

AFTER 1,2,3

4. phono stage, perhaps tubes, tricky, have return option. I say ’preferable’, not ’better’, and you cannot measure preferable, just know when you hear it.

my experience

I used the AT120 built-in phono eq for comparison, until I found one I preferred. Surprisingly I liked it more than my McIntosh SS C22 Preamp’s Phono (even after factory overhaul). Next I tried Cambridge Duo. Nope, back it went. A $14. Pyle as good as the AT120 built-in one, for a temporary solution upstairs in my office. Then, main system: McIntosh mx110z Tube Tuner/Preamp, wonderful phono, if it died I wouldn’t look around, just get another and send it straight to Audio Classics for overhaul. Upstairs, office, built-in MM/MC in new Luxman SQ-N150 Integrated sounds terrific.

5. Then it’s off to a better TT, save the AT120 to use if replacement needs service. Compare to the AT120, prove to yourself your new TT makes a difference.

MC cartridge Eventually.

IF/When you settle on a preferred MM Phono EQ, use a SUT for any MC cartridge so you simply amplify the MC weak signal enough to use your existing wonderful sounding MM Phono EQ. The sound of the MC will be revealed thru the SUT without alteration IF the x factor and loading is chosen correctly.
Thank you for the responses.  What I am hearing is there really is no need for a separate cart for different music, which is great.

I will look into the Technics SL-1200GR.  Thanks!

Thank you for the advise to play with the existing cart to build my cart swapping and alignment skills.  I do have a decent local record shop that would be willing to assist with that part too.  They only carry AT stuff, though if I were to go with another brand.

I appreciate your input.  Are you thinking I would be fine sticking with the AT-LP120XUSB and just upgrade to the Soundsmith Otello high output MI or use the Soundsmith with an upgraded TT?  I don't mind spending a little more now for something that will last me for a long time.
The LP120XUSB has a few sound quality advantages over previous LP120 (non "X") versions, but it’s not hard to "optimize" it and take it a little further.

Simple stuff like RCA phono cable upgrade, an improved aftermarket phono stage (a necessity for any excellent vinyl playback system), an upgrade of the stock mat, a record weight for added mass, improved isolation feet or an isolation platform (easy DIY project), are pretty straightforward ways to optimize a stock unit.

You can also easily add a few o-rings or orthodontia rubber bands along the tonearm to help control resonance. Adding weighted grip tape (tennis or golf) to the counterweight moves the pivot point closer to center so it requires less force to make it move, which helps make it more nimble.

It’s also pretty easy to undercoat the back of the platter with Flexseal or rubberized undercoating. Adds mass and helps control resonance.

If you really want to take the stock unit further, you can open it up and line the plinth with plasticine modeling clay or Dynamat. Just ensure to keep the functioning parts free to operate. More mass and more resonance reduction.

These are small tweaks that mostly help control vibration and resonance, and help justify a better cartridge that can reveal more information. Most are difficult to even detect on their own, but when summed and working together in a revealing system can make an audible improvement. There are downsides to adding more mass to the platter and by adding strain to the motor, but it has not been a problem over the past 18 months.

My first upgrade was a very good VM95SH cartridge, but after doing all of the above tweaks, I’ve added a Nagaoka MP500 stylus to an MP150 body (and headshell), and it’s now an impressive performer. My other TTs are a Thorens TD124, Dual 1215, Garrard/Marantz w/custom plinth, and several other common decks. The 120X has the potential to hold its own against some very well regarded TTs....getting better sound than this is possible but would cost substantially more money.