The vinyl renaissance has gone well and truly mainstream. According to the British Phonographic Industry, sales revenue from records are set to outsell those of CDs for the first time since 1987 – a year when Ferry Aid and The Firm both topped the UK singles chart. To meet the broader demand, many of the world's top audio manufacturers have started producing affordable turntables, with everyone from Rega to Sony jumping on the bandwagon. Some of the products in this category can be found in our guide to the best budget turntables.
Sitting pretty in that list is the Audio-Technica AT-LP3, a fully automatic, belt-drive turntable costing £199/$199/€230. That would be a fairly low price for any turntable, but the fact that this one is closely related to the Japanese company's award-winning AT-LP5 makes it even more eye-catching. But is it actually any good? Let's find out.
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Audio-Technica AT-LP3 review: Design
There are two things that immediately stand out about this turntable. Unlike most modern record players – including the AT-LP5 – it has a convex underside, which gives it a slightly retro vibe. We don't mind it, but it might irritate those who prefer their audio components to sit parallel with their table or shelf. Secondly, both the black and white versions come with a bright-red headshell and cartridge. The injection of colour undoubtedly adds character to what is otherwise a monochrome affair, but if you don't like it, both items are replaceable. The AT-HS3 headshell is compatible with moving-magnet and the more expensive moving-coil cartridges, so why not experiment to see which one you like best. For us, the AT91R dual moving-magnet cartridge that comes pre-mounted does a pretty fine job – you can read more about the sound quality further down.
At 5.2kg, the AT-LP3 weighs a lot less than the AT-LP5, and the cheaper turntable's plinth definitely doesn't feel as robust as we'd like. On the plus side, the anti-resonance die-cast aluminium platter, 4.5mm rubber mat and straight tonearm with hydraulically damped lift control all have an air of quality about them. There's no safety latch for the tonearm, which seems like a bit of an oversight on Audio-Technica's part, but it's not a major issue.
Audio-Technica AT-LP3 review: Features
If you're looking for fancy features like Bluetooth connectivity, a stroboscopic platter or a pitch control, you're not going to find them here. However, one thing the AT-LP3 does offer that many turntables in this price range don't is a built-in phono pre-amp. This means you won't need to pay extra for an external pre-amplifier – though a phono/line switch round the back of the unit will enable you to use your own if you want to.
As for the controls, they're clearly marked and easily navigable. Separate start and stop buttons sit on the front right of the turntable, directly opposite a speed button (331/3 and 45rpm), while a button on the top next to the tonearm enables you to select between 7-inch and 12-inch records. This being a fully automatic turntable, it really couldn't be easier to get rockin' and rollin' – simply drop your disc on the spindle and with a few button presses the DC motor will kick in and you'll be up and away.
Note that before using your turntable for the first time, you'll need to set the tracking and bias weights. It's a very easy job, though, and should take no more than 15 minutes.
Audio-Technica AT-LP3 review: Sound
The AT-LP3 may not feel as robust as some of its peers, but Audio-Technica has clearly gone to some lengths to ensure that it delivers where it matters – in the sound department. The turntable boasts a damped base construction for reduced low-frequency feedback colouration, while the aforementioned AT91R cartridge features an aluminium cantilever that's designed to pick up subtle details.
To test these out, we reached for an original copy of Cheap Trick's second studio album, In Color – an album that's brimming with power-pop attitude and searing melody. Audio-Technica's budget turntable never once left us feeling underwhelmed, Rick Nielsen's juggernaut riffs and Robin Zander's Cobain-prototype vocals sounding as full-bodied and as invigorating as they did when the record came out in 1977. At times, it was hard to pick out the very finest nuances, but there was no coarseness to speak of – beyond what the Illinois four-piece intended – and the overall experience was balanced and natural.
Audio-Technica AT-LP3 review: The alternatives
Not sure about the AT-LP3's retro look and red headshell? For a little more money, you can pick up the ultra-modern-looking Rega Planar 1 (£249/$340/€287). This manual deck doesn't come with a built-in phono pre-amp, but the sound quality is the best we've heard in a budget turntable.
Don't want to spend that much? If you can cope with the fact that it looks a bit like a bedsit cooking hob, the Audio-Technica-LP60XUSB (£129/$177/€149) is an impressive bargain-basement solution. This fully automatic turntable will hook up to your computer via USB, enabling you to convert your records to digital files, and also comes with a built-in phono pre-amp. In terms of sound quality, it doesn't quite match up to the AT-LP3, but it's more than passable for the price.