Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Phono Cartridges
The Audio-Technica Corporation is a Japanese manufacturer of phono cartridges, turntables, headphones and professional microphones. The company has its headquarters in Tokyo and launched its first products, the AT-1 and AT-3 MM phono cartridges, in 1962. Its most notable devices include a long list of headphones, a portable record player, and also some phone cartridges. Among the latter was to be found the entry level AT-95 E which became renowned for its outstanding quality-to-price ratio and was therefore predestined as an entry-drug to audiophile listening.
The now discontinued AT-95 E set itself apart from the competition by featuring a more sophisticated elliptical stylus while its price competitors were still equipped with simpler conical or spherical styluses. The elliptical shape of the stylus allowed for more detail to be picked up from the record and made for excellent treble performance. The midrange was sometimes perceived to run a little thin and nasal. Bass performance on the other hand was tight, full-bodied, but not overly heavy or particularly noteworthy. The AT-95 E’s in-house competition came from the more expensive AT100E, which outperformed the entry level cartridge in most aspects.
With their new AT VM95 cartridge, Audio Technica have given the AT95 a long needed overhaul. The full cartridge name is comprised of the company acronym ‘AT’, the body or engine type ‘VM95’ and the type of stylus attached. On the AT VM95 ML, the final two letters stand for ‘Micro-Linear’, which is one of five possible stylus choices for the new VM95 engine. The ‘ML’ version is a dual moving magnet stylus construction with nude needle attachment and a micro-linear cut. ‘Nude’ means that the needle is attached directly, instead of being soldered onto the shaft.
From our own listening experience it can be said that the VM95 is a no-frills entry to mid-level engine with sufficient dynamic potential and average channel separation. It appears that the sound has been optimised for modern listening preferences in that it is balanced, detailed and forward sounding with all stylus combinations.
Paired with the ML stylus, the VM95 manages to present lots of detail from the record that simply remains hidden from the simpler stylus versions. The sonic impression is that the frequency band is extended, revealing even the tiniest nuances in the music. With the ML stylus, cymbals sound more delicate and ring much longer than on the lower cartridge versions, and no two drum beats sound the same. There is more insight into the various playing styles of other instruments as well: piano keys sound a little softer, and there now is a marked difference of duration and force on each one.
Voices sound full and warm with no traceable bias to my ears. Female solo artists appear to have more air in their lungs and to carry notes longer and with greater accuracy than I have ever heard on any other medium, such as CD or streaming. Despite this amount of delicacy and detail in the presentation, we could detect hardly any mechanical noise coming from the record itself. Instead, the record remained ultra silent with only the music in the listener’s focus.
With the ML stylus it is easy to hear right through poor recordings. Although I have found both new and old recordings to play well, the ML stylus sounds best with more recent productions that also take into consideration the more revealing nature of today’s equipment. Listening to Bob Seger’s “Greatest Hits” album for instance, the ML stylus made the limitations of the original recording far more obvious than the elliptical ‘E’ stylus would have done. On Katie Melua’s newly released “Album No. 8” the voice comes across in a strange combination of purity and a silvery overtone that seems to stem from the studio microphone design. One needs to at least be aware that opting for the micro-linear or Shibata stylus versions for the VM95 engine will bring a great deal of detail to the music that may become a blessing or a nuisance depending on the quality of your gear and the quality of the recording.
The AT VM95 ML is also capable in terms of bass notes. While bass can certainly swell and become both loud and full, this is never coincidental and always with good measure. Instead of sloppy bass, the cartridge sheds as much light on bass notes as it does on the highs and the midrange. There is lots of bass contour and very little else to be desired for. The music easily manages to free itself from the loudspeakers and becomes a true performance. There is always sufficient flow with plenty of dynamics, although the AT VM95 ML to my ears could be slightly less academic and more engaging perhaps. However, due to its ability to present lots of musical detail, the ML version will bring even rather boring performances back to life.
Sound: Silent on the record, revealing and highly nuanced, warm and leaning towards neutral, controlled and well-contoured bass
Unit 5, Millennium Way
Sound impressions based on the following system: Lenco L75 record player, Restek V1 preamplifier, Hafler XL 280 power amplifier, Tannoy XZ8F loudspeakers.