Thursday, 7 February 2013

Audio Technica AT95E Cartridge

I recently installed an Audio Technica AT95E cartridge in the tonearm of the Technics SL1210 in my second system: the latest move in an ongoing struggle to find a cartridge that doesn't make me want to scuttle out of the room into the welcoming arm of my Linn Sondek. I had always believed everything I read about how the Audio Technica carts are glassy and shrill in the top end - not a sound that I wanted to inflict on my ears - but the sub-thirty quid price tag on the AT95E and the following it seems to enjoy amongst budget-conscious audiophiles persuaded me to give the cart a chance. What an inspired decision that has turned out to be!

Mrs Shelf-Stacker has now completely abandoned any pretence of appearing even vaguely interested in my hi-fi. She likes much of the music that comes out of the speakers, but the tune is all that matters to her, not the quality of reproduction. A micro-speakered iPod dock, her iPhone, a musical greetings card or, God help me, the piece of crap, black plastic, stacking 'hi-fi' system that she provided as her dowry, it makes no difference: she is incapable of distinguishing between the sonic qualities of a decent hi-fi set-up and these instruments of torture. She's happy just so long as they're rattling with the effort of farting out The Number Of The Beast or For Those About To Rock. You know that look you see on someone's face when they are singled out for attention by a slurring drunk on the Tube? That's the look that crept over my wife's facial features when I began to explain my enthusiasm for the Audio Technica cartridge. So, I'm sorry, I'll just have to tell you about it instead.

My second system, for many years, consisted of a 1990s-era Marantz PM-44SE amplifier (now the heart of the kitchen system, banging out Peppa Pig CDs and the like), a Marantz CD player, a Technics SL-1210 MkII turntable with stock arm sporting a procession of cartridges (Shure, Stanton, Ortofon) and a pair of Wharfedale Modus Eight floorstanding speakers. The Marantz amp combines clinical iciness with a complete absence of tone controls, ensuring that some CDs can scalp the unwary at fifty metres. The Wharfedale speakers were surprisingly punchy all-rounders but with the build quality of an Ikea wardrobe. They served me well, but I shed no tears when they left to be replaced by a truly wonderful pair of Ruark Prelude speakers which have clearly been created by otherworldly craftsmen.

Hankering for a more analogue-friendly system, I experimented with an older, aluminium-fronted Marantz Model 1050 amp before falling for a Quad 44 pre-amp / 303 power amp combination. The fact that Pink Floyd supposedly used Quad 303s in the studio during the recording of Dark Side Of The Moon was enough to pique my interest. Their robust, Cold War, Eastern Bloc, utilitarian, nuclear submarine instrumentation-evoking appearance just adds to the appeal.

The stock arm on the Technics was long ago discarded in favour of an Origin Live-modified Rega RB250 tonearm, but still I couldn't get the sound I wanted from my vinyl. I was left completely unmoved by the highly-regarded Ortofon 2M Red cartridge which seems designed to mimic the cold, soulless, perfunctory aloofness of CD. Even a vintage Ortofon Turbo MC1 moving coil cartridge left me scratching my head and wondering if perhaps I was simply expecting too much of my Technics turntable. Years of tinkering have taught me that a component that sounds pedestrian and lacklustre in combination with one set-up can come alive elsewhere. My beloved B&W DM14 speakers sounded dire hooked up to Marantz amplification, but sang when teamed up with my Audio Institute valve amp, so perhaps the 2M Red will, in turn, find its perfect partner somewhere down the line. What I do know is that the Technics is a joy to listen to now that it has been mated with the AT95E.

Where is the harsh, glacial reproduction that I was expecting? The sound is beautifully balanced: a clear, revealing top end recreates subtle variations in cymbal tones that were completely ignored by other cartridges, whilst the bottom end has bass extension and an analogue warmth and richness that has been hitherto lacking. The mid-range lacks some of the detail of the Ortofon MC15 Super MkII cartridge installed on my Linn Sondek, but I wouldn't expect it to match the performance of a significantly more expensive cartridge. Shure's Trackability Test Record will put any cartridge through its paces: the Audio Technica can't cope with the bass drum low-frequency trackability test, but the sleeve notes on the Shure LP state that it would be "a near miracle that any cartridge could successfully track" that test. The Ortofon MC15 aces it, but it is an exceptional cartridge.

In the real world though, away from the unrealistic demands of Audio Obstacle Course test records, the Audio Technica tracks well and, with the limited hours I have put on it, doesn't seem to provoke sibilance or inner groove distortion. Straight out of the box the cartridge is a doddle to set up and performs superbly even before it has had a chance to run-in. The bottom line is that I am finally able to sit back and enjoy listening to records on the Technics deck without comparing it unfavourably to the Linn Sondek. Thirty pounds well spent!


  1. Been looking at getting a budget cartridge for my old Planar 3 with the RB300 arm... and I think you just convinced me to get the Audio Technica AT-95E!

  2. A year on from writing this post I'm still blown away by the AT95E. Hope you'll be similarly impressed!

  3. Recently I looked after AT95E matters and found two interesting posts. One is about a replacement needle from with a Line Contact tip (or a Shibata for a bit more bucks) that lifts the cart to an other dimension. The two together may be THE BBC ( Best Budget Cart...hehhhee :-) ) ever. They sell it for 100 Dollars, complete as AT-95VL.
    The other interesting post was about an easy and greasy ( sorry...) modification of the cartridge body itself. Some said, opening the metakkic cover of the coils you can see that coils are not bonded well during assembly. Some extra bonding on the coils made them secured in their place and - not really surprisingly - made much cleaner sound reproduction, more resolution with less distortion.
    One more addition. Some says AT carts are sensitive for load impedance. Usual 47K load does not apply here, must go much lower to bring out what these carts can do. One poster said he found his sweet spot at 1K Ohms but I am tending to consider it as an extremity. However, a slight play between 22K and 47K may be eye opener in this matter. It is easy by paralelling 47-56-68-100K resistors with the cart's input terminals. So you can finetune your sound. Cheers, Paul

  4. Thanks for the info, Gábor. I've never tried playing around with the load impedance of the AT, so I'll certainly give that a try. As for fitting a more refined stylus tip profile to the cartridge, I can well imagine that it would provide impressive results. I'd be interested to know if you try any of these modifications and how you get on.