Type: Moving Magnet (MM)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
When Audio Technica announced a new cartridge to supersede the long-running and incredibly popular AT95E, I was curious as to how the new AT-VM95E would compare with its predecessor. The cartridge had been out a few months when I purchased a lightly-used example that the previous owner had bought only a few weeks earlier. The cartridge normally retails at £44, so around ten pounds more than the AT95E. Not only does the AT-VM95E offer technical enhancements over the AT95E (finer elliptical stylus and higher output), it is also part of a range of VM95 cartridges, differing in their styli which span profiles from conical to shibata and providing an upgrade path through simple stylus replacements. Like the original, the AT-VM95E sports a bonded elliptical stylus. For this assessment, I used the AT-VM95E on my Technics SL1200 Mk5 turntable. This review will make comparisons with the AT95E, as this will be of interest to many readers.
Turntable: Technics SL1200 Mk5 with Technics-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 150pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050
Logically, I expected the sound of the AT-VM95E to be an extension and enhancement to that of the AT95E, but I was wrong.
Treble: The treble is actually relatively restrained – definitely reined in from the AT95E and lacking the sparkle of the latter. It is, however, sufficient to give a sense of air and space to the sound. High frequencies are generally delivered with a good degree of clarity, although some recordings reveal a slight lack of focus and refinement. The treble is possibly the weakest band of this cartridge, although it is still quite accomplished.
Midrange: The mid-band takes a forward stance in the balance of this cartridge but is itself nicely balanced, giving lovely body to vocals with no horrible edges or nasal effects. It contributes a sense of substance to the overall sound. I feel the midrange is of remarkable quality at this price and the cartridge is certainly stronger in this band than the AT95E. Sibilant vocals are navigated with middling competence, which is fair enough at the price.
Bass: The bass is also forward, goes deep and has good weight, giving the sound a solid feel. It is certainly more of a feature of this cartridge than of the AT95E. There is a slight softness to the bass, with texture sometimes suffering, but it is tight and punchy, contributing significantly to the scale of the sound.
The big surprise of the AT-VM95E is that it has a full sound, sitting on the warm side of neutral. Dynamics are good, and together with the weighty balance give the sound a sense of drama and scale, successfully conveying the emotion of the music – this is quite a departure from the polite, contained sound of the AT95E. In comparison, the AT-VM95E is a more grown-up cartridge in a Hi-Fi sense. What it may lack is an endearing personality, which the AT95E certainly has, but this is a matter of taste and undoubtedly many people will appreciate the fuller sound of the AT-VM95E. On the whole, the performance delivered by the AT-VM95E is quite remarkable at this price level.
The AT-VM95E has a narrow recommended range of tracking forces of 1.8-2.2g with a normal setting of 2g, and this is the value I use. Tracking is generally very good, but the handling of sibilant passages on ‘hot’ pressings is less than ideal, which is not unusual for a bonded elliptical stylus.
This cartridge has an estimated dynamic compliance of around 12 cu (at 10Hz), so is a tad more compliant than the AT95E but still towards the low end of medium-compliance. It should therefore be matched to medium-mass and high-mass arms. I have used the cartridge on a Technics SL1200 arm with a third-party headshell, yielding a medium effective-mass of around 15g. As indicated in this review, the results are impressive.
The recommended capacitive load for this cartridge is the usual 100-200pF for Audio Technica cartridges, which is rather too low to easily achieve in practice, probably requiring a phono pre-amp capacitance of less than 100pF (after taking out cable capacitance). I use a capacitance setting on my phono pre-amp of 150pF with this cartridge on the Technics SL1200, which is in the middle ground of the 100-220pF range of typical capacitances for phono pre-amps, giving me a total capacitive load of ~275pF (after adding in 125pF cable capacitance). Here, the cartridge obviously delivers a more than acceptable performance.
Stepping a little further beyond the recommended range, the balance shifts towards neutral as the treble becomes more forward and crisper, with a general sweetening of the sound that may be preferable to some listeners.
Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance of 125pF for the Technics SL1200 Mk5. This value may be higher (likely) or lower for other turntables. Typically, a value in the range 150-200pF is assumed.
Comparisons with the cartridge’s predecessor, the AT95E, have been made throughout this review and the reader should have come to realise that the AT-VM95E is quite a different beast, having a fuller, more expressive and expansive sound, and generally more authority. The AT-VM95E delivers more substance in the bass but less sparkle in the treble, not to forget its wonderfully revitalised midrange. The sweet and charming sound of the AT95E has been left behind for something bigger and more natural. Fans of the AT95E will not necessarily take to the AT-VM95E, although many will perceive it as a positive step towards an audiophile cartridge.
Comparing with other sub-£100 cartridges, the AT-VM95E may have hit a sweet-spot in terms of sound balance, not to mention price – a warm sound without an irritatingly forward treble is a popular requirement amongst vinyl enthusiasts. The Ortofon 2M Red (also with bonded elliptical stylus at more than twice the price) will deliver more explicit high-frequency detail and more extreme dynamics, but many people would undoubtedly opt for the warmer balance of the AT-VM95E. Actually, just a few pounds more than the price of the 2M Red will buy the enhanced AT-VM95EN with nude elliptical stylus.
Having also trialled the AT-VM520EB, which is the equivalent cartridge (with bonded elliptical stylus) to the AT-VM95E in Audio Technica’s more expensive AT-VM500 range, I can say that the AT-VM95E delivers a much more enjoyable sound. So, my preference is for the more economical AT-VM95E, especially for a medium-mass arm.
I have been quite picky in reviewing the AT-VM95E, especially given its price of only £44, but it has come through with flying colours. This cartridge delivers a lot of sound per pound (dollar or euro) and provides clear insight into what a good audiophile cartridge can bring. Its weighty balance and highly accomplished midrange will no doubt have wide appeal, and will keep many people happy without hankering for an upgrade. The AT-VM95E is a pretty safe investment for people looking for a first cartridge for a medium-mass or high-mass arm. It should serve both those who want an inexpensive starter cartridge with a clear upgrade path to more exotic stylus profiles and those who just want a decent cartridge to live with long-term.
If you need help with any of the turntable and phono-cartridge terminology used in this review, please visit the Terminology & Concepts page.