Audio Technica AT3600L

Type: Moving Magnet (MM)
Stylus: Bonded Conical
Compliance: Low/Medium
Price: £15-25 (AT3600L), £20-30 (AT91)

Background

The Audio Technica AT3600L is a cartridge that I briefly experienced as the stock cartridge on a couple of budget turntables that passed through my hands and impressed me in my low-budget, secondary system. More recently, I realised that this bottom-budget cartridge is winning fans on audio forums as a ‘fun’ cartridge. So, I decided to revisit it myself and bought an example from William Thakker via Amazon. This time, I used it on my Technics SL1200 Mk5 turntable in my main system, the set-up on which this review is based. I also purchased the ATN91 ’upgrade’ stylus to make it into an AT91 cartridge and will comment on this edition as well.

Equipment

Turntable: Technics SL1200 Mk5 with Technics-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 100pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

The AT3600L has a conical/spherical stylus on a carbon cantilever (as does the AT91) and is a heavier tracker than the cartridges with elliptical styli that I would typically use. My expectations of such a low-budget cartridge would not normally be great but I already knew that this little cartridge is a bit special.

Treble: High frequencies are relatively soft and gentle, making a sweet treble that is easy on the ear. The treble cannot be described as precise but there is still a crispness about it. This is not the most forward band, which will suit many listeners, but it manages to contribute a sense of space to the sound. A certain amount of treble lift and focusing can be achieved with higher load capacitances (see Capacitive Load).

With the ATN91 stylus, the treble is sharpened up and a little more forward, bringing with it more high-frequency clarity and sparkle – indeed, the treble has remarkable focus for a conical stylus. However, at a higher load capacitance, a lack of refinement is exposed in the treble (see Capacitive Load).

Midrange: The mid-band is well portrayed – it has good body and is nicely open with very decent projection and presence. Vocals sound fairly natural and are nicely rounded off with no horrible edges. Sibilance on vocals is handled remarkably well at the price.

With the ATN91 stylus, the midrange is even more open, perhaps borrowing from the treble for increased clarity and detail. On the negative side, this brings more edge to the midrange, making vocals less well-rounded.

Bass: The low frequencies are well represented. The bass is fairly forward and reaches deep. It has nice weight as well as punch, tightness and texture. The bass has a very attractive overall quality, with a chunkiness that provides a lovely foundation to the sound.

With the ATN91 stylus, the bass retains a punchy, tight quality but deep bass is emphasised more, perhaps in a not totally natural way. This can result in a touch of boominess on some material, at least in my system with floor-standing speakers.

For the AT3600L, how do the above bands come together? The answer, extremely well! The net balance is on the warm side of neutral, thanks to the plucky bass, but there is also an easiness to the sound coming from the smooth midrange and soft-ish treble. Dynamics are also pretty good, as is separation of instruments. This bottom-of-the-range cartridge even has the clean sound that I have come to associate with Audio Technica cartridges. The fact is, it doesn’t sound like a bottom-budget cartridge at all. On trying cartridges with conical/spherical styli before, I’ve found that they sound better in my low-budget secondary system than in my mid-priced main system, but this cartridge shines in the latter. While not the height of refinement, it manages to deliver a very entertaining sound without rough edges and with an overall balance that is, in my opinion, spot on. It just doesn’t seem right for a cartridge at this end of the market to be so good. Its main drawback is its tad heavy 3g tracking force, which may raise concerns about record wear. It is also, in theory, best suited to heavier arms (although it has not been used on one for this review). With these caveats, it is tempting to say that if you’re on a very restricted budget and looking for a magnetic cartridge that is easy listening and highly entertaining, you need look no further than the AT3600L.

It is not quite the same story for the AT91 (with the ATN91 stylus). This cartridge is a lighter tracker, at 2g, which may be preferable to many people. Overall, the AT91 sounds similar to the AT3600L and stays on the warm side of neutral, but there is more low-end and top-end – to be blunt, the AT91 has more boom and sparkle. It is also a very dynamic cartridge and all this results in a superficially impressive but perhaps unsubtle sound – the magic and charm of the AT3600L are largely lost.

Tracking

The recommended tracking-force range for the AT3600L is a relatively heavy 2.5-3.5g, but this is not untypical for conical/spherical styli. I have used the mid-point of 3g in my auditions. Tracking is generally very good, with a relatively clean sound. Even sibilance on hot pressings is largely kept at bay and, in this respect, the cartridge performs better than some with elliptical styli – perhaps the high tracking force helps.

The ATN91 stylus has a lower recommended tracking-force range of 1.5-2.5g and I used the mid-point of 2g. The advantage is less record wear than with the AT3600L, although it is not clear to me whether record wear with the latter would be anything to worry about. The AT91 is also a competent tracker with a clean sound and, again, a remarkably good handling of sibilance. 

Compliance

I cannot find a dynamic compliance figure for the AT3600L but I would expect it to be low or around the low/medium-compliance border (less than that of the AT91 sister cartridge – see below). As such, it is suitable for high-mass and medium-mass arms. However, for this review, I have used it in a Technics-clone headshell on my Technics SL1200 Mk5, with an effective tonearm mass of around 14g – this is towards the light end of medium-mass, yet the cartridge delivered a great performance. I would, however, resist the temptation to use it on truly low-mass arms.

The dynamic compliance of the ATN91 stylus is ~11 cu (at 10Hz), which puts it at the low end of medium-compliance. Like the AT3600L, it is well matched to high-mass arms and the heavier end of medium-mass arms, although the AT91 performed well on the lighter SL1200 arm.  

Capacitive Load

The recommended capacitive load for the AT3600L is the usual 100-200pF for Audio Technica cartridges, which is barely feasible in practice. I have reviewed this cartridge with my phono pre-amp capacitance set to 100pF, yielding a total (including 125pF cable capacitance) of ~225pF – this is a little above the advised range but is a low capacitance that can actually be achieved. Here, the sound has a nice, warm balance with a soft treble. Increasing the capacitance setting to 250pF (giving a total of ~375pF) opens up the sound a little, adding crispness to the treble and bringing in more air, which some people may prefer. In any case, this cartridge sounds good with the full range of typical capacitances.

With the 100pF capacitance setting on my phono pre-amp, the AT91 sounded remarkably focused in the treble. Increasing the setting to 250pF, however, a little roughness crept into the high frequencies. I therefore preferred the sound at the lower capacitance setting.

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.    

Comparison

At this end of the market, there are a handful of cheap competitors to the AT3600L, such as the Numark Groove Tool. I have no experience of these bottom-budget cartridges but I cannot imagine them bettering the AT3600L or AT91.

A slightly more expensive alternative to the AT3600L and AT91 would be Audio Technica’s own AT95E, which has the benefit of an elliptical stylus and an enviable reputation as the king of budget cartridges. In my opinion, the AT3600L is a serious rival to the AT95E, both cartridges having a great deal of charm. The AT95E may offer a little more focus and refinement, notably in the treble, but I feel that the AT3600L wins in the bass and possibly the midrange. I also find the warmer balance and better dynamics of the AT3600L more satisfying. The AT91 lacks the charm-factor of its two siblings but certainly has a wow-factor, which some listeners may prefer.

The AT-VM95E (replacement for the AT95E) provides a more serious competitor to the AT3600L and AT91 in terms of weight and dynamics, although it also lacks the charm of the AT3600L. The direct competitor to these cartridges from the AT-VM95 range is actually the AT-VM95C with conical stylus – I haven’t heard this cartridge but it would be worth considering, especially as a lighter tracker (2g) than the AT3600L.

The sound balance of the AT3600L is not far removed from that of the warmer Shure cartridges, such as the (vintage) M75 and M91 models. I imagine that the AT3600L would delight the fans of these cartridges.

Availability

The availability of the AT3600L is a complex one. It is actually one of the most widespread cartridges in the world in that it is commonly the stock cartridge on budget turntables that are fitted with a magnetic cartridge. In fact, Audio Technica do not officially offer it for sale separately. Despite this, it is available from certain online retailers and I bought my example from William Thakker in Germany. In addition, it is now available from numerous eBay sellers in China at very tempting prices of £10 or less. However, some examples are being offered with styli that do not bear the Audio Technica logo, so may be copies. Nevertheless, there have been positive reports of these cartridges from China on audio forums. Of course, as such a common cartridge, it is also possible to buy a used example of this (or the AT91) and purchase a (genuine) new replacement stylus for it.

The AT91 is widely available to purchase through normal channels, although it has recently been discontinued. However, the AT91R was introduced a few years ago, which is similar to the AT91 except it has a supposedly superior aluminium cantilever (rather than carbon).

Another option based around the AT3600L and AT91 is the Rega Carbon, which appears to be an Audio Technica cartridge re-branded as a Rega. As its name suggests, it has a carbon cantilever but its tracking force is between that of the AT91 and AT3600L, with a tracking-force range of 2-3g and a normal setting of 2.5g.

Summary

This is a rather embarrassing conclusion to the review of such an inexpensive cartridge and highlights the unpredictability of the phono-cartridge world. The AT3600L is a sonic delight. It may not be the most accurate or detailed cartridge around, but it is a very easy listen and thoroughly entertaining. Its warm tones and gentle treble will appeal to a lot of people. It certainly provides a great starting point for a turntable with a high-mass or medium-mass tonearm but once you’re at home with this cartridge, I imagine an upgrade to be an uncertain path as I have come across few other cartridges that can match its charm. Even established audiophiles may have fun playing with the AT3600L as a secondary cartridge.

The AT91 is also an excellent starter cartridge for a budget system, providing a clean and lively sound that spans the full frequency range from deep bass to clear highs. It is impressive for the money but, for me, it lacks the easy-going, charming personality of the AT3600L and is more ‘in your face’. Personally, I have much more affection for the AT3600L.