Type: Moving Magnet (MM)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
I have been aware of the Audio Technica AT95E since it was introduced in the early 1980s, when I knew it as a popular entry-level cartridge with a reputation for being bright. On rekindling my interest in vinyl, I realised that this budget cartridge had survived the years and had become a bit of a classic, widely respected in the audiophile community. At the time, I could get a new one for very little money, so decided to buy it and make my own assessment. A distinction of the AT95E is that it is just about the cheapest cartridge on the market that has an elliptical stylus, with its main competitors (on price) having only conical/spherical styli. I have used the AT95E on various turntables but have conducted this review on a Technics SL1200 Mk5.
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
Having spent most of my vinyl life using mid-priced cartridges with nude elliptical styli, I didn’t really expect to appreciate a cartridge from this end of the market, especially when deployed in my main Hi-Fi system. I was, however, very surprised with what I discovered.
Treble: The high frequencies are quite crisp, particularly towards the upper echelons of treble, having the effect of a light sprinkling of sparkle. The lower treble is perhaps not as focused, but this seems dependent on the quality of the pressing and the cartridge’s ability to track it. The treble is, however, delivered in good measure – not too much and not too little.
Midrange: The mid-band is not particularly remarkable and is, in my opinion, the cartridge’s weakest band. It actually sounds fine, even pleasant on decent-quality recordings/pressings, but can show some rough edges on trickier pressings, notably in the upper-midrange bordering on the lower-treble. Here, a certain wispiness can sometimes reveal itself. Related to this, the tracking of sibilant vocals is at best mediocre.
Bass: The bass frequencies are also delivered in good measure. Bass weight is not bad and low-frequency extension is reasonable, but this is not a cartridge that bathes the sound in deep bass. Bass delivery is actually fairly tight but perhaps a little lacking in sheer punch. It does, however, provide decent body to the sound and bass notes have a nice tone to them.
So, I can dismiss my historical notion that this cartridge is bass-light and bright. On the contrary, it is actually very nicely balanced, with the way the different frequency bands hang together being a big part of its appeal. I would not describe its sound as big and expansive, but it generally produces a neat sound that spans the full frequency spectrum without over-stepping the mark in any department. While I wouldn’t say it has the wow-factor, it has a definite charm and provides a very pleasant listening experience.
The AT95E has a recommended tracking-force range of 1.5-2.5g and the normal value used is 2g, which is the setting I use. Tracking on decent recordings/pressings is good, delivering a relatively clean sound, but there are tracking issues with ‘hot’ pressings resulting in a rather scrappy midrange/lower-treble, with sibilance on vocals not handled well.
The dynamic compliance of this cartridge is in the region of 11.5 cu (at 10Hz) and, as such, is at the low end of medium-compliance. In theory, it is suited to medium-mass and high-mass arms. The effective mass of the Technics SL1200 arm with third-party headshell comes in at around 15g, so firmly medium-mass, and this combination yields nice results. As the seemingly default option for budget systems, I have seen the AT95E saddled to low-mass arms – I can’t comment on the results but I would personally resist such a combination.
Audio Technica’s recommended capacitive load for this cartridge (and most of their MM cartridges) is 100-200pF. Such a low total capacitance is not easy to attain, requiring a phono pre-amp with very low capacitance, probably less than 100pF (after taking out cable capacitance). Typical capacitances of phono pre-amps on the market are in the range 100-220pF, although a few delve as low as 50pF. Luckily, the AT95E works well with capacitive loads way above the recommended range, otherwise it would not be such a successful cartridge. I set the capacitance on my phono pre-amp to 150pF, resulting in a total capacitive load of ~275pF (after adding in 125pF cable capacitance).
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.
In the £30-40 price range, there is little competition for the AT95E from other cartridges with elliptical styli, but it just so happens that this cartridge gives excellent value for money. Depending on personal taste, if you are content with the AT95E, you may need to significantly increase your budget before finding a suitable upgrade.
Looking a bit further up Audio Technica’s cartridge range, a few years ago I acquired a used AT100E, which has a finer elliptical stylus than the AT95E and is a lighter tracker. I briefly compared the two. The AT100E is certainly more focused than the AT95E right across the frequency range, with a firmer bass and a sharper treble, uncovering noticeably more detail. It is also more dynamic. I found the AT100E to be a very entertaining cartridge, having the wow-factor that the AT95E lacks. But this is where taste comes in, as I can imagine some people preferring the AT95E for its more gentle, easy-going character. It is worth noting that the AT100E has since been replaced by the significantly more expensive and (in my opinion) inferior AT-VM520EB, which is almost three times the price of the AT95E.
It should be noted that a special stylus with a finer elliptical profile is available for the AT95E, with part number ATN95EX. More importantly, Audio Technica have recently superseded the AT95E with the AT-VM95E, part of the range of AT-VM95 cartridges. This new incarnation has a finer elliptical stylus than the original, as well as other enhancements in a revised cartridge body for a slightly larger outlay of £44. However, the two cartridges are sonically quite different, with the AT-VM95E having a fuller, more dynamic sound, but lacking the charm of the AT95E. The AT-VM95 body also provides the opportunity to upgrade the stylus to more exotic profiles, providing a more scalable option than the AT95E.
Although the AT95E is officially discontinued (replaced by the AT-VM95E), it is still widely available. And as one of the best-selling cartridges of all-time, I dare say that a steady supply of used examples will continue on the secondhand market. Happily, replacement styli for the AT95E do not seem to have been discontinued by Audio Technica.
I don’t think I ever expected a cartridge at this kind of budget to be so appealing. The AT95E mostly delivers a tidy and nicely integrated sound with a surprising amount of charm. The sound is pretty well controlled, even smooth on most records, and is highly listenable. With this very liveable sound, I can imagine owners of this cartridge (who have not been bitten by the ‘upgrade bug’) being happy to carry on living with it without the urge to move on. I can certainly appreciate why this cartridge has been a survivor and earned such an enviable reputation. Its place as the ‘go to’ cartridge for budget turntables with medium-mass or high-mass arms is well-deserved.
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