The least appreciated cartridge manufacturing company has to be Audio Technica. For longer than most of us have been alive, they have been making fine phono cartridges at affordable prices. Forgetting the argument of which cartridge is the best bargain, and which cartridges are the very best, which changes every few years, you can look at the AT cartridge lineup and, as a whole, see that from entry level to very high performance, they have just about every base covered, and at reasonable prices.
My first exposure to an AT cartridge was my first new-in-the-box turntable, bought for me when I was in grade school. It featured a cheap Audio-Technica MM in an even cheaper linear turntable, the kind that has the arm mounted in the top, and the whole thing weighing less than a cheap bag of potatoes. In hindsight, its less-than-spectacular performance had more to do with the flimsy plastic body, ringing platter and vestigial tonearm, than the cheap cartridge. I know that now because 30 years later I listened to almost the same cartridge, but in a standard mount version, and it sounded highly-decent. Really, it wasn’t bad for something that probably sold for $2-4 wholesale in the ‘80s.
Not long after I purchased my first issue of Audio Magazine, and having filled in the literature request card, received what was a fantastical display of Japanese excellence in marketing: the Audio Technica and Signet product line brochures. Seeing the difference between an elliptical and line contact made a believer out of me, though I couldn’t hear a difference at the time. One was more awesome than the other, and the 80’s was about who was the most awesome. Line contact: more awesome than elliptical. Winner: Audio Technica!
Of course, it’s not as easy as just picking the most advanced parts and carefully putting them together. It reminds me of the Lexus LFA. Almost a half million dollars, and almost devoid of passion, like many Toyota products. Given a choice of LFA, Aventador or 458 Italia, the LFA would probably be the last one chosen, regardless of the overwhelming amount of technology. Likewise, the most advanced audio electronics aren’t the ones that win over the hearts and minds of audiophiles. I have no other explanation for the popularity of unmodified classic tube amps other than they just sound good to the listeners. Accurate? No.
If Sgt. Joe Friday Was A Cartridge…
If you carefully peruse the ad copy of cartridge manufacturers, you’ll find myriad reasons why their cartridges are different, like differently shaped magnets, different materials, special stylus profiles, etc… In actuality, most of these changes make subtle differences in sound, not the monumental changes that the companies would have you believe. Still, the specs and features of the Audio-Technica AT150MLX catch the eye.
What does it mean? I’ll try to translate the techno-speak. The vector-aligned magnets are supposed to duplicate the positioning of the pole pieces of the cutting head used to cut the lacquers during mastering. Mu-metal shielding between the coils cuts down on cross-talk between the two magnetic circuits, which tend to interfere with each other, just as transformers can couple in a tube amp. The laminated magnetic core reduces eddy currents and increases high frequency extension, just like a good audio transformer. The coils are very close to a toroid, hence the “paratoroidal” moniker, making it an efficient generator, with low losses. The boron cantilever, which is already light and stiff, is mechanically damped by plating it with gold. The microline stylus allows high frequencies to be picked up, regardless of modulation level or groove-pinch.
One thing should stand out to you. This cartridge is intended for medium mass arms. With the Dynamic Balance feature of my SME V, and moderate use of damping, it was a competent match. Speaking of damping, Lucas High Performance Assembly Lube is an especially handy lubricant to keep around the house. It works great in place of silicone fluid, but can handle extreme pressure and heat, making it good for bearing shafts, mechanical assemblages, and even engines.
Many buyers, seeing that the AT150MLX is an MM with ultra-light stylus assembly, might incorrectly assume that this is a high compliance cartridge. It is not. It has the same rated* compliance as several Audio Note UK, Audio Technica (AT33), Dynavector, Miyajima, MySonic and Ortofon moving coils. On the other hand, the Cartridge Database offers this footnote: AT publishes their dynamic compliance specifications relative to 100Hz . This cartridge isn’t in the same ballpark as high compliance moving magnets: The Stanton 500E is 20×10-6cm/dyne; the Shure V15iii, my favorite basic cartridge for an SME V, is 22.5×10-6cm/dyne; the Ortofon OM40 is 25×10-6cm/dyne. All in all, there are over 240 moving magnet cartridges with a rate compliance above 25 on the Cartridge Database. So, what this means is, your tweaky low-mass arms, like the horrible Black Widow, and the much superior Formula IV, will sound not so good with this cartridge. Matching cartridge, arm, tonearm cable and phono stage are much more important for good sound, than finding the most “awesome” individual components and throwing them together. If you want proof, just go to RMAF and listen to some of the cost-no-object messes, I mean systems, that can’t hold a candle to some budget setups for correct tonal balance and musicality.
This cartridge proved challenging to set up correctly. It’s like a race car in that everything has to be dialed in for specific track and weather conditions, and this cartridge is just as picky. The AT150MLX will only perform at its best when electrical loading, tonearm effective mass and cartridge alignment are favorable. While it was breaking in, and before I optimized the setup, the sound could be very nasty. It was like running racing slicks in the rain—it often was a disaster. Be patient.
Where an elliptical cartridge can be set up in a couple of minutes, and a spherical tip couldn’t care less about how poor you are at cartridge setup, a line contact stylus will test your abilities, and sanity. Every record and tonearm will present a unique set of variables for the MicroLine stylus. Though adjusting for individual pressings would be optimal, and tedious, setting up for a 180 gram pressing will suffice for most audiophiles. The difference in thickness between RCA Dynaflex and 220 grams will be enough to cause audible misalignment of the stylus with the groove walls, but most good sounding pressings will run from 140 to 180 grams.
I found that 1.4-1.5 grams provided good tracking without overly damping dynamics. Higher than 1.6 grams, and dynamics completely died. At 1.4 to 1.5 grams, the cartridge body was parallel to the record, which will vary from one stylus assembly to another, and gave a positive SRA of 15-20º. I can’t see well enough with any of my magnifying devices to be more accurate than that, so it becomes necessary to adjust by ear. The cartridge literature specifies a non-standard VTA of 23º, which probably has something to do with the length of the cantilever and stylus tip, but no explanation is offered. 15º was the standard until the early ‘70s. 20º was the new standard from the ‘70s on. What this means is that the back end of the cartridge should not be lower than the front. In some cases, the back of the cartridge might be higher than the front of the cartridge. Ideally, the cartridge body should be parallel with the vinyl, and if the user-replaceable stylus assembly is “dead on” accurate, then you will get close to the 23º with 1.25 grams VTF. With higher VTF, you will get a smaller angle, and closer to 17-20º. If you have a large collection, including early mono pressings, shooting for 18-19º with a 180 gram pressing is a good compromise. The reality is that VTA will constantly be changing unless you have vacuum hold-down and you can change VTA for every pressing; but who does that anyway? If the VTA/SRA is way off, the sound becomes both bright and the bass gets thuddy, losing both high and low frequency extension.
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