Publisher Profile

Audio Technica AT150MLX Dual Moving Magnet Cartridge Review

By: |

Audio Technica AT150MLX dual moving magnet cartridge

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.

20 Responses to Audio Technica AT150MLX Dual Moving Magnet Cartridge Review


  1. Mark Benus says:

    I used the AT150-MLX with my Acoustic Signature Manfred/Michell TechnoArm. No adjusting could make it sound anything but lifeless. While tracking was suberb, dynamics were just OK and the treble always seemed dull. Then I tried it on an old Toshiba direct drive ‘table and the results were quite different. Not as refined sounding (record noise was more noticeable) as the Manfred/Technoarm, but much more treble extension and verve.

    • Phillip Holmes says:

      Mark,

      It’s a frustrating cartridge. I ran into some of the same problems you mention with my SME V. I think that the AT150 was designed around headshells and tonearms with losses. Also, I think the standard loading doesn’t suit it well. I didn’t have time to change loading, but I’m positive that removing or dramatically reducing the loading capacitor in my budget phono stage would’ve produced a smoother more relaxed sound. AT recommends 100-200 pf load. Well, the budget phono stage I used for the review had 220pf. Then, add the tonearm cables. Well, the result is a rising top end, and just about everyone with “typical” tonearm cables and phono stages will have the same problem.

      A typical 12ax7 will have a “miller capacitance” of 150-200 pF, so any extra capacitance from tonearm cables would also cause a rising high end.

      Next time I change out cartridges, I’ll take my LCR meter and measure the total capacitance from the cartridge wires of my SME V. I’ll let you know what I find. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the total capacitance of internal wiring, tonearm cable and phono stage loading is 300pF. That means it is at least 50% higher than what AT recommends.

      This is one of the reasons many audiophiles prefer moving coils: they are relatively immune to capacitive loading. With moving magnets, much of the difference from one cartridge design to the next, is the affect of capacitive loading, which is determined by the amount of inductance in the coil windings of the moving magnet. BTW, this is why Grado and The Soundsmith produces low output moving magnet/iron cartridges. They have much less inductance, so they behave much like a moving coil: they are relatively immune to capacitive loading.

    • phillip holmes says:

      Mark,
      Those vinyl front-ends create interesting filters. When you get a serendipitous combination, all is right with the world. In the case of the AT150, it needs a slightly heavy arm, a very low capacitance cable, low capacitance loading in the phono stage, and perhaps even a higher load impedance than 47K. Anyway, it can sound like crap in some systems, and sound like heaven in others. It’s an extreme cartridge.

  2. Rob says:

    I find it odd that you used a budget phono stage with too much capacitance to review this cartridge. Surely you need to correctly research loading of your phono stage before reviewing a cartridge, and use a phono stage of relevant quality in order to produce a fair review. I’m afraid I have to disregard your review’s comments as they were observed in rather unideal conditions for this particular, very special quality cartridge. Please find a better phono stage with 50-100pf loading and write another review which will be fairier to this superb, very able cartridge.

    • Phillip Holmes says:

      That’s why I said what I said in the review and in the response to Mark’s comments. People shouldn’t be expected to modify or buy a new phono stage for every cartridge they purchase. The phono stage I used had “standard” loading. For a budget cartridge, a standard load is what I was going to use. If it was a super low output $8K moving coil, it would be different.

  3. Mark Benus says:

    Update:

    I exchanged the TechnoArm in favor of a VPI JMW-9 on the Manfred and installed the AT150MLX. It’s at the edge of the arm’s cartridge weight and compliance range but I gave it a shot.

    After trying a few interconnects I settled on Linn silver interconnects. With the Linn Majik Kontrol pre and Majik power amp, Linn Ninka and Amphion Creon II loudspeakers, the results were excellent. Much better than with the TechnoArm. I don’t know how much of this owes to the arm and how much to the cable.

    As far as capacitance loading goes, my experience is that less is not always better. When using phono stages with adjustable capacitance loading I always wound up setting it around 200-300pf; then add on top of that whatever capacitance the interconnect contributed. One phono stage I used let you select over 1,000pf, so go figure.

    The AT150MLX works well with a wide range of music and LPs manufactured over many decades. Very happy.

  4. Steve says:

    I just installed the AT150MLX into an Origin Live Encounter tonearm. I have a Fozgometer and the appropriate test setup record, so getting the azimuth right was not a big problem. I also used a downloaded protractor from ArmGeometer (online) with a 15.69 mm overhang, 22 degree offset and minimum and maximum groove radius points at 56.0 mm and 146.3 mm. Audio-Technica recommends 15 mm of overhang, so the ArmGeometer calculation was extremely close to the recommended amount.

    Encounter is a medium-compliance tonearm. At one time, I had a Michell TechnoArm in my system with a Grado Statement Platinum MI cartridge. The Grado is a high compliance cart. When I switched the tonearm to the Origin Live, the cartridge began to do the “Grado Jig” which it had not done with the Michell arm. This prompted me to switch to a medium compliance cart (Dynavector 10X5). That cured the dancing cartridge problem. Later, I changed to a DV 20X2, which was another medium compliance cartridge. Again, no problems.

    When my 20X2 cantilever was destroyed a few weeks ago by accident, I decided to step down on the price a bit and see what was out there. I settled on the Audio-Technica 150, which I installed just yesterday. It too is a medium compliance cart and really seems to do well in the OL Encounter arm.

    The first record that I played after setup was “Close to the Edge” by Yes. The opening sound collage, with many cartridges, sounds like a noisy collection of sound effects. It is typically quite harsh. NOT SO with the AT150! For the first time, I could hear the naturally recorded sound effects (which were three dimensional) as a distinct layer from the synthesizer effects. Not only that, but it was obvious that the natural portion of the sound track recorded an “approach” from a short distance over a period of a few seconds (as if one was walking up to the stream). The instrumental passage that followed (in 6/8) also was well delineated, with each instrument’s musical line easy to follow and its position in the three-dimensional sound stage clear. In short, a spectacular soundstage on recordings that have one.

    Next was the Eurythmics’ “Revenge” album. This was disappointing, but not because of the cartridge. The cart made it abundantly clear that the recording itself was mediocre. Still, it was not harsh and I enjoyed the clarity of the presentation.

    I left the input impedance at 47K. The OL Encounter has a capacitance of 130 pf according to the OL website. The input impedance of my preamp (using E83CC NOS Tesla tubes) is a bit below 200 pf. This adds up to slightly more than 300 pf capacitance, which does not seem to be a problem for the AT cartridge. I hear no harshness, no rising top, and no issues with tonal quality.

    Here is my conclusion: setup is critical with this cartridge and you MUST have a medium compliance tonearm to get the best results. Since another contributor mentioned that his TecnoArm did poorly with this cart, it merely confirms that the arm/cartridge matchup is very important. This is not the cartridge’s fault, however. You can’t expect this one to work in a flimsy arm. Do the setup right and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular and precise performance. Five Stars!

  5. Kevin says:

    I’ve been using the AT150 for a couple of years in my vintage (modified) VPI HW19jr w/ AQ PT-7 arm. No problems with harshness or rising top end, and I think the arm actually matches the cartridge. Smooth detailed sound. My phono pre has a jfet/triode cascode input stage with very low capacitance so the input cables are, in effect, the load cap.

    I did take the extra time to dial in the SRA, it does make a big difference. I do not hear much difference in tracking force, however. Also, I will now try the ‘stylus deflection’ trick for setting anti-skate, thanks for the tip!

  6. Mark Progmeister says:

    Just wanted to concur with your review of the AT 150 MLX I have just spent the last few days fiddling tweaking for best results in my system I prefer 470pF loading in my Sim Audio Moon 5.3 RS on Wilson Benesch Act 2 Tonearm but think your description on cartridge characteristics are bang on I was previously using an Lyra Argo which is a nice sounding cartridge but was frustrated by inner groove distortion that no amount of tweaking I tried could be totally eliminated no such problems with the Audio Technica and recovers more information only downside you definitely here more surface noise,all though like you say it is completely separated from the music which shows this cartridge is very analytical and faithfully recovers what’s actually on the record.
    Always fancied a Koetsu but would I be able to live with its tracking ability after using this and are the ones currently being made as good as the the original ones Sugano made and have a lot of other manufactures caught up?

  7. Kevin says:

    Update: I just upgraded from the PT-7 to a Jelco 750D. Cart works great in this arm too and there is more detail in the bass with this arm. Maybe due to higher mass? Still experimenting with azimuth (now I can actually set it with the Jelco headshell – not possible w/ the PT-7 / 250) and SRA but it sounds very good – so good that I still haven’t mounted and played my brand new AT033EV!

  8. Kevin, The Jelco 750D is a very good arm for most moving coils, and the occasional medium compliance moving magnet. Mass is everything when finding the right are for that cartridge.

  9. Evan says:

    I have an AT150MLX attached to a carbon arm on my Pro-Ject Carbon turntable. Is my arm too light for this cartridge? I am new to turntables so any advice is appreciated. Thanks.

  10. Dave says:

    Mine sounds pretty good in a Linn Ittok LVII/LP12. Again this validates other reviewers’ suspicions that this cartridge was built for medium mass arms. Just for fun I put it on a Grace 747/Thorens 160S. It sounded okay but with less bass. Maybe the lower mass arm?

  11. FILIP says:

    Can anyone answer questions from Evan, because I have the assistance same combination with Pro-Ject turntable and carbon arm? Sorry poor English knowledgeable.

  12. phillip holmes says:

    As far as mass is concerned, there are many useful tools at Vinylengine.com. If the mass of the Pro-Ject tonearm is listed, then you can take the effective mass of the arm, plus the compliance of the cartridge, and plug it into the formula for resonance frequency (there is a “tools” section, and one of the calculators will give you the resonance frequency of a tonearm/cartridge combination). To me, somewhere between 10 and 15Hz sounds best. Below 10Hz and vinyl problems can cause uncontrolled woofer pumping (but not always–it really depends on the quality of the tonearm, and proper setup); above 20Hz, and the sound can become bright and muddy (both bright and muddy at the same time). If you can’t figure it out, let me know and I’ll send you individual links.

  13. FILIP says:

    Many thanks for help. I have followed your advice but can not find compliance for 10 Hz. Fabricate state compliance 10 for 100 Hz. Based on table vinylengine.com while compliance does not exceed 18 is ATN-150MLX resonance on the green area in table.

  14. Filip,

    With cartridge mass of 8.3 grams, 2 grams extra for screws (a total guess), tonearm effective mass of 11 grams, and cartridge compliance of “10”, the resonance frequency is 10 Hz, which is good.

    The bigger issue for tonal balance will be loading. If you are using a tube preamp, especially with 12ax7, the input capacitance could be too high for this cartridge. If you have an LCR meter, measure the capacitance of the tonearm cable and tonearm at the same time (with cartridge and preamp disconnected). They recommend loading of 100-200pf, and many phono stages, plus tonearm, plus tonearm cables, will be 200-300pf (there is stray capacitance of the input jacks, wiring, circuit boards, plus loading capacitors if they are included, plus the capacitance of the tube or transistor).

  15. Alexander Broniewicz says:

    This is more a question. I have an “old” Thorens TD280 Exclusiv player with OM 5 pick-up. I have been seriously considering an upgrade to the AT150MLX. Is that a good idea? The playar is hooked directly to my Yamaha RX-A2030 receiver, no preamp.

    • phillip holmes says:

      There are better budget cartridges available. I tried to get flat frequency response out of the AT150mlx and never could tame the brightness on top. I borrowed a friend’s, and his was the same. Tried with multiple arms, tonearm cables and phono stages. I think the “secret” is the laminated pole pieces, something shared with a handful of other cartridges that seem to be analytical and somewhat unnatural.

  16. Philippe says:

    Hi Phillip!
    Thank you for this very precise review.
    Therefore, what would you recommend as a “better budget cartridge” ?
    Apart from the AT150mlx, I’ve been thinking of AT440 (or more expensive Goldring 1012GX…), knowing that :
    • mine is so far AT95E and I’d like a real step up ;
    • I love neutrality in sound, the one that doesn’t emphasis this or that, because I listen to all kind of music.
    Regards

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Popups Powered By : XYZScripts.com