Gramophone Dreams #44: Audio-Technica, Goldring, LP Gear phono cartridges

Someone once asked me, "If I buy your $90,000, 25W amplifier, what will I get that I am not getting with my $2000, 200W amplifier?" My answer was simple: "Goosebumps, tears, and smirking." Great, well-tuned audio systems, at all price levels, give their owners less of the annoying and distracting stuff and more of the exciting and engaging stuff. Great systems offer more opportunities for smirking pridefully while listening to great recordings.

Sanford "Sandy" Gross, co-founder of Polk Audio and former CEO of GoldenEar Audio, has said that "in general, the best audio systems will sound more lifelike and will bring the listener closer to the performers and the performers will seem more alive in the room."

A few weeks ago, I was playing Stravinsky Conducts Histoire Du Soldat Suite (LP, Columbia MS 7093) with Audio-Technica's new AT-VM95E cartridge, which costs $49 ($69 after February 21; other prices listed here will increase, too; footnote 1), and wondering, did it ever sound this good with a Koetsu? With this cheap AT cartridge, the recording sounded so real, present, and compelling that my brain kept trying to remember how much more excitement or reality I got when I last played it with the $8495 Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum moving coil.


With the AT-VM95E, this Stravinsky sounded so good and so fundamentally correct, timbre- and tempo-wise, that it was doing what my friend Christopher Hildebrand of Fern & Roby says great audio systems do:

"With the best audio systems, the experience is what you take away with you, like what you feel when you leave an art exhibition that shifted your perspective on things you had stopped considering." (Emphasis is mine.)

This month, without warning or forethought, simply by playing records with a gaggle of popular low-priced phono cartridges, I realized that some entry-level cartridges deliver spectacularly high levels of audio vérité. I also discovered that, unbeknownst to me, some under-$200 moving magnets outperform some exotic moving coils that cost 10 times as much.

I also rediscovered a mostly forgotten truth about what matters most in sound system design.


The Original Audio-Technica AT95E
It is my firm belief that the truest measure of audio quality is consumer consensus. And the best measure of this consensus—two measures, actually—is how many happy customers product has and how many pleasure-giving years it remains in production. Three of my closest friends still use the Quad ESL-57 electrostatic, a loudspeaker that was in production for 28 years (1957–1985). Two other friends still own an Audio Note (Japan) Ongaku amplifier, which has been in continuous production for 31 years (1989 –2020). The Koetsu moving coil cartridge has been in production for at least 40 years (1980 to the present). The BBC LS3/5a monitor speaker has been in continuous production, in various forms, for 45 years (1975 to the present). The Linn Sondek LP12 turntable has been in continuous production for 48 years (1972 to present). The Denon DL-103 moving coil has been in production for 58 years (1962 to present). The Ortofon SPU cartridge has been going for 62 years (1958 to present). The winner of this consensus contest is Paul Klipsch's Klipschorn, at 73 years (1947 to present).

These are all extraordinary products, and I have owned every one of them except the Klipschorn. These numbers reflect immeasurable amounts of listening pleasure and pride of ownership.

Audio-Technica's AT95E moving magnet cartridge belongs on this list. It was in production for 40 years; millions were sold before it was discontinued last year. Its replacement, the AT-VM95, looks to be around for another four decades.

During its 40-year life, the Audio-Technica AT95 generator has been used in an untold number of more expensive audiophile cartridges, including the Linn Basik, K5, and K9 cartridges. I spotlight these cartridges because Linn, a company with a sonic-aesthetic viewpoint to uphold, obviously felt that Audio-Technica's bold, type-A personality showcased musical pace, rhythm, and timing (PRaT) in an easily demonstrable, customer-pleasing way. The AT95 lasted 40 years because its honest, not–hi-fi sound ropes listeners in and makes playing records something to look forward to.

I thought I'd launch my report on the AT-VM95 by refreshing my memory of the AT95. The first recording I played, with the standard elliptical-diamond stylus, was Lead Belly, Lead Belly's June 15, 1949, performance at the University of Texas in Austin. Huddie Ledbetter (aka Lead Belly) died later that year; the recording was released in 1973 on Playboy Records (LP, PB-119). With the Audio-Technica AT95E, the sound of his voice and the room and the audience was so vibrant and lifelike that I felt I was witnessing an important moment in the life of the man I regard as America's greatest folksinger. Listening to his "I Will Be Glad When I Get Home," it seemed I was experiencing some of Huddie's last words. The AT95E's elliptical stylus cut straight to the sonic bone. I felt Lead Belly's human presence and easily located recordist Alan Lomax's microphone. The sound was no-frills clear and direct. The performance was intimate and heart-moving.


The AT95E was not brash or annoyingly overstated like Shure's SC35C and M44-7 DJ cartridges. It displayed a more refined personality. It was detailed and colorful like more expensive cartridges, and it could swing better than my Ortofon 2M Red or beloved Shure V-15 Type III. The AT95E had power and punch, but it could also be suave and gentle.

The second record, Slim Harpo Sings "Raining in my heart ..." (Excello LP-8003), sounded more enjoyably right than it had in years. When I lowered the AT95E's stylus on "I'm a King Bee," I knew right away: This is how this recording is supposed to sound. I could hear Slim at the microphone and sense the tape machine running. No digital I know, and few cartridges under $2000, could match the insightful tone-and-texture rightness of this $49.97 moving magnet cartridge.

The third record made me feel like I was losing my mind. Talk about PRaT, talk about lifelike tone, talk about excitement and engagement, talk about powerful bass. I played Stravinsky Conducts Histoire du Soldat Suite (LP, Columbia MS 7093) and my mind exclaimed, Wow! This is the best I've ever heard it.

In a million years, I would have never imagined that a 40-year-old, now-discontinued Audio-Technica AT95E would be assaulting me with this level of musical pleasure. However...

The system causing this remarkable joy consisted of the not-free Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable with a 10.5" Thomas Schick arm (replacing my Jelco now that Jelco has vanished), with the AT95E driving the MM phono stage in the $1595 Rogue Audio Sphinx V3 integrated amplifier powering the $1599/pair GoldenEar BRX loudspeakers. Amp-to-speaker cable was Triode Wire Labs American Series.

AT-VM95E vs VM95SH
According to Audio-Technica, the new AT-VM95E replaces the AT95E and AT95EX cartridges. The new cartridge offers a similar dual-magnet design but with a 0.3 × 0.7 mil bonded-elliptical stylus and "a new engine with a thicker coil" that delivers a higher (4.0mV vs 3.5mV) output voltage. Best of all, the VM series features threaded inserts (for mounting without nuts) in its standard polymer body. Dynamic compliance is 7×106 cm/dyne. Like its predecessor, the AT-VM95E stylus can be user-replaced or casually interchanged; in the case of the new cartridge, there are six AT-VMN95 styli, each with a different price and stylus profile, from $21 for the conical version and up.


I played Black Uhuru's Sly & Robbie–produced 1981 album, Red (LP, Mango ZCM 9625), with the $199 AT-VM95SH, the top-priced VM95 model, which features a Shibata stylus. (The Shibata stylus is available as a replacement for $179.) The sound was very similar to that of the Ortofon 2M Black moving magnet: smooth, detail-rich, and spacious with a tendency toward glowing, radiating tones. The tracks "Puff She Puff" and "Sponji Reggae" sounded unusually silent in a black-background way that assured me the VM95E's Shibata rock was correctly positioned in the vinyl's slot. I worked extra-hard to dial in the azimuth, VTA, and VTF on a cartridge that cost just $199 because it was satisfying fun to put air around all that Shibata-tip detail. It was even more fun hearing that Mango LP sound so luxurious. The main difference between the 2M Black and the AT-VM95SH was that the AT cartridge had more push and bounce. It kept the beat and carried the tune better than the Black Ortofon, which dragged its hind paw while playing "Sponji Reggae."


I played Red once more, this time with the $49 elliptical-stylus version of the VM95. Now the sound had even more pulse, presence, and genuine reggae-music energy. With the AT-VM95E, this album's ganja-Rasta spirit was amped up further, drawing me into a night of bass-dosed dancehall dreams.

The verdict: The less-expensive, elliptical version made the Shibata-tipped version of the VM95 sound overly smooth and polite. I always haven't loved Shibata styli; now I know why: It's too pipe-n-slippers.


The AT-VM95C
I have a BFF relationship with the spherical-tipped Denon DL-103 moving coil, simply because it has never disappointed me while playing a record. The late Art Dudley campaigned for the spherical-tip cause, stating in Listening #186: "I continue to prefer the spherical experience—to me, it emphasizes musical content over air, allowing instruments and voices to sound more substantial, and music to sound, overall, less fussy than with other tip types." (The emphasis is his.)

Footnote 1: Audio-Technica US, 1221 Commerce Dr. Stow, OH 44224. Tel: (330)686-2600 Web:

Ortofan's picture

... loves the sound of second harmonic distortion.

JHL's picture

When your appreciation of fine art rises no higher than ocd projection.

Wrong publication maybe?

Jack L's picture


How do you know it is 2nd harmonic, not odd harmonics? Your guess or what?
I ask you because I am using an AT !

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... objective test data published by Shure nearly half a century ago.

Jack L's picture


What's wrong with 2nd harmonic distortion ??

FYI, Nelson Pass design/built his well-known Pass H2 harmonic generator some 6 years back for adding such distortion to any audio amp to make it sound better. He used a twin-triode, e.g. 6922, to generate the required distortion.

A musical instruments manufacturer even build such generators in its products, using, similar to Pass, a special designed/built computer chip
"NuTube" of same specs of 6922 twin-triode.

According to Pass, 2nd harmonic distortion might have caused the soundstage image improved depth of an audio amp so distinctly noticeable vs a solidstate audio amp which lacks 2nd harmonic distortion.

Listening is believing

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... dose of second harmonic distortion to be added to the reproduced sound, then what you appear to be seeking is not merely a neutral amplifier, rather some sort of sound processor - particularly, for example, if you're trying to change the perceived sense of depth inherent in a given recording.

As for musical instrument products, the intent for incorporating a second harmonic generator is likely to create a certain sound effect.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, I never stated I "need or want" any distortion in my amps, pal.

I only quoted big guy like Nelson Pass, amp designer/manufacturer, who might "need or want" to add 2nd harmonic distortion in his amps & he invented such thing. !!!!

Jack L

davip's picture

An interesting piece and something that it's good to see stated in a magazine where four-grand-anything is considered 'entry-level', but I'm forced to ask "what's new" here? I bought my first (and last) audiophile TT (a Linn-beating STD 305M) 40 years ago, and with a well-engineered unipivot (Hadcock GH228) found my Nagaoka MP11 -- a sure-footed and noiseless £20 moving-magnet -- to provide all of the realism that I could ever hope for in music reproduction; a realism completely lacking in every digital I've heard since. Similarly, that the hyped-up sound of most moving-coils (both in terms of abilities and frequency-response) that the magazines (and phono preamp designers) entreat us to buy is not really that engaging for anyone other than detail-freaks is also nothing new. That the TT is the most important element in phono replay, followed by the tonearm, and then the cartridge is also axiomatic, the significance of this perhaps lost in the different tonal balances that result from improperly terminated cartridges (see below).

If, however, this piece serves to reacquaint audiophiles with the mechanical and sonic delights of MM cartridges and the frictionless unipivots that enable them to work at their best, then it's about time too. Perhaps now preamp designers can start putting MM inputs into their designs and add 0-600 pf variable capacitance -- not everyone who runs MM cartridges wants to have to spend $10-20K on a Manley Steelhead or Halcro DM10 just to get this feature -- instead of throwing all the effort (and customers money) at multiple gain-stages and transformers for low-output MCs. In this latter, note that there's no easier way to modify the tonal balance of your phono system than by varying the capacitance seen by a MM and it's a lot easier than changing your loudspeakers.

It also goes without saying that MMs (and MIs) allow cheap, easy changing of styli -- who-on-Earth wants to wrestle a cartridge off of a tonearm every 12 months and put it in the post (only to get a new diamond with the same worn old suspension back, whist risking your tonearm bearings every time you do it)? Similarly, although a Koetsu doubtlessly sounds (ten) grand, at a running cost of ~ $10/hr I'm, not sure that I could ever enjoy my music when I know that the cost of the playing is more than the cost of the record being played...

Ortofan's picture

For only $1K, the Pro-Ject Phono Box RS and the iFi Micro iPhono3 Black Label phono preamps both offer user adjustable load capacitance over a range from 100pF to 500pF.

davip's picture

100pf is far too high for a minimum (needs to be 0pf), neither auto-mute during selection so neither can be used during listening to tailor response, and the iFi isn't really an audiophile device and doesn't have anything like the necessary reliability (look the latter up).

Ortofan's picture

... offers a load capacitance range from 47pF to over 1300pF.

davip's picture

...the Lehmann stuffed with opamps and ICs, so again not an audiophile component (or, at least, one that could have been much better without such laziness/economy of design)

Ortofan's picture

... believes in op-amp myths rather than op-amp facts.

davip's picture

Nope, and please save your comments for someone who gives a fk what you think -- I didn't ask for your anecdotal, I replied to the Author of the article, not You. Someone tells you that opamps are best as 'Fact' and you believe it. Good for you -- I suppose you think that digital is best too. Reread my 'typical' comment where I say that the amplifier "...could have been much better without such laziness/economy of design" and try to understand what that means -- an opamp is one person's or group of people's idea of what 20 or 30 components sound good together, nothing more, and it has no magical (or 'factual') properties that make it better for that -- it is simply an assemblage of discrete components where the designer doesn't get to choose. If you think that buying an off-the-shelf melange of components all soldered into one indivisible lump is the way to design audiophile components then you are as naive as your unrequested comments make you sound.

Now go and troll someone else.

Jack L's picture


So please tell us what do YOU know about the "op-amp facts".

I am all ears!

Jack L

Ortofan's picture

... I've been using various preamp, tuner, recorder and digital disc player products that incorporate op-amps and haven't been able to identify any particular shortcomings that relate to their use.

What seems to be your concern with op-amps?

Jack L's picture

..........incorporate op-amps" quoted Ortofan


So you have been "using various preamps" as a consumer. Apparently your ears were not sensitive or critical enough to tell the sonic difference between preamps/power amps using discrete active devices: transistors, FETS, tubes vs op-amps.

So you don't know at all what are the FACT about the design of an op-amp, correct ?

So why you quoted me some lead to read on the "myth" & "fact" about an op-amps in yr previous post to me when you don't even know what is it all about ?

Am I selling coconuts to an Eskimo who never knows coconut in its life ?

Jack L

jimtavegia's picture

Very curious as I have often thought that My Shure M97 with an upgraded stylus was still too polite. Need some excitement and we will see if $57.88 with shipping from LPGear is it.

Jack L's picture


I bet you would like it.

Despite I am still playing with my MC cartridge made in Japan, I still play with my vintage AT MM cartridge with CONICAL stylus for its relatively high voltage output@47K load for my design/built low-gain
single-stage RIAA phonostage. They match up flying colour !

It plays demanding fire-cracker music, like Tchaikovsky 1812, etc, no sweat !!

Listening is believing

Jack L

jimtavegia's picture

I'll have to buy that stylus and give it a whirl.

I actually have an older AT conical cart, but I'll have to find out what model it is. Kind of a creamish/light gray stylus plastic front.

Jack L's picture


My VM gets a white square vertical stylus plastic front. Pretty easy to clean the needle.

Jack L

dc_bruce's picture

is something, but not everything. Among the items listed for their longevity, one could say that their success is due to their pleasing nature (with the exception of the K-Horn, which I have never heard sound "pleasing.")

The virtues of vinyl are easily evident in a modest playback system so long as two criteria are met: lack of turntable noise ("rumble") and reasonably unvarying pitch ("flutter and wow"). Fortunately, those two demons have been well exorcised during the past decades, even with tables at modest -- 3-figure -- prices.

Beyond that, it's about detail and subtlety . . . and personal taste. More money usually buys more of those, but realizing these extra benefits also requires a higher proficiency in setting the table up. So, unless you're Mike Fremer, buying an expensive table/arm/cartridge from a knowledgeable specialist who will set it up for you is probably money well spent.

As for MC vs. MM, I made the switch to MC (plus step-up) some years ago. The difference was not "jaw dropping" and, I found was something of a matter of taste. Unfortunately, the cost of the conversion includes both the cartridge and the step-up. MF's recent glowing review of an MM cartridge in about the price range of my MC, has tempted me to consider going back to MM, rather than investing more in a "better" step-up and MC cartridge. Fortunately, my BAT phonostage has all kind of options for changing resistive and capacitive loading. Years ago, BAT man Victor Khoumenko kindly set me an assortment of parts that plug in to sockets on the circuit board to alter these parameters, with instructions.

With vinyl, once an acceptable level of turntable noise and speed accuracy is reached (which, these days, doesn't require 4-figure money), its more about what you're missing when you don't spend more money.

jimtavegia's picture

not that you needed to hear it from me. I think of how far it has come from my Dual 1209, or the Edison Cylinder. There are almost too many choices for someone getting into vinyl.

There is a great moment in the "Now Hear This" series with Scott Yoo, season 2, about Mozart where an owner of an MBL System has pristine Edison Player and numerous cylinders to play. After that they listen on the MBL System. Oh to be a fly on the wall for that.

DougM's picture

I haven't had a turntable for many years, since eschewing them for the convenience of CDs, once I found my Arcam CD player than didn't sound thin and sterile like most I could afford. But, back in the 70s and 80s when I still had vinyl, I found that my favorite ADC moving magnet cartrdiges, and the AT ones, had more punch and life than the more lauded Shure and Stanton offerings, or the MC ones I heard, which were mostly Ortofon and Denon. And, I couldn't afford a step-up transformer, or be annoyed by a cartridge that had to be sent back to the factory for styli replacement. I also preferred direct drive turntables over belt drive for the same reason, they sounded more exciting, alive, and realistic to me. And, I see that direct drive is now making somewhat of a comeback in audiophile circles, to which I say "It's about time. What took you so long?"

volvic's picture

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this, but I still do have some caveats/questions. I remember these cheaper Audio Technicas were great entry level cartridges, including the Linn K5 that came as a freebie with my LP12 when I bought my first one in 1989. I used it for a few days then installed my trusty Shure V15 MK V MR cartridge. The problem I had with the K5/Audio Technics, was that it sounded a little hot and zingy, if I can use that term with the top end. That is cymbals and high hats sounded a little hi-if-ish with a brightness that at first sounded attractive but over longer listening began to sound fatiguing. I noticed this same brightness today listening to a mono Clifford Brown recording I purchased yesterday from Academy Records in NYC. Through my Cyrus phono signature/PSX-R2 which allows for remote controlled loading changes, a 10db drop in gain resulted in a less bright and less forward sound but more enjoyable over long term listening. Could it be this is the sound that Herb Reichert and others have fallen in love with these cartridges?

It is great that Audio Technica offers different stylus choices for the cartridge in question, as much as I think MC’s are superior and by quite a margin over MM, I too have been using an MM cartridge for the last thirty years because I hate the idea of paying so much for a top tier cartridge, only to have to change the cartridge after 500-1000 hours of playing. Still, I do think on my tonearms with a removal headshell I might be tempted to pay a little more for an MC cartridge, as it is a far more natural sounding than an MM.

MatthewT's picture

For this, I hope you do more of these.

Jack L's picture

.... Listening #186: "I continue to prefer the spherical experience—..." quoted Herb Reichert.

Great minds think alike !

I fully concur with Art's sonic preference to conical stylus: more AIR, more AMBIENCE & more OPEN from my vintage AT-VM MM cartridge with conical stylus than my MC cartridge(Japan origin) with elliptical stylus.

Listening is believing

Jack L

jimtavegia's picture

on my Dual 502 with a Rega 202 (250)arm. Very nice. Cart pins are slightly larger than the ones on my Shure M97.

Sound at least as good as the M97, clear, good bass and probably the best $50 cart I've ever owned. Now to try some styli upgrades. HR was right on about this cart. It may be all that many people need.

brtsai's picture

I kid you not, when properly set up and paired with a quality MM phono stage (e.g. an iFi iPhono2 with iPower Elite), this ~USD$50 cartridge sounds so airy and supple, much like a Koetsu or high-end ZYX. Every vinylphile should get at least one of those into her/his system to see how a cheap cartridge can, in almost every thinkable sonic category, perform better than a lot of super expensive ones. I do have several >USD$10k cartridges for reference, BTW.

darkmatter's picture

A question for the reviewer,
Dear Herb.
Noting that the E3 cart scores a class B rating, have you listened to the E4 and would that sit in class B as well?
DM :)