Audio Technica has been making phono cartridges for decades and they are still making them today. (You may also know that they make turntables, headphones, an endless line of microphones, which they are also noted for, etc). Here’s a link to their site:http://www.audio-technica.com/cms/site/c35da94027e94819/ (Sorry I can’t link direct to the product page due to their copyright policy, but you can pull down the menu they have and go to the cartridges).
Only recently did they develop and come out with a multi-thousand-dollar phono cartridge, which of course we won’t be talking about on this website/blog. If you would like to read and learn more about it, you can head over to Michael Fremer’s site: Analog Planet, where he has provided excellent coverage.
Here, at IATM (It’s About The Music), I will talk about and list their affordable phono cartridge range, which is actually quite good
If you have ever attended or watched one of Michael Fremer’s world renowned Turntable Setup seminars, he always recommends that for the first timer attempting this mandatory to-be-learned task, to start with a cheap $30 cartridge or what have you to practice, in case anything goes wrong. (I too make the same recommendation personally). That way, should you make a costly mistake, it won’t lead to having to sell the farm or whatever to get another. Audio Technica does have some cartridges still being made in that range. I personally, would not rely on them to sound great of course, but for practice, it makes sense. The following are the ones still in production that I consider to be very good for listening enjoyment.
Starting with the AT95E is where the sound starts to improve. The AT95E (moving magnet) cartridge is still half of a Benjamin, but performs at double its price. It is an excellent starter cartridge in my opinion and a favorite among budget cartridges. It was the first cart I ever ran on my Pioneer PL510 and it was plenty to get the party started, if you know what I mean. (Yes, I still have this cart). It allowed me to hear what vinyl can really sound like. I enjoyed it for about a year before moving up.
Like I said, the AT95E won’t knock you over, but won’t disappoint you either. It’s not a detail extracting cartridge, but not veiled either. Bass is slightly rolled off and not as punchy as the next rung up in carts, but its ok considering this budget cart. Mids are somewhat forward and highs can be slightly brittle, is how I would describe it, but not something to send you screaming out of the room. Overall, it is a lively cartridge and has a somewhat flat soundstage and while it’s not a detailed cartridge like it’s higher up the chain cousins, it performs at double its cost and will at least produce a taste of what the recording has to offer. It is enough to make you appreciate your vinyl all over again and that’s really the important thing.
AT100E dual magnet cartridge.
I have not heard this cartridge. I skipped past it because at the time the next step up was almost a lateral cost.
AT120Eb (MM cart)
I have and currently run the AT120 E/T now discontinued. The AT120Eb replaces the AT120 ET.
I currently have the AT120ET on my Pioneer PL510 and I can tell you it is definitely a step up from the AT95E….I’d say almost two steps up without the equal steps in price. That’s the interesting thing about Audio Technica carts, when one moves up to the next one the differences are not subtle like with some other carts where you have to move at least two notches up to easily notice a difference. (That has its advantages though too).
To my ears, the AT120E/T offers better separation and imaging over the lower carts and a more dimensional sound stage. While it may not be an “audiophile” or “high-end” cart by any stretch, it is rather detailed especially considering what it is and the fact that it uses an elliptical stylus as opposed to a micro-line or what have you. Lows are rich and detailed, mids are right where they should be, not too forward or laid back and highs are ever so slightly rolled off to reduce the brittleness, but not enough to lose detail. Overall, the sound is pretty balanced while still being alive and offering some dimension.
I can imagine the AT120Eb to be similar at least.
AT440MLb MM Cart
I have not heard this cart either, but am dying to try one someday. There is also the AT440MLa which is essentially the same with only a very slight and likely undetectable difference in frequency response MLb 20-25,000 Hz vs the MLa 20-20,000 Hz and the channel balance with the MLb at 1dB and the MLa at .8dB.
A word of caution: There are lots of fakes of Audio Technica cartridges out there within this range, so to be sure you are getting the original, purchase from authorized vendors. There are different ways to tell if you have a real one or not. Just one way and most obvious is to look for the AT marking someplace on the cart or stylus holder portion (like you see in the pictures here). It should be crisp and clear and have the symbol in a circle along with the name Audio Technica. The AT95E may not have the name spelled out, but of the letters “AT” along with the symbol are there then it’s real.