The AT-VM95 is Audio-Technica’s newest line of consumer level phono cartridges. The major advantage of this cartridge line is the compatibility with any of the VM95 replacement styli. That means upgrading is as easy as swapping the stylus.
Each cartridge utilizes Audio-Technica’s dual moving magnet design, which has been honed through the decades. The body has threaded inserts with hardware included in the box that makes mounting to a standard head shell very easy. Alignment, of course, depends on our turntable. That could be a rather lengthy discussion. If you don’t know how to align a cartridge, there are some great articles and tools available for free online. The best judge is your ear, but protractors and overhang gauges can help achieve alignment much closer to what the manufacturer intended. Here is a quick rundown of options:
Bonded Conical Tip
There are some records in our collection that are what we could call “well worn.” They come to us with scratches, a thin layer of dust, and might be missing a sleeve. A lot of 45s fall into this category. Despite several cleanings, we can’t seem to get the grime out of the grooves. This is a perfect record for the AT-VMN95C stylus. The conical stylus has a sphere-shaped tip that stays out of the bottom of the groove and sails past the dust! On average, a conical stylus will last up to 500 hours. The economical choice and a handy tool for those records that are not in the best condition.
A bonded stylus has a diamond tip that is mounted to a metal shank and then connected to the cantilever. This is a tried and true, cost effective way to craft a stylus. Elliptical styli are shaped to sink deep into the groove, which extends frequency response and improves channel separation. The AT-VMN95E stylus is an excellent fit for 180-gram reissues, modern records, and 12-inch singles. The stereo image of the album was noticeably wider than the conical, and the inner tracks played back with less distortion. The bonded elliptical exceeded expectations, whether it was a solo acoustic guitar or a track with sizzling horns.
A nude stylus is a diamond shape mounted directly to the cantilever. This allows for increased dynamic range, better stereo imaging, and further extends the frequency response of the cartridge. The AT-VMN95EN had significant gains in every department over its bonded counterpart. The presentation of the music was realistic, whether the setting was a small club, large room, or concert hall. It captured keys clicking on saxophones, the first breath before a vocal entrance, and the chair squeak during a vigorous violin passage. It handled worn records better than expected, but this stylus should be saved for clean records in VG+ condition or better.
With more turntables capable of playing 78 rpm records, the demand for a capable cartridge is growing significantly. The hard shellac records of the ’40s and ’50s require a special .0003 millimeter tip. Playing 78s with a 33/45 stylus will rub away the treble, even one such play can forever alter the music. For optimal playback, some early 78s may require a smaller tip radius depending on the time period, as the industry did not standardize groove size until the ’40s. It would be a good idea to research a little about the recording before deciding to spin that precious platter!
Audio-Technica has developed the AT-VMN95SP to handle a majority of the 78s we find out in the wild. If you have yard sale, inherited, or bargain bin 78s, this would be a great cartridge for you. Whether it was classical, big band, country and western swing, or rock and roll, the stylus sounded crisp and clear with a low noise floor.
Pristine 78s have incredible fidelity, one that rivals even the best 12-inch albums. The speed at which the 78 spins allows plenty of bandwidth for the music. Even though some of these albums were pressed over 80 years ago, the electroplating and mastering techniques used in the manufacturing process are still around today!
Micro Linear and Shibata
These two styli are placed in the same category because the differences between them would be difficult to summarize. Shibata styli were utilized in discrete quadraphonic systems, because they were capable of producing the 45kHz frequencies required for CD-4 playback. The tip is shaped to preserve the delicate high frequency signals in the record that can be worn away with inferior styli. The Micro Linear stylus is a line contact stylus that is shaped to increase stylus life and permits some of the lowest inner groove distortion of any stylus shape.
The overhang for the AT-VMN95SH and the AT-VMN95ML required almost double the amount of time as the other styli. Several albums were auditioned, and then minor adjustments were made to the cartridge overhang. As we move up in the world of cartridges, alignment is critical! You, dear reader, must have a deep and complete understanding of every aspect of cartridge alignment including VTA, azimuth, overhang, and tracking force to reap the full benefits of these styli. A small adjustment one way or the other will produce dramatic results.
Not all turntables are capable of handling Micro Linear or Shibata styli. Audiophile cartridges and styli are typically found on manual turntables with solid plinths and sophisticated tonearms. Fully automatic and semiautomatic tables have more hollow space in the plinth that may cause unwanted resonant frequencies, which could interfere with cartridge reproduction. They also risk ruining an expensive purchase if the table misses the edge of the record or has a cueing failure that causes the stylus to rake on the album. When selecting a cartridge, take into account the turntable to which it will be mounted. If the turntable is mostly plastic, stay away from these styli.
The Shibata and Micro Linear styli are capable of almost flawless playback with the right settings. The human voice, pipe organ, and piano are some of the most difficult instruments for a vinyl record to convey accurately. Both the Shibata and Micro Linear reproduced dissonant choral passages with ease and had an impressive dynamic range. Quiet moments were present and subtle, while tutti orchestra and pipe organ had a rich and powerful sound. The extended frequency response of the styli were capable of producing harmonics of a grand piano in a concert hall with a sweet, warm tone, that is characteristic of vinyl. These styli should be reserved for the most pristine records, as they will magnify everything, including imperfections in the pressing.
A veteran in the cartridge industry, Audio-Technica has once again made a significant contribution to the analog world. The ever-expanding consumer cartridge market has some fabulous new options for every price point. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned listener, the AT-VM95 cartridge series has a stylus to fit your budget — and your ears.
Joseph Hanna is an employee of Magnetic Tape Recorder Inc and Stereo Center. A mom-and-pop vintage stereo repair and retail shop at 601 Baxter Ave. in Louisville, Ky., founded in 1956. They specialize in the repair and sales 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s home audio and stereo equipment.