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Audio Technica recently released an updated budget pickup cartridge – the VM95 – that comes with six different, interchangeable tip types. Noel Keywood takes a close look.




As people either move back to vinyl or – just as likely – decide to try it for the first time, demand is for entry level products – and that is what Audio Technica have on offer here in their new VM95 range of budget pickup cartridges, price stretching from a mere £30 to a more wallet demanding £179. That’s not a lot of money as cartridges go, where life gets serious above £300 and if the infection spreads can cost you thousands – think diamond coated boron cantilevers and such like. 

   With the budget VM95 Series, Audio Technica offer to walk you from the mundane to the esoteric – well, a whiff of it – in one affordable range where you can upgrade just by buying a new stylus instead of a whole new cartridge. 

   OK, not a new idea but Audio Technica expand it by offering a broader range of interchangeable styli than usual – six in all. At bottom – price and spec. wise – comes the AT-VM95C, the ‘C’ standing for conical (blue). Simple conical tips give a nice sound, easy and unchallenging, if a tad diffuse and for this basic cartridge Audio Technica keep price right down to a measly £29 (stylus £19). 

  Just above come an interesting duo, the AT-VM95E alternatively identified as E/H (green) and AT-VM95EN (yellow), price £44 (stylus £26) and £99 (stylus £89) respectively. The ’N” suffix of the latter indicates Nude, which in this case means a tiny diamond mounted directly onto the cantilever, not on a rondel. Benefit: better tracking. Drawback: it will easily clog with fluff and skate. So the cheaper unit is for those with fluffy LPs and the more expensive for those without. Elliptical styli better read high frequencies, giving greater treble definition than a simple conical.





















At left is the AT-VM95E (green) elliptical stylus on a rondel. Compare its fluff-clearance height with that of the nude elliptical AT-VM95EN (yellow). The E stylus is large – degrading tracking ability. 



 Above the two ellipticals come two more sophisticated tip shapes – the Microlinear AT-VM95ML (red) price £149 (stylus £129) and the Shibata AT-VM95SH (brown), price £179 (stylus £159). This is where things gets interesting. Microlinear is a modern geometry better than elliptical, and Shibata an old (1970s, for CD-4 LPs) but venerated long-contact tip shape produced by multiple grinds. Both give extraordinary high frequency definition, even on inner grooves where they are able to read very short mechanical wavelengths, our measurements confirmed. 


 The phenolic body has a captive brass nut bonded in and it is not blind as in Ortofons, but open so any length of screw can be used. Screws are supplied of course, one pair 8mm M2.6 and one pair 11mm M2.6, both lightweight aluminium. With captive nuts just hold the body below the head shell and pop in a screw from above – it’s as simple as that. Electrical connection must be made first of course, as usual, making the simple a little less simple! 





















At left the expensive AT-VM95SH Shibata profile (brown), ground onto a square shank for improved axial alignment. At right the AT-VM95ML (red) stylus also on a square shank (look closely!). 


Cartridge weight is a light 6.1gms with stylus carrier in place, a figure all arms can cope with. Also available are the entire range pre-fitted to a high quality, rigid Audio Technica AT-HS6BK head shell.

Audio Technica told me the VM95 body has a simpler generator assembly comprising two coils (left and right channel) with no magnetic screen between them; the more expensive VM700s have four coils, plus screen. Also, they have a cast aluminium body and better (tapered) cantilevers. 

   That’s five tips covered. Number six, the VM95SP price £69 (stylus £55) I could not assess: it is a 3mil tip for 78s. We have none! 

Audio Technica usefully explain that life expectancy is 500 hours for conical, 300 hours for elliptical, 800 hours for Shibata and 1000 hours for Microlinear. Tracking force is 2gms nominal for all tips except that for 78s. 

Fitting the stylus isn’t so easy; it is plugged in from below with stylus guard on and I found it difficult to locate; afterward the guard is slid off forward. All stylus assemblies use an aluminium tube cantilever, with two miniature magnets bonded on in 90 degree V arrangement. The connection pins lack colour coding – a surprise since the uninitiated need this convenience. 




Our supplied cartridge body was fitted to an SME309 arm, mounted on a Timestep Evo modified Technics SL-1210 Mk2 turntable. This fed an Icon Audio PS3 Mk2 valve phono stage and Icon Audio Stereo 30SE single-ended valve amplifier driving Martin Logan ESL-X hybrid electrostatic loudspeakers. The system was supplied by an Isotek Evo3 Mosaic Genesis regenerated power supply to eliminate mains distortion. Stylus assemblies were fitted to the body. With five styli and five high quality test LPs (all 180gm, some 45rpm), plus additional ’normal’ LPs, the subjective results below are inevitably a distillation. 

   At heart the VM95 range is based on a budget cartridge, the cheapest VM95C and this largely determines overall character. As measurement shows, all VM95s are forward in the midrange, fairly cool in their sound as a result – not dull – and quite revealing. 





















At left is the conical stylus of the AT-VM95C (blue) on a round shank. At right is the AT-VM95SP 78 rpm stylus – larger for wider grooves.



   The better tips progressively improve high frequency retrieval and imaging, especially on inner grooves, but they don’t alter basic presentation: look to tapered aluminium pipe cantilevers of AT’s more expensive moving magnets (AT530 upward) for a punchier and less bland lower midrange.

   The VM95ML Microlinear gave a reasonably bright tonal balance with delicious retrieval of fine high frequency detail that came across with firm confidence. With Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather (45rpm LP 180gm re-master) his guitar strings cut out with speed, there was no muddle when the mix got complex. This quality remained right through to inner grooves where on Time to Say Goodbye (Two Countries One Heart, 180gm, 33rpm) singers Cheryl Porter and Roselle Caporale were kept well apart, as only this tip and the Shibata could do. 

   The VM95SH Shibata tip was slightly darker in its sound than the ML yet smooth and detailed up top, again with wonderful separation of instruments. With Fanfare for the Common Man (Two Countries One heart, 180gm, 33rpm) horns were more dense and sonorous than from the ML, kettle drum a tad more powerful. The SH is as capable as the ML but less brightly lit and arguably preferable, but not always: Jackie Leven’s The Wanderer on inner groves fared best with the ML.



The VM95 stylus assembly has a locating spigot that guides it into the body; it's fitted from below.


   The VM95EN nude elliptical had plenty of body and drive with Alison Goldfrap’s Lovely to CU, making the ripping synth sound big and meaty. There was some softening of images across the sound stage and a de-focussed effect was apparent, especially on inner grooves with the Trondheim Soloists behind Marianne Thorsen; here the ML and SH kept them all well separated but the EN introduced blur. All the same the ‘95EN survived all the test LPs and gave a lively sound with good tonal balance.

   I expected the VM95E/H and VM95C to mistrack kettle drum in Fanfare for the Common Man, since the outer groove is cut at high level, but they sailed through, delivering enormous drum strikes. The C was rather humdrum and diffuse in its sound generally, but not inaccurate. The E/H managed better than I expected with more punch and life than the C, but some coarseness and muddle in treble when the going got tough. 

Going back to overall sound quality, rather than that due to tip differences, all five units have a light yet easy sound with a slightly bland lower midrange compared to Audio Technica’s VM750SH I use as a reference moving magnet (MM) cartridge, or especially the powerful bass from an Ortofon Cadenza MC. Best not to get too distracted by the fancy tip profiles; at heart this is a budget range. However, with our top quality 180gm re-masters – especially those spinning at 45rpm – in absolute terms quality was extraordinary – more fluid and dynamic than CD. So I was completely impressed and enjoyed reviewing all five.



I have to keep reminding myself that the basic unit in this new range from Audio Technica, the VM95C costs just £29 – peanuts. It gave an even and balanced but ‘generalised’ sound. The VM95E/H was more sonically engaging and the best starting point if you are a cash strapped audiophile. For a few dollars more, however, you can and should get the VM95EN as this is best budget value. My choice would be the VM95SH – yet the VM95ML had greater treble confidence, if a brighter balance that did or did not suit according to recorded balance. Confusing!

   Audio Technica’s new VM95 range offers extraordinary value at a time when rivals are pricing up. They might not have the low end weight of a Goldring 1012 GX (£250) or a Denon DL-103 (£180 MC), to put them in context, but they have better insight, speed and inner groove performance. Plus you get a nice, simple budget design easy to fit and upgrade. Fantastic value.






Budget MM cartridge range that offers superb sound. Top tips.


OUTSTANDING - amongst the best. 

VALUE - keenly priced.




- modern open sound

- easy to fit

- upgradable



- awkward to fit stylus

- bland lower midrange

- pins not colour coded



Audio-Technica Ltd (UK)

+44 (0) 113 277 1441



The budget VM95C conical stylus (blue) measured -2dB down at 10kHz, the VM95E (green) -1dB giving a slightly brighter sound balance.  The VM95EN had no loss at 10kHz, plus less on inner grooves. 

The VM95ML Microlinear gave the flattest frequency response of all with very little loss on inner grooves. The VM95SH Shibata tip gives fractionally less treble but it too had strong inner groove retrieval.

At the recommended 2gm tracking force all five tracked well at 300Hz, clearing the high +15dB of CBS STR-112 test disc (+18dB is the upper limit). 

At  higher accelerations within a 1kHz test track (B&K 2012 test disc), tip mass took effect. The VM95C conical tip stayed in the groove at 25cms/sec but the VM95E with rondel skated across the disc! The VM95EN was happiest of all at 25cms/sec (a torture track) where it displayed only marginal mistracking; the VM95SH and VM95ML managed similarly. 

Channel separation was low at 21dB and output average at around 4.5mV (3.54cms/sec peak groove velocity).  All had a measured Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) of 24 degrees, close to correct 22 degrees, for low distortion of around 2.5% from vertical modulation. Distortion on lateral modulation was also low at around 1%. 

Measurement showed the VM95E has a mid-band tracking limitation and the VM95C low treble output. The VM95EN, ML and SH fared best, delivering fine all-round performance. NK 


Tracking force                       2gms

Weight                                  6.1gms

Vertical tracking angle          24 degrees

Frequency response            20Hz - 16kHz

Channel separation              21dB


Tracking ability (300Hz)

lateral                                   63-90µm

vertical                                 45µm

lateral (1kHz)                       18-22cms/sec.


Distortion (45µm)

lateral                                   1%

vertical                                 2-3%

Output (3.54cms/sec rms)   4mV

















































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