Some time ago I posted a review of Rega’s VTA adjustment accessory for their 3-point tonearms along with a brief discussion regarding the importance of VTA. This lead to a discussion with Audio Appraisal reader John Garnet who had recently installed the VTA adjuster on his 2016 Rega Planar 1, following the installation of an aftermarket elliptical stylus by LP Gear, specifically designed for the Audio-Technica manufactured Rega Carbon cartridge. You can find that review and comment thread Here.
John’s high praise of this cartridge and stylus combination and several requests from readers led to me contacting LP gear who kindly provided a sample of the CF3600LE cartridge for review.
Designed and manufactured by Audio-Technica, its model number is taken from the Audio-Technica AT3600 cartridge body on which the LP Gear cartridge is based. The AT3600 is a budget moving magnet cartridge equipped with a conical stylus and found on budget turntables, usually those of a plug and play design with limited tonearm adjustment. In the CF3600LE, LP gear have retained the 3600 body but added a highly polished 0.3 x 0.7 mil elliptical stylus mounted to a carbon cantilever which claims to offer “agile, harmonically complete, refractive and refreshingly crystal clean sound quality”.
Its specifications are fairly typical of a budget cartridge design. The output voltage is rated at 2.5MV (1kHz, 5CM/Sec), with the channel balance and separation rated at <2.5dB and >18dB respectively. Its frequency response is a fairly typical 20Hz – 20kHz with loading recommended at 47K ohms, 100-200PF. At 17MM it’s not a particularly tall cartridge, though its mere 5 gram mass means that you may require a headshell weight to achieve optimal tracking force with some tonearms.
You can choose to purchase the cartridge on its own or pre-mounted to an LP gear HD headshell. You can also purchase the stylus separately, as a direct replacement for the stock styli found on turntable models such as the Pioneer PL-990 and PL-30K, the Sony PS-LX300, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60 and the Onkyo CP-1050. A complete list of supported models can be found on the LP Gear website.
I received the SET version, a CF3600LE cartridge pre-mounted to an LP Gear HD universal headshell which mated perfectly with the stock tonearm of my Technics SL-1210. I rather like the design of this low mass headshell, which resembles a curved L bracket with no unnecessary material to add mass. At around 10 grams, the HD headshell is a little heavier than the stock 7 gram Technics headshell.
Only the huge bolts attaching the cartridge, which protrude half an inch beyond their securing nuts spoil the aesthetic, but it’s a minor gripe and one that is easily fixed with some shorter cartridge bolts. I would like to have seen a headshell weight included, as the low mass of the headshell and cartridge may be an issue with some arms. As it was I was able to achieve correct downforce by removing the auxiliary weight from the back of the Technics arm.
The headshell was mounted into the Technics 1210 and the arm set to track at a little over the recommended 2.5 grams using a calibrated digital scale. Anti-skate was set a little lower to compensate for the rather overzealous skating force of the Technics arm. VTA was set such that the arm is parallel to the record when the stylus sits in the groove. LP Gear recommend a 50 hour run in duration which my sample was given before serious listening.
The first thing I noticed when listening to the CF3600LE cartridge was its dependence on the condition of the record. Records in average condition sounded, well, average, while quality pressings in clean, virtually unplayed condition sounded as such. This is actually a complement, and a testament to the CF3600LE’s ability to remain true to the record. Surface noise was extremely low and the inevitable pops and crackles weren’t so prominent as to detract from the listening experience.
Stereo separation and imaging was also excellent and much better than the 18dB specification would suggest. In reality humans only have about 20dB of separation between our ears so anything over 20dB is adequate. I was nevertheless impressed by the CF3600LE’s ability to reproduce a stable, deep and relatively wide sound stage, particularly given its budget price tag.
Detail levels were also another of the CF3600Le’s strengths. This was particularly noticeable during tracks with subtle reverb applied to the vocals, for example, The Beatle’s ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ from the 2012 SGT Pepper reissue (PCS7027). The LP Gear cartridge did a magnificent job of reproducing this entire album, so much so that I found I had finished both sides of the album despite intending only to play a couple of tracks. Playing ‘You and I’ from Ed Sheeran’s Live At The Bedford (Gingerbread Man Records 0825646042371, Atlantic 549855-1), the CF3600LE did an excellent job of reproducing not only the guitar and the close-miked vocals but also the acoustics of the room and the atmosphere of the audience.
End of side distortion was certainly very reasonable given the Elliptical tip. Heavily modulated inner grooves did yield a little sibilance but nothing I wouldn’t expect from an elliptical tipped cartridge and certainly better than most, especially at this price.
The CF3600LE compares favourably to many cartridges both at its price and beyond. Audio-Technica’s AT95 and AT120E track lighter and are better specced on paper but sound wise I don’t feel that either cartridge is a significant step up from the CF3600LE. Stepping up to the AT440MLB gives you a microline stylus offering better tracking and minimal inner groove distortion, not to mention significantly lighter tracking pressure.
However in the US at least, the $199 AT440MLB will set you back almost 6 times the price of the $75 (currently selling at $34.95) 3600LE. In the UK the 3600LE will set you back roughly £27 at current exchange rates, plus shipping, import duties and handling fees. That brings it closer in line with other cartridges including the technically superior £60 AT100E and the £110 AT120EB, not to mention the AT440.
In summary, I can’t help but be impressed by LP Gear’s CF3600LE cartridge. It’s a versatile and great sounding cartridge at an extremely reasonable price. LP Gear have breathed new life into what many would consider an inferior cartridge body, and I for one have never heard the AT3600 sound so good. If you’ve a tight budget, the CF3600LE is a serious contender, and if you’ve a turntable with an AT3600 cartridge an LP Gear stylus replacement will vastly improve the sound and be kinder to your records. Highly recommended.