This review has been made possible by Simon and Gary of The Audio Files, specialists in the Linn LP12, Audio-Technica stockists and creators of the LP5 IPT – more on that in future. I’d been hoping to get my hands on Audio-Technica’s new VM95 line since its introduction, but attempts to bring Audio-Technica onboard are still without success. Simon and Gary kindly loaned me a VM95 cartridge and complete set of styli, which will be available from them at ex-demo prices at the time of this publication (April 2019). My sincere thanks go out to them for making this highly requested review possible.
How do you improve on a Legend? No doubt AT were asking themselves that very question during the development of the new VM95 line. Few audio components have attained the same high level of praise and admiration as the AT95, a phono cartridge that has remained in production for almost 4 decades and sold millions of units worldwide. It’s a classic go-to budget cartridge with outstanding performance that belies its modest price and has found its way onto some costly decks during its 39-year tenure. Repeating that same success will be no mean feat, and to attempt such is certainly a bold move on Audio-Technica’s part.
It has to be said however that a lot has changed in the last 40 years, not least the advancements in production and manufacturing, and the technical developments made in equipment for vinyl replay. As good as it sounds the AT95 is not without a couple of shortcomings. The plastic body, upon which many manufacturers have attempted to improve over the years, mounts with tiny, fiddly screws and round nuts. In standard form it carries a .3 x .7 mil elliptical stylus. Many sources claim that the AT95 carries a .4 x .7 mil stylus, when this is in fact not the case. This was a specification error printed on an AT website which quickly spread as things so often do on the internet. The only difference between an AT95E stylus and AT95EX stylus, besides colour, is in the damper.
AT themselves never marketed any upgraded styli for the AT95 leaving other companies to take on the task including LP Gear, Jico and The Audio Files, who’s 95P Paratrace is considered by many the best of the bunch.
The VM95 Range
Taking over from where the AT95 left off, the VM95 consists of a body of a matt black low resonance polymer housing with captive 2.6 mm brass screw thread inserts. The freshened design is welcome and a big step above the design of old, though the excellent slip-on stylus cover of the previous generation is retained, it too with a fresh new look. The generator uses Audio-Technica’s patented VM dual magnet system with a pair of magnets arranged in the shape of a ‘V’ instead of a single large magnet as used in other designs. The design replicates the structure of the cutter head, precisely matching the positions of the left and right channels in the stereo groove resulting in extended frequency response, better stereo separation and exceptional tracking.
The VM95 range includes a 6-strong selection of styli. The blue VM95C (.6 mil conical), green VM95E (.3 x .7 mil elliptical), orange VM95EN (.3 x .7 mil nude mounted elliptical), red VM95ML (2.2 x 0.12 mil Microline), brown VM95SH (2.7 x 0.26 mil Shibata) and grey VM95SP (3 mil 78). All are available separately, including a cartridge body only or with a cartridge body and pre-mounted to an AT-HS6 headshell (15.5 grams total weight), with an additional H denoting these models in the range.
These replaceable styli not only make far better use of an excellent generator but also facilitate an easy upgrade for those who don’t wish to upgrade the entire cartridge when the stylus becomes worn. Audio-Technica give approximate stylus life figures of Around 500 hours for a conical stylus, 300 hours for an Elliptical stylus, 1000 hours for a Microlinear stylus, and 800 hours for a Shibata stylus. Obviously wear will vary greatly depending on the condition and cleanliness of records, care taken in handling the cartridge, your accuracy in setup and the quality of the turntable and tonearm. Given records in decent condition and a setup that is at least reasonable, these figures are conservative and likely based more on tests showing degradation in frequency response than reaching a point where the stylus will cause undue damage to vinyl.
Total cartridge weight is 6.1G regardless of the stylus used, and with the exception of the 78RPM stylus all track at a nominal 2 grams, meaning there’s no need to alter tonearm settings when swapping styli. This means you can keep a 95C conical stylus for playing styrene 45s, a 95E or En for worn records and a 95ML or SH for critical listening and playing the best discs in your collection, and switching between them is a simple push down, pull slightly back movement and a matter of a few seconds. It doesn’t get more convenient than that.
The VM95 styli are also compatible with the AT-XP series DJ cartridges and vice versa. The XP series delivers higher output voltage (5.5MV as opposed to 3.5MV) and its 3 interchangeable styli are of lower compliance and are thus optimised for manual cueing and back-cueing. As such XP styli track at a nominal 3 grams as opposed to the 2 grams recommended for the VM95 styli. Nevertheless it is possible to fit VM95 styli to an XP series body if you need higher output voltage than the VM95 generator can provide.
Will a VM95 Stylus Fit An AT95?
AT95 series styli will not fit a VM95 cartridge body as standard, though it can be done if the plastic housing is trimmed with a pair of side cutters. I can confirm that the VM95 series styli will fit an AT95 cartridge body without modification, with the only aesthetic drawback being that the front of the cartridge body will overhang the stylus assembly. I have not tested how this combination sounds, but I would imagine that if it works the opposite way (I.E a modified AT95 stylus on a VM95 body) there would be no issues with a VM95 stylus on an AT95 body. Though it has to be said that the VM95 body is a step up, so to use the new styli on an older body may not realise the full performance. Nevertheless, this does potentially offer an upgrade path for AT95 users, and will at least keep those cartridges in service when stylus replacements are no-longer manufactured.
Technical characteristics remain similar across the range, though naturally frequency response, channel separation and channel balance differ between styli. Output level of the VM95C and VM95E is 4MV, while the rest of the range outputs 3.5MV at 1kHz, 5CM/sec. Recommended loading is typical of an AT moving magnet cartridge – 47KΩ at 100-200PF. The T.P. copper Coil impedance is 3.3KΩ at 1kHz, coil inductance is 550 mH also at 1kHz, and DC resistance is 485Ω. Static compliance is between 17 – 20 x 10 – 6 cm / dyne and Dynamic Compliance is rated at between 6.5 and 10 x 10 – 6 cm / dyne (100 Hz).
Frequency response is 20-20,000Hz for the VM95C, 20-22,000Hz for the VM95E, 20-23,000Hz for the VM95EN and 20-25,000Hz for the VM95ML and VM95SH. Channel separation (at 1kHz) is 18dB for the VM95C, 20dB for the VM95E, 22dB for the VM95EN and 23dB for the VM95ML and VM95SH. Output channel balance (at 1kHz) is 2.5dB for the VM95C, 2.0dB for the VM95E and VM95EN and 1.5dB for the VM95ML and VM95SH. The vertical tracking angle for all styli is 23 degrees.
With the numbers out of the way we finally get to unpack the VM95. Packaging is far more lavish than before, with the cartridge visible through a display window and plenty of documentation beneath. Included are 2 11 mm and 2 8 mm M2.6 installation screws, 2 washers and (on the upper end models at least) a non magnetic screwdriver. The presentation creates pride of ownership from the get-go, yet is not so superfluous as to unnecessarily add to the cost of the cartridge. The cartridge itself oozes quality to a point that is quite remarkable for such a comparatively low-cost item.
For this review, a VM95 body (supplied with the VM95SH) was mounted in a Technics SL-1200 using a standard Technics headshell and the AT-provided 8 mm fasteners. This body was used to compare all styli, which were given 20 hours of run in time prior to any critical listening. The excellent moving magnet input of my Marantz PM-11S3 internal phono stage was used, which offers fixed loading at 47K Ohms, 100PF and is well matched to Audio-Technica cartridges. The Technics is fitted with a fully rebuild and re-wired tonearm terminating in a low capacitance OFC cable. From experience I have found Audio-Technica cartridges work best at below 200PF capacitance and standard 47K loading. The VM95 cartridge was were aligned to Technics specifications and set with a digital scale to track at 2 grams with the appropriate bias force applied. VTA was set such that the arm lay parallel to the record with the stylus in the groove.
I measured each stylus in turn using the same body. I first wanted to identify the cause of the slightly higher output voltage of the conical and elliptical verses the other three profiles. AT quote a difference of 0.5MV. My tests showed The VM95C and VM95E output around 3.8MV, while the other still in the range were indeed on or slightly lower than the 3.5MV mark. It is my theory that the small variances in compliance and tip mass are responsible for this, and in reality such a minor difference isn’t going to be of any consequence as the difference is minor, and the output voltage is well within the margin for most if not all moving magnet preamplifiers.
Channel balance figures measured well within specification. 1.87dB for The VM95C, 1.64dB for the VM95E, 1.61dB for the VM95EN, 1.29dB for the VM95ML and a very impressive 1.22dB for the VM95SH. Channel separation figures were right around AT’s quoted specs as were frequency response. I haven’t given numbers or produced frequency response graphs as I don’t have the facilities to test the frequency extremes of the cartridges, and therefore while my measurements would be well within the scope of real music (20-20kHz) my measurements would likely give a lower top end response than is actually possible. I would certainly be interested to see whether the VM95SH could exceed its rated response sufficiently to track the 45kHz encoded tone of a CD4 disc.
There are a lot of factors at play when measuring a turntable cartridge, not least the quality of the turntable, tonearm, phono stage and of course the accuracy in turntable setup, the match between cartridge and arm and of course the test record itself. Measurements should therefore not be taken as gospel, and providing they fall within ratings (as these certainly do) they are ‘good enough’. While it is always interesting to look at measured figures, it is important to remember that the sonics should ultimately dictate how any two cartridges, or indeed any two components, compare to one another.
The measurements didn’t change significantly when testing with a body supplied with the cheaper VM95E. This suggests that Audio-Technica are not supplying bodies that test best after manufacture with their higher end styli as has been suggested. This is perfectly logical as it would significantly increase manufacturing time, labour and cost. It’s better from the end user’s perspective too, as it means all generators are manufactured to the same high standard and thus the body you purchase with a £30 VM95C will perform just as well with a VMN95HS stylus as the VM95SH cartridge would.
Characteristics shared between all styli are a warm, full-bodied sound that is also quite punchy. There’s a lot of drive here, though the VM95 is not voiced such that standout bumps in frequency make it an unpleasant listen. Rather it has a bit of ‘oomf’ to use a technical term that makes it, if anything, great fun above all else. It sounds much like the predecessor, though with more evenhandedness and control than the AT95, which tends to sound dry and a bit dull in comparison.
Beginning with the conical stylus, a loss of detail and increase in surface noise don’t come as any surprise. Neither does a lack of texture, particularly at the top end where the large conical tip isn’t particularly adept at tracking high frequencies as those of an elliptical or more advanced shape. What is surprising however is how well this particular conical stylus tracks. Given that they are the makers of the AT91 and its OEM version, the AT3600, both among the best selling cartridges of all time, Audio-Technica are no stranger to fitting a cartridge with a conical stylus and having it sound very respectable indeed. It’s especially good for playing worn styrene 45s and ancient pressings where a more advanced profile is likely to dig up more noise than music. It’s also cheap, and the perfect stylus to use on discs in questionable condition or those that are obviously damaged in some way.
Switching to the Elliptical stylus brings back the magic of the old AT95, though it’s much closer to the 95XE than the 95E. Consequently tracking performance is improved at the top end especially. The AT95E wasn’t the most refined cartridge and was always on the brighter side of neutral. The same is true here, though the VM95E is much more refined and tames the top end, while remaining agile and expressive.
Sibilance is lessened greatly and surface noise drops to reveal a surprising amount of top-end detail, full bass, better imaging and a more solid focus to the sound, untroubled by anything you throw at it. This is a budget cartridge that simply gets on with the job at hand and does so exceptionally well, suiting just about anything you should care to play.
The VM95EN tip sounds very similar to the elliptical, as expected given that they are essentially the same tip. The benefits of nude mounting, which brings with it lower tip mass and better vibration transfer between stylus and cantilever, is an increase in the cartridge’s ability to track high frequencies and thus added top end detail. Tracking distortion is all but inaudible at this point. Better tracking performance leads to an ability to better handle peaks and portray a better sense of scale, though can perhaps appear tonally bright rather than somewhat soft and warm like the lower end styli. I don’t personally feel that this detracts from the listening experience. It is simply a fact of vinyl playback that better groove tracking yields more top end information, which can appear as over-brightness. In reality the cartridge is simply getting you closer to the content of the recording, and thus the tonal character starts to become dependent on the quality of the disc.
Next up, the VM95ML. Here is where things start to get seriously good. The Microline stylus is an advanced line contact shape, narrower and longer than an elliptical and thus able to sit deeper in the groove with greater contact to the groove wall. This means yet more top end detail retrieval, but with improvements throughout the frequency spectrum. One would expect a Microline to lift the performance of the cartridge significantly, but when I first installed the Microline into the VM95 body, I couldn’t quite believe the transformation. Having heard other styli mounted to an AT95 body in the past, I had always felt that it showed promise yet was easily bested by a slightly better stylus mounted to a better generator, good though the 95 generator was. I was therefore pleased, though a little sceptical when AT introduced the VM95 range with two high end styli. I wasn’t prepared for the quality of sound that the VM95 generator can produce when paired with an advanced stylus, and it really does go to show how important that tiny spec of diamond is to the playback chain.
The Microline produces a sound that is rich in detail and has rhythmic drive in spades. Stereo imaging is greatly improved as is the texture of instruments and their placement within the stereo field. The top end is crystal clear with no audible tracking distortion to speak of and a complete lack of sibilance even when pushed to the limits with a badly mastered LP pressed with limited dynamic range. This is probably the best ‘bang for buck’ in the range, and is likely the point where existing owners of the AT95, especially the AT95XE, will want to enter into the VM95 family.
Last up, the VM95SH Shibata. Developed in the ‘70s in conjunction with JVC, the Shibata is an extended contact stylus designed to track the superimposed carrier tone of a CD4 disc (upwards of 45kHz). It has a narrow horizontal contact surface and larger vertical contact surface which is not only best suited to tracking high frequencies way beyond audibility but also causes less record wear. As such tracking distortion isn’t an issue, and some feel that the Shibata stylus gives a more open and airy sound owing to its ability to track frequencies far beyond those of recorded music, and thus its ability to track the frequencies of recorded music are well within its capabilities. I personally feel that the Shibata stylus has a slight tonal skew towards a midband boost which gives slightly more vocal projection. Its level of detail and subtlety however are unquestionable, and I am in no doubt that listeners will forget that the generator in use is the same as that supplied with a £30 budget conical stylus.
I personally have always had a preference for a Microline over a Shibata. I’ve found the Microline to produce a more enjoyable and more musically coherent performance overall, and have always felt it better at handling distractions from vinyl contaminants and surface noise. However, listening to the VM95 has gone some way to challenging that point of view. While it is my opinion that the Microline offers the best value for money in the range, there is no doubting that the Shibata brings merits of its own that do justify the small premium it commands. Both profiles will find favour with different listeners, and the fact that AT can offer a choice of two exotic styli on their most budget-conscious line of cartridges is both commendable and really quite remarkable.
Having upgraded their mid and top end moving magnet cartridges, AT turned their attention to their budget models. In doing so they have greatly simplified their product range with a clear upgrade path as you move up through the hierarchy. Not only that, but they have produced a budget model that is quite astounding for the outlay. The AT95 was – is – a budget classic. I am in no doubt that in 38 years time the VM95 will be every bit as revered and coveted as its predecessor. Succeeding the AT95 was a tough ask, but Audio-Technica have risen to the challenge. May the ‘green king’ rest in peace, the successor has arrived to steal the throne.