Few cartridges can boast the term ‘vector-aligned’; and for good reason. This trademark belongs to Audio-Technica; the company founded in 1962 and famed for their exceptional phono cartridge ranges, not to mention their more recent range of microphones, headphones and turntables.
The model on review here, the AT150MLX, sits at the top of their moving magnet range (with the exception of the AT150ANV limited edition model introduced to celebrate Audio-Technica’s 50th anniversary). This dual-magnet, vector-aligned stereo cartridge features a paratoroidal signal generator system featuring PCOCC pure copper wire and a gold-plated, boron cantilever supporting an advanced MicroLine diamond stylus.
The stylus fitted to the AT150MLX is designed to better replicate the shape of the original cutting stylus, resulting in better reproduction of higher frequencies, improved tracking ability, and less distortion and groove wear than other stylus shapes. The tiny cantilever is made from Boron, a material commonly found in high-end cartridges due to it being far less resonant than aluminium. The AT150’s cantilever is gold-plated, further reducing the resonance caused by the Boron. The stylus assembly is user replaceable (the replacement being the aptly named ATN150).
Just what is this ‘Vector-Aligned’ technology anyway? This patented technology features 2 magnetic generators (forming a stereo pair) arranged in the shape of a V. The magnets are precisely positioned to match the positions of the left and right stereo channels in the record groove, resulting in outstanding channel separation, vanishingly low distortion and superb tracking performance.
Finally, a metal shielding plate positioned between the 2 channels of the generator system minimises crosstalk between channels and helps to minimise the effects caused by external interference. A ceramic mounting plate further reduces resonance, and the output terminals are constructed from pure copper.
The AT150 is 17.3MM in height, with a recommended tracking force grange of 0.75-1.75 grams. Recommended load impedance is a standard 47K ohms, the output rated at 4MV at the standard 1KHZ, 5 CM / Sec. Frequency response is an impressive 10HZ – 30KHZ; with the channel balance rated at 0.8DB.
First impressions are positive. The cartridge is elaborately packaged in a plastic container, affixed to a mounting bracket closely resembling a universal headshell. The mounting bracket also serves as a gauge, allowing you to correctly set the 15MM overhang when installing the cartridge in a universal headshell.
The usual accessories are present; including 2 sets of screws of different lengths, some mounting nuts, a stylus cleaning brush and a flat-bladed screwdriver. Some headshell wires are also included for use with universal headshells.
The cartridge itself is large (though not overly so) and very solid. While some cartridges, particularly those at the cheaper end of the market can feel a little flimsy, this is not a problem here. I particularly like the stylus cover; it flips up to allow for playback, and flips back down when not in use to cover the fragile stylus. On many cartridges, even extremely high-end models, the stylus guard is a complete afterthought; and some don’t include one at all.
The cartridge was mounted to a Rega tonearm using the Rega-supplied protractor. As Rega’s cartridges are 14MM in height, a 2MM spacer was used to raise the VTA, resulting in the arm being tail down with a 1.3MM discrepancy between it and the height of the cartridge. Tracking was set using a digital scale to 1.509 grams, with the anti-skate set to around 1.3 to compensate for the often overzealous magnetic anti-skate on Rega’s arms.
Sound wise, immediately noticeable is the AT150s crystal-clear nature; it’s almost digital-like, though with a certain analogue warmth and sparkle. Thanks to that microcline stylus tip, not to mention its exceptional tracking ability, inner groove distortion and sibilance are not an issue, even when tracking the inner-most parts of the record. No matter what i played, from the fresh off the press Queen remasters to a heavily worn original pressing of Meat Loaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’, the cartridge produced no excessive inner groove distortion, sibilance or splattering that I could hear; and certainly far less than many, if not all other cartridges I’ve tested at any price.
It’s important to take care with system matching; avoid components with a tendency to err on the side of bright or harsh, as you’ll more than likely lose the little warmth the AT150 does offer. In the right system, however, the sound is on the right side of Neutral; warm enough to leave no doubt that the sound is coming from a vinyl, but so clean, open, airy and free of distortion that you’d be forgiven for mistaking the AT150 for an analogue-sounding digital front end; and a very good one at that.
In summary; Sadly, thanks to their world-renowned budget ranges, and due in part to the precedence of other manufacturers dominating the market, few will ever realise the quality of Audio-Technica’s top-end offerings. And that’s a real shame; because the AT150MLX is, in my opinion, one of hi-fi’s best kept secrets. Priced far below other comparable cartridges, boasting features that other manufacturers would include only in their most pricy designs, and with a sound that can rival a very, very good digital front end, the AT150MLX is quite possibly one of the best moving magnet designs on the market, and one which most if not all MC cartridges at anywhere near this price would struggle to beat. Needless to say, highly recommended.