It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Audio-Technica cartridges. THey’re my go-to cartridge choice thanks to their value for money, consistent reliability and stellar performance. Products from the 150 series are in my opinion some of the best moving magnet cartridges available at any price, and I’d been running an AT150SA on a Technics 1210 for some time. While it is a great cartridge, it wasn’t a perfect match for the 1210 and its sound could, at times, become a little harsh at the top end. Minute adjustments corrected this to an extent, though the issue couldn’t be cured entirely. Phono stage loading was also somewhat to blame. AT’s moving magnet cartridges require unusually low capacitance and impedance loading to smooth out the top end which my preferred phono stage cannot provide.
Having modified the arm (details on which will be coming soon), I decided to switch the cartridge to a moving coil. I wanted a MicroLine stylus, tired of the (IMO inferior) Shibata of the 150SA and spoilt by the MicroLine of its MLX predecessor. I opted for the AT33PTG/II, the latest variant of AT’s dual moving coil design which has been around for decades. The 33 range includes the AT33EV (an elliptical tip on an aluminium cantilever, this AT33PTG/II and the more expensive AT33SA, a Shibata tip on a Boron cantilever. Other differences between the cartridges appear minimal.
Before I go on I should address some comments concerning my brand bias toward Audio-Technica. Despite repeated recommendation of their products and continually high praise from me, Audio-Technica do not provide me review samples. My requests for samples and related information from both AT themselves and their PR agency have fallen on deaf ears. Any Audio-Technica product on review has therefore been purchased by myself. They don’t send me free product nor supply me product at a discount. While some co-operation from them would be nice, the fact that I continue to purchase and promote their products speaks volumes for my trust in the brand and faith in their products, especially when there are plenty of alternatives to which I have easy reviewer access.
The AT33PTG/II incorporates AT’s dual moving coil generator based around a powerful neodymium magnet and PCOCC wire coils supported by a VC mould of special synthetic resin. A MicroLine stylus is mounted to a nude tapered Boron cantilever, thinned down and shortened thereby reducing the mass of the stylus assembly.
The MicroLine diamond is a highly polished line contact shape with a curvature radius which wears evenly extending the life of both stylus and record, AT claiming an average product lifetime of around 1000 hours. Longer can be achieved with adequate cleaning and if care is taken to keep the records in good condition. As with any moving coil the stylus of the AT33PTG/II is non replaceable. AT operate a replacement program whereby upon return of the cartridge any model desired among AT’s current MC cartridge line can be purchased at a reduced stylus upgrade price. It’s an excellent way to upgrade down the road or even to receive a reduction on the same model if desired.
The AT33PTG/II is a low output (0.3MV, 1kHz, 5CM/Sec) moving coil and thus requires a suitable phono stage or step up transformer. Recommended loading is 100Ω which I found to be spot on. Running the PTG/II into my Marantz PM-11’s moving coil section showed just how good that stage really is, and presented what I felt was an optimal load to the cartridge. Frequency response is rated from 15-50,000Hz, channel balance is rated within 1dB (1kHz) and channel separation is a more than adequate 30dB (1kHz).
Like the majority of AT cartridges, the AT33PTG/II is supplied in a display case mounted to a device resembling a headshell. This device supposedly serves as an overhang gauge for setting 15MM overhang on suitable turntables, though I’ve never been able to figure out how it is intended to be used. You also get 4 screws, 2 nuts, two washers, a screwdriver and a stylus cleaning brush along with some documentation and a set of headshell leads.
The AT33PTG/II was installed into an LP Gear High-definition headshell with the installation hardware provided minus the leads, the clips of which wouldn’t fit the headshell pins despite persuasion from a selection of tools. The OFC LITZ leads supplied with the headshell were used instead and fit perfectly. Setup was otherwise fuss-free, the PTG expertly aligned by my father using the Technics overhang tool which, despite what the peak and RMS distortion figures show, gives the optimal geometry for the Technics arm. Installing a cartridge is one (perhaps the only) area where blindness is to my advantage, as I can leave the fiddly alignment and arm balancing to someone else. Given the fragility of the PTG’s tiny cantilever and the ease of which that MicroLine could be decapitated, it’s nice not being the one tasked with setting the thing up.
The PTG was set to track at its nominal rating of 2 grams, with bias slightly less. AT specify a small tracking window of 1.8-2.2G, though I found 2 grams to be optimal. The bias on my arm is slightly overzealous owing to my almost frictionless modified bearing, but is not an essential setting and “good enough” really is good enough. VTA, the neurosis often debated by many was set such that the arm was parallel to a record of medium thickness, exactly 1.0 on the Technics’ calibrated VTA scale. Azimuth seemed fine with the headshell horizontal, so I left it as-was and didn’t feel the need to obsess over it – there goes my audiophile reputation. My setup resulted in a resonant frequency of roughly 10.74Hz, well within the usual 8-12Hz recommendation.
Straight out of the box the AT33PTG/II sounded smooth and refined with a wonderfully relaxed presentation. It’s quiet in the groove too, that MicroLine digging deep into the groove and presenting a soft hiss between tracks and largely avoiding the noise present on less than perfect pressings. As the MicroLine stylus contacts the groove over a larger surface area than most, record cleanliness is important as such a small diamond will drag every last bit of dirt from the groove of a contaminated record. If you’ve a vacuum cleaning device or a collection of mint pressings this won’t be an issue, though if you’ve been cleaning your collection with a bath cleaner such as the popular Knosti or Spin Clean you can expect to be cleaning the stylus a fair bit as those cleaners do not access the areas of the groove that are actually in contact with the stylus.
Spin a good pressing and the AT33PTG/II oozes confidence and demonstrates impeccable tracking ability. The sound is smooth and detailed with an expansive sound stage and without the slightest hint of distortion even during highly modulated passages. Worn pressings are handled with an impressive ease, any present crackle or noise dismissed in a manor that doesn’t at all detract from the music.
Measuring the frequency response shows it to be almost ruler flat, besides a little bump at the top beyond the audible range. Despite claims to the contrary, many audiophiles prefer a coloured sound and thus may find the AT33PTG/II somewhat bland. I’m in the minority who prefers a neutral presentation, and the flatness of the PTG was a welcome departure from the sibilant brightness or boosted midrange of other cartridges and perfectly suited to my taste. It suited any music I threw at it from Rainbow reissues to today’s mainstream pop, from metal to orchestral to Electronic, and from Acoustic to soul and Jazz.
The best way to describe the sound of the AT33PTG/II is ‘natural’. As a drummer, I know how a cymbal should sound. I know how the cymbal behaves depending on the way it is struck. I am familiar with the decay of drum shells of various woods. As a guitarist and pianist I know how stringed instruments (namely the guitar and piano) sound and behave. I know what it feels like to play those instruments, and how they will respond. The hammer action of a piano, for example. If a hi-fi system can reproduce that sound, but also remind me of that feeling, then it is a great system working in harmony.
And the AT33PTG/II does just that. It might not have the colour that some prefer, but it is able to reproduce the sound that was cut to the record accurately. Dynamics are intact and tracking is superb. You could spend a fortune on the best cartridge money can buy for minimal return, or you could opt for the modestly price option that simply gets everything right and buy more music. I know which I’d rather. Highly recommended.