Herein we feature not one, not two, but a grand total of 12 cartridges from Audio-Technica. In a recent bid to simplify the company’s cartridge ranges, Audio-Technica have amalgamated their lines beginning first with the VM500 and VM700 models featured herein, and the VM95 and latest OC9X ranges thereafter. The VM500 and VM700 series’ are, infact, a pair of bodies onto which are fitted any of 6 styli. Before we dive in, I would once again like to offer my sincere thanks to Simon and Gary of The Audio Files, who kindly loaned me a complete set of cartridges and styli for this review. Interested parties have the opportunity to purchase the review units at ex-demo prices as of the time of publication (October 2019), but I would encourage anyone interested in buying any of the cartridges featured herein to drop The Audio Files an eMail.
Before the introduction of the VM series cartridges, AT’s upper end moving magnet line was primarily focused on the AT440 and AT150, the former with a Microline stylus and the latter first sporting a Microlinear stylus on a Boron cantilever (the 150MLX) and later a Shibata stylus on a tapered Aluminium pipe cantilever (the 150SA). Not counting of course, the 50th anniversary AT150ANV which held a Microlinear stylus on a Sapphire cantilever.
The VM series brings less exotic styli to the better generator and body, but also bring’s Audio-Technica’s Special Line Contact (SLC) stylus to the lineup.
The two bodies are similar too. The ‘VM’ designation stems from Audio-Technica’s use of dual magnets arranged in the shape of a ‘V’. This replicates the structure of the cutter head and positions the magnets precisely to match the left and right positions of the stereo groove walls, extending frequency response, improving channel separation and resulting in superb tracking, especially with the better styli. Laminated paratoroidal coils of 6N-OFC coil wire improve the efficiency of the generator and improve linearity, and a permalloy centre shield plate helps to reduce crosstalk to below 40dB by physically separating the left and right channels from one another.
The primary difference in the two is in the housing. The VM500 is cast in a low resonance polymer, while the VM700 is a die-cast aluminium alloy. The VM500 weighs 6.4G and the VM700 weighs 8.0G with a stylus installed. This is a minimal difference and while it’s true that the choice of body could aid in optimally matching the cartridge to a given tonearm, the differences in most cases will be minimal and either cartridge will work fine in just about any low to moderate mass arm.
Available styli include the VMN10CB (.6 Mil Conical), VMN20EB (.3 x .7 Mil Bonded Elliptical), VMN30EN (.3 x .7 Mil Nude Mounted Elliptical), VMN40ML (0.12 x 2.2 Mil Microlinear), VMN50SH (0.26 x 2.7 Mil Shibata) and VMN60SLC (0.28 x 1.5 Mil Special Line Contact). All styli are mounted on an Aluminium tapered pipe cantilever. Conical and Elliptical styli are mounted to a round shank, while Microlinear and Shibata styli are nude square shanks and the SLC is a nude rectangular shank, reducing tip mass as you move further up the range.
As standard, the VM500 series is available fitted with a Conical, Elliptical, Nude Elliptical or Microlinear stylus. The VM700 series is available with a Microlinear, Shibata or SLC stylus.
It is possible to fit the Shibata or SLC styli to the VM500 body, just as it is possible to fit any of the Conical or Elliptical styli to the VM700 if desired. UK retail prices range from £95 for the VM510CB to £620 for the range-topping VM760SLC, which makes it one of the company’s most expensive moving magnet cartridges to date. The Elliptical and Microline variants of the VM500 are also available pre-fitted to an HS-10 headshell, though it’s worth noting that at the current pricing it is cheaper in at least two cases to purchase the headshell separately.
All cartridges include a similar set of accessories including 5 mm and 10 mm screws, hexagon nuts and nylon washers. Spring for the VM530EN or higher and you’ll get a non-magnetic screwdriver and a stylus brush. Stretch to the VM540ML and a pack of OFC headshell leads is included. The packaging is similar regardless of which cartridge you choose and is well thought out, with the cartridge very neatly presented and mounted to a headshell-like carrier with a protective cover keeping the stylus guard in place
Out of the box, the carts do look strikingly similar to the old models. I was pleased to see Audio-Technica retain the excellent flip-down stylus guard which is a feature I wish more cartridges would incorporate. The die-cast aluminium VM700 is the better looking of the two, but overall the parallel lines and angular curves of both are identical and make for a very neat installation. My only wish is that Audio-Technica had incorporated threaded screw holes as they do on the VM and new OC9X lines, which eases installation and improves the aesthetic.
Frequency response is rated from 20 to 20,000HZ (VM510CB), 23,000Hz (VM520EB), 25,000Hz (VM5230EN), 27,000Hz (VM540ML, VM740ML and VM750SH) and 30,000Hz (VM760SLC). No linearity figure is given for these ratings. Coil impedance at 1kHz is 2700Ω for all models. Vertical tracking angle is 23 degrees across the board, and vertical tracking force is a nominal 2.0 grams with a range of 1.8 to 2.2G.
Output voltage with the standard measurement of a 1kHz tone at 5 cm/etc is 4MV across the board, aside from the 510CB which is slightly louder at 5.0MV. I’m unsure what causes this slight rise in output as it doesn’t appear to relate to compliance, so can only assume this is a factor of the conical stylus itself. I also measured a higher output using a VMN10CB stylus on the VM700 body, hardly surprising given that they are an identical generator.
Static compliance is 35x 10-6 cm/dyne for the VM510CB, VM520EB and VM530EN and 40x 10-6 cm/dyne for all other models. Dynamic compliance, measured at the Japanese standard 100Hz is 8x 10-6 cm/dyne (vm510CB, VM520EB, VM530EN) and 10x 10-6 cm/dyne for all other models. A generally accepted rule with 100Hz figures is to multiply them by somewhere between 1.5 – 2 to get a rough figure at a more standard 10Hz to calculate the resonance of a tonearm and cartridge combination.
Channel separation at 1kHz is 25dB (VM510CB), 27dB (VM520EB, VM530EN), 28dB (540ML, VM740ML), and 30dB for the VM750Sh and VM760SLC. Channel balance again at 1kHz starts at 1.5dB for the VM510CB, VM520EB and VM530EN, improving to 1dB for the VM540ML, 740ML, 750SH and 760SLC.
My measurements showed all cartridges bested their ratings, with the Microline and SLC styli giving the most even frequency response and the best channel balance and crosstalk figures. The SLC in particular bested its 1dB channel balance figure with an excellent 0.58dB. I also noted a very slight difference between the generator of a VM500 and VM700, suggesting, perhaps unsurprisingly, that Audio-Technica reserve the best generators for the VM700 line during manufacture. The difference is small, equating to a variance in frequency response between 15-17,000Hz of a few tenths of a decibel. Whether it would be audible if a VM500 generator were fitted to a VM700 housing is questionable.
For this review I used two bodies; the VM500 body from a VM540ML, and the VM700 body from a VM750SH. Both were mounted in Analogue Studio headshells on a technics SL-1200G. The Technics was connected via a 60CM Sommer Onyx cable to my Musical Fidelity M6 Vinyl phono stage, with loading set at 50PF, 47KΩ and using the RIAA/IEC curve. The balanced outputs of the phono stage were used to drive my Musical Fidelity M8 preamp and a selection of amplifiers including the M6 PRX power amp, a pair of Hypex NC400 class D monoblocks and a Pro-Ject Head Box DS2B headphone amp. This is a very neutral sounding system, so gives an accurate representation of the source material.
As I moved up through the range of styli, I noted changes similar to those in my AT-VM95 review. Beginning with the Conical stylus, the highs are somewhat rolled off, with the narrowest stereo field and most vague stereo image. It’s still a pleasant listen and does an admirable job on particularly worn records or styrene 45s as most Conical styli do. It could become a bit splashy and sibilant at the top-end when tracking louder pressings or reaching the end of a side, but again this is to be expected. If you are in the market for a cartridge with a Conical stylus, you’re better off in my opinion going with the far cheaper VM95C as this stylus doesn’t do the VM500 body justice.
Moving up to the Elliptical and Nude Elliptical profiles, the stereo field widens and the sound stage becomes more dimensional, with an increase in top end detail. The Nude Elliptical is particularly good on the VM500 body, where it is a clean and sweet-sounding cartridge with a pleasing openness and air to its presentation without being too revealing. Surface noise is reduced considerably over the Conical, and most of that top end splash is gone especially once you step up to the Nude Elliptical.
The Nude Ellipticle brings the same sonic signature as the Elliptical, though the lower tip mass and increased tracking dexterity is obvious, demonstrated in improved top-end tracking, another slight reduction in surface noise and, once again, increased sound stage dimension.
Now we get to the more exotic shapes. The Microline has always been my preferred stylus profile and here it doesn’t disappoint. The sound is crystal clear with plenty of detail throughout the frequency band. It’s an even-handed tonal character with excellent imaging and a wide sound stage, helped by it being one of the quietest profiles in terms of surface noise.
I was interested to compare the Microline on the VM500 body with the recently introduced VM95Ml, see the review Here. In that review, I noted that I found the 95ML to be the sweet spot of that range, and was curious to see how it would compare to the VM540ML. Both have a cast resin body albeit of a different shape, the stylus profile is identical and the two are specced to perform similarly. The VM500 generator should however be a step above the VM95.
I was surprised at just how close the two cartridges were. Where the VM95 loses to the VM540 is in a minimal loss of detail and a ruction in outright slam, the VM500 giving a more assured and even-handed presentation. But the two cartridges are so close in performance that I have to question whether the price of the VM540ML is justified. It wasn’t until I switched to the VM700 body that the improvements in the generator became more obvious and the upgrade was justifiable. That’s not to say that the VM540ML is a bad cartridge in any way, but that VM95ML is a steal and an outstanding cartridge for the money.
The Shibata I found to be similar to the Microline, though with an emphasis to the mid-band that pushes vocals and acoustic instruments in particular to the forefront. I’ve always preferred the more laid back, more neutral flavour of the Microline, though some may find it too lean and thus the Shibata is a good option. The gap between the VM500 / 700 and VM95 is widened considerably with the Shibata however, the difference between the two a more coherent and fuller presentation, especially through the emphasised mid-band which is perhaps best described as ‘luscious’ on either cart, though more-so with the VM500 / VM700.
The real gem, however, is the SLC, Special Line Contact stylus. I’ve discussed this stylus with Simon in the past, having mentioned my preference for the Microline over most exotic stylus shapes. This was the reason I chose my AT33PTG/II over the OC9/III at the time, as I had a fore-judged bias that the Microline stylus would still be superior to the SLC. How wrong I was. Simon told me this was a stellar cartridge, and that is frankly quite an understatement. The SLC takes the VM700 body and turns it into one of the finest moving magnet cartridges available at any price. Imaging is on point, with a massive sound stage and oodles of detail. It’s a fairly neutral sound from top to bottom with a startling absence of groove noise or noise caused by vinyl imperfections. There’s not a hint of harshness nor sibilance, only a top-end that extends far beyond the frequencies etched into the groove. This is one of the most accurate and most musically satisfying styli I have ever heard, and it is very likely that a cartridge fitted with one will find its way onto my turntable in short order.
I found minimal sonic differences between the two bodies. If anything my preference leaned slightly toward the VM700, though the aforementioned difference in weight, and the resultant effect on the resonance of the tonearm and cartridge combination, is likely more the culprit than any real difference between the two bodies. I did feel that these carts had a slightly more pronounced frequency response curve when compared to the VM95, which is a flatter curve across the audio band. My measurements, and those of others online do confirm this, though the difference is marginal especially when the cartridge is well matched to the tonearm.
To summarise. These cartridges, in particular the VM700, are cracking carts for the money and certainly among the best moving magnet carts around. The Vm500 is close in performance to the VM95, though if anything that has more to do with the particularly stellar performance and bargain pricing of the VM95 series. There’s no doubting that the VM500 cartridges are worth their asking prices and perform admirably. But if you have a VM95 already; in particular one fitted with the ML or SH stylus, and depending on your tonearm you will likely find the VM700 to be a more worthwhile upgrade path.
Still, the VM500 and VM700 continue a logical reshuffle and welcome refresh of AT’s cartridge line. They set a clear upgrade path for owners with the advantage of simple stylus swapping and inter-compatible styli between the two bodies. An excellent lineup that comes highly recommended.