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.
I’m afraid my thoughts on the 440MLb are on hold for quite a long time due to my ham-fisted attempt at refitting the stylus, post successful installation of the body, which mangled it beyond redemption. A very expensive mishandling mistake, and I must point out it’s a first for me and my fifty years of hi-fi experience, which includes countless stylus fittings. However, it will be a while before I can bring myself to spend a further £100 on a replacement, and then only if they are still available of course. I have refitted my Carbon/LP Gear, and at 2.1g I am re-discovering its many attributes.
I was abroad catching some sun over the festive season, but wish you a belated Merry Xmas and a prosperous New Year.
Bearing in mind my current post-festive impecuniosity, plus reading a few owners musings and viewing countless YouTube comparison videos, I’ve decided to temporarily fit a 100e stylus in lieu of the mangled 440MLb…I’ll most probably incrementally graduate further up the family tree in the future.
Meanwhile I’ve re-adjusted the Carbon/LP Gear in search of the sweet spot, still within the boundaries of Rega Stephenson, found it, and I’m now enjoying nuances, particularly with really clever bass-players, I didn’t know existed on my records.
It sometimes pays to be an inveterate fiddler…but it’s now looking like it’s going to have to be something really outstanding to usurp this, my #1 budget cartridge!
Interesting! Sorry to hear you managed to kill the 440. That said, have you tried contacting Audio-Technica? As it’s a relatively new cartridge, they may be able to sell you a stylus at a reduced price. No promises but it’s worth a try, there are a couple of customer service phone numbers on their website.
Thanks for the tip, there’s no harm in trying Ashley!
I know they offer a trade-in program on their MC cartridges which of course do not have replaceable styli whereby you can trade in any MC cartridge for any other in the line at the stylus replacement price. I don’t know of such a program for the MM line but it’s a possibility. I’d certainly be interested to know if they were able / willing to help.
At your suggestion I emailed Audio Technica regarding my mishap with the AT440MLb stylus, but remained unimpressed with their customer service (following all the positive hype to be found in numerous hi-fi magazines); after three days I received a three-line reply – no swap, no repair, we don’t recommend putting a 100 stylus on a 440 body and we have the 440 stylus in stock. Perhaps they were extremely busy…
As for the AT100E stylus, it sounds really spacious, with good breadth and extended top end detail without any sign of sharpness. However I was unable to get it to track without harmonics at less than 1.9g despite checking and re-checking all the usual parameters; not a lot less than the Rega/LP Gear. As I expected it wasn’t as authoratitive on the bass frequencies than the Rega/LP Gear either, nor as exciting overall, but it did give me sufficient incentive to save for a 440 stylus before they disappear in favour of the replacement VM540ML, which is going to be significantly dearer than the 440 – and the body and stylus look identical apart from the different colour… Hmm…
The ideal tracking force for the 100E replacement, the VM520EB, is quoted at 2.0g, which begs the question did A-T perhaps misquote the 100E VTF as ideal at 1.4g…Hmm…
Sorry to hear you received such a response from AT, I would expect better from them. I wonder whether using the 100E stylus on a 440 body is the cause of the high tracking pressure? Unfortunately this isn’t something I’ve tried, but what I can say is that every AT I’ve had has tracked at or close to the recommended VTF. I think my AT150SA was set a touch over at 1.55 grams eventually. I’d not heard about the replacement for the 440 and am surprised they’re bringing in a new line so soon as the 440MLB hasn’t long been out, it being a replacement for the long running 440MLA.
Yes, I find the sudden 440MLb replacement strange too; on the current eu Audio Technica site all I can find left of the old school is the ART1000, 95E, 100E and 120E, and lots about the extensive new range of VM’s newly released this month. Indeed, replacement 440 MLb styli appear to be in short supply already. A quick comparison of the VM range and the old school reveals identical looks and specifications, but differing styli body colours. The old school even enjoyed the very same VM dual magnet technology. However the swingeing price increases AT to VM point towards an easy maximising of profits due to the popularity of the older cartridges – or perhaps it’s only a ploy to utilise a surfeit of body pigmentation and make a bit of cash at the same time…
I think that’s a pretty accurate summary, though I heard a while back it has something to do with the rising price of the tips, the microline tip in particular. Many manufacturers purchase their tips from a single supplier, and I believe Audio-Technica may be one of them. I believe that was one of the reasons for the 150 being given a Shibata tip in place of the arguably superior Microline.
Well at least they have a MicroLine stylus in the new lineup Ashley…if you can afford it…
I must correct my report on the AT site…it appears the 95/100/120 are only available now complete with fitted headshell; plus the 120E and its ‘replacement’, the VM530EN both have orange styli bodies.
My mistake, both the AT440MLb and the AT150MLX with MicroLine styli appear on a different page.
I have just had a quick look through and wow they are expensive. It seems they’ve decided to add various styli to 1 or 2 dual moving magnet bodies. They are still competitively priced however when you consider options such as the Ortofon 2M black and some of the higher end ClearAudio MM cartridges. From their site it looks as though the AT91 and 95 are still available minus the headshell. I don’t see them getting rid of the 95 any time soon, too many OEMs use them and it’s a big seller.
Well; a quick check round Audio Technica 440 suppliers revealed stocks are currently rapidly dwindling, with more than one holding no stock at all. This spurred me on to risk the wrath of SWMBO (she who must be obeyed) (sic), and also to relinquish my grip on a full week’s pension, by replacing my mangled and useless stylus sooner than planned. I’ve not yet even heard one note of the magic spell it is supposed to weave. apart perhaps from that small taste from the 100E stylus, plus the very poor sound reproduction on YouTube. I’m hoping it will turn out to be the glittering star it has been portrayed – or it may just turn out to be my most expensive mistake yet.
Incidentally, it turns out many other users have reported they cannot get the 100E to track at less than 1.8g either…
Very interesting, AT are still showing them as current models on the site but I too have checked some dealers and can confirm your findings. I do hope the 440 doesn’t turn out to be an expensive mistake; remember to give it 30-40 hours to run in. Regarding the 100E, I’m surprised to hear of tracking issues. Every AT cart I’ve had has tracked at or near the recommended value, and I’ve had quite a number of them. I will see if I can get hold of a 100E and reproduce the same issue.
First impressions of the 440 – excellent straight out of the box. I’ve had the first 5 hours now, and I must say the hype is correct. Further thoughts to follow…
Great to hear! What are you tracking at?
It’s tracking perfectly at 1.42g Ashley, even on test 3 of the HiFi News Test record – impressive! First thoughts are an extended top end with a hint of sibilance which I read is going to disappear after the burn-in, but bags of detail, especially revealing of differing sizes and types of cymbal; accurate rather than authoritative bass, plus loads of space around every instrument combined with instant placement of them in a broad soundstage; however, although I’m glad I took the plunge, sometimes I find myself concentrating on the extra bits being revealed to the detriment of sitting back and enjoying the whole musical experience, and I must confess I don’t yet consider the whole experience is worth three times more cash or enjoyment than the Carbon/LP Gear – but there’s time yet!
Great summary, I agree with your findings. Hopefully it’s breaking in nicely.
Well. with the 440 it’s been a roller-coaster ride so far. The cart had had 15 hours bed-in until yesterday, without any hint of losing its sibilance or lightweight presentation, the whole experience just didn’t sound ‘right’, and despite Knosti use and prior use of antistat brushes, I was getting really fed up with mistracking caused by accumulated microfluff, having to get off my backside and brush the stylus somewhere along every LP side following a jump back one groove and resultant musical repetition. I was beginning to suspect the cart was a mismatch with my tonearm, the cheapest Rega as you are aware, with its complete lack of user bias control and its excessive correction, which force, I deduced, was the cause of the jumping back a groove following the mistracking. After a thorough examination of the whole set-up, I then tried increasing the VTF to 1.5g. A revelation. Obviously the VTA had also been slightly out because the cart sprang to life. An ancient (rephrased by me) hifi platitude used by others many times before sprang to mind – “it was just like opening the blackout curtains on a sunny September 1944 morning”. No more mistracking, even with fluff present, plus a totally believable, authoritative (and at last exciting) presentation. It just sounds ‘right’. I will now continue listening with renewed faith, and report further after the next 15 hours bed-in.
Excellent feedback as always John, I should really employ you as a writer! I may try experimenting with my AT150SA, the body of which is very similar to the AT440, to see where its sweet spot is. It’s always tracked perfectly at 1.4 grams, though I did set it to 1.55 the last time it was re-installed simply because I’d forgotten that it tracked at 1.4. I’ve been very much enjoying it since, more than usual. As I said in my eMail to you I believe your arm does have bias correction, though quite how Rega are applying the bias on that arm isn’t clear. I noticed that all of the new VM series carts in the new AT lineup (at least the ones with Microline, Shibata and line contact styli) track at 2 grams, much like the AT33PTG/II with its microline stylus does. I’m working on getting hold of some of those new carts for comparison. Keep us updated as always 🙂
I pondered on what you said about the VTF on your 150SA sweet spot being 1.55g., and experimented with my 440. raising it to 1.6g, which is of course still well within Audio Technica’s guidelines. I didn’t think it would sound better than at 1,5g – but it does! Must be the VTA trick again. Thanks for the insight, the 440 is buzzing now! Only another 13 hours bed-in left now to reach the 30 hours, will report further then.
I usually set final tracking force by ear. Starting at the manufacturer’s recommended nominal value, I’ll increase and decrease by 0.1G to find the point where everything sounds right. The old 150MLX cart tracked best at 1.6 grams. I suspect you’re right in that the slight change in SRA which is the result of the change in tracking force is largely responsible. My Technics has adjustable VTA which is set for a happy medium, so that the cart is almost parallel on records of various thicknesses. Then I set tracking force to 1.55G and it seems to sound fine.
I’ve only just gotten around to removing the 3600LE from my Technics! The 150SA is now reinstalled, but as it’s a new replacement (my original developed a fault) with only a few hours I’m now ‘enjoying’ the same break in period as you have been.
Well, the roller-coaster ride continues following the burn-in period! The 440, using the built-in phono inputs on my expensive Denon AV amp, demonstrated the sibilance and lack of authoritative bass still remained, which was hugely disappointing to say the least. Increasing the VTF slightly did not alter things appreciably, so after a light-bulb moment I reverted to my Pro-Ject Phono Box lll pre-amp through the Denon’s CD inputs. This was an eye-opener, reproducing very closely the ideal sound I was expecting; the treble sparkled without any trace of sibilance, deeper bass was restored, and the soundstage broadened even further. Sinking happily back into my chair, I began to reassess my ‘test’ records, only to discover after playing a few that there was noticable minor detail loss compared with the dedicated phono inputs. Admittedly, if I hadn’t been listening to the ‘dedicated phono’ Denon first, I would never have known; but once you’ve had it, you miss it! Whereas with the LP Gear all appeared ‘right’ following the usual adjustments, this experience has proved to me that there are differing RIAA approaches, and if you are serious about hi-fi and have occasion to change cartridges regularly, invest in a dearer pre-amp with adjustable capacitance and impedance parameters. I didn’t, and now I’m torn between more detail and ssss’s, or less detail and deeper bass. Both entail a stylus clean at the very least every LP side due to debris digging, and this after two Knosti’s each LP. I’m frustrated enough to just re-install the trusty low maintenance LP Gear 3600 and place the 440 on eBay, as good as it is! I am unwilling to replace my pre-amp, so I’ll make a final decision after another couple of weeks coming to terms with hearing less detail.
Interesting as usual John. I’m not sure what your AV receiver’s phono input is loaded at, but it definitely sounds as though it’s a high capacitance stage. AT carts can be a bit picky, I’ve always been lucky in that regard. I do see where your’e coming from regarding stylus cleaning; depending on the condition of your records, a good deep clean with a vacuum can sometimes be necessary as the microline is one of if not the smallest stylus tips and sits deep in the groove. It’s quite amazing what a good deep clean can unearth. If you’re DIY minded it’s pretty easy to make a decent record vacuum cleaning machine for little money. The problem with the Knosti method is that while some of the dirt is removed by the brushes, most of it remains on the record and is picked up by the stylus on subsequent plays. If anything, your findings are another commendation for the excellent CF3600LE.
Thank you for that Ashley,
Can I suppose you neither have the time nor the inclination to write a short step by step guide on how to build your own efficient form of DIY vacuum cleaner? Perhaps a few of your admirers would be interested in learning how to achieve it. Unleashing my powerful Henry onto any unsuspecting record would result in disaster I’m sure…
As my Pro-Ject Phono Box gets warmer following at least an hours use every day, I’m finding myself warming more and more to the 440; the loss of minor detail is not as disappointing as I imagined it would be, and for each old favourite placed on the Rega the 440 reveals different aspects of the recorded music I had not considered when I was using my previous Pro-Ject/Ortofon combo. It’s been a long journey, but the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.
There are various different ways to do it. See Here, Here and Here (though ignore their suggestion for fluid). Essentially you need something with a stable platter with a good amount of torque (unless you intend to turn the record by hand), a thin vacuum arm with a velvet-covered slot which contains the suction in a very small area resulting in an extremely powerful vacuum, and some way of keeping that arm straight on the record.
Most of the designs on the market already are pretty simple. I use a pro-ject VC-S; on the top, it has a small label-sized platter which is rotated by a 30RPM gearbox. The arm rotates on a small plastic pillar, which allows it to be rotated to lie across the record, and then back out of the way once the record is vacuumed. The vacuum motor itself is positioned directly beneath the arm for the best possible suction. If you’ve disassembled an old vacuum, you’ll know that the top of the motor is usually covered by a round guard which contains the fan. In the VC-S, a hole is cut into 1 side of this, with a pipe leading to the drainage tank for excess fluid. Not that anything ever really makes it into the tank because the fluid evaporates so quickly.
You can purchase the popular Moth machine in kit form (see Here. It’s expensive, and in my opinion the Moth isn’t as good as the Pro-Ject (an assembled version of which is cheaper than the Moth kit), but it’ll give you a good idea as to exactly how one of these machines works. It’s worth noting that the Moth vacuums the record from beneath, whereas most machines vacuum the record from above which is a neater solution though their are pros and cons to both.
You can also use ultrasonic cleaning tanks to clean records. You need a machine large enough to fit the bottom half of the record, and some kind of frame with a device to rotate the records in the tank. Here is just one example. Quite a few on Youtube too – Ultrasonic Record Cleaner.
Thanks for that info Ashley, I’ll spend many a happy hour trawling through the many suggestions, although I note some of them are inaccessible unless you are a member. I am hoping one of them will offer just a cheap one-step home-made/custom-made addition to the business end of a proprietary vacuum cleaner pipe – I’m worse than useless at involved DIY as SWMBO will testify…
Last word on the 440; Over the weeks I have become more and more appreciative of this cartridge’s strengths, and ignoring its few weaknesses. My conclusion is that, when very carefully set up, the (very slightly restricted) detail and expansive breadth, plus a beguiling midband, lulls you into total acceptance of the minor loss of authoritative bass.
Definitely one of A-T’s finest mid-price cartridges.
Thank you for a fair and in-depth appraisal Ashley; personally speaking I was immediately drawn to the authentic and rhythmic way the Carbon/3600 reproduced bass notes, not overpowering but at the same level and completely integrated with the mid and treble, added to its broad soundstage. In contrast I found both my AT95E and my AT110E slightly bass-light in comparison, although I confess I had not noticed this until after the purchase of a Rega P1 which was pre-fitted with a conical Carbon. An attempt to reduce the conical’s tracking pressure eventually led me to the 3600, and I was immediately intrigued by the combination of an elliptical stylus attached to a carbon cantilever, and I have never been disappointed.
I am due to take delivery of a 440MLb in the next couple of days, and seeing as it’s thrice the price of the 3600 I’m keeping my fingers crossed it can equal or better the 3600’s tonal characteristics – I realise it is bound to track lighter and better, and has been elevated to iconic status by many reviewers, but for now a well set up Carbon/3600’s coherent (and usually exciting) overall presentation remains my go-to budget cartridge.
It will make for an interesting comparison.
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. The 95E (and to some extent the 120E) is very arm dependent and both are very picky when it comes to phono stage loading, though an AT95 can usually work acceptably well with any reasonable stage. On some turntables I’ve noticed it to be particularly light in the bass, while on some it has produced a well-rounded well integrated presentation. I’ve always rather liked the agile presentation it gives, not to mention its tracking ability. There’s a new aftermarket stylus on the way for the 95 body and while I can’t say too much at present it uses an advanced tip and it’ll certainly be interesting to hear what a stylus upgrade brings to the table.
I’m sure you will be delighted by the AT440, just remember that it needs a good amount of break-in time as they can sound quite harsh out of the box. Usually 20-30 hours is sufficient. It also needs careful fine-tuning of the tracking force. I’ve tracked both the AT440 and AT150 at 1.55 grams with excellent results, 1.4G is the standard value for both. I look forward to your findings.
You’re hinting at the 95P stylus presumably Ashley…sounds promising…
Indeed I am!
You hinted some time ago that you would be procuring an SA stylus and subsequently testing it. May I enquire if this project is still in the pipeline? The reason I ask is because I have recently ordered an AT95E with a view to replacing the stylus eventually with an SA.
Incidentally, I have just committed to purchasing a new Rega RB202 tonearm at a bargain price to replace my RB110 – have you tested one of these in the past by any chance?
Sorry, Paratrace not SA…
Hi John – you are correct, testing that stylus was in the pipeline and still is, I think. I was due to be testing a turntable from the same company and left the ball in their court but have yet to hear back. I will give them a shout and find out what’s going on. As regards the RB202, I haven’t used one personally (I’ve used the 303 and up), but the 202 is essentially Rega’s own rework of the classic RB250 which is an arm loved by many. It is a step above the RB110. I know Jonnie at Audio Origami sells them and offers a re-wire service which is well worth the money. I had him work on my Technics arm recently (post to come soon) and the results were astounding.
I have now had a few hours to evaluate the 202/95E combination, and have been pleasantly surprised that in some ways it is superior to my old 110/440Mlb. And in minor ways inferior. I have previously mulled over a tonearm rewire, but I’m greatly enjoying the combo just as it is, and I’m now looking forward to the end of the burn-in period. Although I admit the 440 is quite obviously the superior cartridge, I have never been comfortable with its expensive high compliance stylus being so fragile ( you will remember my unfortunate arthritic mishandling), and the fact it digs so deep as to accumulate enough gunge/fluff from a mechanically and visually cleaned LP to mistrack and require at least one or more stylus cleans per LP side. The nuances between the 95E, 100E, 120E and 440 have been extensively filmed on YouTube, and to my ears (plus having owned all of them and a 110E) the differences between a well set up 95 and a 440 do not appear to be £130 apart. I have therefore sold the 440 to finance the 202.
The 95E sails through a full side without requiring more than the initial microbrush attention, and with 90% less pops and crackles; as a huge bonus I also get to remain in my chair. Another more practical bonus is the £18 cost of a replacement stylus. I have been offered a Paratrace stylus for £120, but cannot come to terms with perhaps discovering it may act identically to the 440 in the surface noise/groove-cleaning stakes, plus the thought of having to replace it eventually for another £120. However I’ll look forward to your review of the 95P, and report further on the 202/95E following the burn-in period.