Sunday, July 22, 2018

Audio Technica CN5625AL: Ditch the cart or upgrade the stylus?

In our shootout of ultra-budget cartridges I found the Audio Technica CN5625AL somewhat wanting compared to the more lively Numark Groove Tool cartridge. My subjective impression of the cart was of muddiness and lack of detail in the upper midrange and treble. This impression corresponded strongly to the measurements I took of the cartridge which showed a substantial dip between 1 kHz and 10 kHz.

The CN5625AL comes standard with many tables, including U-Turn Audio's highly regarded budget turntable, the Orbit Basic. So let's say you bought an Orbit or some other table fitted with a CN5625AL a year or so ago and are starting to wonder if you can get more out the vinyl record experience. Guess what? I have good news for you: You can!

One way to get better sound would be to replace the CN5625AL cartridge with a Groove Tool or possibly a more expensive cartridge. But that is not your only option. The Orbit is marketed to people who want good sound, but don't want to pay a lot and generally don't want to spend a lot of time messing around with tiny lead wires and little screws. For me doing that kind of work is part of the fun of the vinyl experience. (Most people would probably consider that a bit weird, but I won't judge your hobbies if you don't judge mine. Deal?) I'd be the first to admit installing cartridges on turntables is not everybody's idea of fun.

Another option is to simply upgrade the stylus on the CN5625AL. This is very easy to do and requires no special tools or know-how. You should probably change the stylus on a cart like the CN5625AL after every 500-1,000 hours of use anyway. An equivalent replacement stylus will likely set you back $15 or so. But you could also consider an "upgraded" stylus like the Bliss Elliptical from (full disclosure: I have no relation to this business beyond being an occasional customer).

At $35 the Bliss Elliptical costs more than the cart itself, but the real question is, "Is it worth the $20 premium you'd pay over the cost of replacing the stock stylus?" Let's listen and find out!

Here once again is DEVO's "Freedom of Choice" but this time I switch back and forth between the Audio Technica CN5625AL with the Bliss Elliptical and the stock conical stylus. You can listen for yourself to see if you can hear an appreciable difference. If you listen with headphones or on your stereo system, I guarantee you will hear something different between these styli.

The most obvious difference is in the channel balance. My CN5625AL with stock stylus is about 2.5 dB louder in the left channel than the right channel, whereas when fitted with the Bliss Elliptical it is about 1.0 dB louder in right channel (measurement based on the pink noise recording). So already we can point to an objective improvement with the more expensive stylus: Its stereo image is more balanced than the stock conical stylus. A 2.5 dB channel difference is going to be pretty noticeable, whereas a 1 dB difference will be much more subtle (either can be addressed with a balance control knob of course). We can expect some sample-to-sample variation here, so your mileage may vary, but it is not surprising that the Bliss Elliptical stylus would have better channel balance than the stock stylus, as it is built by a highly respected Japanese manufacturer of phono styli that has an excellent reputation for quality control.

There is a more subtle improvement with the Bliss Elliptical in tonal balance. Putting the Bliss Elliptical on the CN5625AL results in a less muffled sound than what we heard with the stock conical stylus. This difference can be seen in the frequency measurement graph:

The frequency measurements are virtually identical up to about 5 kHz but, as you can see, the dip between 5 kHz and 10 kHz is less significant with the Bliss Elliptical stylus fitted to the cartridge. The Bliss Elliptical improves the CN5625AL in another crucial respect: Stereo separation. Whereas the stock stylus only managed 12.5 dB of stereo separation at 1 kHz, the Bliss stylus bumps this up to a respectable 18.5 dB. Nice! Are these changes worth the $20 difference in price? That's for you to decide, but I'd say yes.

Of course replacing the stylus is only one option. You could ditch the CN5625AL altogether and buy a different cartridge. Let's compare the CN5625AL with Bliss Elliptical to the Numark/Ion Groove Tool again using "Freedom of Choice" (I promise I won't always use the same songs, but it is valuable to have some consistency when making direct comparisons like this):

Personally, I think I would still take the Groove Tool with its brighter tonal balance over even the improved CN5625AL. But the gap has certainly been closed significantly. And of course the Groove Tool isn't the only replacement option, there are better carts out there which I'll cover in future posts.

Unfortunately, adding the Bliss Elliptical to the CN5625AL does not get you a "giant killer" of a cartridge. Arguably you can get better sound with a cart that costs less than just the Bliss replacement stylus. Nevertheless I can heartily recommend the Bliss Elliptical stylus to anyone looking to improve the sound of their CN5625AL (or other compatible cartridge). It's a simple, worthwhile upgrade that requires no technical knowledge doesn't involve fiddling with delicate wires and the like.

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