I previously compared two very inexpensive cartridges in the Numark/Ion Groove Tool and the Audio Technica CN5625AL. I found the Groove Tool to be a surprisingly nice sounding cartridge for something that is given away free with cheap turntables, and was particularly surprised to find that it could track the final "torture track" of the Hi-Fi News Test Record. I've seen many much more expensive cartridges give up the ghost on that track.
But what happens if you step up to the next price level for a cartridge? A very popular option at around $50 is the Audio Technica AT95E. Let's listen and see how it compares to the Groove Tool. This video features Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim performing "Change Partners" from their 1967 collaborative LP 'Frances Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim.' I picked this track in part because it is a real test of how a cartridge handles sibilance (the spitty "ssss" sound). When the LP was original released, the engineers at Reprise liberally applied a "de-esser." While that helped control the sibilance, it also resulted in a kind of dull, mushy sound. Mastering engineer Kevin Gray clearly chose to leave the de-esser off when he cut the LP for Rhino in 2004 which results in a clearer, more open sound, but the album is an obstacle course for any cartridge seeking to track it cleanly.
Listening to the Groove Tool next to the AT95E here again highlights the bright character of the cart. While the AT95E has a more laid back sound, in my opinion it's not dull the way its little brother the CN5625AL is. When I measured its frequency response I did find an upper mid-range dip, but it is not nearly as pronounced as with the cheaper Audio Technica.
To me the Groove Tool sounds a tad relentless on this cut, where the AT95E suits the relaxed nature of the music better. I can certainly imagine someone making an argument for the more lively Groove Tool however.
The AT95E, like the Groove Tool, aced all four bias tracks on the Hi-Fi News Record, which indicates it should be an excellent tracker. To my ears, both carts acquit themselves well on this very difficult track suggesting their performance on the test record corresponds to how they perform with real music.
I'm going to put the AT95E through its paces in the coming days (this cart, like the Groove Tool is on loan to me from an individual), but my initial impression is positive, and I can hear why it is so highly regarded. You could spend a lot more than $50 and do worse (I know because I've done it).