Sunday, August 12, 2018

Phono Cartridge Comparison: Audio-Technica p-mounts vs the world

If you are looking for an amazing sounding phono cartridge on a tight budget I do have one unqualified recommendation to make: Track down one of Audio-Technica's p-mount cartridges. It is not easy for me to recommend the cart by name, because it's been marketed under dozens of names, some of them as brands other than Audio-Technica. They're hexagonally shaped, and have been marketed in different colors over the years. Currently available models on Amazon include the AT85EP, AT81CP, AT3482P. There are many NOS versions available on eBay. I picked up a NOS ATZ100X off eBay for $20.

Unless you have a turntable with a p-mount arm, you'll also need a p-mount adaptor to fit this to a standard tonearm. Some models come with a p-mount adaptor, others do not, so that's something you might want to check on. 

I've put four variants of this cart through their paces (Audio Technica 1001, AT-Z100X, and Series III and V), and as far as I can tell the internals of the carts are all the same. The only thing that varies between them is the stylus. More basic models come equipped with a .6 or .7 mil conical styli with either an aluminum or carbon fiber cantilever. Others feature either .3 X .7 or .4 X .7 elliptical styli. It's not hard to find them with finer cut styli, and many variants can be found on eBay and other sites. Versions with higher quality styli will of course tend to be more expensive, but the good news is even the .6 and .7 mil conical styli perform brilliantly. Sites like LP Tunes and Turntableneedles also have more exotic replacement styli available for these carts, so you can start with a .7 mil conical and move up to a Shibata or hyper-elliptical if you so choose later.

Here's the Z100X variant with a .7 mil conical diamond and a carbon fiber cantilever pitted against the much more expensive and highly regarded Denon DL-110. Take a listen to Pentangle's "A Maid That's Deep In Love" from 'Cruel Sister'.

Do you hear a big difference between the two? If so, congratulations, your hearing is much better than mine. I paid about $250 for the Denon and and $20 for the Z100X. There is a part of me that really wants the Denon to be obviously superior. I spent a lot of time researching carts before shelling out for it. I'd like to feel like I was a smart consumer who got his money's worth, but to my ears the lowly $20 p-mount cart gives the Denon a run for its money.

Every Audio-Technica p-mount I tested displayed very flat frequency response, much more so than the other two budget Audio-Technicas I tested, which both had an audible dip in the upper midrange and treble. Here's the plot for  the AT-Z100X with .7 mil carbon fiber cantilever.

What you see above is an admirably flat response for a phono cartridge at any price, and every one of the the five cartridges I tested gave a similar flat response. Remarkably, the similar Audio-Technica 1001 with .6 mil conical stylus and aluminum cantilever tested even flatter.

Here's the Audio-Technica 1001 going up against a really fine EMPIRE EDR.9 cartridge. The song is "Canto De Ubirantan" by Sergio Mendes and Brasil '77 from their 'Primal Roots' LP (don't judge before you listen). 

Here's the 1001 going up against a nice Signet cartridge (Audio-Technica's old premium brand) on Dexys Midnight Runners' "Let's Make This Precious" from 'Too-Rye-Ay.' 

Tracking ability for the Audio-Technics p-mount carts appears to be excellent as well. Each sample I tried, regardless of the stylus, was able to track all four bias tracks on my Hi-Fi News Test Record, which is difficult to achieve. I can't say for certain how that result correlates with tracking music, but any cart that can track the Hi-Fi News "torture" track should handle most music very well. I did not detect any tracking problems while listening. 

Another bonus is the fact that the stereo channels on each sample were all closely matched as well. As mentioned previously, channel balance tends to be a real weak point for many budget carts. The only area these carts didn't excel in was stereo separation, which was only average.

I'm not saying everyone should throw away their pricey, exotic phono carts in favor of this cheap Audio-Technica, but if you pick one of these up you may well wonder why anyone would bother to pay more. These carts (along with the Numark/Ion Groove Tool) were a real pleasant surprise for me and show its possible to get great sound out of your LPs even on very tight budget.

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