Audio Technica VM95 Cartridges Review
It’s all down to the diamond
What is the VM95 Series?The Audio Technica VM95 is a moving magnet cartridge body that supports a range of different styli. This might not be the most immediately obvious candidate for the full attention AVForums review but there is a method in the madness. First up, the number of turntable users on the site has climbed steadily over the years and a good number of those turntables will currently be sporting a cartridge that is rather past its best. It is only logical, therefore, to look at options for correcting this.
Secondly, thanks to a very unusual decision from Audio Technica in the design of the VM95, this is an opportunity for a ‘teachable moment’ in hardware terms so even if you aren’t currently looking at this sort of thing, it gives the opportunity to cover a subject that may be useful to you in the future. After all, once we publish a review on the site, it is there for your reference going forward. We’re good like that.
Finally, the VM95 has a lot to live up to. It is the replacement for the AT95, a cartridge that was in production for nearly forty years and shifted several million examples in that time. Its ongoing availability during the thinnest times for vinyl was one of a number of unheralded strands that kept the format ticking over that it is finally being replaced is quite an endorsement of the health of the analogue sector but it does mean that this cartridge has an awful lot of expectation around it. So here we are, it’s time to delve into the world of the very small.
Specification and designThe VM95 is a moving magnet cartridge body. Internally, it mounts a pair of magnets - something of an Audio Technica speciality - that generates the output signal by moving these magnets with a fixed coil to generate an electrical signal. This movement is generated by the movement of the cantilever in the groove of the record. The output is in keeping with the RIAA standard for moving magnet cartridges at 4mV. This means that it will work happily into any moving magnet phono input you have.
Audio Technica has also been entirely switched on about the basic design of the VM95. As we have noted in the tests of affordable turntables over the years, the vertical tracking alignment (VTA) or the height of the arm above the record is a fixed value and cannot be adjusted easily or indeed at all. This has been joined in recent years by the practise of fixing the anti skate value as well. As a result of this, the VM95 is a shape and size that should see it attach to most arms without affecting the VTA and additionally has anti skate requirements in keeping with the fixed value of most arms. In short, there are very few situations where you can’t fit one.
So far, this is solid but not especially remarkable. Where the VM95 differs from most rivals is that the options available to you as a customer are exceptionally wide. Like many moving magnet cartridges, the VM95 comes in two sections. The body that physically attaches to the tonearm contains the fixed coil and the pins that the tonearm cable connects to. The other section contains the cantilever which supports the stylus. This is useful because when the stylus wears out, you can simply pop a new stylus on and keep listening.
Here Audio Technica has been extremely ambitious. The VM95 body can be used with no less than six different styli. These cover all of the different qualitative levels that are commonly encountered in the market (and a mono option). In every other way (bar their identifying colours), the cartridges are identical which - as well as offering the customer plenty of choice, makes for a fascinating point of comparison.
The stylus is a shaped piece of industrial diamond that is affixed to the end of the cantilever. The shape is the point of differentiation. At the simplest level, it is a cone shaped tip that moves through the groove of the record responding to the information that is contained therein. By increasing the length of the tip and decreasing the width, it is possible to make the stylus sit deeper in the groove of the record and extract more information - the conical tip becomes an elliptical one.
These two types are available as the entry level VM95C at £29 and the VM95E at £44. Both of these designs use a bonded stylus. This means that the stylus is attached to the cantilever via an additional shank of material to keep it in place. This is relatively cost effective but increases the mass where you don’t want it. As such, the next rung up the stylus ladder keeps the elliptical shape but switches to a ‘nude’ design where no additional materials are used to keep the stylus in place. This is represented in the VM95EN at £99.
After this, the tip can be further shaped and profiled into what are called line contact designs. These are able to follow the information even more exactly and as the grooves tighten towards the inside of the record, it is better able to follow them and avoid end of side distortion. All line contact designs have actual names and patents attached to them. The VM95 gives you an option of two different ones - a Micolinear one (VM95ML) and a Shibata (so named because it was designed by a JVC engineer called Norio Shibata) one (the VM95SH). Interestingly, some other cartridge companies switch their preferred order of Microline and Shibata so there’s the scope to have long and pointless arguments over which is best.
In all other ways, the various models are identical and herein lies the beauty of the concept. You can buy a £29 VM95C, enjoy it on its own merits for a bit before turning it into an altogether more capable VM95N, ML or SH and not have to change any of the other settings or unmount the main body of the cartridge to do it. As good ideas go, it is right up there. If you have an arm with detachable headshells, you can buy the VM95 pre mounted in a headshell and make the process even easier.
No less good news is that the VM95 has a feature I had resigned myself to never seeing on Audio Technica cartridges. The body has threaded inserts that means you simply need to screw the mounting bolt into the cartridge to fix it to the arm. Until recently, I had put the likelihood of this happening up there with PETA launching a line of themed leather products but its inclusion makes fitting a VM95 simplicity itself and completely competitive with rival designs from Ortofon. The cartridge itself is well made and easy to get up and running.
The VM95 body can be used with no less than six different styli.
How were the VM95 cartridges tested?The VM95 body was mounted on an SME M2-9 tonearm on a Michell Gyrodec. The tracking weight was set via Rega Atlas force gauge and it was then connected to a Cyrus Phono Signature phono stage running the default moving magnet settings in all cases. This was connected to a Naim Uniti Star all in one system connected to a pair of Spendor A1 standmount speakers. A test program of material was run through stylus by stylus with general listening also taking place at various points. This test program was vinyl amazingly enough.
Sound QualityEven as a long term fan of vinyl, there is a slightly surreal edge to the idea that two cartridges that share 99% of their components can be separated in cost by £150 but the VM95 is the perfect (and one of the only) ways to test just how much of a difference the stylus makes. Even if you are a relative novice, fitting a VM95 is not a tricky thing to do. With everything set and the conical stylus in place as a VM-95C, things can begin.
All conical stylus designs I have ever listened to have a very definite character to their performance. Much of the attributes of ‘vinyl warmth’ and the emphasis on the midrange can trace their origin to the use of this stylus profile. As conical styli go, the VM95C is far from the worst offender in this regard. It gets stuck into the opening test track of Mike Oldfield’s Five Miles Out with enough treble energy to avoid undue warmth and the bass extension is reasonable too. The sublimely pressed 3-D re-work of Kraftwerk’s Tour de France does show up some of the limitations though. Some of the fine detail I know to be on the record are absent and there is more noticeable end of side distortion.
For a cartridge you can pick up for the price of a night in the pub (and at 2019 prices, I put £29 as getting you five pints, crisps and a go on the slot machine of your choice), it is an impressive opening effort. The benefits of spending an extra £15 and going for the VM95E are considerable though. This is the direct replacement for the AT95E and it manages to be both a considerable step forward from both its predecessor and the conical stylus version.
The effect - and remember, all that has been changed is the shape of a tiny piece of diamond - is that everything becomes better defined and clearer. The hash of commentary, storm effects and general prog effrontery in Five Miles Out is easier to make sense of. Kraftwerk also gains a better feel of cohesion and starts to show more of what the record is truly capable of delivering. If you have a budget of £50, there isn’t a better cartridge you can buy than this one. If you’re looking at your Rega Planar 1 or 2 and wondering what might slot on to replace your Carbon cartridge at a sensible price - you could do well to start looking here.
At the same time, things aren’t perfect. The final test disc is the odd ‘semi live’ finale from Wild Beasts, Last Night all my Dreams Came True. This is a great record, brimming with the energy and slam that befits a good live recording but the side effect of this is that it is a very ‘hot’ pressing. The sheer amount of information in the groove has a tendency to overwhelm the cartridge and leave everything sounding a little strained and confused. This record is an anomaly - I haven’t bought anything else in at least five years quite like it - but it demonstrates that there are demands from the media that might encourage you to push on.
Switching to the VM95EN - which doesn’t change the shape of the stylus, simply reduces the effective mass at the end of the cantilever by eliminating the shank, starts to make a little more sense of this demanding record. Complex passages gain a further clarity and rhythmic agility. The basic tonal balance of the 95EN doesn’t meaningfully alter from the 95E though. Given that the price doubles in this jump, it might be possible to argue that this is the step that is the hardest to justify. If you know you have a shelf full of demanding material though, you might find it worth it.
The validity of this jump is overshadowed by what you get if you push on to the VM95ML though. The move to a line contact stylus is a leap in performance that is hard to quantify considering that otherwise, everything else is still the same as the £29 95C. All of a sudden, there is information being extracted from all three records that simply wasn’t there before. The manner in which this is worked into the presentation as a whole is effortless and the whole effect really starts to get a feeling of what vinyl is really capable of - and these advantages only increase as the record tracks toward the inner edge. At £150 (or £129 if you are simply upgrading the stylus on another VM95 body), this is a truly outstanding option. Used on a sensibly priced turntable with a decent phono stage to hand - or even a capable one stop solution like Audio Technica’s own AT-LP5 - the performance isn’t ‘good enough’, it is genuinely something I’d be happy living with long term.
This does mean that the final rung on the ladder- the £179 VM95SH has its work cut out. The difference between the Shibata and Micro linear profiles is pretty small and the gains that the Shibata makes are subtle ones. There is a lift to the way that voices and strings are presented that I find appealing and manages to be slightly less susceptible to surface noise for reasons I don’t pretend to understand. At a price of less than £200 though - and something you can upgrade to from any other VM95 - it is still a notable achievement. The 95SH is only fractionally better than the 95ML but that still makes it the best cartridge I’ve yet to hear under £200.
The move to a line contact stylus is a leap in performance that is hard to quantify considering that otherwise, everything else is still the same as the £29 95C
- Competitive sound quality at every increment
- Very well made
- Very friendly measurements
- Won't always flatter poor pressings
- No colour markings on the pins
- Some stiff competition to more expensive models
Audio Technica VM95 Cartridges ReviewBeing able to test the effect of changing a single - literally tiny - variable in a system where everything else stays the same is a fascinating experience. While there are some parallels elsewhere - ranges of TV keeping the same screen and differing only in features - the idea of keeping a cartridge that differs only in one area that occupies a price spread of £150 is impressive. If you are dealer that has an Audio Technica account, the ability to demonstrate improvement is almost unmatched.
On a less ‘high concept’ level, the VM95 makes a strong case for being the best affordable cartridge on the market right now. All the versions range between being near or at the top of their respective categories but the true sweet spots are the VM95E and the VM95ML. Both of these models sit at a point where if you find a rival that is better than the 95E, it will be at a price where you are getting fairly close to the 95ML. These are the stars of the show but the range as a whole demonstrates the ability, user friendliness and cost effectiveness to be an unquestionable Best Buy.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £29.00
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