As part of our monthly gear shootouts at Schiit Audio’s retail location in downtown Newhall, we were presented with a very interesting comparison between three step-up turntable cartridges from the Audio Technica’s VM95 line. The Vertical Dual Magnet phono cartridge is capable of swapping out the stylus for an array of 6 models either part of the Bonded (diamond tip glued on metal shank) or Nude (shaped from whole diamonds). For the sake of this comparison, we will be pitting the Nude models against each other, the Audio Technica AT-VM95EN, AT-VM95ML and AT-VM95SH.
For a little background on the stylus themselves, the first VM95EN is defined on the website as an elliptical shape: “The nude elliptical tip is lighter and follows the groove of your records with more precision.” Its also the least expensive of the bunch at $119 USD. The VM95ML is a microlinear or ridge shape: “allowing for more precise contact with record grooves leading to higher fidelity and less inner groove distortion.” Retail for the ML is $169 packaged with the cartridge. The VM95SH stands for Shibata: “A Premier VM95 cartridge. Shibata shape has two longer, narrower radii, allowing more surface contact resulting in an extended frequency response and a highly detailed listening experience.” Retail is $199.
All listening tests were done with the Schiit Sol Turntable ($799) and could possibly be a future option packaged with the player. Loudspeakers used were the Magnepan 1.7i ($2k) with Schiit Vidar power amplifiers ($699 and the Freya+ Pre ($899). It seems reasonable to assume that an individual budgets would dictate a spectrum of $119-$200 on a cartridge based upon the spends of the rest of the system. Obviously this is geared at the transparency achieved from this range, with the idea of separates but not the limitless budget firmly in mind. It is worth mentioning that the Magnepan 1.7i do a superb job of relaying detail at this price point, albeit a bit directional to the sweet spot in the room we auditioned in.
So how did they sound?
The AT-VM95EN Elliptical
Audio Technica’s elliptical EN stylus is more rounded in the stem section than the other two options here. Listening to several tracks, it was noticeable that tonality was rich and vocals had a presence and clarity to them. Perceivable dynamics were also at a premium, with punch and a sense that music “could jump out at you”.
The AT-VM95ML Microlinear
In this execution the VM95ML featured the lowest total output of all three cartridges. To match the volume to the other options, two solid clicks of the potentiometer on the Freya+ were required to get things leveled off. Once achieved, the throughput felt a little more dull than either the EM or the Shibata. While bass reach was perhaps the best of the three, overall transparency felt slightly muddied and was not picked as the favorite by any of the attendees present.
The AT-VM95SH Shibata
Taking several cues from the EN, the focus of musical instruments felt the tightest from the Shibata. A leader in holographic highs, there was good air and reach on that side of the difficult-to-manage spectrum. Signals through the Magnepan 1.7s felt more real via increased depth to the perceived shape. Delivery was also the smoothest from top-to-bottom though the VM95SH.
So where does that leave us? Several listeners voiced their favorite as the most expensive VM95SH, with good reason. However, the difference between the Shibata and the cheaper Elliptical is still quite close, and may come down to preference for some. If the extra $80 is a big decided factor for a buyer, or if you favor tone over analytics you might find a win on that side of the line. There was a few votes for the EN regardless of price (which was hidden from all participants). But not everyone was able to sit perfectly positioned with the beams of the Maggies, so that unknown variable could have affected the outcome in some small part. For my money, there is significant value to the VM95EN proposition. As and individual item, the SH is an 40% increase in cost, with gains that might only be perceived as differences to some. Those differences could be exponential on your system, or they could reduced, depending on the setup. On the other hand, fidelity always comes at a premium and focus sometimes can be harnessed in unusual places in the chain. Salt to taste, as they say.
Special thanks the Schiit Audio staff for hosting and conducting the event. You can check out all their audio options direct from their very popular site.
More info: Audio Technica VM95 Series