After a few months listening to the Grado Prestige Black cartridge, I started to miss the sound of my previously owned Audio Technica cartridges.
Being stuck at home during a pandemic allows for more listening time than usual so, after much research, I decided to upgrade to a more expensive cartridge, this time opting for the Audio Technica AT-VM95SH, purchased from TurntableLab.com for $199 shipped. I decided on the 95SH because of it’s nude Shibata stylus, something that sounded expensive (at least to me) and intriguing.
After a few days of listening on my main stereo system, I am very happy with my purchase.
First, I’m rebuilding my main stereo system in our living room to better accommodate the small size of the room. I upgraded my speakers and installed a new amplifier, both of which I will write about later. My current set up has an Emotiva Bas-X A-100 amplifier powering Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ bookshelf speakers. My classic Marantz 2270 receiver has a left channel out on the amplifier board so I’m using it instead as a preamp only in this setup. My turntable is a vintage Pioneer PL-560.
Second, before I discuss my thoughts on the AT-VM95SH cartridge, I think it’s worth reading Herb Reichart’s recent article in the January 2021 issue of Stereophile regarding his surprise of how well Audio Technica’s budget cartridges sound on his expensive hifi gear. I read a lot of hifi reviews and I’m always disappointed to finish the review and find out the gear costs $10,000 or more which is way out of my price range. I enjoy reading more about affordable pieces of gear someone can buy today that will improve their stereo system for the better without breaking the bank.
In the above article, Herb has a great quote about the AT-VM95SH, “I played Black Uhuru’s Sly & Robbie–produced 1981 album, Red (LP, Mango ZCM 9625), with the $199 AT-VM95SH, the top-priced VM95 model, which features a Shibata stylus. The sound was very similar to that of the Ortofon 2M Black moving magnet: smooth, detail-rich, and spacious with a tendency toward glowing, radiating tones. The tracks “Puff She Puff” and “Sponji Reggae” sounded unusually silent in a black-background way that assured me the VM95E’s Shibata rock was correctly positioned in the vinyl’s slot. I worked extra-hard to dial in the azimuth, VTA, and VTF on a cartridge that cost just $199 because it was satisfying fun to put air around all that Shibata-tip detail. It was even more fun hearing that Mango LP sound so luxurious. The main difference between the 2M Black and the AT-VM95SH was that the AT cartridge had more push and bounce. It kept the beat and carried the tune better than the Black Ortofon, which dragged its hind paw while playing “Sponji Reggae.”
Herb’s quote echoes a lot of my same thoughts on the AT-VM95SH cartridge. Below are my notes regarding playback.
It’s not fair to compare this $199 AT cartridge to the $80 Grado cartridge mentioned above, but it’s worth pointing out that the Grado focused on the mid-range while it rolled off higher frequencies. The AT-VM95SH cartridge easily brought those highs back that I missed when using the Grado.
Last night I was listening to Acrobat from the new reissue of U2’s Achtung Baby. There is a guitar solo by the Edge that you can feel coming with a lot of treble. With previous cartridges I would have braced for a possible shrill sound coming through my speakers, but the AT-VM95SH delivered the high frequencies with ease and made them pleasurable to listen to. I was excited to have the high frequencies back performing in my system.
The AT-VM95SH also provided a new level of detail from the recordings. Hifi lovers want stereo equipment that provides the feeling that they are in the room with the musicians during the recording. Again, when listening to The Fly from U2’s Achtung Baby, the Edge’s amp felt as if it were in my living room, providing that unique guitar tone that is present throughout the album.
Then I listened to Lonnie Smith’s double LP, Live at Club Mozambique, and the AT-VM95SH’s playback made me feel as if it was 1970 and I was in Detroit at the Club Mozambique witnessing this performance live. The drums sounded huge and alive, with a lot of air surrounding them, giving you that jazz club feel.
If you think Audio Technica cartridges lack in bass response, you will be very surprised by the 95SH. I heard rich, full bass, more than with my previous cartridges.
What I agree with most from Herb’s assessment above is his description of the AT-VM95SH being “unusually silent in a black-background way”. My records now have a quietness to them that I’ve never noticed before. Brand new records have the vinyl warmth I’m accustomed to but the dead quiet surface noise is new to me.
Funny story…I recently bought a stack of LPs from my co-worker who emailed me and said his mother-in-law was selling a stack of records and asked if I’d be interested in buying any. I didn’t expect anything great but when he emailed me her list it was chock full of soul records by Otis Redding and a few classic rock gems including Neil Young’s Harvest. I bought them sight unseen for a good price and my co-worker left them in my pandemic abandoned office. I picked them up after a few weeks and noticed they had been well loved, marked up and they all played with a tiring level of surface noise.
Last night I decided to put on the Harvest LP that came in this stack, knowing it sounded rough. But I was sure it wouldn’t sound as bad with the AT-VM95SH cartridge and I was right. The high pitched “shhhhhh” surface noise sound that comes with well love records was muted down to a light crackle heard mostly in quiet passages and between songs. This is a great example of what Herb means when he says it’s a silent black-background.
One last note on the sound…to me the playback feels overly smooth, as if the Shibata stylus is clocking along in the groove as it should and avoiding any inner groove distortion. It just sounds like the cartridge and stylus are producing a smooth sound easily without having to work hard. It makes for a very easy listening experience and any fatigue I’ve experienced with other cartridges has disappeared. I keep playing records and haven’t tired of listening at all.
Finally, this was the easiest cartridge I’ve ever installed. It has threaded inserts so you do not have to mess with tiny nuts to hold in the screws. Anyone whose changed a cartridge knows just what a pain those tiny screws and nuts are but the AT-VM95SH just needs the screws inserted and twisted directly into the cartridge and you are done.
I would highly suggest the AT-VM95SH cartridge for anyone wanting to upgrade their vinyl listening experience for less than $200.
Side note: I want to purchase less items from Amazon in 2021 so if you’re like me and want to support a small business, you can order the AT-VM95SH directly from TurntableLab.com.
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