Audio Technica ATN150MLX and Shure M97xE MM Phono Cartridges
Although both cartridges really are excellent, I am most surprised by the affordable Shure M97xE, and this cartridge is the main reason for writing this review
Retail prices in the Netherlands:
Shure M97xE 119 euro
Audio Technica ATN150MLX 399 euro
The Shure M97xE comes nicely packaged complete with all sorts of extras.
It’s not made to very tight tolerances but still looks very good for a 120 euro cartridge. A replacement stylus will cost 69 euro.
The first sample I purchased had a severely misaligned stylus, as you can see above. I did not mount it but instead asked the retailer (Bax Shop) for a new sample. They promptly sent another, which was aligned correctly.
It seems to me that Shure has some issues with consistency and quality control for another Shure cartridge that I tried was the M44G, a DJ cartridge. For cartridges in this category it is priced moderately at around 80 euro. This cartridge also had a misaligned cantilever, as you can see above. Here the needle tip leans toward one side. I tried it briefly but it sounded very thin, not at all what I was expecting from a DJ cartridge. Sure it would never provide true hifi sound, but I was inspired to buy this cartridge following a surprisingly positive experience using an old Stanton 505 cartridge. This oldie was low on detail retrieval but had biiiig bass and impressive dynamics and rocked like its life depended on it. You could say that it had a loudness kind of sound, while the Shure M44G sounded almost opposite. But its misaligned stylus sure had a great deal to do with this.
This is the Audio Technica ATN150MLX MM cartridge with gold plated boron cantilever and nude shank micro-line stylus. That sure is a mouth full but no nonsense: this really is a remarkable cartridge. I have owned it for a few years now and the only reason that I did not write about it earlier is because until now I was using even better MC cartridges, among which was also the Audio Technica AT33EV. Compared to that MC cartridge the Micro-line ATN150 provided even better tracking and less distortion playing old worn records than the AT33EV which “only” has a elliptical stylus, but otherwise sounded less sonorous and creamy-smooth than its MC cousin. As there were other MC cartridges that I used for a while, I never thought more of the ATN150 than it being “quite good for an MM”. However, now that I have listened to a whole range of MM cartridges, I am really finding out how good the ATN150 actually is. But then again, at 399 euro it better be good too. A replacement stylus for this cartridge will set you back a whopping 240 euro.
See that super-thin cantilever? You have to get the lighting just right, otherwise it is near invisible.
A classy cartridge, the ATN150MLX.
This is the turntable used for comparisons: a Pioneer PL-L1000 linear tracker.
Phono stage used is a SW1X LPU 1.
Here you can see the ATN150 mounted in an Ortofon LH 2000 headshell. This cartridge sounds very clean, a little lean, but with excellent detail retrieval and very clear and airy treble, without a hint of harshness. Tonally it is a little reminiscent of the Denon DL-304 MC cartridge, in asfar as these can really be compared.
Here you can see the Shure M97 mounted in an Audio Technica HS10 headshell. As part of this review the cartridges were tested using both headshells, naturally while adjusting VTA and tracking force each time. Tracking force for both cartridges was the manufacturer’s recommended optimum weight of 1,25 grams.
Having used a couple of spherical-stylus cartridges I am finding that even though they can have great bass and dynamics, my used vinyl collection does not fare well with these regular shape slyluses. Do note that many people use regular, affordable cartridges and many of those have spherical styluses. It makes sense that many of my second hand worn records have been played with similar styluses and perhaps that is the main reason why elliptical, micro ridge and micro-line styluses retrieve cleaner signals from the grooves.
As explained above, the ATN150MLX has no trouble tracking even the worst vinyl that I have, and to be honest I would not expect less from a cartridge in its price class. The Shure M97xE is labelled by the brand as an “Audiophile” cartridge, and the reason for this is in part due to it employing a thin, higher compliance cantilever with an elliptical stylus. Naturally I was not expecting true audiophile sound from a cartridge that costs only 120 euro, but imagine my surprise when I found that it tracks sublimely! Sure it does not track as well as the ATN150 and occasionally S’es lisp more loudly than they should, but old worn vinyl is tracked at least on the level of the much more expensive AT33EV!
Above: AT33EV mounted on a Yamaha PX-2.
But there’s more to the M97xE than good tracking: it actually sounds very refined, with clean, airy treble and bass that is not quite as articulate or as nimble as that produced by the ATN150MLX, but is more saturated and more powerful. Its midrange may be an opinion-divider in that it is a little recessed. It’s a little bit as though the loudness button has been engaged but not quite so because there’s still very good detail retrieval and liveliness in the midrange. In any event its character fits well with the otherwise quite cool sounding Pioneer PL-L1000 turntable.
I don’t want to go as far as to announce a winner here, instead I’d like to put in two separate honorable mentions for both cartridges, because they both perform admirably. The Audio Technica ATN150MLX is quite simply an excellent cartridge with superb tracking. It tracks equally well as a Benz ACE S with micro-ridge stylus, and I think that is really saying something. While I can’t be sure, I have a feeling that cartridges with super-fine styluses track superbly, but can also tend to sound a little thinner, less sonorous if you will, at least this has been the case with the Japanese cartridges that I tried such as Audio Technica and Denon. The Swiss ACE is a surprising deviation on this though, having nicely solid bass. The Shure on the other hand really surprised me with its smooth, sonorous and highly refined sound for so little money. Other cartridges will surely have trouble performing this well for 120 euro. However it is important to note that the quality control may be an issue with this brand. Considering the cost/performance ratio however this is understandable. Just make sure to buy from a trusted reseller and inspect the stylus prior to mounting it.