Microline stylus on an AT-VM95ML cartridge

Audio Technica AT-VM95ML – The best turntable cartridge under $200?

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The Audio Technica AT-VM95ML turntable cartridge is incredibly popular amongst audiophiles and vinyl enthusiasts. Since its introduction in 2018, it has been incredibly popular. In 2024, we still consider it to be the best phono cartridge under $200. But what makes this inexpensive moving magnet cartridge so great? Find out here!

The pros:

  • It is the most affordable turntable pickup with a microline stylus currently available. This stylus is what makes it perform so incredibly well. Microline (also known as Micro Ridge) is a type of line contact stylus, one of the most advanced stylus profiles. It allows for excellent tracking even at the inner grooves and accurate tracing of high frequencies. Say goodbye to inner groove distortion! Many reviewers and hifi enthusiasts think this phono cartridge offers by far the best sound quality in its price range. High end sound at a low cost. It will resolve dense passages of classical music or even heavy metal with great detail.

  • Longevity: While its price does appear quite high when compared to the more affordable turntable cartridges of the same series, such as the AT-VM95E, one must consider that a microline stylus will last around 1000h, while the elliptical stylus of the VM95E will only be good for 300 hours. Taking this into consideration, the cost per hour is the same for both cartridges, but the performance of the microlinear needle is a lot better than that of the entry level turntable cartridge. Even if it’s a bigger expense at first, it’s the best value for money in Audio Technica’s AT-VM95 range.

  • It’s gentle on your records: Microlinear styli touch a larger portion of the groove wall, distribute the tracking force more evenly and are thus causing less wear.

  • Worn, old, used or vintage records may sound best with a microline or other types of line contact styli. These touch a larger part of the groove wall, essentially bridging the worn spots left behind by heavy tracking conical or elliptical styli of years gone by. Perfect for ripping your vinyl collection with the best possible quality.

  • Flat frequency response. Audio Technica cartridges are infamous for being rather bright sounding. Measurements show the AT-VM95ML has a very flat frequency response when loaded to spec (i.e. under 200pF of capacitance total). If you favour a neutral sounding phono cartridge, this one is a great choice!

  • It’s easy to get the cartridge loading right. Despite the specs, measurements show that you can easily load this cartridge with up to 300pF and the frequency response will still be fairly flat.

  • Easy upgradeability from lower tier AT-VM95 series cartridges: The bodies of the AT-VM95 series turntable cartridges are identical. It’s just the stylus assembly that is different. Even if you start out with the cheapest option, the AT-VM95C with a conical stylus, you may simply swap the stylus to a microline one for improved performance. The microline replacement stylus is the AT-VMN95ML.

  • Any cartridge of the AT-VM95 line is a great investment for the future of your turntable. Audio Technica usually supports these cartridges for decades. Supply of replacement styli should not become a problem anytime soon. And there are plenty of different styli to choose from.

The cons:

  • Microline styli are more difficult to set up than simpler stylus shapes (but they are totally worth the effort!) We recommend using a custom arc protractor for precise alignment. Ideally your turntable should have adjustable VTA (vertical tracking angle or tonearm height). Precise azimuth adjustment can be a plus.

  • The cartridge has no flat, vertical surfaces on the front. If you align your cartridges to a protractor by taping a pencil lead to their front for better visibility of the zenith angle, you may hate this cartridge.

  • Flat frequency response may not be what you are after. Many favour vinyl for its warm sound, to which a cartridge can contribute a lot. If you prefer a cartridge with more bass and slightly subdued treble, you may want look into the AT-VM95SH with a Shibata stylus instead. Or if you don’t care for high fidelity and simply want to rock out to music, even the inexpensive AT-VM95C can be a good choice.

Details to consider:

  • Audio Technica, like most japanese cartridge manufacturers, specifies the dynamic compliance of the cantilever at 10 x 10-6 cm/Dyn (100 Hz). To calculate the tonearm resonance accurately, it needs to be measured at 10 Hz instead of 100 Hz. Resonance measurements made with turntables of known tonearm mass show it to be around 14–16 CU, which is moderate.

  • This makes it a good match for tonearms of moderate mass, such as the one used on a Technics SL-1200 MK2.

While any cartridge from the AT-VM95 series is a good deal and is worth a recommendation, the ML variant is popular for good reason: It’s the biggest bang for the buck.

If you want to experience the incredible performance of a micro ridge stylus, it simply has no competition in its price range. The main competitors are Ortofon’s 2M Red, Nagaoka’s MP110. These have “only” have tipped elliptical styli. The 2M Blue has a nude elliptical stylus and tends to be more expensive than the Audio Technica with its superior profile. Many will prefer the Ortofon or Nagaoka sound, which is a matter of taste. But from a technical point of view, the VM95ML will outperform them. Get your AT-VM95ML phono cartridge on Amazon now! https://amzn.to/3sTCLfX