Q: I purchased an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable based on your recommendation and have really enjoyed listening to my record collection again. I’ve even had a few friends jump back into vinyl after listening to my system.
Now I need some help upgrading my turntable. I changed to a cork mat, but it didn’t improve playback, as far as I can tell. Do you have another recommendation that might be a better choice? I’m also considering upgrading the stock AT95E cartridge. Would the Grado Reference Platinum 2 cartridge be a good fit? What would you recommend?
A: The mat to get is Herbie’s Way Excellent II Turntable Mat, available from Herbie’s Audio Labs for about $75. But focus on the cartridge before you change the mat. That way you will know how much of a difference the mat makes and can decide if you want to keep it.
As for the cartridge, the $350 Grado Reference Platinum 2 on a $249 entry level turntable is a classic example of too much cartridge for not enough turntable. You need a better turntable for this cartridge to perform its best.
Changing cartridges isn’t easy. They require precise mounting and alignment, a delicate task involving a fragile item with tiny wires and screws. There’s a way to provide a noticeable increase in performance while avoiding these setup hassles.
Many cartridges can be upgraded by replacing the stylus assembly, which just plugs into the cartridge body. The quality of the replacement stylus gets better as you go up the model line to more expensive versions. These upgrades are available for your AT95E.
LP Gear’s CFN95SE stylus will make an immediate difference for only $50. It uses a better diamond mounted on a carbon fiber cantilever (the wand that holds the needle). All you have to do is remove the old stylus and plug in the new one to experience a bigger soundstage along with more detailed and refined sound. Owners of the AT-LP120-USB and Fluance RT81 turntables should go right to the CFN95SE (tinyurl.com/95stylus) when they need a new stylus or an easy, inexpensive upgrade.
For a truly dramatic upgrade, LP Gear’s the Vessel A3SE cartridge (tinyurl.com/vessela3se) is a world-beater at $99. I tried it with my Technics SL-1210M5G turntable, my usual cartridge comparison test bed. To say I was wowed is a huge understatement, and I very clearly preferred the Vessel A3SE to a lot of $400 cartridges I have tried. The presentation is slightly forward in perspective, with sound that is silky-smooth, rich, clean, precise and detailed.
Experiencing the Vessel A3SE and its performance for the price is the most shocking experience I have had in 15 years of reviewing audio. There is a complete line of the Vessel cartridges, and they also can be upgraded by changing the stylus, so it can grow with you when you move up to a new turntable.
The A3SE also comes pre-mounted and aligned in a removable headshell for $148 (A3SE Ultimate SET.) This avoids mounting and alignment headaches for Technics and Audio-Technica turntable users, and you can switch back to the original cartridge whenever you want. It is worth the extra $49 if you have the budget.
Send questions to Don Lindich at email@example.com. Get recommendations and read past columns at soundadvicenews.com.