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Finding your groove: getting into vinyl with Audio-Technica

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I’d like to think that I could’ve been friends with the late Hideo Matsushita, founder of Japanese Hi-Fi powerhouse Audio-Technica. If I could, I’d travel back in time to 1960’s Tokyo, where a young Matsushita curated “vinyl listening sessions” at the Bridgestone Museum of Arts, exposing visitors to the sounds and possibilities of high end audio and the warmth of vinyl records. I imagine sitting with him in a mod coffee shop, listening to the stories of what he witnessed in those sessions, the conversations he had with visitors, and what ultimately motivated him to head back to his small apartment above a ramen restaurant and start an audio company of his own. In the histories I’ve read regarding AT’s humble beginnings, Matsushita’s motives seem clear. Produce high end audio at affordable prices, bringing audio excellence into spaces and to customers that simply didn’t have access to it before. His first two products, the AT-1 and AT-3 phono cartridges did exactly that, and following their success, Audio-Technica was able to expand and build a reputation for excellence through the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s that extended into headphones, microphones, and then in 2007, to turntables.
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It's safe to say that there are real similarities in philosophy between DROP and Audio-Technica, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that when DROP partnered with a company to design a turntable, they chose Audio-Technica. Both companies’ commitment to making high quality products affordable to newcomers is a connection that in my mind makes for an interesting discussion. Consider for a minute the thought process that goes into the equipment that newcomers to vinyl buy. When someone is considering getting into the world of turntables and is doing so on an entry-level budget, they have essentially one bad option and two good options: • The first (and worst) option is the one I see most often in new hobbyists, and that is to buy a $60 turntable that does irreparable damage to their growing collection of $30-40 records. That, to me, is an absolute shame. Investing in a decent turntable would not only improve the listening experience but would protect the investment that is collecting records.  • The second path a newcomer can take is to buy the highest quality used equipment they can find at an affordable price, relying on research and brands they trust.  • The third option is to purchase new reasonably priced equipment that can be upgraded over time. “Bangin’ what?” Until a few years ago, I was absolutely dedicated to Bang & Olufsen turntables, most of which from the 1980’s. Finding cartridges for B&O turntables carried the equivalent excitement of hunting for Pokemon for me because the cartridges/styli were no longer made and finding one in good condition was rare. I found a great deal of enjoyment scouring estate sales, digging through record stores and the scrounging through the occasional pawn shop for B&O gear.
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All of that came to a halt one Saturday in Berwyn, IL, at a shop called Upscale Audio Exchange. My B&O Beogram 3000, which I dearly loved, was dead. The tangential arm (a straight tonearm that moved electronically on a track rather than a lever) no longer engaged with the motor, and try as I might I couldn’t fix it. So I brought it to my friend Tom, who has owned and operated Upscale since he founded it in the early 90’s. Tom looked at my Beogram for a minute or two, messed around with a couple screwdrivers, and then said without looking up “What is it with you and old stuff that keeps breaking?” I was deeply offended. I love old stuff that keeps breaking and told him so. He said “Don’t get me wrong, I love this stuff too. But have you ever considered buying a turntable that was made this year? Designed this year? One that can last you 20-30 more years without giving you trouble instead of buying 40-year-old tech that requires constant upkeep?” I thought about it as I looked through his collection of jazz records, and the longer I thought, the more sense it made. I left his shop that day with an Audio-Technica AT-LP3, balanced by Tom and set-up with care, and I was floored with how good this “entry level” turntable sounded. Especially considering the $35 AT-91R cartridge that came with it wasn’t particularly good. I soon upgraded that however with a $169 nude, multi-linear AT-VM95ML cartridge. The VM95ML, aside from the night and day improvement in sound, lasts twice as long as the other Audio-Technica cartridges in its family. (One of the best decisions I’ve made in years.)  I’ll get back to AT’s cartridges later, but suffice it to say, buying an entry level turntable with upgradability, is for me, the best way to develop a soundscape that you enjoy. Upgrading over time enables you to put elements in place in slow, progressive steps, rather than buying something curated “off the rack” by a manufacturer. That slow progression allows you to arrive at a place that is more unique to your listening preferences and helps identify what matters to you.
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Altered Carbon A few weeks ago, DROP sent me the DROP+Audio-Technica Carbon VTA Turntable to review, specifically to see how it sized up as an option for folks new to vinyl. They gave it to me no-strings attached, and my views are my own. They’ve just asked me to give it a try and share my thoughts here. So, here’s how I want to do this. I want to compare the Carbon VTA to the AT- LPW40WN, the turntable it’s based on, then to the LP3, which I’ve owned for years and is in the same price range. And I’d like to do all of it through the lens of getting started in the hobby. If I were new to vinyl today, and seeking an entry level system from Audio-Technica that I could grow with, would I choose the Carbon VTA or the AT-LP3 and why? When I received the Carbon VTA, I didn’t open it right away. I put it in the car, drove to Berwyn, and sat it down in front of Tom. As a dedicated Audio-Technica dealer, I was curious to see his reactions to a collaboration between AT and another company, and what he thought of it. Thankfully, it was a slow night at the record shop, and we were able to assemble, test it thoroughly and come away with some conclusions. I’ve been using the Carbon VTA for the last 4 weeks, and I have to say… I’m really impressed. Let’s start with the roots It’s important to know that the Carbon VTA is very (and I mean VERY) similar to the Audio-Technica LPW40WN, which currently retails for $379 on Crutchfield. They have identical dimensions, and other than DROP’s darker wood finish, they look very similar. As you look closer however, the differences are there, and all of them favor the Carbon VTA. While both have a carbon fiber tone-arm, vibration-reducing plinth, adjustable feet and identical built-in phono preamp, the LPW40WN has a cheaper, plastic tone arm lift and base that is pretty off-putting to me.
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For this turntable to have such a sleek, modern look, the whole plastic assembly seems out of place. DROP vastly improved this with an all-metal, gorgeous assembly that in addition to looking better, has one of the smoothest deliveries of needle to vinyl that I’ve ever seen and features VTA, or Vertical Tracking Angle control. Something not found in entry level boards… ever. I’ll get back to VTA, and whether it matters or not to you, but regardless, it’s nice to see it included. No need to be afraid of needles Both the Carbon VTA and the LPW40WN feature a phenomenal cartridge for the money, the upgraded AT-VMN95E which sounds incredibly clean, warm and to me, punches way above its weight. One of the huge benefits of the Audio-Technica cartridge system is that it is stupid-easy to swap out styluses. Even though the tone arm has an easy swap option to trade out entire head assemblies, you don’t need to go that far. You can literally slide the stylus guard over the head, and pull down gently to dislodge the stylus, and pop another on the same head assembly! This way, you don’t have to worry about setting the angle of the headshell correctly or adjusting the tonearm. You can, within seconds, hear the difference between two different needles. It’s really something. For more information on AT’s family of cartridges, as well as a great guide to finding the right cartridge for you, please check out this awesome guide on their website. Now. About that VTA, and this is entirely my (and Tom’s) take… Vertical Tracking Angle control, which dictates the angle that the stylus interacts with the record at, is incredibly difficult to get “right”. Controlling the exact angle requires special calibration tools, expertise, and attention to detail that seem out of place on an entry level turntable. I think that the main reason you don’t see it as a feature on record players in this price range is that it is a finicky adjustment for the most discerning of audiophiles. Adjusting the VTA to the perfect angle, where your stylus is sitting in the groove of the record “just” right, can be thrown off by vibrations from your speakers, fractions of a millimeter in the groove of the record, and even the thickness of a record. It’s REALLY detailed. Some high end audio companies use digital microscopes and software to get it right. The idea that an entry level user would be able to benefit from this feature is, to me, a bit reachy. Not to say that it’s not cool. And not to say that having it is better than not… it’s just not an entry level feature for a reason.
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Verdit: Carbon VTA vs. LPW40WN As we looked over the Carbon VTA, Tom kept commenting that he couldn’t fathom how this was less expensive than the LPW40WN (I think I had mentioned the $349 sale price that the Carbon is often listed at) and that in every way he could see, it was an improvement. I totally agree. Even the inclusion of the carbon-fiber record brush was a really nice touch and sets it above the 40. If you’re considering the Carbon VTA, I would wholeheartedly recommend it over the LPW40WN. And now for something completely different That brings me to my AT-LP3, which since has been updated to the AT-LP3XBT, a $299 bluetooth model with a better stylus than before (but still WAY below the one on the Carbon VTA). The LP3XBT, like the Carbon VTA, has a built in phono preamp, is solidly built throughout (although it is unabashedly plastic, no wood-looking finish here) and most importantly, it’s fully automatic, rather than manual.  What does that mean? It means that to play a record on the LP3XBT, you push a button, and when the side finishes, the tonearm returns to its rest and the record stops. On a manual turntable like the Carbon VTA the tonearm will continue to sit on the record, silently grooving along, until you remember to go lift the tonearm, return it to its rest and stop the record. It’s not a big deal for most people, and there’s certainly some charm to manually lowering the needle onto the record each time. But it is a thing. And depending on your usage, a big thing. If you have a turntable in your business, and don’t have time to be popping back and forth to start or stop a record, having an automatic turntable is probably the right path for you. If you are reasonably close to your turntable, and like to be there when that needle hits the vinyl… manual’s probably a good bet. I just want folks to think about it. It definitely changes the experience, and in the case of automatic, is more approachable to newbies. Bluetooth is pretty cool, so that is a real feature on the LP3XBT. Especially if you have Bluetooth headphones, want to put some Bluetooth speakers wherever the heck you want without having to worry about wires, or live/work with people that hate your music (or the volume you listen at). The Carbon VTA does not have Bluetooth, so if that’s a dealbreaker for you, know that. Lastly, I mentioned it before, but the $69 AT-VMN95E in the Carbon VTA is dramatically better than the $39 AT-VMN95C, which while an improvement on the previous LP3 cartridge is not, how do you say, “good?” The Carbon wins here, with a cartridge that you should not need to upgrade until it wears out, whereas with the LP3XBT needle, I’d want to replace on day one.  Verdict: Carbon VTA vs. LP3XBT This totally comes down to aesthetic and usage. If you are looking for a sleek, killer entry level turntable and manual works for you? The Carbon VTA is a fantastic choice. If you want that fully automatic functionality, don’t mind spending the $50 you saved on a new cartridge, and like the clean, plastic-y goodness of the LP3XBT’s design… it’s a wonderful turntable, and I highly recommend it. In this case, both turntables win, and honestly, I’d love to see a second DROP + Audio-Technica collaboration where they improve the LP3XBT to provide DROP customers with a manual and a fully automatic option. Ya hear me, DROP? And maybe in red? I hope that this has been informational, entertaining, and helpful. I value all of your feedback and appreciate the reads. It warms my heart to be a part of this community and every one of you is so cool and unique! Please let me know what entry-level setups you rocked (or are still rocking) and share pictures!  Thanks for reading and until next time, keep finding the stories in everything you do.   Best, James (@Storyboardtech)
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timwat
8
Dec 7, 2023
Wonderful article, James, ideal for those considering their first jump down the rabbit hole. Like many technical pursuits (mechanical keyboards, watches, musical instruments), vinyl playback can go very deep...and very expensive. While it isn't universally true, I have found anecdotally that you often get what you pay for in vinyl playback. I'm old enough to have grown up with my father's Garrard, then after many purchases found my way to a VPI setup, a tube phono stage, and a Dynavector MC cartridge. While that got spendy fast (even buying used from Audiogon), it yielded an exponentially better listening experience than the consumer stuff I had transitioned through. And of course, you need transducers (speakers) that are able to put these improvements on glorious display. I wonder how many new entrants into vinyl will stick with it once they hit their head on the various inconvenience factors - shorter playing time before they have to intervene, non-portability, being beholden to the album format (rather than the per-song a la carte perspective). I personally suspect that if the new user doesn't have the downstream to really put the glory of vinyl on display (in other words, amp and speakers of that quality), vinyl won't "stick" as a permanent option. But I've been wrong frequently, and I may be wrong here again. Great article, I enjoyed it a lot. Tim
timwatThanks for the kind words Tim, and the support. I'm love writing in this space, and I value this community. I don't worry about the future of vinyl, as it's a standalone music form and the equipment can last for 50+ years in most cases. I think that as long as people value tactile interaction with their products, it's going to be valued.
Naqoqatsi
3
Dec 7, 2023
Thanks for the AT history, quite interesting. One suggestion, If you are going to put a VTA picture it would be valuable to explain what’s going on for people new to turntables.
NaqoqatsiI hear you, but man. It's SUCH a complicated subject, and no picture does it justice. I had a few that I thought would explain more, but they tend to raise more questions than offer answers. In honesty, I don't know that I would have even covered it if it weren't in the name of the product.
DarthWader
0
Dec 7, 2023
You're soooo full of shit! The B&O Beogram 3000 was NOT a tangential turntable! If you're going to bullshit people, at least get your facts straight! Just saying.
DarthWaderThere were two models named Beogram 3000. You might be thinking of the other one. This is the one I owned. https://www.beoworld.org/prod_details.asp?pid=289
(Edited)
DarthWaderYou did not pass the fact check or the vibe check; go straight to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect $200 😂
MonetsChemist
68
Dec 6, 2023
A very good article, James, about what seems to be a very fine turntable. Those AT-VMN95 cartridge and stylus combos get uniformly good press; I would like to add a couple of comments for your consideration. First, the stylus shape - the AT-VMN95C is a conical stylus which has a round contact patch with the sidewalls of the record groove. The 95E has an elliptical stylus which makes an elliptical contact patch (higher and narrower). The other, fancier / more expensive stylus shapes have a contact patch that looks more like a tall, thin line. The nice thing about the conical stylus shape is that it's very forgiving of tracking mis-alignment, whereas the thinner the contact patch, the more sensitive the stylus is to this kind of mis-alignment. This kind of mis-alignment causes greater distortion, making the playback sound bad. So why not just go with the cheap conical stylus then? Because the thinner contact patches, when properly aligned, do a better job of tracing the high frequencies, making playback of cymbals and what-not sound much more realistic. It's relatively easy to align your cartridge to minimize the mis-alignment. This article on the Vinyl Engine enthusiast site is worth reviewing https://www.vinylengine.com/cartridge-alignment-protractors.shtml Second, VTA - the thing you are really trying to do is to match the orientation of the contact patches on the stylus to the orientation of the cutting head on the lathe that made the record masters. This orientation is called "stylus rake angle" or SRA. There is supposed to be a standard SRA, I think around 92 degrees. The stylus shapes that attempt to contact the record sidewall as a line are more sensitive to misaligned orientation - for example, if the stylus contact line is oriented at say 85 degrees and the lathe cut at 92 degrees, then the orientation alignment is off by 92 - 85 = 7 degrees. Once again, the conical stylus is more forgiving of SRA misalignment, since its contact patch is circular, but it's also the shape that is least like the shape of the cutting head, so it's going to do a more approximate job of tracing the groove no matter how carefully it is aligned. Getting SRA properly aligned is difficult. It requires a good USB microscope and a lot of patience, and some stylus profiles are extremely hard to see clearly, even with good equipment and lighting. There is a nice discussion thread on the Vinyl Engine enthusiast site on SRA alignment that shows some pictures and explains the ideas https://www.vinylengine.com/turntable_forum/viewtopic.php?t=64477 For sure I agree with your comments about "is the first time user going to want to mess around with this kind of tweaking". However, the flip side of that argument is that tweaking costs nothing (unless the tweaker breaks the equipment) and can noticeably improve the sound. The other point that's important to keep in mind is that spending more money on a flashier stylus for the AT-VMN95 cartridge isn't necessarily money well spent without getting the cartridge as well-aligned as possible. Anyway, all of the above isn't meant to criticize your fine article; thanks again for writing it!
MonetsChemistFantastic response MC! So well thought out. These are all excellent points and great background info on what I might be guilty of oversimplifying for the sake of readability. I truly appreciate your comments and I legit laughed out loud when you said "tweaking costs nothing unless the user breaks the equipment." Hilarious. I appreciate the time and thought you put into your response! Keep it up!
Stihl
10
Dec 6, 2023
Thanks James. I wholeheartedly agree with your opinions. I’ve been listening to the VTA for about a month and love it. Been thinking of upgrading the stylus but so far the one that came with it sounds great. I’ve got a Pro-ject Debut Pro sitting in my living room unboxed but am having such a good time with the VTA I haven’t made the switch. If you can a review of the Debut PTO would be appreciated.
(Edited)
StihlThanks so much Stihl! It's definitely a fantastic turntable. A friend and I were talking about the article and he cautioned me to not make it out to be JUST for beginners. I want to be clear, I don't consider myself a beginner at all, and I use mine daily in my office. It is a stellar piece of audio equipment, and a real winner. Thanks again for the comments, I value your feedback for sure!
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