Audio Technica AT150MLX finally gets some respect


I've been at this audiophile stuff for over 40 years. At this point I'm pretty confident of being able to ignore preconceived notions and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a component in my system. Still, once in awhile it's nice to get some validation--a sanity check.

I've been using an Audio Technica AT150MLX MM cartridge for over 3 years. Since getting it I have improved the downstream components and cabling a few times, and each improvement, rather than revealing limitations of the cartridge, has shown it to have a great tonal balance, high resolution at its price point, excellent trackability, low level detail retrieval and excellent dynamics.

Still, when I opened my January 2012 issue of The Abso!ute Sound, I was pleasantly shocked to see that the $449 list AT150MLX had been named Cartridge of the Year! Given that the $5000 Benz LP-MSR and $13,000 Clearaudio Goldfinger were also mentioned on that page, it wasn't that the AT150MLX won in absolute terms, but for performance value.

It's as I suspected from my first listen. If you want to know where the threshold into a high end cartridge is, it's the AT150MLX. I got mine in 2008 when the dollar was strong and these things were going for $250. But even at the currently available $325 they are pretty unbeatable.

Back in the Spring of 2008 I asked the A-goners about what cartridge to move up to from the DL-160. I was considering the AT OC-9 or the Denon 301 II, but a number of A-goners made a compelling case for the AT150MLX. I took them at their word and have never regretted it.

If you want the best out of this cart, you *must* give it a capacitive load between 100 and 200 pF. In fact, my highly adjustable Jolida JD-9A phono stage indicates that the real sweet spot is right around 150 pF.

Anyway, thanks A-goners, and it's also nice to know that when the stylus wears down, I can just send for a replacement plug-in stylus $225.
johnnyb53
Another example of how a reasonable priced audio component can out perform the mega$ stuff. Just proves there is no relationship in the price/performance world.
Agreed! The 150 is one of favorite cartridges. It's user replaceible stylus is huge plus.
My Audio Technica AT150MLX has remained in my stable for quite awhile now. I am always selling off other cartridges, but just move the 150MLX from table to table. EXCELLENT cartridge!!!
Sensible Sound recommended, and called the AT150MLX the only sensible replacement for the Shure V-15 years ago. Oh well, better to arrive late, than never.
I have recommended this cartridge for years. It is much better than the Shure was. Only weakness is a fragile styli...no clumbsy fingers....jallen
why does the original poster state and I quote -

"If you want the best out of this cart, you *must* give it a capacitive load between 100 and 200 pF. In fact, my highly adjustable Jolida JD-9A phono stage indicates that the real sweet spot is right around 150 pF."

I don't have to do anything esoteric with my 150MLX on technics 1200mkII aside from proper alignment with Protractor and balance and weight.
Nothing else needs to be done in my case.
Why does this person suggest this?
Risking a guess at the OP's reasoning almost a year after his post, I would say he probably tried the cartridge with a range of different capacitive loadings and determined that he preferred it with 150 pF. This is not to say that you or anyone else would prefer it this way. Some may prefer wildly different loadings, and some may say that it makes no significant difference. It's also possible that your AT150 is loaded in that same range without knowing it. We audiophiles tend to see our own preferences as the only possible ones and, either explicitly or implicitly, decree differing viewpoints as more or less insane. :-)

-Bob
I have a Jolida phone amp as well and understand that one can adjust the gain and the capacitive loadings.

While I think that I understand gain, I do not understand capacitive loadings.

Can someone please explain this in simple laymen's terms?

Thanks!
Most moving magnet cartridges have a recommended load capacitance range specified by the manufacturer. For the AT150MLX the recommended range is 100 to 200 pf (picofarads), as can be seen here.

That figure represents the total load capacitance seen by the cartridge, which is the sum of the capacitances of all of the wiring between the cartridge and the input of the phono stage, plus the input capacitance of the phono stage.

If the amount of capacitive loading of a moving magnet cartridge is either too high or too low, frequency response flatness in the upper treble region, or possibly even in the lower treble and upper mid-range, may be adversely affected.

Phono cable capacitance is proportional to length, and is also highly dependent on the particular cable type. It may or may not be specified by the cable manufacturer. If it is specified, it would be specified in terms of pf per unit length (for example, pf/foot).

100 and 200 pf are relatively low values, and for typical setups the concern is more likely to be keeping the total capacitance low enough to be in that range, rather than having to increase it. So unless your phono cables are particularly short (for example, 3 feet or less) and are also of a type that has particularly low capacitance (for example, 15 pf per foot or less), I suspect that chances are you will get best results by adjusting the phono stage's load capacitance setting to its minimum possible value.

Ideally, though, you should try several different values, and it is certainly possible that the value which will sound best in your system, to you, will be different than what the OP found was best in his system, for him.

Regards,
-- Al
Hi. I'm the original poster, and Almarg explained it well. I have had this cartridge for four years and have used three phono stages with it--the phono stage in a pawnshop Amber 17, which had a series of capacitance DIP switches, a Cambridge 640P which has a fixed capacitance of zero, and my phono stage for nearly the last two years, a Jolida JD9A. The Jolida is very configurable, with MM capacitance settings of 0, 47, 100, and on up from there. My turntable's built-in phono cable has a capacitance of 100 pF. I think it's around 40 inches long.

Audio Technica's recommended total capacitive load for the AT150MLX is "between 100 and 200 pF." With both the Amber and Jolida phono stages I was able to experiment with various capacitances, and the most musical, relaxed sound definitely came in between 100 and 200 pF. The Jolida enabled me to try it at 147 pF and I liked that sound the best. Settings above 200 pF tended to sound bright and strident. You can also find testimony from other AT150MLX owners who warn that the AT150MLX can turn bright and sterile if the capacitance gets much above 200 pF total.

In fact, when I was in the market for a phono stage 2 yrs ago, I happened across an excellent deal for a demo Musical Surroundings Phonomena II for around $389. It was very tempting, but the P II's minimum capacitive input setting is 200 pF, which--combined with my turntable cable--would have created a total load of 300 pF. So I had to pass. The good news is that I really like the Jolida and it has so many gain, resistance, and capacitance settings that I'll probably be able to use it with any cartridge that strikes my fancy.

But these days I have even more reason to stick with my AT150MLX. Given that it's four years old and has at least 1,000 hours on it, I called my local LP-knowledgeable stereo store about whether I'm probably due for a stylus replacement or cartridge upgrade. He told me that the MicroLine stylus (which is what the "ML" stands for in AT150MLX) tends to last 4-5 times as long as a conventional elliptical stylus, and that mine should be good for another 3,000 hrs or so. Even though his store doesn't sell AT carts, he was very complimentary of this one and it reminds him fondly of the AT-sourced Signet cartridges from around 20 yrs ago. So I'm sticking with it. In fact, I recently changed my downstream electronics to a tube-based line stage and a transconductance MOSFET power amp, and my analog rig sounds better than ever.

In other words, any downstream changes I make serve to point up what a wonderfully musical, responsive, and great-tracking cartridge the AT150MLX is. It's ridiculously good for the money.
Johnny,

It's nice to hear an audiophile who is actually happy with what he's got! More power to you.

-Bob
Almarg, I appreciate your explanation. It helps.

I am running a KABUSA Pro S40 which is an Ortofon cartridge that fits into the arm without a headshell. I like it alot especially since I played with the capacitive load switch on the Jolida.

Getting that right added detail and helped to separate the instruments on good recordings.

However, I am getting the itch especially after reading this thread, which is very complimentary to the AT150MLX.

Trouble is it is a $450 cartridge to replace the $360 Ortofon (which replaced a Denon 103R).

Not sure what exactly what I would hear above and beyond the Ortofon with the AT150. Anyone have an opinion on that?

For what it is worth, I think that the KAB modified Ortofon is more alive and organic in my system compared to the Denon which seemed more detailed but not necessarily in a good way.
12-11-12: Dsper
...I am running a KABUSA Pro S40 which is an Ortofon cartridge that fits into the arm without a headshell. I like it alot especially since I played with the capacitive load switch on the Jolida.

Getting that right added detail and helped to separate the instruments on good recordings.

However, I am getting the itch especially after reading this thread, which is very complimentary to the AT150MLX.

Trouble is it is a $450 cartridge to replace the $360 Ortofon (which replaced a Denon 103R).

Not sure what exactly what I would hear above and beyond the Ortofon with the AT150. Anyone have an opinion on that?

If you know where to shop, you can get an AT150MLX for just under $325. To get its best, however, it's wise to get LPGear's ZuPreme Headshell, which adds another $55 to the equation but brings azimuth adjustability to the table.

I also use a Technics SL1210M5G with the KAB fluid damper. I've also added a few other things to control resonance and vibration. Just because I wax all poetic about the AT150MLX doesn't mean it's a better choice than what you have. The KAB Ortofon has the advantage of factory-perfect alignment and balance. It eliminates a set of connections as it plugs directly into the tonearm. There should be fewer cart-headshell resonance problems as there is no headshell.

I bought my AT150MLX in 2008 when the dollar was strong internationally. I got nice fur felt fedora hats from Australia for 67 cents on the dollar and I got my AT150MLX for $259 from LPGear. J&R had them for $250 and free shipping. For me it was the low cost alternative to the KAB/Ortofon setup that you have.
Hi Jonnyb53,

I have the AT150MLX on my turntable (Technics 1210M5G) as well. And I agree 100 percent with your review. It's definitely a great cartridge, and you would have to spend a lot more to get arguably better sound.
12-09-12: Oatstao
why does the original poster state and I quote -

"If you want the best out of this cart, you *must* give it a capacitive load between 100 and 200 pF. In fact, my highly adjustable Jolida JD-9A phono stage indicates that the real sweet spot is right around 150 pF."

I don't have to do anything esoteric with my 150MLX on technics 1200mkII aside from proper alignment with Protractor and balance and weight.
Nothing else needs to be done in my case.
Why does this person suggest this?
I get the sense that you think I'm overcomplicating installation of an AT150MLX because your experience was a simple plug-n-play. In many setups that will be the case. But it just happens that your turntable rig is a near ideal match. Your turntable has a built-in interconnect that has a total capacitance of 100 pF. Your phono stage most likely does not add any capacitance. So your AT150MLX "sees" a capacitive load of 100 pF, which is near ideal.

That's not always the case, however. Many turntables have RCA jacks instead of hardwired, and the interconnects the user selects may have a capacitance ranging from 50 to 300 pF. And some phono stages have a minimum input capacitance of 200 pF. The very popular Musical Surroundings Phonomena II is one such. Therefore with some rigs you could wind up with a capacitance of 400+ pF and not realize it. Dropping an AT150MLX into that signal chain would not be as satisfactory as your and my experiences. So I'm qualifying my enthusiastic recommendation for those who have setups that aren't as naturally compatible to the AT150MLX as our turntables and phono stages.
Actually, I think the recommended loading in the manual is wrong for that cart. The AT150MLX is a really bright cartridge and it measures that way with the Ultimate Analogue Test LP. I have a fully modded KAB Technics SL-1210M5G and an EAR 324 phono stage. You'll never get a flat response no matter how little capacitance you with 47kΩ impedance. I've found to achieve a flat response (+/- 1.5dB) you have to load it at 15kΩ impedance (yes!) and around 570pF total capacitance. The 15kΩ impedance tames the treble spike above 10kHz (that spike is around +7dB with 47kΩ/120pF total capacitance!) but introduced a dip in response under 10kHz. Setting the capacitance at the phono stage to total 570pF (including tonearm wire) helps compensate for the dip in frequencies under 10kHz and doesn't roll off the frequencies above 10kHz. After it's correctly loaded, I have yet to find a more musically accurate sounding phono cartridge. It also tracks better than any other and has superior stereo separation. I've compared it to Shure V15VxMR (stock and JICO SAS styli), Dynavector 17D3, Lyra Delos, Lyra Dorian, Sumiko Blackbird, Sumiko Blue Point No.2, Audio Technica OC9 II, & Shure M97xE. The AT150MLX is the best, with the Dynavector 17D3 and Shure V15VxMR (stock) a close second. Good luck finding a phono stage with 15kΩ impedance for MM though. The EAR 324 is the only one I'm aware of that has this kind of flexibility for MM carts.
Wow better than the OC9? I never would have guessed that!

12-16-12: Dconsmack
I've found to achieve a flat response (+/- 1.5dB) you have to load it at 15kΩ impedance (yes!) and around 570pF total capacitance.
Since my phono stage is pretty configurable (Jolida JD9A), I got all excited and looked at the manual to see what all my DIP switch settings are. But alas, I can set a range of small increments from 100 up to 1400 ohms, but then it jumps to the ubiquitous 47K with nothing in between. Maybe my speakers roll off gently enough above 10Khz to work well in my system. What speakers are you using? I can see where if one were to have ribbon tweeters or something very linear out to 20KHz, that your approach would improve the high treble. Or it could be that I've become accustomed to a treble rise and don't know what i'm missing.
If your speakers roll off above 10kHz, then you likely don't hear the treble rise, or it sounds balanced. I can absolutely hear the difference between 47,000Ω and 15,000Ω. Also, CDs with the exact same mastering as it's vinyl counterpart consistently shows that 15,000Ω is neutral with the AT150MLX (and lots of capacitance: 570pF). Also, I found it to be superior to the OC9 II due to better tracking of sibilants and flatter response. Initially it sounds dull, but that's because so many modern cartridges have a significant rise in the treble. Actually, the only carts I've ever heard that don't are the Shure V15VxMR and Dynavector 17D3. Even the 17D3 has a small rise in the treble, but it's very minor. But, time after time, comparisons with CDs of the same mastering proves to me that the AT150MLX loaded that way is nearly identical in tone. And, it has a noticeably wider stereo image than the 17D3 and the V15VxMR. The 17D3 might be the king of tracking the absolute most difficult sibilants, but the AT150MLX tracked some sibilants that the V15VxMR could not. I really think that the AT150MLX might be the ultimate cart, it's just too bad almost every phono stage on earth can't load it properly. I got lucky.
Interesting inputs from Dconsmack. Johnny, given particularly that the 150MLX is a high output cartridge, a reasonable approach to implementing the loading he suggests might be to use a y-adapter, preferably a "hard" adapter such as this one from Audioquest. You would then solder an appropriate resistor to an RCA plug (and a capacitor as well, if necessary), and insert that plug into one of the two female connectors on the adapter, with the phono cable of course connected to the other female connector.

As I'm sure you would be able to calculate, a 22K resistor in combination with the 47K input resistance of the phono stage would result in an overall load of 15K.

Regards,
-- Al
If you do this, remember to have your total capacitance be 570pF or a little more. Otherwise it will sound dull due to a dip under 10,000 Hz. The 15k ohm/570pF total capacitance was the formula I was able to come up with my gear that yields the most accurate frequency response, both measured and with listening. The Ultimate Analogue Test LP was an invaluable resource in knowing what combination of impedance and capacitance to load all my carts.
I can hit the 570 pF with my Jolida without modification. 100pF in the phono cable plus DIP switches that can add 220, 150, and 100 pF, which all adds up to 570. Yay! If I do the Y-adapter mod to get a 15K ohm load I'll check it out and report back.
I agree with the original post that you need a quality turntable and arm to really hear this cartridge. I use mine on a Linn/Ittok with good results- lots of ambiance and leading edge detail. I put it on a Technics 1200 and didn't hear any improvement over a 440MLa.
I have used the 150 MLX on my VPI Aries 10.0 JMW, Scoutmaster Signature JMW 9 Arm and Rega P5, all to good effect. I loaded it with the 47K setting on my Quicksilver phono stage and it sounds smooth, sweet, and very dynamic. A great cartridge.

12-22-14: Johnjohn
I agree with the original post that you need a quality turntable and arm to really hear this cartridge. I use mine on a Linn/Ittok with good results- lots of ambiance and leading edge detail. I put it on a Technics 1200 and didn't hear any improvement over a 440MLa.
I'm the OP of this thread, and ironically, my turntable is a Technics SL1210 M5G.

However, I agree that out of the box, the standard SL1200 sounds murky, but that's not due to the tonearm or direct drive; it's a lack of damping and it's easily and cheaply fixed. The M5G starts with upgraded tonearm wire, and I added several tweaks--better headshell, tonearm wrap, KAB's tonearm fluid damper, Oracle Groove Isolator sorbothane mat, and a stack of gel pads, butcher block, Vibrapods, and brass cones for the platform. Every addition improved the clarity, linearity, and dynamics. From there I got improvements as I upgraded the phono stage. Throughout all these upgrades the AT150MLX shone through with more clarity, detail, transparency, bandwidth, dynamics, and musicality.

I haven't heard the AT440MLa, but from the beginning and ever since, my AT150MLX has always outperformed my Denon DL-160. Similar tonal balance, but the AT consistently digs down deep and comes out with more music.
Here's a picture of my SL1210 M5G showing the damping footers and platform, tonearm wrap, etc. that I mentioned above.
What kind of tonearm wrap is that and what are you trying to achieve by doing so?

12-25-14: Audpulse
What kind of tonearm wrap is that and what are you trying to achieve by doing so?
Instead of the $20 tonearm wrap from MusicDirect, I use about 15 cents worth of PFTE (aka Teflon) pipe thread tape available from any Walgreen's, Home Depot, or the like. I wrap the tonearm from the lock ring at the headshell end down to just in front of the tonearm rest.

I was trying to track down a slight upper midrange glare left over after the other things I'd dampened. When I'd flick the tonearm's aluminum tube (with my fingernail), I could hear it ring at the pitch range where the glare occurs. I wrapped the tonearm, the glare was reduced. I flicked the knurled lock collar, it stll rang. I wrapped the collar and the glare disappeared.

I recommend it for anyone putting an AT150MLX on an SL12x0 series DD turntable.
Sorry if this is a repeat question.

With your SL120 M5G and the Audio Technica AT150MLX how did it perform with just the stock Technics headshell?

Also with the PTFE plumbers tape wrap how many times did you wrap the tonearm? So far I did one round of wrapping. Should I wrap it again? I checked the picture you provided and can't make out the thickness of the wrap or how many time the tonearm was wrapped?

Thanks in advance.
Jedinite24:

No problem; the bigger challenge is getting me to shut up about it. :)

I can't answer the first question because I'd already been using a Sumiko headshell for a year with a Denon DL-160, and the improvement over the Technics headshell was enough that I ordered the LPGear ZuPreme version along with the AT150MLX. In general, IME the Sumiko or ZuPreme headshell is the *first* thing anybody should upgrade on an SL12x0 turntable. These headshells are much more rigid and inert, with higher quality cartridge leads. You get more transparency, lower noise floor, flatter frequency response, etc. etc.

When wrapping the tape, my goal is to dampen the ringing, not to add weight, so I wound the wrap so it just overlaps (by 1-3 mm or so for each wind. The tape is very light so it doesn't add much effective mass. It also stretches slightly and then shrinks back when winding, so it firmly grips the tonearm on its own (increasing its damping) without any adhesive to muck up the arm. My wrap has stayed intact for about 6-1/2 years without adjustment or re-wrapping.

I just counted, and the tonearm wrap has 18 or 19 revolutions starting at the knurled headshell collar down the arm to just shy of the tonearm rest.
Hi Johnny

Thanks for the prompt and detailed response. The guy I bought the AT150MLX from already mounted it onto the stock Technics headshell and I replaced the stock wires with aftermarket Litz wire from a vendor on E-bay. I'll give this a try first and keep my fingers crossed that it sounds good. Most probably I'll follow your lead and get ZuPreme or Sumiko headshell to mate along with the AT150MLX.

Also thanks for explaining the tonearm wrap and counting the revolutions. I think I didn't spread each wrapping of tape out far enough and I wrapped it too far. I went all the way past the tonearm rest. From the knurled headshell collar to as far as I can go I've got 28-29 revolutions.

Oops.

Thanks again for the help.
Jedinite24: When I got my Sumiko and ZuPreme headshells in 2008, they were $40 ea. and OFC Litz wire cartridge leads were $20/set. The Sumiko and ZuPreme come standard with Litz leads, making the Sumiko-style headshells a bit of a bargain.

The Sumiko headshell has since gone up to $90 (including premium cartridge leads); separate premium cartridge leads are $27, but the LpGear ZuPreme (which I think is better than the Sumiko) has only risen to $54.95, again with $27 worth of premium wiring. So I consider it to be the bargain of the bunch.
The AT150MLX comes with PC-OCC cartridge leads, and I don't hear any problems with the stock headshell. So, imo, these aftermarket headhsells and leads are kind of a waste of money. But, if you think it will make a difference, go for it.
The AT150MLX is internally wired with PC-OCC copper. Mine didn't come with any cartridge leads. I can't say whether I heard "problems" with the Technics headshell, but I certainly heard *improvements* with the ZuPreme. And if you haven't heard your rig with a Sumiko or ZuPreme headshell, then you don't know if they're a waste of money or not.

If nothing else, the Sumiko/ZuPreme headshells add about 5g effective mass to the tonearm, so it changes the range of cartridges that work well with the Technics. It puts the DL-160 and AT150MLX squarely at the 10Hz resonance sweet spot.
I know that regarding the internal wiring. That's odd, maybe they forgot to include it on the assembly line.

Ok, fair enough, no I haven't heard them.

I see, very well then.
Anybody feedback on the At 120/100e carts that are substantially more cost effective?