Review: Audio-Technica USA AUDIO TECHNICA AT-20SS. Cartridge

Category: Analog

AUDIO TECHNICA??!!!!!!: IMHO one of the best know and reputable audio items manufacturer.

Was founded by Hideo Matsushita 48 years ago ( 1962. ) and today still continue with its long tradition of very high quality design products in different audio areas. You can read about AT:

The company begin building phono cartridges and through the time had a diversification in products that goes from phono cartridges ( both: MM and LOMC. ) to: IC cables, analog accesories ( headshells, headshel wires, damping footers, TT mats, TT clamps, vaccum hold down stabilizers, tip toes like products, cleaning record systems, electronic stylus cleaning device, safety raiser tonearm device, etc, etc. ), tonearms, electronics, speakers, headphones, microphones, mixers, step up transformers and even marketed the Telarc LP's.

So seems to me that AT not only is a company that knows about audio but a company that had/has a great contribution to the whole grow up HE audio industry.

I'm in touch with Audio Technica for more than 35 years and I almost own or owned every single top analog AT product.
Iwas lucky enough that the México Audio Technica factory/headquarters President/Director was a close friend of mine.
Thank to this frienship I has acces to the AT full Japanese catalog where I bought many " precious " products that never were offered in America and even that frienship gave me the opportunity to had AT products before that any one in América.

In this way I own/owned many commomn and hard to find cartridges and other AT products ( mainly accesories and the full Telarc LP collection. ).

Audio Technica had some very especial phono cartridges, in the LOMC area I can name the AT-1000MC that was the first LOMC cartridge design with diamond cantilever ( a few years before Dynavector. ) that in its time ( I think 1981. )was the more expensive phono cartridge out there ( Japan. ): 200,000.00 yens and in the MM area I can name other that the one on review the: AT ML-180 OCC.

I have to say that Audio technica had a especial divison well not a company division but a company name it Signet where AT marketed phono cartridges too with ( in theory ) a " new " performance level. I own phono cartridges made by Signet and you can read in my virtual system that I own a lot of AT phono cartridges, tonearm and AT accesories.

Other top of the line series AT vintage MM cartridges are: AT-24/25, AT 155-LC, ATML 160LC-OCC, the 180 OCC already name it and the current/today phono cartridge: AT 150MLX.
From Signet the most rewarded is the TK 10ML-III.

The phono cartridge on review, the AT-20SS, was the first top quality performer where AT competed against: Empire, ADC, Acutex, Technics, Denon, Fidelity Research, B&O, etc, etc.

Was the top of the line in a family of more than nine models where the AT 15SS, AT 15 SA/SLA and AT 20SLA were down the 20SS but using the same cartridge " motor ".
The main differences are in the cantilever build material, more " refined " ( same shape ) stylus and that the 20SS was " hand calibrated.
So, any one of you that own a 20SS family cartridge that I name it canbe at almost the same 20SS if you can find a NOS ( original ) AT 20SS stylus replacement.

I'm the original owner of the 20SS sample: many years ago I gave to my brother in mint condition ( was the time where the AHEE " teach " me that I was wrong and that if I want the best I have to have a LOMC cartridge. ), use it for years and when the stylus " die " we found a NOS 15SS stylus replacement that he used till around two years ago when I ask if he could return to me and he accept ( he is not an audiophile. I gave him in change two other cartridges .).
Things are that in that time I found a NOS ( original. ) 20SS stylus replacement that is the one I'm using.

Cartridge specifications:

type:.......................... moving magnet.
frequency response:.. 5-50,000hz.
output level:.................. 2.7mv at 5cm/sg.
channel balance:............... 0.75db.
separation at 1000hz:.......... 35db.
cantilever:.................... berylium.
stylus shape:.................nude mounted square-shank
weight:........................ 8grs.
dynamic compliance:............ 18cu.
VTF:........................... 0.75-1.75gr.

Price in 1979:................. $ 250.00 US dollars.

The cartridge comes double-boxed ( plastic and carton ) with stylus brush,mont screws/nuts, small non-magnetic scredriver, operation manual and frequency response test chart/diagram on L/R channels ( both flat ( deviation less than 0.5db. ) 20-20,000hz. ).

Cartridge set up parameters:

I mount it in one of my protoype self design tonearm ( propietary build materials. ), set VTF at 1.4gr, no antiskating, with no stylus guard, flat VTA/SRA, azymuth " dead " center, Löfgren B geometry cartridge/tonearm set up, 100kohms on load impedance and with 150pf on total capacitance.

Testing performance:

just before I decide to test the AT 20SS I finished the test/review/hearing great Empire 4000D3, a 10+ top ranking cartridge and it happens that after the " first " testing job of the 20SS I receive from VdH the AKG P-100LE that I immediatly mounted instead the 20SS.
Both AKG/Empire are marvelous performers so the 20SS had not an easy " road " and that's why I have to made a " second " test ( btw, I don't finish yet the AKG fully review. ).

It was not for me the top quality performance of this AT 20SS, I was aware of its performance.

The NOS stylus replacement take 25+ plus hours to really shows what the 20SS can do. At first the " worst " characteristic was an overbrightness that preclude any serious test.
After that time things goes better and better till after 40 hours ( I think ) the cartridge was performing just as I never imagine: excellent!.

Like in the Empire, Technics and all other MM/MI top performers the 20SS main characteristic that share with the others is that music " flow in space with out no " obstacle ", just flowing totally free " there is nothing between you and the music.

All these top performers have a natural tonal balance withy the natural ( too ) music agressiveness and with frequency extremes that are just beautiful to hear it. But not all perform the same, there are differences, small ones but we can hear it because we have/own those other cartridges to make comparisons. With out the opportunity to make/made comparisons you can say/think that any one of them is " the best ". Is there any flaw with these top quality performer cartridges?, not really: are almost perfect, at least in my home audio system.

The 20SS is only the second cartridge ( MM/MI/LOMC ) where in the 33rpm Patricia Barber ( Café Blue. ) Nardis track ( first 3 minutes. ) you can hear six differents Patricia " breath ". In this same track the 20SS has a difference with any other cartridge but the Technics P100CMK4: during the many moments that we are hearing the battery cymbals we can detect every single hit that the player made with the stick even when he hited in the most outer side of the various cymbals, in the other cartridges you can distinguish only some of those stick hits.
If is true that the PB voice has to many reververation it is true too that the piano and the battery was recorded very well. I think that I never heard so good/natural the full piano score, not even in the Technics.

The Shatmo Play King Oliver was an amazing recorded LP through the 20SS, especially the side one first track: St. James Infirmary. It is not only the clear " feeling " that Louis is just with you through his voice ( where you can heard perfectly how the voice sounds comes step by step from his chest and how when pass through his throat aquire that
scrape taste tone. ) but that Louis horn full score with the trombone and clarinet surrounded: almost a " live event ", my hat off to the producers of this recording!

For almost the first time ( along the Technics. ) I heard the piano score in Midnight Sugar ( Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio. TBM-23. ) with some " soul " in this straight and cool recording. The recording is a hard test for any analog system and normally we can think that this Yamamoto has very good skills as a piano player but no " feelings ", well with the 20SS things are a little different.
I try this recording at normal 83-85db on SPL at seat position and I try it too at p7dbs!!! and you know what? the system performance was great with no detected added distortions, the 20SS like other vintage top cartridges has extremely low distortion compared only for the Technics and AKG in this regard. All in all great track.

Eva Cassidy ( Songbird. ): you have to hear the side one tracks 1 and 3 through the AT 20SS, my friends you can sware that the different instruments ( mainly guitars. ) that " support " this Lady in these track: must disappear, her voice is to good to the score be " degraded " by those instruments sounds. The feel of the Eva voice is that surrounded me first and then in a second step goes inside all my sense and makes/made that I was unaware of any other sounds or things that happen or surround my environment. What experience!!

But if Eva Cassidy almost makes me " crazy " Montserrat Caballé ( LSC-2862 ) side 1 track 1: Bellini ( Norma. ) Casta Diva, take me under her full control, her voice can't be explained with words like: power, smooth, or controled, or expansive, or whatever you want: her voice, if the Gods sing, is a God voice, her sing not like the " angels " but like God him self. The 20SS is the cartridge that IMHO shows this recording at its best like I never heard it before, even the Orchestra score is beautiful too and og course that this Bellini composition is a real Gem.

I like jazz and blues a lot. I heard a lot of times Muddy Waters Folk Singer and never before I detected not only the power in the Muddy voice but the " fierceness " of his voice in that " sudden " voice transients: unique and that Buddy Guy guitar: it already " talk " and only needs " shoes " to walk.
My Captain track ( well all tracks. ) tell you that these Giants born one to each other. Greta Mobili Fidelity re-issue.

But the best for the last, low bass/mid bass. The 20SS shines over the full frequency range with no flaw you can detect or where you could ask for more. If the cartridge has a most shiny frequency range that is with no doubt the bass/mid bass range.

Hugh Masekela side four: I heard this score many times and through my Velodyne's/20SS it is a " sweetness " that frequency range: it is so right, so tight, so vivid, with that live impact that " move " all your body sense asking for never end. You can go on " extasis " here. No single other cartridge can put " things " in this way: it is so nicely " violent " that you just enjoy it!.

Do you think you already heard at its best the Mercury-Dorati " The Firebird ", no way my friend the 20SS makes the difference all the full score and especially on the big drum " whacs "!!!: just unveliable, how this very old recording can sound so good?

Solti at the Opera a very good London ffrr recording: Rossini Semiramide ( Overture. ) ( side two track 1. ). I like Rossini but even if you don't like it you need hear this recording through the 20SS and I'm sure you will like it, again the bass range here really shine along the other part of the frequency spectrum.
This recording was made at Covent Garden with the Royal Opera House Orchestra, as many of you know under the Hall the subway pass through and in this recording the engineer forgot about because if your system resolution goes really low on bass you can hear very clear ( not as a " rumor " ) several times that subway sound " notes " better than any other cartridge but the Technics that is similar in this recording. Of course that some of you can think that's better have not that kind of bass resolution and maybe you are right in this recording. Anyway, a joy recording to enjoy!! with the 20SS amazing " tools ".

Can you see that LP in the picture: Fun Fun ( group ) Color my Love 45rpm one side?. Well this is a 80's Disco type Holland recording surprising very well recorded for this type of records: a very hard test for any system and any phono cartridge especially at 98db continuos with peaks at 107dbs. You can´t detect really that so high SPL through the 20SS and believe me: even if you don't like this kind of music or even if you don't like or don't know how to dance with you will dance with Fun Fun and the 20SS!!!!

I want to congratulate all of you that own this unique Gem! and the ones that does not have it I say: try to find it at any price!!!

My ranking of the AT 20SS in the quality performance ladder is: 10++ and in this moment only sharing this top ranking level with the Technics EPC P100CMK4.
The 20SS is so good that I don't want to go a head with any other cartridge but unfortunately I most: keep walking!!!

Regards and enjoy the music,

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In the review.
Raul, thanks for a great review. I remember using the AT15Sa when it was new and I loved it. So many years ago.

It's interesting that all of these cartridges featured extended ultrasonic response so as to reproduce the CD-4 carrier frequency. Before quad, no emphasis was placed on ultrasonic reproduction. But once the technology became a commercial reality, the race was on. As you pointed out, a lot of very fine cartridges came out of this era. As I remember, correct MM cartridge loading also gained increased emphasis at this time, also due to the necessity for extended response.
Dear Viridian: Well maybe you can find another 15SS or better yet a 20SS and with your today audio system I'm sure will shine and could improve your music enjoyment.

Yes, I agree that era was like " the history write from here ". IMHO the very best cartridges comes from there.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Hi Raul, as break-in of a similar NOS AT15SS continues on my TT I am falling into line with your opinion of these top vintage AT models-- particularly your observation about full-bodied performance. The trade-off between LF & midrange warmth and slurring of detail that one often encounters is a non-issue with this cartridge. There is throw-weight and swing as expected from a great MM, but with a clear open window across entire FR.

Of the half dozen excellent NOS MM/MI that I have tried, this one was the sleeper that went from being forgettable out of the box to superlative in 20 hours. BTW so far I like 60K more than 100K but need to revisit loading after things settle down. Of course the manual specifies 47K, but states as well that the cartridge is compatible with 100K for quad.
Dear Dgarretson: Maybe 60K-70K could work for me but I don't try it yet due that at 100K is " fenomenal ".

We have to remember that the cartridge quality performance is " affected " too by capacitance that in my case is a total: 150pf, which capacitance are you using along 60K load impedance?

Regards and enjoy the music,
Hi Raul, I have been using only the 150pf capacitance of my phono IC. Pending arrival of AT20SS replacement stylus, today I interrupted AT15SS to retry Azden YM-P50VL-- this time with uninterrupted wiring and a prototype light arm wand made of carbon fiber egg-shell around a flat foam core. So far each lightening of piece parts on the linear tone arm has improved sound. However the experiment will not be scientific until retest of several more high-compliance cartridges.
Hi Raul, I've now spent five hours with NOS AT20SS stylus and can confirm the impressive improvement of AT20SS stylus over AT15SS stylus on AT15SS body. While waiting for AT20SS stylus I've been circling through several quite decent MCs, including a Helikon retipped with Soundsmith's top line-contact diamond and an old but well-preserved Sumiko Virtuoso DTi. Those MCs have a nice HF filligree and pleasing presentation but cannot begin to pass muster relative to the granite-like monolithic foundation of AT20SS. At times like this I bring out Lou Reed's excellent pressing of "Set the Twighlight Reeling"-- full of LF and Hendrix-like flourishes on an acrylic electric guitar-- which in this case wants to be turned way up.
Dear Dgarretson: Good to hear that. The 20SS is a tremendous performer, I think that any one could live with it for ever asking for no more.

Fortunately we always are asking for " more ". I still have the 20SS mounted and enjoying along the next in line: AKG P100-LE.

Like Halcro as I heard for more time different MM/MI vintage cartridge as less I can " endure " LOMC cartridges performance: is so way different!!! but in the " wrong " way: more distant/away to real music.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Dave - can you elaborate on the difference between at20ss and at15ss. I thought they were the same, except the at20ss cartridge is hand picked for better specs.
From what I've read on the forums, you are right that the distinction between these two was QA or the like. The main difference is that the AT20SS stylus has a more refined & open treble consistent with a great cartridge. Through break-in the AT15SS stylus is developing in this and other areas, but still not to the level of AT20SS fresh from the box.
Dear Storyboy: In those times the Audio Technica President here in México ( that is my friend. ) told me that the " hand selected " 20SS means not only on the stylus/cantilever selection but on other cartridge parameters like separation, frequency response deviation and the like.

This seems something that happened too in Stanton when they said that a top model was " hand calibrated ".

In both cartridge cases there is no doubt on the quality differences against its similar " non hand selcted/calibrated " brother.

I think that we can't absolutely sure what are the differences from the build/QC point of view, the only thing we can be sure is that the quality performance is differeent for the better.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Hi Raul, do you know of any documentation on the net about this cartridge? Pics?

Duh, pics at top of page but find it odd that I can't find any other info on the net.

dear Ecir38: Maybe this could help you:

Regards and enjoy the music,
Thanks Raul, that was the first place I looked at don't know how I overlooked it. Thanks for the the other set of eyes and excellant review.

Hi Ecir 38 - I have a product sheet explaining the differences between the 15 and 20ss's, sent to me by an AT employee - don't know how to attach this here - pm me and I will send you the pdf.

More importantly, where do I find the cartridge????? Even happy to pay a small spotters fee to anybody willing to help as easier from the US than Australia.

Dear Alex17333: There is no precise 20SS source because is an old out of production cartridge.

What I recommend is that you buy the original 20SS ( NOS ) stylus replacement through LP gear or Stereo Needles before disappear.

As a second step and over the time I'm sure you could find through ebay either the 20/15 cartridge model to suit that stylus replacement.

Btw, I 'm interested too in that product sheet you have. I appreciate if you can email me here:

Thank you in advance.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Hi Raul, I was hoping some kind person in the US may be able to help spot a used example and I'm happy to pay a small spotters fee - then again, I guess it's every man (or person I should say) for themselves when it comes to finding the holy grail.

The hunt continues.


Alex L

Alex L
I'm using NOS AT15SS and can attest that this is magnificent cartridge. It is mounted on Audio Technica 1010 tonearm. great match. The tonearm seems to be designed to carry this cart. Even that manual shows AT15/AT20 mounted.
Cartridge manual tells that spec difference between AT15SS and AT20SS is 33 vs 35 db in channel separation.
My cartridge response plot shows the same linearity as AT20SS spec.
I guess that AT15SS is a lot like AT20SS and many AT15SS are up to the AT20SS spec. Of course the number of cartridges marked as AT20SS is much less. This how marketing product range works.
I seriously doubt that AT did any more selection when producing replacement styli and marking them as AT15SS or AT20SS. This I found when my AT15SS original cartridge stylus outperformed NOS Original replacement AT20SS stylus.
Dear Siniy123: We can't say for sure what AT made it about whta IMHO we can say is that both are great performers: don't you think?

Regards and enjoy the music,
Raul, really fascinating and alluring thread..
I'm exploring some real exotic sounding cartridges thanks to you..
I can use your expertise on this one: I have an Audio Technica AT20SL cartridge with AT20SS needle. (Printed ' limited edition' on the back of the cartridge in black lettering).
Does it has the same 'motor' as the AT15SA / AT20SLA ?, or are they different cartridges?
Thanks again for the fun stuff!!!
I have both a AT-20SS LE and a AT-20SLA LE/ATN-20SS hybrid and I find the "hybrid" to sound a bit better balanced.The specs of the AT-20SLA speak of lower inductance than the AT-20SS.
I was lucky to find also a NOS AT-24 and two ATN-25 replacement styluses.Another great AT cartridge,in some respects even better than the 20's.