Audio Technica ART1000 moving coil cartridge
The Audio Technica ART1000 is the most radical moving coil cartridge on the planet. It turns conventional cartridge design ideas on their head by moving the coils from one end of the cantilever to the other. Not since the Decca London of the fifties has anyone produced such a dramatic rethinking of cartridge design and I have to take my hat off to Audio Technica for undertaking this project in the first place.
I first came across this cartridge on a Vertere turntable because the man behind that brand, Touraj Moghaddam, had discovered that it works exceptionally well for him. He isn’t wrong, the immediacy is electrifying, I had to hear one at home. Thereafter I spent an age pursuing A-T in the UK by all avenues possible and at Munich High End I finally met them and agreed the loan. It seems that A-T are very protective of their new baby, I can’t blame them, the production numbers are limited because only one woman can build the critical components at the factory in Japan. It is also very expensive for an A-T, it’s not excessive by high end MC standards but it’s in rarefied company.
The deal with the ART1000 (above left) is that the stylus is underneath coils that induce the signal, so there is no cantilever between the two. The coils attached to the stylus sit in a 0.6mm gap with their very fine connecting wires travelling up the stylus and attaching to the pins that stick out of the back of the cartridge This is a game changing idea that was first mooted 30 years ago by Mitsuo Miyata, it didn’t come to fruition then but in 2013 Miyata and Yousuke Koizumi spent a further three years on the design and created the ART1000.
There must have been numerous challenges along the way, not least being that the coils have to be in precisely the correct part of the tiny gap whilst being moved up and down by the vinyl. As a result every ART1000 comes with a downforce figure that rather than being recommended is effectively mandatory if you want to get the best out of the cartridge. It probably explains the higher than usual 11g mass, albeit some of that is contributed by a titanium section at the back of the cartridge. The rest of the body is made up aluminium and injection moulding, apparently titanium sounds very good but by combining different materials A-T have avoided serious resonances and excessive mass. There is a (boron) cantilever on this cartridge which allows the stylus to trace the groove and provide the desired compliance with its suspension, but it does not have to mechanically transmit the signal. The stylus itself is a ‘special line contact’ type.
This work of technological inspiration is supplied in a solid walnut box on a plastic headshell that pivots out and can be removed with a single fixing through the cartridge. That’s the easy bit. Installing any expensive cartridge is a nerve-wracking business but most of the time this is made easier by the presence of a stylus guard and threaded inserts in the body. Not here however, there are no threaded inserts in the substantial body of the ART1000 just very deep holes that require longer fixings than I could find in the toolbox. One reason for this is that many A-T headshells have threads in and you can’t have threads in both headshell and cartridge. But Koizumi-san tells me that threaded inserts may be an option in the future.
Long aluminium bolts are supplied with the cartridge, and a suitably short screwdriver, but this is not the way we fix our cartridges. The Japanese have long been keen on aluminium nuts and bolts, they are very light and non magnetic after all, but it’s difficult to do them up tightly. I prefer stainless bolts with hex/Allen heads and had to get some from one of the two UK ART1000 dealers, Mark at Vinyl Passion. However while the stylus guard has bolt holes so that it can remain in place these are not big enough for this type of bolt, so the whole fiddly business has to be done with considerable care. Mark tells me that slim fit Allen bolts exist which would be perfect and he would be the man to supply them if you don’t want a box of a 1000.
Thankfully the SME Series V arm that I initially installed the A-T in makes set-up easier than most, the headshell is not removable but there are holes rather than slots for the bolts and all the alignment can be done without touching the cartridge. Mark recommends using a small amount of damping with the SME V but as I’ve never had silicone in the trough I didn’t do this, there is no shortage of damping overall on the SME 20/3 turntable and the V is pretty calm as well. And this suits the ART1000 beautifully, allowing it to produce beguiling fine detail resolution and class leading immediacy combined with body and power. That is quite a rare combination, the aforementioned Decca Londons have tremendous immediacy but not the body and finesse of a good moving coil. Immediacy or speed is a crucial part of music reproduction, it’s one of the biggest differences between live and recorded sound. You know it’s a live electric guitar even if it’s in another building for this reason. Dynamics play a part as well of course and thankfully this A-T is no slouch in that department either, put on a great recording like Chasing the Dragon’s España and you’ll hear live dynamics if the phono stage, amplifier and loudspeakers are up to the job, and this was most certainly the case here thanks to Tom Evans’ Groove+ SRX MkII phono stage (watch this space for full review).
Upscaled model of the ART1000 shown at High End, Munich 2016
I put on a half speed mastered version of Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark which can sound a bit thin and was delighted at the dynamics it delivered even at low levels. The character of the acoustic guitars and Mitchell’s fabulous voice are rendered with such clarity and naturalness that a whole side goes by without me noticing, that’s how captivating it sounded. The ART1000 gives the SME a Rega like speed that is very gratifying indeed, especially when playing a great recording like Patricia Barber’s Modern Cool. Here the bass line is muscular and tight, finely detailed and yet clearly powerful. Then you start hearing the reverb on the voice alongside all the other quiet details that combine to produce a rich, three-dimensional soundscape. It’s a rather fabulous experience and one that dragged me away from the looming deadlines rather too often.
As good as the results with the SME were I felt that it might be possible to get more out of the ART1000 if it were installed in the RB2000 arm on a Rega RP10 turntable. Here set up was not so easy as it required a heavier counterweight and even then I could only use about 30% spring downforce without leaving the weight too far back. But that seemed to work rather well, bringing out subtleties in everything I played, the polish on Court and Spark became more evident and both voice and guitar delivered even more of their inner character all in the context of beautiful, fluid timing. What also became clear was how good this cartridge is at separating out all the instruments and voices in a mix, giving each the space to expand in and strut its stuff. On Laura Marling’s track ‘Soothing’ (Semper Femina) the multi-layered nature of the voice in the chorus for instance became very clear alongside a tremendous sense of ease. The quieter sounds on this album went from being sketches to oil colours, such was the increase in tonal depth.
The more familiar the music the more obvious was the degree of extra detail that the ART1000 revealed, Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution has been on heavy rotation this year so I thought I knew it well. But this turntable and cartridge showed acres of extra detail, lovely bass weight in the kick drum and a fabulous snare drum on ‘Unconditional Love’. It sounds so good you just want to turn it all the way up. Then there’s the ease with which you can understand the lyrics, ‘Ebony and Ivy’ has fast spoken word segments that usually require the lyric sheet to comprehend, but not now, the apparent absence of overhang means that every words is clearly enunciated. This indicates how little time smear this cartridge creates, I don’t think I have heard a better MC in this regard, one that has so little ringing or resonance and thus gives you the pace and punctuation of the music so clearly.
An older favourite is Music for the Texts of Ishmael Reed by Conjure, this blues/funk/jazz album has a good size band on every track so it usually sounds tonally dynamic but can get a bit busy and dense. The ART1000 managed to separate out all the different instruments so that you can appreciate what each musician is doing without trying. In particular the various types of hand drums are much clearer, the musicians and their instruments are listed on the album but it’s rare to be able to enjoy what each one is doing in the context of a highly engaging overall presentation. Even the lesser tracks bring out delights that elude all but the finest record players, the texture of the bass, crispness of guitar and glare free shine of trumpet are precisely yet effortlessly defined. I ended up listening to the whole side and was struck by Reed’s reading of his poem ‘Judas’, the last line being particularly powerful: “To this day it’s called the field of blood”.
High end cartridges often end up being super refined, polished and tonally charming at the expense of transparency and immediacy, which means that they have coloration that benefits some recordings more than others. The ART1000 is tonally neutral, truly wideband and uncannily transparent, it doesn’t do this by tweaking the response in the upper midrange to give a strong sense of detail as can often be the case, but by employing technological advantage. I suspect that the engineering in this cartridge is so inherently expensive that it will never be trickled down to more affordable strata, but one can live in hope. At this stage the ART1000 deserves to be alarming the makers of big money cartridges, it’s clearly one of the best in the business. I only hope that the lack of a boutique brand doesn’t stop people from finding out just how incredibly good it is.