Radical styling is not something one associates with moving coil cartridges, there are some brands that use exotic woods and semi-precious stone to imbue their creations with special properties but I don’t recall a mass produced example that looks as radical as the AT-ART20. Their first ART series model, the AT-ART1000 is exotic in tech terms but inhabits a machined metal housing that looks purposeful and rigid, the sculpted form of the AT-ART20 is positively aerodynamic by comparison. In fact as another reviewer has noted it wouldn’t look out of place on an alien spacecraft, albeit I doubt they would have developed such a fabulous medium as the vinyl record.
The shiny part of this cartridge’s casework is “wafer thin” titanium, at least that’s how Clive Atkins at Audio Technica UK describes it, he is clearly a Monty Python fan because wafers really aren’t that thin in the broad scheme of things. A-T don’t divulge how thin it is but titanium is heavier than aluminium and the goal was to keep the overall weight down so that this relatively high compliance cartridge is compatible with a broad range of tonearms. Apparently the company had to use the skills of a Japanese lens manufacturing company in order to achieve the precision machining and polished finish of the titanium. All the end user has to do is take care when polishing out finger prints that are an inevitable result of mounting the cartridge.
There is more to this cartridge than the housing of course, the ART-20 is the first in its class to exploit new technologies such as the 3D modelling of the body and the use of a thicker front yoke (the part that focuses magnetic force) which improves flux density. This boosts voltage output by 15% without increasing the amount of windings on the coils. In a moving coil cartridge the cantilever moves a set of coils within a magnetic field, the output from those coils producing a voltage. So the more windings the heavier the coils and the harder it is to control them. Higher outputs are desirable in MCs but not at the expense of increased moving mass.
The cantilever on this cartridge is boron with a fork at the end where the line contact stylus is inserted, it’s held in place by a titanium plate for maximum stiffness and minimum weight. The stylus is oblong in section and designed to produce a “premium high frequency response with minimal inner groove distortion”. The coil end of the cantilever features a ‘stepped pipe structure’, essentially a larger section connection to the armature that ties the cantilever to the cartridge body, the aim being to increase rigidity in order to minimise unwanted vibration. You want the vibration that’s pressed into the groove to be turned into a signal, anything added to that by resonances in the pick-up system is distortion.
Installation is aided by the presence of threaded inserts in the top and a stylus protector that doesn’t fall off at the earliest opportunity, both features that cannot be taken for granted even with high end cartridges. The nine gram mass makes the ART-20 compatible with a wide range of arms, which is not always the case with lower compliance designs. The 1.8g recommended downforce sits between the usual 2g of most MCs and the 1.5g of rare birds such as those made by Van den Hul and a few others. The output voltage is just over half a millivolt which is adequate for pretty well any MC phono stage but too low for MM types unless a step-up transformer is used. Recommended load impedance is 100 Ohms which is the norm for an MC and will be found on any decent phono preamplifier/stage.
I fitted the ART-20 into the headshell of the RB3000 arm on my Rega P10 turntable, it’s a little heavier than the Aphelion 2 cartridge that usually sits there so I had to shift the counterweight back a little and use a bit less spring downforce in so that the weight wasn’t too far back. I set downforce at 1.8g and with the Tom Evans Groove+ SRX MkII’s impedance set to its lowest option (112 Ohms) dropped the needle on the record. It landed on Dan Berkson’s Dialogues and I revelled in this Audio Technica’s ability to extract so much low level detail and present it in such an immediate and compelling fashion. A-T has always been good at making fast, articulate MCs so this didn’t come as a surprise but this one gets close to the mighty ART-1000 in this regard which is impressive given that it costs nearly £2k less.
Dynamics are strong too, a well recorded drum kit comes across in powerful fashion thanks to solid low end while the keyboards crackle with a typical Rhodes sound, the cartridge tracking both the electric piano and a trumpet with ease and leaving plenty of space between them. The combination of analytical detail levels with musical flow is particularly appealing, this is something that is so rare with digital sources which cannot seem to compete with a good record player when it comes to coherence. The processing involved just gets in the way, this Audio Technica reinforces the supremacy of vinyl as the music lover’s format of choice and then delivers detail that the very best digital sources might envy.
I played a wide variety of records with this cartridge, including an old Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers album, this was originally recorded in the twenties and is therefore in mono but the energy and quality of playing shows that those boys could swing just as hard as their Chili baked namesakes did 60 years later. The blues tracks proved the most enchanting however, the special line contact stylus digging down to the heart of the music and making it as relevant today as it has ever been. Recent releases have a lot more going on of course and that includes serious bass, which on Rymden has so much body and weight it almost sounds plump. It’s easy to follow the work that bassist Dan Berglund is putting in behind the power of the drums and Bugge Wesseltoft’s distracting keyboard. I also really enjoyed Ryley Walker’s Halfwit In Me which came through with all of its tonal richness in full effect and perfectly timed at that. The way that this cartridge does immediacy without glare or forwardness is particularly rewarding when combined with high levels of inner detail that make familiar tracks sound fresh once more.
I experimented with downforce to see how that might change the result and found that increasing pressure had the effect of reducing high frequency detail and shrinking the image, not generally a good thing but it did add a little more drive. Reducing downforce increased the sense of space at the expense of power, on balance therefore the recommended 1.8 delivers the best all round result. A-T did the preliminary research through listening alone and they clearly nailed this side of the equation as well as they did the overall result.
The Audio technical AT-ART20 is an extremely capable cartridge, if it doesn’t give you a result in your system I would consider looking at a different record player because this distinctively styled cartridge will not be the limiting factor. It’s one of those products that will turn the unwary into vinyl junkies, but that’s not a bad thing because every new record will open up another world and highly gratifying new experience. I often listen to new music of an evening and tend to mix digital and analogue formats, but as soon as I start playing something with this A-T it becomes very difficult to lift the stylus from the groove let alone go back to digital, it’s totally compelling. If you want to hear more of the sonic gold that’s locked in your favourite records the ART20 is the key.