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Best Cartridge Upgrade for Audio-Technica AT-LP120

In this article, I’ll review the top 5 cartridge upgrades for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB. Then I will pick the one that I think is the very best one to replace the original AT95E cartridge on my AT-LP120.

Lately, I have spent many more hours than I like to admit on researching and discussing what the best cartridge upgrade for my Audio-Technica AT-LP-120 will be.

I wanted to investigate if there is a way to significantly increase the sonic performance of my AT-LP120 without totally breaking the bank.

And a cartridge upgrade is to me the obvious first step to significantly improve the sonic performance of the LP120. As the cartridge is the “heart and soul” of the turntable.

The price range that I have selected for my research is from about $150 to about $300.

I think cartridges below $150 will give to small of an upgrade from the originally fitted AT95E cartridge to give the AT-LP120 the bump in sonic performance that I am looking for.

And I think that cartridges above $300 might start to get too expensive for a turntable that costs about $300.

So $150 to $300 seems like a good sweet spot. It is also in this price range that the majority of the most popular cartridge upgrades for the AT-LP120 seem to be found.

Okay. Back to the question. What is the best cartridge upgrade for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 between $150 and $300?

First, let’s narrow it down to the top 5. Here is what I found.

The top 5 cartridge upgrades for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 are:

  1. Audio-Technica VM530EN (AT120E)
  2. Denon DL-110
  3. Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)
  4. Ortofon 2M Blue
  5. Grado Prestige Gold

In the sections below, I will take a closer look at each cartridge in the list above. And then I will pick the one that stands out as the very best candidate for my AT-LP120 cartridge upgrade.

But before I do that, let’s talk briefly about the AT-LP120 and its standard cartridge that it is sold with.

AT-LP120 with the AT95E Cartridge

When I first bought this turntable, I was not totally happy with it.

Mechanically, the LP120 is an amazing piece of kit for the price when it comes to perceived build quality and weight. As an electronics engineer who used to design consumer electronics for a living, I just can’t wrap my head around how they manage to sell this for such a low price.

But when it comes to sound and sonic performance, the AT-LP120 sounded a bit dull, dark and muted to me. It didn’t give the music the “liveliness” and “openness” that I had hoped for.

Other than my turntables, my stereo setup consists of the Denon PMA-1600NE Stereo Receiver ($1,600) and the B&W 705S2 speakers ($2,100).

The stereo should be good enough to not be outplayed by the AT-LP120. Good enough to keep the AT-LP120 reasonably honest…

Unfortunately, from the beginning, the AT-LP120 did not fully meet my (very high) expectations.

To make a long story short, I later upgraded my turntable to a Rega Planar 2. That was more than twice the price of the AT-LP120. And, as we can expect from a more expensive turntable, it sounded a bit better. (My Rega Planar 2 turntable has recently gotten a cartridge upgrade too. You can read all about that process in this article.)

But I now understand that the AT-LP120 is a very good foundation for a awesome HiFi turntable. If you are willing to spend a bit of time and money on modifying and upgrading it.

So maybe I was a bit too quick on upgrading to the Rega Planar 2?

The AT-LP120 just get an enormous amount of love in the turntable community. And there must be a reason for that.

So, my plan right now is to spend the time and money needed to get the most performance out of my AT-LP120.

To see if I can fall in love with it as well.

And it all starts with deciding on the right cartridge.

The AT-LP120 comes standard with an AT95E cartridge which usually sells for around $50. It is highly regarded as a good cartridge for the price. But there is certainly a lot of sonic performance left on the table that can be tapped into by upgrading to higher quality cartridge for the AT-LP120.

The other main upgrade/modification (besides the cartridge) that will help take the AT-LP120 to the next level in sonic performance is the famous internal preamp mod. Or preamp removal mod.

So I plan to do the preamp removal mod together with the cartridge upgrade.

For a fantastic video that shows the complete AT-LP120 preamp removal procedure, please check out Vinyl TV’s guide on YouTube by clicking here.

(Update: I have now performed the preamp removal mod on my LP120. You will find the link to that article at the end of this article.)

The Top 5 Cartridges for AT-LP120

Below is a review of what I have found to be the top 5 cartridges for the AT-LP120. (We’ll conclude on the very best one at the end of this article.)

1. Audio-Technica VM530EN (AT120E)

Dual magnet (MM) cartridge with 0.3 x 0.7 mil elliptical nude stylus.
The VM530EN replaces the discontinued AT120E.

Specifications

Output Level4.5 mV
Channel Separation27dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force
2.0 grams
Stylus Shape0.3 x 0.7 mil elliptical
MountStandard / Half Inch

Pros

  • Smooth neutral sound.
  • Not analytical.
  • Low price

Cons

  • It doesn’t fully eliminate inner groove distortion on the AT-LP120. But does a much better job than the AT95E that comes as standard.
  • Totally been left in the shadows by its bigger brother, the VM540ML, by the vinyl community.
  • Lacks X-Factor.

Click here to check price on VM530EN on Amazon.

2. Denon DL-110

High output Moving Coil (MC) cartridge which can be used with the ease of MM type cartridge.

Specifications

Output Level1.6 mV
Channel Separation25 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force
1.8 grams
Stylus Shape0.1 x 0.2mm elliptical diamond
MountStandard / Half Inch

Pros

  • Good tracker
  • Clear and neutral without being too analytical
  • Good control in the bass range
  • A very good cartridge for the price with lots of fans in the vinyl community.

Cons

  • Basically nothing worth mentioning…
  • Minor: Will work close to perfect on a MM preamp but might need a MC preamp to truly shine
  • Minor: The relatively low signal output level (compared to MM cartridges) might require quality equipment with good signal-to-noise ratio to keep noise levels in check. Might also cause volume problems in some systems.

Click here to check price on Denon DL-110 on Amazon.

3. Audio-Technica VM540ML (AT440MLa/b)

Dual magnet (MM) cartridge with MicroLine stylus.
The VM540ML replaces the discontinued and very popular AT440MLa/b.

Specifications

Output Level4.0 mV
Channel Separation28 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force
2.0 grams
Stylus Shape2.2 x 0.12 mil MicroLine®
MountStandard / Half Inch

Pros

  • Good tracker
  • Known to eliminate all inner groove distortion on AT-LP120
  • Regarded as the leader in its segment when it comes to control, definition, separation and depth (sound quality)

Cons

  • It is very hard to find any negative reviews or opinions at all when researching the VM540ML and its predecessors. It might be just perfect…
  • Regarded by some as being a fraction on the bright/analytical side in some systems.

Click here to check price on VM540ML on Amazon.

4. Ortofon 2M Blue

The Ortofon 2M Blue is the Ortofon 2M Red’s bigger brother and the Ortofon 2M Bronze’s little brother. So it fits right between the Red and the Bronze.

Specifications

Output Level5.5 mV
Channel Separation25 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force
1.6 – 2.0 grams
Stylus ShapeNude Elliptical
MountStandard / Half Inch

Pros

  • Good tracker
  • Detailed
  • Precise
  • Outperforms its little brother, the 2M Red, by quite some margin

Cons

  • Regarded as quite bright and analytical by many
  • Not a good choice if warm smooth sound is your preference

Click here to check price on Ortofon 2M Blue on Amazon.

5. Grado Prestige Gold

The Gold are hand selected from Silver production runs which meet higher test specifications. Approximately 5% of the run usually exhibits these specs and become a Gold.

Specifications

Output Level5.0 mV
Channel Separation35 dB
Recommended Load Impedance47k ohms
Recommended Tracking Force
1.5 grams
Stylus ShapeElliptical diamond
MountStandard / Half Inch

Pros

  • One of the warmest sweetest sounding cartridges on the market
  • Smooth silky sound
  • Lots of charm and soul
  • Made in NYC (which is cool!)

Cons

  • Prone to inner groove distortion
  • Very sensitive to tonearms. Can be a tracking nightmare one some tonearms. (Regarded to work best on low-mass tonearms.)
  • A cartridge you either love or hate. Nothing in between. Might be a terrible investment. And might not.
  • Unshielded. Prone to hum on some turntables.

Click here to check price on Grado Prestige Gold on Amazon.

Conclusion: The best cartridge upgrade for Audio-Technica AT-LP120

All 5 cartridges above are good quality and highly regarded cartridges. And will all significantly increase the sonic performance of the AT-LP120.

But there are two cartridges on the list above that receive 100% love and absolutely no negative comments from the vinyl community what so ever.

The Denon DL-110.
And the Audio-Technica VM540ML.

So it will be hard not to go for one of those.

The warm tube-like sound of the Grado Prestige Gold intrigues me and I really want to own one at some point. But the fact that it can mean trouble (distortion and hum) won’t make it my first cartridge upgrade for the AT-LP120.

The VM530EN and the Ortofon 2M Blue are both cartridges that receive a lot of praise in the community, but they don’t seem to have the ability to spark real passion in the community like the three other ones on my list.

So, the choice is between the Denon DL-110 and the Audio-Technica VM540ML.

And it is a very close race indeed.

But the higher output level of the VM540ML and the fact that it is an Audio-Technica product that potentially will be easier to fit and align on my AT-LP120 are two small factors that make the VM540ML the one that I will choose.

It is more of a gut feeling than anything, but the VM540ML just feels like a safer bet.

Conclusion

The Audio-Technica VM540ML is my pick as the best cartridge upgrade for the Audio-Technica AT-LP120.

Final Notes

The VM540ML is ordered and received from Amazon. I went for the VM540ML/H Turntable Headshell/Cartridge Combo Kit (Amazon link) that includes a headshell to make it easier to swap between the old and new cartridge to review and compare performance.

VM540ML/H Turntable Headshell/Cartridge Combo Kit

I will post a follow-up article (review) when I have installed the VM540ML on my AT-LP120 and given it time to break in.

As we know, cartridges need a bit of playing time to break in and sound their best.

And hopefully my AT-LP120 will survive my attempt to remove the built-in preamp… I will post a follow-up article on that project as well.

Update 1: You can read my LP120 with VM540ML review here. The VM540ML cartridge transformed the LP120 just as much as I had hoped.

Update 2: I have now removed the preamp from my LP120. Read about it in this article. My LP120 barely survived….

Resources

https://www.stevehoffman.tv
https://www.needledoctor.com
https://www.vinylengine.com
https://www.audio-technica.com/cms/site/b535f9ffd4a85477/index.html


  • Tom
  • April 17, 2019