Consider yourselves lucky. Audio-Technica in the UK is run by one Shig Harada, a man with an intense love for the analogue LP and an employee of one of the very few Japanese companies with faith in the format. It's Harada who decided that the UK deserves a crack at the company's new flagship cartridge, quite unlike the US operation which doesn't even know it exists. And when you realize that Harada is committing to a cartridge which sells for #800 minus five pence, you can understand that this is a courageous move. Even though the UK is one of the few remaining markets which still supports the LP with vigour, #800 cartridges ain't exactly the easiest items to shift.
With the way things are at present, you just have to admire any company which is prepared to attack the state of the art in a technology which 90 percent of the industry reckons is dead and
buried. Developed in celebration of Audio-Technica's 25th Anniversary, the AT-ART1 (Audio Reference Transducer) is simply the best cartridge Audio-Technica is able to produce at this
point in time, a cartridge which exploits all that the company has learned while producing the well-received 'OC models. It is innovative, but above all it's an indication of bravery.
So what does the AT-ART1 offer as temptation for the consumer with enough money to purchase either a damned fine CD player or any one of a few dozen other moving-coil cartridges? Structurally, the AT-ART1 is the result of Audio-Technica starting with a clean sheet, not unlike Ortofon with their MC3000 and its ceramic body. The AT-ART1 features a titanium body with internal damping to produce an 'ideal rigidity/lightness factor'. At first glance, the cartridge looks like any modern m-c. Then you actually touch it and find that the cocoa-colored lower half is not solid like the silvery upper portion. It 'gives' under pressure because it's formed from a special rubber compound designed to eliminate completely any internal resonances.
The first manufacturer to exploit PC-OCC (Pure Copper Ohno Continuous Casting) wire, Audio-Technica is now employing the latest version of this material, suffixed '6N' to indicate purity of 99.99996%. The material is used for the coils, where it's said to provide the highest possible output efficiency and transparency, as well as for the terminal pins. The coil windings
reside within a ceramic VC mold which ensures a tight fit inside the housing and the coils are arrayed in Audio-Technica's traditional (and patented) separate left/right 'V' array. Fitted to this body/generator system is a Boron cantilever with a diamond-coated top surface, tipped with an 0.1mm nude, square MicroLinear Stylus. Also employed is a vertical stabilizer as used in the AT-OC9.
The chunky body (the AT-ART1 weighs in at a substantial 9g) has parallel sides and enough flat surfaces to provide myriad visual clues for alignment. Smart and useful though the rubber section might be, the grooves cut into it aren't ruler-straight, so you're advised to use either the arm tube, cartridge top-plate or the lower edge of the body's titanium section if you set VTA by
eye rather than ear. Installation in the SME Series V was trouble-free and VTA was spot on with the top-plate parallel to the disc; I set it at 1.6g in accordance with the chart supplied
showing factory test measurements.
The rest of the system included the Oracle Delphi III turntable, Beard P1000, Raymond Lumley M150, Denon POA-4400A and Radford MA50 power amplifiers, Apogee Diva and Celestion SL700 speakers and Audio Research SP-9 and Air-Tight ATC-1 preamplifiers, both
employed without m-c stages. Aside from the obvious necessity of ensuring the correct tonearm match, potential owners must audition the AT-ART1 with the preamp they'll be using at home.
Output is stated as 0.35mV (my sample measured slightly lower at 0.31/0.32mV) which is neither ridiculously low nor exceptionally high. The SP-9 matched it beautifully, while the Air Tight could just about manage but with little in the way of a margin for head bangers. I stress this matching aspect because the AT-ART1 is so genuinely transparent -- near to Spectral level, in fact -- that it reveals in spades the insertion of an extra step-up device.
This is not the usual exaggeration or hyperbole of a typically journalistic sort; the head-amps I tried are of the highest pedigree, some costing more than the cartridge itself, and their presence was wholly deleterious. I'm not going to list them, because I know how so many readers -- especially retailers -- get the wrong end of the stick when one states that a product didn't work in certain conditions and these step-ups have proved just dandy with other cartridges. It would be a disservice to brand them as poor simply because they don't suit the AT-ART1. What I'm hoping to make clear is that the AT-ART1 just loves to look at 47k ohms, so that's the way I'd recommend auditioning it. Only you know whether or not your preamp is up to the task.
I measured the AT-ART1 at both the beginning of the first session and a month later, after it had amassed more than 100 hours in the groove. The measurements changed so insignificantly that I'd suspect these leave the factory in ready-to-run condition. The ride height changed not at all, meaning that the usual post-run-in VTA re-adjustment was unnecessary, further confirming my belief that the AT-ART1 is one of very few high-end m-cs which don't demand a run-in period -- something which should be a given at this price point.
With the exception of the output, which I mentioned earlier measured slightly lower than as specified, the AT-ART1 improved on every one of its supplied specifications. The frequency
response was virtually ruler-flat from 60Hz-10kHz, with a barely significant boost below the first figure. At the other end, the AT-ART1 was up by only 0.6dB according to my measurements, at odds with the +3dB of Audio-Technica's own tracing. Either way, there was nothing to suggest a top-end rise, the cartridge being smooth and natural rather than bright or zingy. Then again, we are talking about the edge of the chart...
Which is as good a place as any to start. The upper registers of the AT-ART1 are not standard A-T if you're the type who assumes that Audio-Technicas lean toward the bright or sharp. There's detail a'plenty, with deft handling of such easily obscured or smeared sounds as massed cymbals, and this is absolutely free of the exaggeration which brands something as 'hi-fi' rather than 'music'. It's a phenomenon common to almost every cartridge I've used which features a MicroLinear stylus and one of the reasons why I prefer that profile to the edgier van den Hul tip. And miracle of miracles, the AT-ART1 gave a welcome lift to the sound of the SL700s without inducing any fatigue.
The midband is just as rich in detail but the character changes slightly to accommodate the adjective 'liquid'. The AT-ART1 favors vocals and acoustic instruments because some wholly
electronic sounds seem a bit thick in this region. It changes the character of house/rap music, making it even more plodding than usual, but then I only slipped the stuff between platter and
stylus because I'm expected to sample every genre. Considering my utter contempt for 'acieeeddd', I don't consider sending it to Coventry to be much of loss. (Or Hull for that matter.) If you want a graphic visual analogy for this sonic balance, think of a Lautrec woman, thin at the top and a bit plump down below.
This can work in the listener's favor if the listener is using a system with a rich upper register and a lean lower portion. The condition is, however, quite subtle and only really noticeable
through speakers with a resolutely neutral midband.
The AT-ART1 slims down again for the bottom octaves, a situation I found perfect for the overly rich Divas but less so for the almost-bass-shy Celestions. In both cases, the speakers benefit from a sensation of better control, especially the Divas which are easily excited, but this leanness could rob the Celestions of much-needed low-end reinforcement. But while the 'mass' of the bass notes may seem lighter than, say, that of a ripe Koetsu, the bass does have exceptional presence, a light fleet footed sound that's simply perfect for complex bass passages. Ironically, most of these performances can be found in the hyperactive club genre
mentioned above, the very type of music which isn't as favored by the AT-ART1's midband.
But this virtual ecorche of a mixed mesomorph/ectomorph doesn't account for the overall coherence of the cartridge as regards the textures, balance and evenhandedness which obscure such minor faults. The AT-ART1 sounds 'of a piece' despite the plump-in-the-middle, lean-at-the-ends description I've provided. And neither does it address the positively panoramic spread of sound or the convincing three-dimensionality which places the AT-ART1 up there with such greats as the Monster Alphas Genesis, the Koetsus and the Sumiko Talisman. It's the latter of which the AT-ART1 reminded me most often, even though it has none of the Talisman's occasional relentlessness.
What these virtues create when combined with the above-mentioned dietary considerations is a large, indeed massive soundfield with rock-solid internal images and reasonably well-defined
extremities. On coherent recordings with well-captured atmosphere, such as the recent Water Lily recordings of Arturo Delmoni, the AT-ART1 produces a life-like figure surrounded by a
convincing space, the only clues to its nature as a recording being a slight obscuring of the tiniest low-level details and a bit of added liveliness to the reflections. And since these are
characteristics which most of us have to strain to discern, I say, 'Big deal'.
The AT-ART1 will appeal most to those have been living with CD as well as LP and don't want to give up some of the former's virtues while at the same time hankering for the most 'analogue' of LP playback. The AT-ART1 skates in-between the two, making it a perfect high-end compromise as the gap between LP and CD grows smaller. It may lack some of the toe-tingling charm and warmth of the Koetsu, the absolute transparency of the Spectral (though it's damned close) or the mind-bending speed of the Deccas, but it's one dandy smorgasbord alternative.
No wonder I usually see Shig Harada smiling.