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Audio Technica Universal Mount Phono / Turntable Cartridge Reviews

Audio Technica Universal Mount Phono / Turntable Cartridge

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A-T 311EP Phono Cartridge…Finally A Great Pickup for Linear Trackers!

Nov 26, 2012 (Updated Dec 12, 2012)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Price! Open airy high end dimensionality & sound quality!

Cons:As a universal cartridge it may invite trouble on certain standard mount tonearms.

The Bottom Line: At $30 this phono pickup rates as quite possibly the all time best buy.


You really have to hand it to audio-technica.  They are the only phono cartridge manufacturer who still offers quite an extensive line of serious moving magnet carts at reasonable prices to the vinyl aficionado.   Their A-T 311EP is creating quite a stir these days as evidenced by countless remarks and quickie reviews offered on various audiophile forums.  
Although the cartridge appears to be identical to the similarly priced A-T 92ECD model…there are major differences in sound quality.  I know because I own both.  I truly believe that the 311EP uses thinner OFC wiring and higher energy dual magnets.  It’s not that the 92E is bad…It’s just that the 311EP is so much better!  The 92E exhibits some brashness in the midrange.  

Go figure…but I would liken the situation to the old hand picked Signet line whose parent company…audio-technica offered to high end dealers back in the 80’s & 90’s as opposed to their highway discount counterparts.  An A-T 12E although sporting a similar .003 x .007 elliptical bonded stylus…in no way could match the higher output more detailed and refined sound of an AM 20 or AMP20.  The higher expense of the given Signet model was more than worth it to audiophiles with trained ears who appreciated the value and the better focus and presentation offered by  A-T’s elitist division.

I say this only because far too many times do I hear vinyl buffs claim that Signet was identical and just higher priced…offering no appreciable improvement in record reproduction.   What a load of bull!  But Signet has long been retired.  The 311 is midway of the current audio-technica “300” series and arrives to you in a simplistic but attractively packaged clear plastic pill box with gold trim.  The contents are neatly sealed by a bar coded SKU label placed over the lid to ensure a tamper proof product.  If the seal is broken…the bar code and model I.D. become unreadable.  

The cartridge is currently offered on Amazon for $30 with free shipping but the model # is not clearly identified in the product category.  It simply reads as it does above here on EPINIONS as a “Universal” cartridge.  Still…the link provided to the right of this review will bring you directly to the proper Amazon site.  Rest assured…you will receive the A-T 311EP from Amazon.Com itself…not a separate vendor.  The standard free shipping is very quick and you’ll have your first rate pickup in no time.

Upon emptying the contents…you will find a bag of hardware which includes the skinny P-Mount tonearm side screw that so many of us tend to lose for one reason or another, a black standard mount adapter and model specifications with mounting instructions.  Although this is listed as a universal cartridge…it is more reliably a best fit for the Technics developed T4P P-Mount tonearms.  The adapter raises the overall height of the cartridge rendering improper VTA and the cart to bottom out on certain half-inch mount tonearms such as the s-shaped ones used in the classic Pioneer PL-516 & 518 turntables when coupled with their respective headshells.   

As rooms are to speakers…There is a certain correlation between tonearm and cartridge that produces a unique sound making vinyl reproduction so interesting and downright fun to experiment with.  This cartridge is famous for its performance in P-Mount Linear Tracking Tonearms…so mine was placed in my beloved Pioneer PL-L50 table.  Resurrecting this high end turntable is a story in itself and actually involved a miracle from heaven…but that is quite another story and will be subject for my next review.

From the Front Desk Of Audio-Technica U.S.

“The Audio-Technica AT311EP phono cartridge offers P-mount T4P convenience, superb performance and high accuracy. It is one of the top P-mount cartridges available from Audio-Technica and a favorite by those who value sound quality and who know how to listen well. Furthermore, since the Audio-Technica AT311EP phono cartridge uses a very high quality elliptical stylus that is housed in an industry standard holder, you have assured availability of stylus replacements for many, many years.”  



Nice!  Are you listening Shure and Ortofon???  Although NOS stock OM 5E carts are still barely available on the internet…Ortofon is now offering only the OM/P 10 from their OM Super hi-fi series and the street price just jumped a good twenty bucks while Shure’s only remaining hi-fi cart…the M97xE continues to creep up in internet price almost monthly now.  Stanton has turned their backs on the audiophile completely in favor of DJ competition mods.  Thanks…my two former favorite “Made In U.S.A.” cartridge companies!


 And don’t even think the now ridiculous Grado “Prestige” series is gonna answer the call at this price point.  This Brooklyn based company has kept prices way too high for performance per dollar as evidenced by the fact that a one-hundred-twenty dollar Grado Blue offers no better performance than a sixty dollar Grado Black.  In fact you would have to delve rather deeply into their “Premier” series of low output wooden bodied cartridges in order to appreciably move up from the A-T 311EP.  Cost?…Well over three hundred bucks my vinyl loving friend!  When are we gonna learn in this country?



audio-technica AT311EP Phono Cartridge Specifications  
Output voltage @ 1kHz,5cm/sec: 5mV 
Channel balance: 1.25dB 
Channel separation @ 1kHz/10kHz: 26/18dB 
Frequency response: 15Hz-27kHz 
Tracking force: 1 - 1.5 g 
Stylus type: .03 x .07 mil elliptical
Cantilever construction: Thin-wall tube 
Recommended load resistance: 47k ohms
Color: Black/White
Mounting: P-mount with a separate adapter for 1/2 inch mount


Setup:


Mounting the 311 in my linear tracking Pio Dynamic Resonance Absorbing arm was easy enough but be careful to align the four pins properly with the tonearm’s T4P receptacle.  It’s a good idea to give the receptacle a quick shot of CRC QD contact cleaner before doing so.  The original side thumb black screw was still intact on my particular player so there was no need to use the A-T 311EP’s supplied T4P skinny one.  

The attractive shiny black bodied A-T with white lettering and white stylus locked right in famously without distorting the pins.  The white lettering against the black background made for relatively easy track cuing through the smoked turntable dustcover which must be closed in order to start play…typical of linear trackers.  No VTF or anti-skating adjustment was possible or necessary because of the linear tracking design of the tonearm.  Linear trackers don’t skate like pivoting arms do and the cartridge‘s specified weight and 1.25 gram Vertical Tracking Force is spot on for the T4P arm.  Of course the LT also offers zero tracking error and there is absolutely no need of stylus overhang adjustment…again…none is possible anyway.


Listening Tests:


My system consists of a Blue Rock 2000 power amplifier, Pyle Pro PYP1x control preamplifier, TCC 760LC Phono preamplifier and Bose 301-V speakers with Kimber Kable 4TC interconnects.  After a two hour break in period…I decided to pit the 311EP up against my Ortofon Omega standard ½ inch mount cart…a favorite of mine when mounted in my SL-2500.  The Omega just received a new stylus…only its third in eight years…so it too was broken in for two hours when making the comparison.

There was no way this A-T was gonna match the performance of my beloved Ortofon…that’s what I thought.  Oh boy…was I in for a shocker!  Now keep in mind I was well aware of what the older A-T 212EP…the 311’s predecessor could do with the linear tracking Pio but still felt that the updated model was no match for the Ortofon in a really great s-shaped tonearm.  Wrong!  To my delight and surprise…it was and after twenty-five hours it opened up even more and blew not only the Omega out of the water…but my much more expensive Shure M97xE and reference ClearAudio Concept MM.  The cartridge’s channel balance and focus is remarkable!  Signal-to-noise ratio is excellent...no perceivable hum in my Pioneer PL-L50 Turntable while the cart seems to not be surface-noisy at all.  It will however pick up a tick or pop quite clearly.  The $50 Ortofon OMP 5E may very well be just a tad better overall.

In fact…throughout the playing of my “Professor Johnson Astounding Sound Show” LP…RR-7 Circa 1979...it very much reminded me of the former P-Mount king…the Stanton L847S cartridge with its clear wide range and dynamic presentation.   No…I haven’t forgotten the very elite/esoteric sounding Shure ML-111HE, V-15 HRP, LT & VP either.  It…the A-T that is…easily aced all torture test tracks.

Track One on Side One…”Introductory Fanfare And Band Organ” hinted that this cart was something special but when it not only aced Track Two…”Red Norvo Group/Saturday Night” but clearly was the better bell clanger and sibilance tracker…outstanding!   Then the three dimensional depth was awesome on Track Three…”African Ensemble/Gahu”.  It never waned as both arm and cart approached the end of the side treating inner groove distortion as if it didn’t exist in the first place.  There’s simply no appreciable breakdown of the soundstage.  Layers of dimensionality were left intact.  

Side Two’s “Pipe Organ/Toccata” revealed the 311’s ability to really reach down deep in the lows as my Bose 301’s shook the room with authority as they should.  The remaining “Harp” “String Quartet” and “Tubulong” tracks were reproduced perfectly and without any sandpapery stringent deficiency as well.   You do not want your cartridge to add any sounds either…AKA coloration.  Yet each phono cartridge is unique making the vinyl format so much more superior to the compact disc.

The 311EP has superb stereo separation…especially at the higher frequencies where lesser carts fail miserably.  It is a superbly balanced overall tonality that really makes this phono cartridge a serious contender.  Bass is strong without being overly so.  It is very discrete and only manifests itself when called upon to do so.  No doubt those of you who sometimes feel my beloved Ortofon OM 5E is somewhat “Muted” will find this 311EP to be relief for that situation.

The mids are not bumped up as in the Shure M97xE but rather placed where they are supposed to be blending in with the rest of the spectrum but yet nicely and crisply reproduced.  Drums and cymbals are not dramatized but rather are well defined and given proper edge and weight. The highs are equally strong and clear lacking the sandpapery brash quality of lesser styli/carts.   This is one of those very rare cartridges that does not fatigue the ear and mind with resonant coloration.  The 311EP should be in every vinyl maker’s studio for playback monitoring.  It simply calls it down the middle like a good umpire.

I find myself rediscovering LP upon LP into the wee hours of the morning and I simply can’t get enough as Barry White once said.  Two treasured LP’s suddenly came to life…One being Love’s “Forever Changes” featuring the late great Arthur Lee while the other was Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s immortal rare underappreciated Michael Murphy written classic 2 record LP…”Ballad Of Calico”.  “Vachel Carling’s Rubilator” on  Side 3 suddenly had detailed subtle stereo sound effects that were more…well…Rubilated!

“Che” is one of the greatest closers of all time ever put to print on vinyl.  From the 1973 Judy Collins Elektra album “True Stories And Other Dreams” …the 7:34 cut taxes most cheapy phono cartridges as it is placed on the innermost grooves.  Yet the 311 is able to reveal inner detail and one can clearly feel all the emotion in Sweet Judy Blue Eyes’ quivering voice and the change of tonality in the bass.  The subtle instrumental accompaniment along with the chorus of harmonious voices are  absolutely glorious!  It can and will move one to tears when reproduced correctly.

Duane Eddy’s funky guitar pickin’ “The Feud”…a great test of transient attack from “Twenty Terrific Twangies” gives me goose bumps when reproduced properly.  Yep…the little A-T nailed it!…Lightening fast!

  Stevie Wonder’s six and a half minute “Maybe Your Baby” from the “Songbook” LP has to be one of the strangest but coolest songs he ever recorded and obviously he had fun doing so as his playfulness pours forth with the 311 in command.   Here…Stevie’s multi “I’m a little boy” personalities manifest themselves quite clearly in the background…something other carts find difficulty with.  Then there’s his “Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away” masterpiece from the “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” LP that is a bit too warm and cloudy for most carts while masking percussive sounds but now the A-T let’s the sheen of the cymbals to shine forth.

Telarc’s 1981 double record set of  “Carmina Burana” can be a treacherous task for any cartridge and very few can cleanly reproduce all the clashing and banging this Robert Shaw/Atlanta Symphony recording can dish out without sounding way too warm and sandpapery.  And who imported this LP?  You guessed it…A-T U.S.  Like the Pickering XSV-3000 and Stanton L847S classics…the A-T 311EP really rose above and beyond the call of duty outperforming my reference ClearAudio Concept MM cart.

“Phil Spector’s Christmas” LP in stereo on the CBS/Pavillion label has never sounded more dimensional or fuller all the way through and that lovely bass on Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans’ “Bells Of St. Mary” can easily be felt beneath my seat so well…I have to look over at the room’s windows to make sure that no cracks were  formed in the glass after each playing!

So what can’t this great high-performing moving magnet cartridge do?  Well….let me think….Okay…maybe it cannot sound like a $7000 Moving Coil  hand crafted gem…the Koetszu Rosewood Signature.  Did you want me to find more fault?  Sorry…I simply can’t!  Okay maybe the Sumiko Blu…no…can’t say that either.  It does raise serious questions though.  Were the retired hall of fame carts…Shure V15-V, ML-140HE , Ortofon 30, 40 Gold magnetics, Denon DL Moving Coils any better than this 2012 cart?


In Conclusion:

There has to be a word in the English language that bests describes someone who’s perfectly satisfied with the $30 audio-technical A-T 311EP and need not ever feel like they have to step up or spend hundreds or even thousands more on their record playing system.  Yeah…it’s known as “Sanity”.  The highly polished elliptical gem should last even a heavy record user a good two years with proper care.  Not all comers at this price point can claim that.  Kudos Audio-Technica U.S.  This A-T is a rare find indeed!  And who said P-Mount cartridges are inferior?  Break out dem ol’ Christmas albums and enjoy, my friend.  God bless!…PJSII


We remember you always #34...Clay Burroughs


Recommend this product? Yes


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