Week 5, 2017: Upgrading an AT-LP120-USB turntable, LP Gear The Vessel A3SE cartridge review

Sound Advice

By Don Lindich

Week 5, 2017

Q. I purchased an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable based on your recommendation and have really enjoyed listening to my record collection again. I’ve even had a few friends jump back into vinyl after listening to my system.

I need some help upgrading my turntable. I changed to a cork mat and it doesn’t impact playback much as far as I can tell. Do you have another mat recommendation that might be a better choice? I’m also considering upgrading the stock AT95E cartridge. Would the Grado Reference Platinum 2 cartridge be a good fit? What else would you recommend?

-D.V., Sunnyvale, CA

A. The mat to get is Herbie’s Way Excellent II Turntable Mat, available from Herbie’s Audio Labs for about $75. herbiesaudiolab.net

The $350 Grado Reference Platinum 2 on a $249 entry level turntable is a classic example of too much cartridge for not enough turntable. You need a better turntable for this cartridge to perform its best.

Cartridges require precise mounting and alignment, which is a delicate task involving tiny wires, tiny screws, a tight working area and a fragile item. My first recommendation avoids setup hassles while providing a noticeable increase in performance.

Many cartridges can be upgraded by replacing the stylus assembly, which plugs into the cartridge body. Cartridges often share the same body and the only difference is the stylus, which gets better as you go up the model line to more expensive versions. Stylus upgrades are available for your AT95E. LP Gear’s CFN95SE stylus will make an immediate difference for only $49.95. It uses a better diamond mounted on a carbon fiber cantilever (the wand that holds the needle itself.) All you have to do is remove the old stylus and plug in the new one to experience a bigger soundstage along with more detailed and refined sound. Owners of the AT-LP120-USB and Fluance RT81 turntables should go right to the CFN95SE when they need a new stylus or want an easy, inexpensive upgrade.

For a truly dramatic upgrade, LP Gear’s The Vessel A3SE cartridge is an absolute worldbeater at $99. I reviewed The Vessel A3SE with my Technics SL-1210M5G turntable, my usual cartridge comparison testbed. To say I was wowed is a huge understatement, and I very clearly preferred The Vessel A3SE to a lot of $400 cartridges I have tried before. The presentation is slightly forward in perspective, with sound that is silky-smooth, rich, clean, precise and detailed, with beautiful tonality from deepest bass to highest treble. The superlatives just flow when describing it, just as beautiful music flows from this exceptional cartridge.

Experiencing the Vessel A3SE and its performance at the price is probably the most shocking experience I have had in 15 years of reviewing audio. There is a complete line of The Vessel cartridges and they can also be upgraded by changing the stylus, so it can grow with you when you upgrade to a new turntable. Given how great the A3SE sounds, I can only imagine what the more expensive models are like!

The A3SE also comes pre-mounted and aligned in a removable headshell for $148 (A3SE Ultimate SET.) This avoids mounting and alignment headaches for Technics and Audio-Technica turntable users and you can switch back to the original cartridge whenever you want. It is worth the extra $49 if you have the budget.

Change the AT95E stylus or upgrade the cartridge before you change the mat. That way you will know how much of a difference the mat makes and decide if you want to keep it or not. See the CFN95SE stylus and The Vessel A3SE at lpgear.com.