Hello again VE,
OK, firstly: Yes, yes, I know
. There's a whole section of the forum dedicated to reviews. But I looked through several pages of different threads and none of them were actual reviews. No one reads any of them, judging by the number of them that had no replies. So, mods, you can move this thread, but I think it's appropriate here in the cartridge forum.
I've been using the ATN-95SA replacement stylus on my turntable for a couple of months now. It gets daily or near daily use and by this point it has been well broken in. I wanted to share my experience with it, as it seems that there is very little written about it online (then again, Michael Fremer reviewed it
in comparison to several other cartridges).
Some history: I should talk about Shibata stylii, and how they were first designed in the 1970s to pick up the rear signals on quadraphonic records, and how they have a "hyperelliptical" shape that allows them to make better contact with the walls of the grooves, and how this has the effect of making them superb trackers whilst having incredible detail retrieval and high frequency extension without sounding "etched." I should, but I won't because, whoops, I just did, and if you want more details about this stylus type a Google search can tell you more than I can. I can tell you about this model in particular though. These are sold as a whole cartridge called the AT95SA or as a replacement stylus called the ATN95SA by LP Gear. The stylus costs $130; the whole cartridge is $150. The cartridge body is the same used by the well-known Audio Technica AT95E. Since I have a turntable that came equipped with the AT95E, I only bought the stylus and switched them out. These needles feature the Shibata stylus mentioned above, which, as stated, has several advantages over more common elliptical or conical stylii -- more on this later. Apparently, they are made by JICO in Japan, as signified by the sky-blue dot painted onto the cantilever. As you can see in the included photo, the plastic part is light grey instead of green, as on the AT95E. LP Gear also sells what it calls the AT95VL, which is essentially the same but the stylus tip is a ViVidLine or something silly like that -- it just replaced their old AT95HE, which had a hyperelliptical stylus, falling somewhere in between the profile of a regular elliptical stylus and the Shibata one. All feature the proprietary "Zualum" alloy cantilever, which is supposed to be an upgrade over the regular aluminum cantilever of the AT95E, and likely just some sort of aluminum alloy designed to be lighter and/or stiffer than regular old aluminum.
The stylus arrived in a protective mailing package. Inside was a small plastic case holding a piece of foam with a cutout for the stylus to rest in. It seemed to be very effective in protecting the small delicate parts through shipping. Installing the new stylus into the cartridge body was a snap, literally. The old elliptical stylus popped off and the new one snapped right in. As long as your cartridge is properly aligned, you're all ready to play some music just minutes after receiving the new stylus. Initially, I was shocked -- not at how much better sounding it was, but at how little difference I noticed. This was sort of disappointing, although straight away I could hear some subtle improvements to the audio quality.
It's important to remember that ALL cartridges and stylii have a "burn in" or "break in" period. Also, it is vital that they are aligned properly. At the first listen, mine was neither of those. Soon after getting the cartridge, I bought a cool new Ortofon headshell, which not only looks cool and has a better fingerlift, but also has some quality wires in it with gold-plated ends, and it has better acoustic properties too. But most importantly, switching the cartridge from the stock Audio Technica headshell to the Ortofon one gave me a chance to really properly align the cartridge using a Baerwald protractor. Now, this was my first time setting up a cartridge like this, but I found it to actually be pretty simple. According to various sources online, it is super important to align these Shibata stylii with extreme accuracy however, so keep that in mind (mine isn't, but hey, I tried).
Now that the stylus has had time to burn in and is (somewhat) more properly set up, I can say that, just from A/B-ing the two stylii, I can hear a fairly obvious difference in sound quality. However, I still want to maintain that the difference is still pretty subtle -- someone once said that those "audiophiles" with so-called "golden ears" are like car mechanics: they do not have super-powered hearing, they just know what to listen for, just as a car mechanic can often tell what is wrong with a car by listening to it. To perhaps the average observer, there is not much of a difference at all. But in terms of the entire collective experience that is listening to vinyl records, there is a huge, wonderful difference. While the AT95E is a fine piece of equipment in its own right, a comparison reveals its weaknesses. The high frequencies on the Shibata are actually more laid-back than the Audio Technica -- it can do that because the Shibata stylus can reproduce fine details much more easily and doesn't need an overly-bright presentation to give the illusion of being detailed. This lends itself to a more warm, natural sound. The same is true for the bass -- I can hear more details, but there is also more bass punch and excitement, and it sounds more realistic and less boxy. The midrange is the only area where there is little improvement. Most instruments like guitars and drums are almost the same with the Shibata as with the Audio Technica -- but with the AT95SA, there is a slightly better reproduction of vocals, brass, strings, and saxophones. Not immediately noticeable, but ever so slightly more present, natural sounding, and less bland than with the AT95E. The AT95SA also boasts a slightly better stereo separation spec, which only adds to the sense of separation and air this stylus has -- instruments seem more "in the room," and are easier to tell apart in more complex musical passages. An added bonus: as discussed briefly above, the Shibata fits the groove walls much better, and therefore reduces wear on your records, as well as on the stylus itself. Furthermore, on some (unfortunately not all) noisier records, surface noise is reduced -- not dramatically, but noticeably. This is supposedly another effect of the Shibata's shape -- it touches the groove walls differently than an elliptical or conical stylus would, and therefore avoids some of the wear that has been introduced on used records. Inner-groove tracking is very slightly improved as well.
In conclusion, the AT95SA Shibata stylus sold by LP Gear is a good replacement for the elliptical stylus on the AT95E, even though many of the changes it brings are very subtle. With so many people using the AT95E on their turntables recently, it would seem that this stylus makes for a great, easy, plug-n-play upgrade -- those having bought new Thorens 'tables recently should consider this stylus as a fairly cheap alternative to purchasing a much more expensive cartridge. In fact, I have heard this stylus compared to the AT440mla, which used to be competitive in price with this one, but now costs twice as much (!). I should mention, as well, that my stereo system is very modest. Sure, it is better than a lot of the mass-produced crap out there, but it is by no means spectacular, and that includes the phono stage of my Yamaha receiver. Where I have noticed subtle changes, you may notice substantial ones. It certainly all depends. All in all, I would definitely recommend this stylus/cart to anyone already running the AT95E and looking for an inexpensive upgrade. Or, if you are looking for a great MM cartridge, curious about the Shibata, and looking to get your hands on one without having to get a second mortgage on your house, this is definitely a great option and you should add this to your list.
OK, sorry if I rambled on too long. I'd love to hear your questions, or if you've heard/have one (or just any Shibata stylus in general), I'd love to hear what you think of it. My hope is that more people will use this cart/stylus and more buzz will be generated about it, as was for the AT95E.
(Additional information, including specs and an opportunity to buy the AT95SA, can be found on the LP Gear website here
. Also, I'm not affiliated with LP Gear in any way, like, I swear, man, I totally just dig their rad product)