"Quality Audio for Everyone": Music Direct Chats with Bill Poteet of Audio-Technica
1962 was a landmark year for Hideo Matsushita. After leaving his job at the Bridgestone Museum of Art in Tokyo, at which he organized LP Listening Concerts, he started a new company, Audio-Technica, where he began to manufacture a broad base of consumer products – as well as gear suited for professional audio applications. In those days, phono cartridges formed the basis for the company's fortunes in Japan, and later, America. After beginning operations in Akron, Ohio in the early 70s, Audio-Technica enjoyed considerable success with its portfolio of dual-magnet MM cartridges and groundbreaking dual moving-coil cartridges, including the OC-9, a model Music Direct carried in the 1990s.
With the exciting analog revolution showing no signs of letting up, Audio-Technica recently introduced an all-new collection of phono cartridges – all developed from the ground up, and all emphasizing great sound. Music Direct now offers 16 new Audio-Technica cartridges as well as two outstanding analog rigs, including the award-winning LP7 manual turntable.
To get a sense of what music lovers can expect with the lineup, we looked to Bill Poteet, A-T's Audio Specialty Sales Manager for Consumer Markets, and asked what makes each A-T product so special.
Bes Nievera, Music Direct (BN): First, can you talk about the history of A-T cartridges and what makes them special?
Bill Poteet, A-T (BP): The genesis of our company was cartridges. To put our history in context, Columbia Records introduced the first LP on June 21, 1948. In 1949, Capitol Records began releasing LPs, followed by RCA Victor in 1950. 1949 also marked the first appearance of LPs in Europe. In 1951, our founder, Hideo Matsushita, moved to Tokyo, and began his career at the Bridgestone Museum of Art. There he was urged by the museum's director to begin organizing LP concerts, what we would consider listening parties today, which proved to be very successful.
In 1962, Mr. Matsushita's deep love of music led him to leave the museum and open Audio-Technica. Starting with the AT-1 and AT-3 moving-magnet stereo cartridges, A-T cartridges were developed based on Mr. Matsushita's vision of delivering high-quality audio reproduction at an affordable price, allowing more people to enjoy the experience of good sound. Among other early successes were the development of an elliptical diamond stylus, which was incorporated into the AT-3X and AT-5X cartridges, and the AT-1001 tone arm package, which garnered an award from Japan's Agency of Industrial Science and Technology. In 1969, A-T began exporting cartridges to audio equipment manufacturers worldwide.
Unlike many other manufacturers, who scaled back or discontinued their cartridge lines when analog audio took a downturn in the mid-to-late 1980s, we have always maintained this product line, which has allowed us to keep our core manufacturing and design technology up to date. This has provided A-T with a stable base from which to continue improving and releasing new models.
Today we are the largest OEM cartridge supplier, with manufacturing spread across four different factories, depending on cartridge type and model. We enjoy the ability to produce everything from high-volume, entry-class moving magnet models to high-end, hand-built moving coil models. And we continue to be driven by Hideo-san's founding principle of "quality audio for everyone."
BN: What about the manufacturing process and engineering allows them to differ from other brands and their technologies?
BP: Whenever anyone asks a question of this type, I like to share a small insight that I gained during a trip to our headquarters in Machida a few years ago.
We have a listening room there, modest by some standards, but in it has this cool-looking little box, sitting on the stand with products from every well-respected brand in the industry. I politely asked our host (one of our senior engineers) what this plain-looking box with the LCD display was. He informed me that it was a passion project that he had worked on in his spare time. This gentleman built a phono stage – not just any phono stage, but one of the most amazing sounding phono stages I have ever experienced. This unit had been painstakingly programmed, tuned and critically assessed with the characteristics of well over 300 Audio-Technica cartridges. You name a cartridge we have built and it was in there. I would have put this unit up against any other phono stage you could buy. It was an experience I will never forget.
Our Chief Engineer of Cartridges, Koizumi-san, is by all measures a true audiophile. He has an ear and heart for music first, and for engineering second. I was surprised the first time I met him, as he was MUCH younger than I would have imagined. When the team was designing our flagship AT-ART1000 Direct Power MC cartridge there were so many hurdles to overcome. The team took each challenge, found the right solution and gave us a cartridge that, as I have been told by respected people in the industry, "sounds as good, if not better than, cartridges costing 3 to 4 times as much." That is high praise.
That is how we develop technologies that differentiate us from other brands. We allow our teams to dream big, with the knowledge that even if a product does not become a market reality we are always shooting for the best reproduction we can provide, always leading back to Mr. Matsushita's philosophy of realizing high performance at affordable prices.
BN: Let's break down the models we're now carrying . For me, the OC9 was, when I first started selling them in the mid-1990s, one heck of a great cartridge. A-T has extended that legacy with a quintet of cartridges that is just mind-blowing. What was the thinking in creating this series?
BP: The first AT-OC9 cartridge was introduced in 1987, delivering previously unavailable engineering techniques. With the materials available at the time, our original AT-OC9 achieved a breakthrough in sound quality. Since then, we have continued to improve the cartridges (e.g., OC9ML/II, OC9/III).
The launch of the latest AT-OC9X Series was really the culmination of over 50 years of cartridge manufacturing experience. The new lineup is already delivering new levels of playback quality and musical enjoyment. All five AT-OC9X models feature a new Dual Moving Coil structure, which enables the audio information in the grooves to be separated to the left and right channels with pinpoint accuracy. The improved channel separation gives a more precise stereo image and wider frequency response. We use an aluminum body for rigidness to reduce internal vibrations and enhance sonic clarity. The coils are made from PCOCC (Pure Copper by Ohno Continuous Casting), for optimum signal purity. And, in response to requests from the market, the new OC9X bodies are all threaded to make them easier to mount with just two screws – no mounting nuts required.
Perhaps best of all, the AT-OC9X is available with a variety of different stylus types: special line contact (AT-OC9XSL), Shibata (AT-OC9XSH), Microlinear (AT-OC9XML), nude elliptical (AT-OC9XEN), and bonded elliptical (AT- OC9XEB).
The special line contact, Microlinear, and Shibata stylus models feature a boron cantilever, utilizing a neodymium magnet with a Permendur yoke. This configuration results in a high magnetic flux density and optimizes the magnetic field of the coil gap, for improved reproduction of the delicate musical signals generated by the cartridges.
The nude elliptical and bonded elliptical cartridges feature aluminum cantilevers and use a neodymium magnet and iron yoke, which provide increased output compared to previous designs.
BN: The AT95E cartridge has been described by reviewers and listeners everywhere as the best entry-level phono cartridge ever produced. Now, after nearly 40 years on the market, A-T took that budget superstar and literally watched it morph into multiple models AND styli. Tell us about this expanded lineup.
BP: In late 2018, A-T launched the all new VM95 Series of cartridges. These cartridges feature our exclusive dual magnet design. The "V" shape of this design closely mirrors the cutting heads of LP manufacturers, positioning the magnets to match the left and right channels in the groove walls. Dual magnets also provide much better L/R channel separation, stereo imaging, and improved frequency response.
All models have a removable stylus and the same body design. This allows enthusiasts to use any VM95 cartridge with any VM95 stylus type. The cartridges are designed for easy installation, thanks to threaded inserts in the body that allow them to be mounted using just two screws. For example, our AT-VM95C features a 0.6 mil conical stylus and improves on the sonic performance of its predecessors, the AT91 and AT91R, thanks to a new aluminum cantilever and a new coil design, offering an increased 4 mV output voltage. Our AT-VM95E, as successor to the legendary AT95E cartridge offers a higher 4 mV output level and improved dynamic range, frequency response and transient response. The aluminum cantilever and 0.3 x 0.7 mil bonded elliptical stylus further contribute to the cartridge's sonic refinement. The AT-VM95EN is furnished with a 0.3 x 0.7 mil nude elliptical stylus mounted to an aluminum cantilever for enhanced sound reproduction and resolution of fine musical detail, while our AT-VM95ML features a Microlinear diamond stylus and aluminum cantilever for even greater fidelity and musical accuracy. The top of the line AT-VM95SH comes with a Shibata diamond stylus and aluminum cantilever to take VM95 Series cartridge performance to the highest level of musical realism, resolution, imaging and dynamic impact. Finally, our AT-VM95SP is outfitted with a 3.0 mil conical stylus for 78 RPM records.
BN: In addition to cartridges, A-T recently came out with the LP7 turntable, which won a Golden Ear Award from TAS. Can you speak in particular to its design and what the thought process was behind some of its features, such as the built-in phono preamp?
BP: This model was developed as a step up from our base model for the aspiring audiophile, but with quality, materials and cost in mind. Throughout the planning, audio quality was the key focus with material and design chosen to achieve and support this direction. From the POM (polyoxymethylene) platter to the J-shaped tonearm, all points complimented the purest audio we could obtain. Some of the other key features of the LP7 include the 40 mm-thick MDF chassis, isolated motor for the belt drive systems, and a speed stability system to assure very accurate playback tempo and tonal qualities. Isolation and feedback control were the focus for the plinth, tonearm mount, feet, and motor mount design integration. All work in parallel to achieve a very solid, stable and isolated platform so that the final audio performance is unaffected by non-musical influences. We added the VM520EB cartridge to top it off so the user can enjoy this turntable right out of the box. Given the phono amp design, we were sure that this table would be fitted with different cartridge types so, in keeping with the design intent, a phono preamp with both MM and MC capabilities is included for easy access and great audio quality, similar to that of our outboard preamps. This table keeps with the A-T tradition of quality and value for the customer.
BN: I've always loved that A-T has been an outstanding provider of devices for other audio companies (MoFi Electronics' collaboration with its custom-designed series of cartridges among them). Can you speak to the company's role in being an OEM supplier and how that might assist in the development of even better A-T cartridges?
BP: We have been a trusted supplier and partner with just about every company you can name that has built a turntable. These relationships are special to us – they give us the opportunity to gain perspective from market channels that are unique to those companies. So when another company approaches us about being a supplier in the OEM realm or co-branded opportunities, we really value it. It is a humbling affirmation that our work product is respected in the market.
We have a great partnership with MoFi that has been a great opportunity. And now with new product introductions and a market that just continues to show no signs of slowing, we have become partners once again by featuring all of the new cartridge lineups with Music Direct as an integral partner in our consumer reach.
Explore our entire Audio-Technica lineup, including their VM-700 Series and flagship AATMCART1000 Direct Power Stereo MC Phono Cartridge, and if you need more support in picking the right cartridge for your set up, our Music Direct Audio Consultants are just a phone call away at (800) 449-8333 – give them a call!