Reviewers' ChoiceDesign and development

In 1962, when The Beatles were raising the roof at Liverpool’s Cavern Club, Hideo Matsushita founded Audio-Technica in a small apartment in Japan. His first product, the AT-1 phono cartridge, received a warm reception and was quickly followed by the AT-3 and AT-5 moving-magnet designs. By the 1970s, Audio-Technica was the biggest manufacturer of phono cartridges in the world. With the advent of digital audio and the CD, the firm diversified into headphones and microphones, fearing the impending decline of vinyl. While vinyl sales did indeed fall, the firm continued producing an array of cartridges to suit all budgets. The resurrection of vinyl from its 1990s nadir has enabled A-T to continue to innovate and to grow its cartridge-manufacturing operation.

The AT-ART20 is very nicely presented

For most of the past 30 years, I have used Audio-Technica moving-coil cartridges on my turntables. Indeed, my very first moving coil was the AT-F5, which at the time dominated the budget moving-coil arena. Later, I settled on various iterations of the AT-OC9, which I still use today. The OC9 has always had the justified reputation of offering a glimpse of the high end at mid-fi prices. Quite simply, the economies of scale and levels of automation that firms like Audio-Technica and Ortofon employ mean that their product lines offer a very high level of performance and consistency at moderate cost.

I’ve had a variety of exotic moving-coil designs from Lyra Analog, Kiseki, and Sumiko pass through my system in the past couple of years. My OC9 is a superb performer, but these cartridges surpassed its abilities by quite some margin—albeit at a price. However, it’s worth noting that the difference was likely only apparent because I have an extremely capable turntable and arm combination. In short, spend your money on the turntable and arm first, and only then consider upgrading the cartridge.

Audio-TechnicaIs there a more beautiful sight in audio than this?

Despite my extensive experience with Audio-Technica’s midmarket offerings, I have never explored the upper echelons of the company’s range—until now. The elite ART series comprises the AT-ART9XI ($1500, all prices in USD), AT-ART9XA ($1500), AT-ART20 ($2900), and AT-ART1000 ($4999). The ART20 is the most recent addition, and incorporates A-T’s latest thinking. Crucially, it hits a price point that is attainable for committed analog enthusiasts while not requiring a successful career on Wall Street to fund its purchase.

The design and engineering of the AT-ART20 places the elimination of resonance at its core. The cartridge has an aluminum chassis, a titanium top housing, and an elastomer lower cover: A-T claims that the combination of these different materials minimizes resonance.

Audio-TechnicaTitanium sculpture of the high-end variety

The ART20 is a very handsome-looking device. The polished titanium body has a liquid-metal appearance, reminiscent of James Cameron’s Terminator movies, and is very unusual and beautiful. It’s also light and incredibly strong. The mirror-like finish—and significant weight reduction—of the titanium housing is achieved by advanced cutting and polishing techniques, first developed in the eyeglass industry of Japan’s Fukui Prefecture.

The gold plating on the cartridge pins at the rear is 30 times the thickness of most competing designs, A-T says; this reduces contact resistance. A-T has also redesigned the magnetic circuit to improve the efficiency of the cartridge, leading to a 15% uplift in output voltage without raising the number of coil turns (which can increase both mass and impedance).


The line-contact diamond stylus has a curvature radius of 1.5 × 0.28 mil, and is mounted on a solid boron cantilever, 11 mil in diameter. It’s worth noting A-T’s all-important design choice for stylus profile here. Line-contact styli are designed to provide maximum vertical contact with the groove walls, while having a small front-to-back contact area. This is the optimal tip design for accurately tracking high frequencies with minimal abrasion—and hence, less record wear. Crucially, less abrasion also means less stylus wear, which is certainly a consideration when you’re purchasing a high-cost moving-coil cartridge. Other variations of the line-contact design, such as the fine-line profile, are similarly shaped. Such styli are highly sensitive to the accuracy of VTA and groove alignment during installation; fortunately, my SME Series IV tonearm, complete with silicone damping trough, makes such adjustments a breeze.

The cantilever is somewhat unusual, in that it is constructed from several sections, rather than being a one-piece design. The sections increase in thickness to create a tapered shape. This improves resonant behavior and reduces mass, A-T says. The titanium tip-reinforcement plate further reduces effective mass.

Mounting is facilitated by threaded M2.6 mounting holes. This was a relief, because I have learned to loathe the installation of cartridges which have to be secured by means of tiny nuts and bolts. Good-quality mounting bolts, a handy stylus brush, and a non-magnetic screwdriver are included in the packaging.


A-T claims a channel separation of 30dB at 1kHz, a frequency response of 20Hz to 50kHz, an output voltage of a healthy 0.55mV (1kHz at 5cm/sec), and an overall weight of 9.3gm. The suggested load impedance is >100 ohms, with a recommended tracking force in the range of 1.6–2.0gm. Average compliance figures and moderate mass suggest this cartridge would be easy to accommodate in a variety of high-quality, medium-mass tonearms such as SME and Origin Live.

It’s worth noting that the stylus tip of the ART20 is some way forward in the body, which could present a problem for arms with insufficient front/rear alignment. The SME Series IV tonearm I used had no problem with this, but SME arms are among the most flexible in the world in terms of mounting position and adjustment.

Audio-TechnicaA toolkit is included in the package

With any high-cost cartridge, the packaging is part of the experience: in this respect, the Audio-Technica is a mixed bag. The brown leatherette box, embossed with gold lettering, feels luxurious, and the inclusion of a brush and screwdriver is a classy touch. However, I found the printed instruction sheet rather underwhelming. I much preferred the substantial glossy booklet Sumiko provided with its Pearwood Celebration II cartridge (now discontinued), which details the cartridge’s development process and design features. It never ceases to amaze me when manufacturers sell a cartridge for the price of a decent second-hand car, yet put so little effort into the instruction manual. It’s a missed opportunity to instill pride of ownership, and to spread the engineering and marketing message. I doubt I am alone in enjoying the process of installing a new piece of gear and savoring the owner’s manual over a cup of coffee. Sadly, there isn’t a lot to savor here.

One advantage of purchasing from a firm with the production volumes of Audio-Technica is consistency. Unlike some other artisan cartridge brands I could name, I have never heard anybody complain about receiving a bad sample of an A-T cartridge. The company’s modern, automated production methods mean that, like Toyota, it is able to produce staggeringly reliable and consistent products, time after time. This brings peace of mind to dealers and owners alike.


Mounted on my Michell GyroDec with SME Series IV tonearm, the ART20 was an excellent visual match, thanks to its titanium-and-gold luster. I evaluated the cartridge with my Trichord Dino Mk3 and PS Audio Stellar phono preamplifiers, and experimented with various loadings above 100 ohms. On the Trichord, it performed very well at 100 ohms. The PS Audio has greater loading flexibility, and I settled on a figure closer to 300 ohms. Via both phono stages, the ART20 delivered a superbly faithful rendition of every record I threw at it. I knew from the first spin that I was in the company of analog greatness. Few cartridges in the world approach the elite fidelity of this design, and none of them cost as little.


Opening with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” from my vinyl copy of So (Virgin PG 5), the percussion and drums projected powerfully into the room with rich detail. Gabriel’s soulful vocals were rendered with sublime transparency and dynamics. At the chorus break, the various percussive effects and keyboards emanated from the extreme edges of an impressively wide soundstage. In terms of rhythm and pace, the ART20 struck me as one of the fastest cartridges I have had on my turntable, bettered only by certain Dynavectors. It wasn’t just the leading edge of notes that impressed me; it was also the way the ART20 exerted complete control over the attack, sustain, decay, and release of musical notes. At various points in the track, there’s a vast array of percussion involved, giving the song an almost tribal feel. Through this cartridge, it sounded as if the drummer, Manu Katché, was having a whale of a time.

On “Don’t Give Up,” from the same album, the opening bass played by Tony Levin was incredibly textured. The AT-ART20 perfectly captured the muted yet bottom-heavy bass sound Levin achieved on this recording by putting one of his daughter’s diapers behind the strings under the bridge! Via the A-T, this subtle detail was revealed—I wonder if Levin still uses a diaper when he plays this song live on stage. I’ve harped on before about how truly high-end audio lays bare this kind of production detail, and makes it much easier to hear what each musician is playing.

Of course, the real highlight of this song is Gabriel’s duet with Kate Bush. I’ve waxed lyrical on SoundStage! Ultra about Bush before. Hers is one of the most singularly beautiful and expressive female voices in the history of music. Each time she sings “don’t give up—you still have us,” the line was delivered with such crystalline transparency that it put tears in my eyes. Bush is simply breathtaking here, and the ART20 communicated her emotional interjections of womanly nurture with such directness it sent shivers up my spine.

Few cartridges even attempt this level of superlative insight. The Lyra Kleos SL does, but it costs around a grand more; until now, that’s the best cartridge I have ever heard. The ART20 matches it, blow for blow, at considerably lower cost. That means I want one. Badly.

Audio-TechnicaThe ART20 matches the GyroDec and the SME tonearm beautifully

Tanita Tikaram’s Ancient Heart (WEA/Reprise 1-25839) is an album I have returned to many times, over the years. The sublime production by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke gives this excellent collection of songs a deep emotional resonance—the track “Cathedral Song” is an absolute knockout. Via the ART20, Tikaram’s unique, husky vocals were rich and detailed, while the guitars were superbly delineated above solid layers of backing keyboards and drums. What makes this cartridge so special is that it has the incredible resolution of the most elite cartridge designs in the world, combined with excellent neutrality and refinement. There’s no spotlighting of particular frequencies here; this isn’t a cartridge that draws attention to itself, just one that gets on with the business of making records sound fantastic.

Surface noise was admirably low for a cartridge as detailed as the ART20—it didn’t mask the little clicks and pops you find on a well-played record, but it didn’t exaggerate them, either. Mostly, I was just left astonished that dragging a diamond across vinyl ripples, as music lovers have done for over a century, could sound this good.


I pulled out the stunning direct-to-vinyl LP of Vivaldi in London, by Interpreti Veneziani (Chasing the Dragon). Earlier this year, I attended a recording session for the album. Comparing a locally streamed 24-bit/192kHz WAV file (about as good as digital gets) to the vinyl copy revealed the absolute superiority of vinyl. More space, more air, more ambient detail, greater transparency, enhanced dynamics, and even that intangible quality of more emotional impact. Listening to the Violin Concerto in B-flat Major, RV383, the ensemble’s jump factor was nothing short of startling with the Audio-Technica on the deck. The spacious acoustics of the large hall at London’s AIR Studios was immediately apparent via the ART20, while the timbre of the stringed instruments was divine. Yes, this is one of the finest classical recordings you will ever hear, but the ART20 proved capable of revealing its exceptional fidelity in a way that lesser cartridges simply cannot. From the deepest notes of the double bass to highest notes of the violins, the ART20 was consistently evenhanded in its portrayal, and incredibly detailed and transparent. This detail and transparency came without any tendency to leanness or brightness, so the cello and double bass were rendered with superb richness and gravitas whenever the music demanded.

Consider the fact that this recording was made using vintage valve microphones—for example, the Telefunken ELA M 251, which was designed in the middle of the last century—and you start to wonder if recording and replay technology has been going backward for the past 70 years. Little wonder that reel-to-reel tapes and vinyl discs have become the most sought-after recorded mediums. I’m not here to disparage digital—I use it regularly and love it—but the AT-ART20 is one of the best justifications for vinyl’s continued existence I have ever heard. Sure, it’s expensive, but the question for this music lover is not whether it’s worth it; rather, how can I possibly live without it?

Back when I was a teenager and life consisted of a succession of parties, gigs, and nubile wenches, I discovered the glamorous art rock of Roxy Music and fell hopelessly in love. Seeking to emulate Bryan Ferry’s effortless cool, I attempted to force my unruly hair into a Ferry-esque quiff and took to wearing white baggy shirts and long overcoats. I even started smoking St. Moritz cigarettes, as he did: whiling away my evenings in bars trying to look enigmatic, staring into the middle distance and blowing smoke through a haze of neon-lit dry ice. I fear that my attempts to emulate Ferry’s sophisticated air didn’t have the same effect on the girls in my gritty seaside town in northern England as Ferry’s wooing had on supermodels and debutantes at society parties in London. Still, there’s no denying that his band created some of the most seductive and romantic—and avant-garde—music of the late 20th century.


I selected “My Only Love,” from Roxy’s masterful album Flesh + Blood (Polydor POLH 002). The track opens with an achingly beautiful sequence on electric piano, and soon the glorious drums of Andy Newmark begin rolling across the room. Boy, did the ART20 throw one hell of a soundstage, putting cymbals and toms way out beyond the confines of the loudspeakers. With its searing transparency, the Audio-Technica highlighted Ferry’s yearning delivery. Drums hit hard, with real depth and slam, while Phil Manzanera’s mournful guitar phrases were rendered with surgical precision.


In my view, Audio-Technica’s AT-ART20 cartridge joins the ranks of ATC’s SCM40 loudspeakers, Leema Acoustics’ Tucana Anniversary integrated amplifier, and the Michell GyroDec turntable as one of the great high-end bargains of the 21st century. This is one of the few cartridges, at any price, you can simply fit and forget, ending the quest for something better. Those with budgets running into five figures may be able to improve on it: perhaps, a cartridge with a body made from unobtanium, superconductors for coils, and relying on magnets from CERN. But for anyone with a mortgage to pay, this is an endgame cartridge. It creates a musical performance in front of you that is supremely tangible, timbre-rich, and thrilling. That’s not just my opinion: no lesser authority than SME, purveyor of some of the finest vinyl spinners money can buy, has been using the ART20 to demo its reference Model 60 turntable.

Audio-Technica with SMESME’s Model 60 with AT-ART20 at the 2023 Ascot show

Music is the shorthand of emotion, and the ART20 is masterful at portraying the emotional intent of the musician. Listening to it made me as obsessed with Roxy Music as the first time I ever heard the band. This is a piece of hi-fi equipment that incites passion in the listener, and makes you crave the neon and nightlife of youth. Maybe I need to dig out that old overcoat, prowl the city streets, and spark up a St. Moritz for old time’s sake.

. . . Jonathan Gorse

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable: Michell GyroDec turntable with SME Series IV tonearm.
  • Phono preamplifier: Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 with Never Connected Dino+ power supply, PS Audio Stellar phono stage.
  • Streaming DAC: Naim Audio NDX2.
  • CD player: Naim Audio CDI.
  • Preamplifier: Naim Audio NAC 82.
  • Power amplifier: Naim Audio NAP 250.
  • Power supplies: Naim Audio HiCap.
  • Loudspeakers: ATC SCM40.
  • Power: Dedicated 100A mains spur feeding two Graham’s medical-grade six-gang power blocks, Naim Audio Hydra, Naim Audio Powerline Lite.
  • Cabling: Chord Company Sarum T and Naim Audio NAC A5 loudspeaker cables, Naim Audio interconnects on all Naim amplification, Chord Co. Sarum T Super ARAY XLR, Chord Co. SignatureX Tuned ARAY DIN-RCA, Chord Co. SignatureX RCA-XLR, Chord Co. EpicX ARAY RCA. Chord Co. Chameleon interconnects for phono stages, QED interconnects for secondary sources.

Audio-Technica AT-ART20 Moving-Coil Cartridge
Price: $2900.
Warranty: Two years.

Audio-Technica U.S. Inc.
1221 Commerce Drive
Stow, Ohio 44224
Phone: (330) 686-2600


Audio-Technica Ltd.
Technica House
Unit 5, Millennium Way
Leeds LS11 5AL
United Kingdom
Phone: +44 (0)113 277 1441