Review: Comparison of Cartridges – EXCEL ES-P 300 C (Tonar), audio-technica AT81CP, and audio-technica AT85EP
T4-P or P-Mount is a standardized mounting system for cartridges on turntables. It was introduced in the 1980s by Technics to simplify installation and ensure good sound quality without requiring user adjustment. The systems have identical weight at 6g, and the tracking force is defined (and usually pre-set on the turntables) at 1.25g. It’s essentially a “plug & play” system. Among the most sonically interesting T4-P cartridges were those from Ortofon (TMC, OMP, DIGITRAC), but unfortunately, they are no longer available. Therefore, we searched for alternatives in the lower price range and found the following options:
EXCEL ES-P 300 C [TONAR]
The EXCEL ES-P 300 C by Tonar is a replacement system for the discontinued original. Both visually and sonically, it presents itself as a modern upgrade. During our listening comparison, we had to adjust the volume repeatedly, as the EXCEL ES-P 300 C (Tonar) not only has a higher output level of 4mV compared to the audio-technica AT81 (3.5mV) and audio-technica AT85 (also 3.5mV) but also exhibits a more distinctive sound character. The bass foundation is powerful, while the highs appear slightly emphasized. The vocal range tends slightly towards a silvery tone. From our perspective, this cartridge is suitable for vibrant pop music or for quiet listening when other cartridges or audio setups may sound thin at low volume.
The audio-technica AT81CP relies on the manufacturer’s well-established tonal characteristics. It presents itself with a brilliant, albeit slightly bright, vocal range, while the foundation remains subtle. The spatial separation is well executed, and the soundstage appears wide without leaving a hole in the center. Very nice. The tracking of “good old vinyl” is achieved quite well with the spherically ground diamond. This makes it a good choice (among other things) for enthusiasts of classic vinyl records.
The audio-technica AT85EP shares almost identical tonal characteristics with the AT81CP. However, the elliptical stylus retrieves even finer details from the groove and improves overall resolution. As a result, the musical performance appears even clearer and more refined. Interestingly, the bass range is even more pronounced compared to the AT81CP. The only drawback is that vinyl disturbances are also more noticeable. Therefore, the elliptical stylus requires well-maintained records. The AT85EP is particularly well-suited for audiophile recordings or music with complex sonic structures. Thanks to its improved bass perception compared to the AT81CP, it is especially suitable for music genres such as jazz, funk, R&B, or electronic music.