Image Credit: Peter Kasprzyk
The Best Turntable Cartridges to Complete Your Record Player
Changing your turntable cartridge can have a dramatic impact on the listening experience of your record player, resulting in a more vivid, colorful, and downright enjoyable sound. Once you hear the difference between a nice-sounding record and actually believing that a saxophone might be in your room, you can’t really go back.
That kind of experience doesn’t come down to only the cartridge, but choosing the right one is crucial. Different cartridges speak with different “voices,” even when choosing between models made by the same manufacturer.
It can be a tough decision, but this simple guide may point you in the right direction. The best turntable cartridges for your record player are easily found at a variety of online retailers. It’s a wide-ranging selection geared toward real-world vinyl lovers, from the budget-conscious to those able to splurge.
This guide will discuss various features and sound signatures which, in a perfect world, will help you make an informed decision. At the bottom is a glossary of basic cartridge definitions terms that will definitely come in handy.
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Best Audio-Technica Cartridges
Audio-Technica is the largest manufacturer of phono cartridges in the world. Not only does the brand offer an extraordinarily wide range of choices under its own name, but they also provide cartridges for other brands.
The VM95 series is the Audio-Technica (AT) line that fits the most budgets and offers the most choices — it’s the people’s series of cartridges. Every cartridge body in the VM95 series is identical, which means you can upgrade simply by buying a higher-end stylus.
All of the carts are moving magnet (MM) designs and have an output of 3.5mV, which is plenty for any standard MM phono stage. They also mate well with virtually any commonly found tonearm.
The VM95C ($39) is ridiculously cheap and fitted with a low-resolution conical stylus (check the glossary below). It’s friendly but crude. Moving up to the VM95E ($69), you get a much nicer elliptical stylus that punches above its price point. Splurging on the VM95EN ($119; pictured) gets you a far more refined version of an elliptical stylus that’s mounted nude, meaning the diamond is directly attached to the cantilever without the use of a metal pin. It honestly makes a difference as a nudie lowers stylus tip mass, which helps with tracking, dynamics, and clarity. You’ll get more and better of everything with the VM95EN, specifically better high frequencies.
A VM95ML ($169) is where things get real. Its seriously tiny MicroLine stylus (again, check the glossary at the bottom) can really dig out some information. Its advocates use them on turntables costing $2,000. Many of those same users have tried the VM95SH ($199), which uses a Shibata cut on its diamond. This is really a matter of subtle preference as the SH and ML are said to be really close in terms of overall quality.
The VM 500 and 700 series are the next step up in the line and the 700 series represents a real commitment to your vinyl. You should be committed. It’s your life, your reason for living.
There is some price overlap with the VM95 series, which can be confusing. Audio-Technica has said that the 500 and 700 series both boast improvements in the construction and, internally, in the engine that generates the signal. The benefits are thought to be more clarity, better stereo separation, and less distortion.
The VM520EB ($169) has a bonded elliptical stylus while the VM540ML ($299) has a MicroLine tip. It could be that the differences in sound are, to you, not worth the extra money, but there has to be a reason why the VM540ML has become an endgame cartridge for audiophiles on a budget.
The VM750SH ($449) and VM760SLC ($649) are said to improve resolution, high frequencies, and clarity due to better materials such as the aluminum alloy bodies and higher manufacturing tolerances. The quality vs. cost ratio for the 750SH puts it in the sweet spot for many Audio-Technica fans, with excellent transparency coupled with a bold, meaty sound. For those addicted to detail and clarity, the improved cantilever and Line Contact stylus on the 760SLC have proven it a keeper.
The AT-XP5 ($79) and AT-XP7 ($159; pictured) are technically DJ cartridges but could easily double for home duty if you’re cash-strapped, which you probably are if you’re a DJ. They’re very high output for a splash of energy and will work with any common tonearm. The AT-XP5 and AT-XP7 both have decent elliptical diamonds and track at a reasonable 2-4 grams.
Once the price tag starts edging toward four figures, it’s okay to be wary. While a lot of lucky gearheads wouldn’t blink at $769, it’s more than many collectors are willing to pay.
In Audio-Technica’s defense, the company really went all out on the AT-33SA ($769). Top materials are used throughout, every effort has been made to tame resonances via the use of synthetic bonding resin, and the all-important cantilever is made from tapered boron for extra rigidity. All of this is topped with a Shibata stylus.
This cartridge pops up a lot in online discussions about all-time favorites, primarily because it seems to offer such a wide cross-section of qualities: body, weight, clarity, tracking, etc. Because it’s a moving coil (MC) design (once more with feeling: glossary), the usual caveats apply about having the appropriate phono stage. It only has a .4mV output, which will require additional amplification. The 33SA plays well with all except the lightest and heaviest of tonearms.
Best Ortofon Cartridges
Entry-level Ortofon cartridges are well known for their distinctive shape and wide compatibility with any number of tonearms and phono stages. Like anything else, you get what you pay for, and the Omega OM ($37) is often bundled with entry-level turntables. It sounds fine, nothing outstanding or alarming, which makes it a good deal for beginners.
The further you travel up the Super OM line, the better the stylus gets and, of course, the better your records will sound. The Super OM 10 ($80; pictured) is the cartridge of choice for a lot of vinyl fans on a budget, with a fairly balanced, neutral sound that won’t get in the way even if it doesn’t get you all the way there. When you get extra disposable income, you can upgrade the stylus without ditching the body, which is handy.
The Super series has a body made from a plastic and glass compound that’s said to reduce resonances and every model in the line has an output of 4mV and a compliance that works well with a lot of tonearms. The Super OM 10 has a bonded elliptical stylus, which means a small metal pin is used to attach the diamond to the cantilever. As you go up to the 20, 30, and 40 in the same line, you get nude mounting and much higher quality diamond cuts.
The 2M series has been wildly successful for Ortofon due to its largely reasonable pricing and convenience. The styli are replaceable and some can even be switched between bodies, giving you options while saving a few bucks.
All of the 2M cartridges are neutral in tonal balance and are MM designs with at least a 5mV output, making them perfect for any MM phono stage. Their compliance is right in the sweet spot, which means they’re suitable for all common tonearms.
The 2M Red ($100) debuted in 2007 offering a really nice-looking cartridge at a good price. A lot of people still love theirs, but it’s easy to find people who got tired of its “shouty” quality due to the bonded elliptical stylus. Your mileage may vary, however, as tons of people find the Red perfectly fine.
However, many have moved on to the 2M Blue ($239; pictured) nude elliptical stylus. While there are some users who haven’t heard much difference, there are many, many more who have. In fact, putting the 2M Blue stylus on the 2M Red body has become a go-to move.
The Bronze ($419) and the Black ($695) models have improvements in the quality of internal wiring and bodies made from Lexan DMX, a composite material said to have far fewer resonance issues than the plastic bodies found on the Red and Blue. The Bronze has a Line Contact stylus while the Black sports a Shibata. As always, it’s a question of personal preference as both offer more detail retrieval and higher transparency.
Best Grado Labs Cartridges
Grado has been around since 1953 and its cartridges are all-time bestsellers, especially its Prestige line. It’s unusual to get through your audio travels without owning at least one Grado Prestige and moving up to the wood-body Timbre line is a trip everyone should take.
The entire Grado roster was updated in 2021, but every model still shares the Grado house sound which is a full, generous midrange ideal for vocals, saxophones, trumpets — voices and voice-like instruments. Music lives in the midrange, so get that right and you’re good to go. As you move up the line, you get a better stylus, better suspension, better wiring, and better-measured performance as far as matched channel balance. Basically, everything gets more refined as the cost goes up.
Any Grado cartridge will work with the vast majority of tonearms and they have a very healthy output of 5mV, which means they’ll work with any moving magnet phono stage. The Timbre series also comes in 1mV low-output versions.
For those on a budget, the Prestige Black3 ($99; pictured) will keep you happy for a while, and its user-replaceable stylus is very handy. A logical upgrade is the Blue3 ($160), which offers an even smoother sound while digging out more detail. The top-of-the-line Prestige is the Gold3 ($260).
But if you’re going to spend that much, treat yourself and jump to the Timbre lineup. You’ll lose the option to replace the stylus but you’ll gain truckloads of warmth, texture, and resolution. The Opus3 ($275) is a bargain, but if you want to hear everything a Grado woody can do, try the Sonata3 ($600). It’s not cheap, but it’ll be like hearing your collection for the first time.
For monophiles, the Prestige MC+ Mono ($100) offers a lot of value and engineering. Its coils and magnets have been reconfigured to reduce vertical movement. The stylus is slightly larger in diameter so it sits better in the wider mono grooves and the internal wiring has been strapped so that each channel is getting an identical signal. You’re getting mono sound but from two speakers. Why? Because who do you know that only has one speaker?
If you’re a collector with a sizable number of pre-1960s mono LPs, then it’s best to listen to them with a cartridge designed for that purpose. Older mono records are pressed so that information is picked up in the horizontal plane, not the vertical. Stereo cartridges are designed to pick up information both horizontally and vertically, and while you can easily play older mono records with a stereo cartridge, you’ll hear a lot more surface noise.
Best Cartridges from Other Brands
The Rega Carbon ($75) is reportedly the same as the discontinued Audio-Technica AT91, which sold for $40. But the AT91 was rated as having a 3.5mV output while the MM Carbon has a 2.5mV, so something has been tweaked.
At any rate, this is what the British like to call “cheap and cheerful.” Its conical tip will wear faster while potentially causing more record wear, but it will also be easier to set up. Suitable for use with a wide variety of tonearms and standard phono stages, the Carbon is a good option for those on a budget.
The Sumiko Pearl ($119) has been Sumiko’s entry-level cartridge for what feels like a lifetime, and you’ll find almost nothing but astonished reviews by everyday vinyl lovers on audio forums. This thing is beloved as a bargain overachiever.
A MM design with an elliptical stylus and healthy 4mV output, the Pearl will work on virtually any tonearm and has a warm, forgiving tonality that would make it ideal for budget systems and bare-bones phono stages, which can often sound sharp.
Nagaoka is a Japanese manufacturer that’s been producing cartridges and styli since 1940. The brand currently offers six models, starting with the MP-100 ($152) and ending with the 500 ($950). For an impressive number of users, the Nagaoka P-110 ($170) is the sweet spot.
The Nagaoka house sound is on the warm and friendly side of the street, but not at the expense of detail thanks to a nice elliptical stylus. It’s compatible with just about any tonearm and its 5mV output is ideal for any MM phono preamp. Moving up the line gets you more of the same.
Mobile Fidelity StudioTracker
After giving us 50 years of vinyl reissues, Mobile Fidelity finally got into the gear business with a handful of products, including two high-value turntables in the StudioDeck and UltraDeck. The Mobile Fidelity StudioTracker ($199) cartridge might be the best buy in the MoFi line, offering a high-tech polymer body and dual magnet design manufactured with input from the MoFi engineers in charge of cutting records and analog guru, Allen Perkins. A MM design with 3.5mV output, the StudioTracker aspires to do a whole lot of things right without doing any one thing spectacularly. That’s a good combination, especially at this price point.
Clearaudio Concept V2 MM
Clearaudio is a Germany-based company probably best known for its least expensive turntable, the incredibly versatile and durable $2,200 Concept, and its most expensive, the outlandish $225,000 Statement.
The Clearaudio Concept V2 MM ($250) is often packaged with the Concept turntable and also sold separately. It’s a modified version of the Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge, with all of the mods geared toward reducing vibration and resonances thanks to its all-aluminum body, which is a rarity at this price point.
The Concept V2 is much more refined sounding than the AT95 and is comfortable with a variety of music. Its sound signature is a bit laid-back and, at first, can seem dull, but after a while, you come to really appreciate its even-handed, non-fatiguing approach. It’ll work fine with a wide variety of tonearms and moving magnet phono stages.
One of the most celebrated cartridges in the history of audio, the Denon DL-103 ($349) has been in production since 1962. Variations of the model have come and gone but the original remains unchanged and, some would claim, unchallenged. Known for its big, meaty, bear-hug sound, the DL-103 is great for rock and jazz.
However, it has some requirements. As a low-output moving coil design, it can’t be used with standard moving magnet phono stages, which don’t have enough gain to amplify the 0.3mV signal. The 103 is also not intended for low-mass tonearms because it has a lower compliance than is typical. A number of people have reported great results with the 11-gram Rega tonearms, which theoretically shouldn’t mate well but apparently do. Definitely avoid using the 103 with anything lighter than that.
Hana EH and EL
Hana cartridges are made by Japan’s Excel Sound Corporation, which has been making cartridges for more than 50 years both under its own name and for some allegedly very well-known brands (which they’ve managed to keep secret).
The Hana series popped up in 2015 and immediately became a hit with both reviewers and the general public. They’re MC designs and whether you like MC or MM is largely based on taste; each has its strong points.
The “E” stands for elliptical, which is the stylus design, while the “H” and “L” (pictured) refer to high output and low output. The low-output Hanas, which offer .5mV, will require an MC phono stage or step-up transformer used in tandem with a MM phono stage. A high-output Hana delivers 2mV, low by MM standards but high by MC standards. They’ll work fine with a MM phono stage but you’ll have to crank the volume a bit more. Low-output carts can also prefer a different capacitance loading, an option that’s available on every decent MC phono stage. As far as tonearms go, all Hana cartridges will work with just about any tonearm that isn’t inordinately light or heavy.
And how do the Hana EH and Hana EL sound? There’s a reason these cartridges score five stars all the way down the line. The primary characteristics noted in nearly every professional and amateur review are ones of sweetness, fullness, and excellent detail retrieval. Many MC lovers consider these the most cost-effective and versatile options out there and a couple of professional reviewers feel the SL model competes with cartridges that cost thousands.
Anatomy of a Cartridge
Low Compliance vs. High Compliance
Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil
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