While choosing a turntable, take a note to a phonograph cartridge that is one of the decisive factors for getting perfect sound as a result. As it plays your vinyl, even high-end amps or speakers are useless because of the poor-quality cartridge. So how to choose the best phono cartridge?
Whether it deals with an expensive or a budget phono cartridge, they are produced in various shapes and sizes and are made as an electromechanical transducer to play records. To discover which one will be the best phono cartridge for your turntable and records, read the following reviews of the most popular models on the market.
What is a Phono Cartridge?
A phono cartridge (cart) is an electro-mechanical unit to turn the content of the record into an electrical signal with the further amplifying it to deliver music. Its construction depends on its type – whether it is an MM cartridge or an MC one. The main parts of the carts are a diamond stylus, a rubber suspension, a magnet, a cantilever, and coils.
- A diamond stylus tracks the records.
- The cantilever holds a stylus on it one end and a magnet on another one.
- The suspension provides the precise tracking of the groove with the stylus.
- A magnet accepts the vibrations from the cantilever starting vibrating and generating voltage in the coil.
- The coil passes a signal to a phono stage.
Then the electrical signal comes to the amp or speakers to be turned into sound.
Standard or P-mount Cartridge
Standard or universal cartridges are mounted in the majority of record players. How to determine that your cart is standard? They are connected to the tonearm via 2 vertical screws and 4 wires.
P-mount cartridge is hooked up to the tonearm directly via 4 pins (T4P plug) on its back without any additional adjustments.
Some users are not sure of their ability to determine the type of cart correctly. In this case, they can find out the information in the manual or on the manufacturer’s website.
Moving Magnet (MM) or Moving Coil (MC)
Best phono cartridges are based on two main technologies and, accordingly, are powered with Moving magnets and Moving Coils.
A moving magnet cartridge has a magnet attached to the metal cantilever with the diamond. It interacts with the coil and is converted from magnetic into electrical signal while the replaceable diamond is tracking the vinyl.
In an MC cartridge, two coils with a magnet between them move a cantilever. The turntables with MCs have diamonds that cannot be replaced.
Both types deliver great sound, but music geeks usually prefer expensive MC-models (cheap units have poor quality, as a rule). A MM cartridge offers far better value for everyday home usage.
Best Phono Cartridges
Standard Cartridge Reviews
Moving Magnet Cartridges
Ortofon 2m Red — Best Phono Cartridge Under 100
The Ortofon – 2m Red MM phono cartridge is remarkable for its bright red design and producing precise sound with the expressive midrange, wider soundstage, sensitive, and warm vocals. The treble and bass are well-balanced with excellent instrument separation, but the last one needs more strength. The Hi-Fi level shouldn’t be expected from the unit in this price range, but all the records sound very soft.
The unit is very easy to adjust and align to avoid inner groove distortions. This model has 1.8 grams of tracking force that is a bit heavy, but it is typical for budget devices. It could become the best moving magnet phono cartridge, but metal dome materials’ damping is average making some high-frequency harmonics resonate. But it can be eliminated when subduing high frequencies with a crossover.
- New screw mounting system with high output level allows fast calibrating and screws mounting into the cartridge itself without little bolts.
- Good tracking even on bouncy old hardwood floors.
- The sound brightens is fading at high volume leading to detail reduction in the sound.
- High coil inductance worsens phono preamp’s hiss.
Audio-Technica AT95E — Best Phono Cartridge
The Audio-Technica phono cartridge is an affordable and high-performance cartridge that delivers clear sound (including bass) and good stereo separation. The tracking is great even if the anti-skating is not calibrated. It can be the best cartridge under 100 for playing very old records to reproduce every single as accurately as possible but it may not fit those who want to enhance bass essentially (it improves midrange best of all).
The balance between high and lows has no issues, and the dynamics is present everywhere when dealing with all musical genres. The unit removes the majority of surface noises from the records. It is better to calibrate the weight up to 1.7 grams to eliminate scraping and dragging sounds.
- Rhythm instruments sound just the right amount of abruption and aggression.
- It fits even high-mass tonearms.
- Tiny nuts can cling to the end of the screws during the cartridge installation.
- The sound is not very detailed.
Shure M97xE — Best Phono Cartridge Under 1000
My phono cartridge reviews can help but include the Shure M97xE that is designed especially for music geeks. Its elliptical diamond fits perfectly aluminum low-mass cantilevers with thin walls and is easy to replace. The device is remarkable for its rigid mounting block made of light but durable die-cast aluminum. The Shure M97xE phono cartridge is equipped with a damped Dynamic Stabilizer brush to play any record. It also damps tonearm resonances at low frequencies.
The Shure phono cartridge demonstrates flawless bass and midrange performance; that’s why it can be considered as the best phono cartridge under 200, but it lacks good frequency response. Both female and male vocals sound smooth but lack the effect of presence. As for electric guitar, it sounds expressive and well-balanced with other instruments. Each kind of drums renders with plenty of details. It rolls off highs too early by default, but it’s not a great problem when having an adjustable phono preamp.
- The package contains screwdriver, mounting hardware, stylus alignment guide, and cleaning brush.
- Stable frequency curve within the acceptable range of 7 to 12Hz.
- It can’t provide a balanced presentation above 4000Hz.
Audio-Technica AT-VM95E — Best Turntable Cartridge for the Money
The transparent “sound as it is” output is enough to call it the best moving magnet cartridge. It tracks the records with precision and creates a detailed stereo image. However, the mounting and setup might be a tricky part for beginner turntable users, as the correct connection of the wires requires effort and attention. Still, if you have some experience in cartridge replacement, you’ll appreciate the threaded brass inserts system that requires just two screws to fix the cartridge on a tonearm.
The cartridge is equipped with the sturdy aluminum cantilever holding the elliptical stylus. The latter is 0.7 x 0.3 mil size and has the bonded round shank construction. It tracks the frequencies within the range of 20Hz – 22,000Hz easily ensuring the exact frequency response and high dynamics. The sound flows easily and is well-balanced. The soundstage has a good scope, and the imaging is accurate. The channel separation is standard for turntables making 20 dB. The output makes 4mV supported with the coils wound in a specific way. The vertical tracking force makes 2.0g on average, with the minimum 1.8g and the maximum 2.2g. This lets insert the stylus into the groove precisely yet not causing it any harm.
The cartridge supports six types of styluses of the same version (the VM95 series) and some other Audio-Technica styluses of the different shapes and durability and thus can be upgraded or replaced without changing the whole box.
- The polymer housing secures the distortion-free performance, without hiss.
- Tracks LPs and 45RPM records with the same ease and accuracy.
- The mounting kit is versatile including 8mm and 11mm screws and a pair of washers.
- Frequently skips on the old records.
- The treble is a little bit bright.
Ortofon 2M Blue — Best Phono Cartridge Under 300
The cart was made in a plastic angular housing with a replaceable nude elliptical stylus. The stylus is not just a diamond tip, but it is completely diamond up to the end of the cantilever. The cart has a typical output (5.5mV) and track force (1.8g) to be compatible with any turntable and phono preamp. Its shape matches the tonearm perfectly because of their similar shapes.
The Ortofon 2M Blue reveals all the vocal’s peculiarities and passages that are in harmony with both melody and bass, making it the best mm cartridge. The sound is detailed, but the treble is a bit harsh. The cart requires very careful anti-skating adjustments to avoid buzzing on both left and right channels.
- It tracks inner grooves with a little or no IGD.
- Easy mounting in 10 minutes without fiddling and patience-consuming tricks.
- The bass is not so solid when comparing it with the identical records in digital format.
- Background noise level is not very quiet (some pops and clicks are audible).
Ortofon 2M Bronze — Best Phono Cartridge Under 500
The Ortofon comes with a tool kit (scale, cleaning brush, two sets of long and short headshell screws, and a screwdriver) in the box. The unit’s weight, size, and design make it compatible with most modern models of turntables. Its stylus has a svelte profile for tracking the highest frequency content, and its footprint is large enough to prevent the record’s premature wear. Its cabinet is made of the innovative material Lexan DMX Piano Black to remove resonances.
The model demonstrates precise reproduction and neutral tonal balance as for the best moving magnet cartridge. The Ortofon 2M Bronze produces clear sound without even a slight buzz at any frequencies. It allows hearing all the sound features of various instruments (guitar, saxophone, drums, piano, and others) getting a chance to become the best phono cartridge under 500 for vinyl records lovers. The cart is able to tighten bass up and separate the musical instruments even while listening to heavy and thrash metal.
- Adds more sound quality to the vinyl making surface noise imperceptible.
- Eliminates inner groove distortion.
- Despite being the best phono cartridge under $500, a bit of stiffness is present while the cartridge is new. It takes 100 hours or more to offset this effect.
Sumiko Pearl — Best Phono Cartridge Under 200
The cart was created to be installed on a standard ½-inch mount turntable or headshell. It is compatible with record players of such brands as Dual, Denon, Marantz, Sony, etc.
This cartridge produces well detailed and balanced sound through the entire spectrum on the first track, but then some distortions are getting more noticeable. It requires making all the settings perfect, including alignment, anti-skate, tracking weight, and azimuth. This cartridge is able to enhance records from LPs with plenty of scratches, providing clear vocals and midrange without any hint of sibilance, as well as instrument extension into an immersive soundstage.
The unit delivers solid bass and sharp highs. It might seem that there is a lack of lows, but they are getting better with just half an hour of playing time. Though it is not able to analyze and separate bits, the Sumiko Pearl can be nominated as the best cartridge under 300 because it comes with an enhanced channel separation of 30 dB (the majority of cartridges in this price range can boast only 22 dB) to make sound imaging perfect.
- Easily replaceable diamond stylus.
- Wide frequency response (12 – 30 kHz) from the lowest bass up to high treble.
- The cartridge is rather tall and may not fit a head-shell with common length fixtures.
Moving Coil Cartridges
This model can produce a well-balanced sound – the highs are transparent and clear, the bass is tight enough, and midrange is very strong. The sound can be adjusted by changing the phono stage impedance. For example, when setting 390 (+/- 120) Ohms, one can get great high frequencies. Its output is 3 mV that is required to adjust the transformer (100 – 120 Ohms) and to get a quiet phono preamp.
The optimal track force is 2.5g that’s why adding weight to the headshell is recommended. The desirable tonearm mass is no less than 0.6g.
If all conditions are complied with, the cartridge provides an excellent soundstage with great dynamics and reproduces clear 1K and 5K tones.
- The Denon DL-103 improves the sound making it richer and deeper eliminating the vinyl noises.
- It reproduces delicate instruments accurately (bells, triangles, tambourines, etc.).
- A flimsy mounting arrangement with open-edge bolt channels that make the headshell connection not rigid.
This moving coil cartridge by Audio-Technica is made of high-quality materials and encompasses several innovations. It sounds full and transparent and is easy to install thanks to the simple four-prong construction.
The cartridge features the dual moving coil mechanism with the neodymium magnet in between. The magnetic field is enhanced with the permendur yoke, which provides for the fast signal “reading” and transformation. The clarity of the sound is also secured by the pure copper build of the coils — being very lightweight, they move quickly and ensure live dynamics of the music.
Another thing making this cartridge unusual is the short cantilever enabling the highly precise stylus alignment along the groove relief. The cantilever is made of the tapered boron and is also lightweight, which lets it react fast to the stylus movement. As a result, the pops and clicks originating from the old disks are audible but not obtrusive.
The stylus has a square shank and a micro linear diamond structure. This lets it fill the grooves of LPs and 45s without effort and retract a lot of detail. The sound flows easily and creates a wide deep soundstage with exact imaging and accurate frequency response. The latter is vast, catching the sub-low 15Hz and reaching the ultra-high 50,000Hz. The voices are clear and rich, with the slightest harmonics being well traced. Overall, the sound is authentic and well balanced.
- The reduced impedance of the moving coil (10W) ensures the neutral tonal balance.
- The vibration-free design brings little to zero sound distortion.
- The stylus durability is estimated at 1,000 hours.
- Can sound harsh on the phono stages with the high output.
- The bass might lack the volume in the complex compositions.
Its build quality means metal cabinet, the non-replaceable stylus that is not an issue because its price makes it more rational to replace the whole cartridge but not the stylus separately. The highest design standards are obvious from the stylus’ nude elliptical shape providing fast and accurate mounting into the shank and PC-OCC wiring made of high-purity copper. Besides, it comes with stainless suspension wire to improve high-frequency reproduction.
To use this cart, the turntable should have a high-quality amp and MC phono preamp. In this case, the model provides an enhanced frequency response without boosted highs, accurate stereo imaging, clear and transparent tones.
- Easy alignment due to the cart’s two parallel sides.
- No inner groove distortions.
- The aluminum bolts cannot provide firm fixing. Stainless-steel ones are recommended.
- Not enough refinement in the bass.
Cartridges for DJ
Shure M44-7 Standard DJ
This cart is well-known for its tracking ability when dealing even with warped records. The optimal track force is from 1.5 to 3 grams. The highs are a bit shrill, but the bass is heavy and very articulate providing a professional experience for both listening and mixing that make the cartridge rather popular among DJs. No midrange accents are noticed and the highs are flat that allows emphasizing on bass.
This unit is remarkable for its skip resistance for consistently vibrant sound and ultra-high output to deliver sound with stable quality. All those advantages relate to any genre, especially for hip-hop, dance music, and jazz.
- Perfect for scratching and cueing and for battle DJing, as a result.
- It comes with all the necessary hardware and tools for easy installation.
- May sound too loud even with some distortion when being integrated into a common home turntable.
Audio-Technica AT85EP — Best Budget Phono Cartridge
Thanks to the elliptical stylus and the Audio-Technica innovations, it produces a clear sound with an even frequency response and non-muffled low-end, which is often a problem with the budget level turntables.
The construction consists of the dual magnets moving along the specifically designed coil. The latter has the para-toroidal shape and accounts for the precision of the signal transmission. The cantilever is aluminum and is tipped with the standard size (0.3 mil x 0.7 mil) elliptical diamond stylus. The shank has a bonded round shape. The components and the overall build feels durable and precision-made.
The sound of the AT85EP is loud and full, with well-drawn mids and lows. The middle line has good dynamics and clarity. The lows have a solid base. The highs might be a bit warm; yet, the overall performance is concentrated and balanced. It creates a soundstage with good imaging, where the instrument and voice separation are distinct and detail is plenty. The old records sound fine, with the pops being present but non-intrusive.
The setup is straightforward and doesn’t require additional tools. The stylus is replaceable; so, the sound can be further upgraded or take on a new tonal balance and dynamics. This is a great option for novice turntable fans.
- The weight (0.96oz) is universal and doesn’t require the tonearm adjustment at the majority of turntables.
- Crisp and detailed vocals without muffled spots.
- The inner groove distortion is minimal.
- The sound definition isn’t as high as in the more expensive models.
- Might skip on the worn disks.
As the manufacturer claims, this model fits the majority of turntables – 85%. Sometimes, conical cartridges can reduce the sound quality of a turntable system. The Shure M92E can eliminate this issue. It offers almost ideal tonal balance but lacks some details and gives a slight hum. However, it gladdens with smooth sound without stiffness and unnecessary harshness, ticks and pops throughout the whole frequency range.
The unit requires low tracking wear to save the good condition of the records for a long time without reducing tracking quality or skipping resistance. The cart is compatible with P-mount tonearms, which allow adjustment. However, the connection with the standard tonearms is possible via a special adapter for ½-inch mount.
- Handles complex musical passages easily.
- Lows are punchy but not boomy.
- Needs some extra work, for example, fixing speed digitally, calibrating some clicks in the computer recording software.
High Time to Change a Phono Cartridge
The carts’ mission is to enhance the record players’ sound quality. That leads to the stylus’ wear that should be replaced. When missing the right time for replacement, there is a risk of damaging the records. A degree of wear of both outer and inner cart’s edges should be taken into account.
The change in sound quality leads to the entire cartridge or only stylus (needle) replacement. What is more efficient? Buying a new stylus will be a smart decision in case of revealing physical issues and various kinds of noise and distortions, as well as the disruption of the balance of channels.
If the cart has expired or has been damaged, a new stylus is useless, but the cart’s changing is required. One more reason for installing a new cart is a desire to upgrade the turntable system making it more advanced. Besides, the cart and stylus’ price may be almost the same. In this case, buying a new cartridge would be more rational.
The Turntable Stylus’ Expiration Date
The average cart’s service life lasts from 300 to 1000 hours of record playing time. Much depends on the listening time per day. For instance, in case of using the record player 1 hour daily, every 2-years replacement is recommended. Take into consideration the manufacturer’s recommendations. Those who own a second-hand turntable should replace the cart right after its purchase.
Cartridge vs Stylus – What to Buy, How to Choose
The cartridges are often called styluses, but in fact, a stylus is just a diamond part of the cart tracking in the record groove.
The cartridge has a direct influence on sound quality. There are units for professional DJs and for home listening. A new cart is a great way to get a new experience. While thinking of it, pay attention to a price that starts from $25 and reaches $15 000. New stylus is the only possible decision for entry-level record players with non-removable carts (they have no mounting screws). Choose the stylus that is compatible with the turntable.
Hi everyone! I’m Thomas Moody, also known as Guitarzan.