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. 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. They are often called styluses, needles, or pickups. Their main task is to turn on a mechanical movement into an electrical signal.
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 turntable’s 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, 2 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.
Standard Cartridges Reviews
Standard carts provide a great sonic performance making it rather easy to choose the best phono cartridge among them despite their a bit painstaking mounting because of force tracking, anti-skate setup, and some other necessary procedures.
Moving Magnet Cartridges
Best Phono Cartridge Under 100
Ortofon 2m Red – Perfect Tracking, Fast Mounting
It 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. Metal dome materials’ damping is average making some high-frequency harmonics resonate. This drawback doesn’t entitle it to become the best phono cartridge under 100 because it can be eliminated when subduing high frequencies with a crossover.
- New screw mounting system with high output level allow fast calibrating and screws mounting into the cartridge itself without little bolts.
- Good tracking even on bouncy old hardwood floors.
- Reduces rumbles form a vinyl record.
- The sound brightens is fading at high volume leading to details reduction in the sound.
- High coil inductance worsens phono preamp’s hiss.
Audio Technica CN5625AL – Improves Worn Records
This entry-level record player cartridge provides clean sound. Its bass and treble are well-balanced. This unit gladdens with its versatility being not very heavy and that’s why compatible with both high mass straight and medium mass S-shaped tonearms. However, it may not fit low mass ones. The cartridge has a sturdy build quality – durable aluminum cantilever and well-polished stylus.
The CN5625AL is easy to align to get it sound right. The tracking force is within the range of 1.5–3 g, but 2 g is recommended to exclude inner groove distortion. The sound in the highs and lows has the necessary difference (lows are smoother) due to a conical stylus. The midrange is warm, clear, and dynamic. Sibilance is decent without any essential noises. This model, despite its entry-level design, can become the best moving magnet cartridge being able to offset crackles in worn records making them sound sweeter.
- All the necessary hardware for mounting is in the box.
- Produces clear sound even when installing into antique records.
- A bit muffled in the highs.
Audio Technica AT95E – Solid Performance in All Musical Genres
The AT95E is affordable and high-performance cart delivering 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 g to eliminate scraping and dragging sounds.
- Rhythm instruments sound just the right amount of abruption and aggression.
- It fits even heavy mass tonearms.
- Tiny nuts can cling to the end of the screws during the cartridge installation.
- The sound is not very detailed.
Best Phono Cartridge Under 200
Shure M97xE – Best Phono Cartridge
My phono cartridge reviews can hardly miss 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 cart is equipped with a damped Dynamic Stabilizer brush to play complicated records. It also damps tonearm resonances at low frequencies.
This model 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 with lack 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 balanced presentation above 4000Hz.
Ortofon 2M Blue – Versatile Cartridge, Easy to Install
The cart was made in a plastic angular cabinet 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 (1.8 g) to be compatible with any turntable and phono preamp. Its shape matches to 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. The sound is detailed, but 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).
Sumiko Pearl – Reasonably Priced Model to Provide the Best Soundstage
The cart was created to be installed on standard 1/2″ mount turntable or headshell. It is compatible with record players of such brands as Dual, Denon, Marantz, Sony, and a dozen of others.
This cart 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 30Db (the majority of cartridges in this price range can boast the only 22Db) 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.
Best Phono Cartridge Under 500
Ortofon 2M Bronze – Balances Frequencies, Absolute Sound Clarity
A fancy styling cartridge under 1000 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 the 2M Bronze compatible with most of 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. 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.
- A bit of stiffness is present while the cartridge is new. It takes 100 hours or more to offset this effect.
Moving Coil Cartridges
Audio Technica AT-F7 Dual Moving Coil – Great Refinement, Durable Construction
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 cart but not the stylus separately. The highest design standards are evident 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.
Denon DL 103 Moving Coil Cartridge – Smooth and Articulate Sound
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 requires to adjust transformer (100 – 120 Ohms) and to get a quiet phono preamp.
The optimal track force is 2.5 g that’s why adding weight to the headshell is recommended. The desirable tonearm mass is no less than 0.6 g.
If all conditions are complied with, the cartridge provides an excellent soundstage with great dynamics and reproduce 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 making headshell connection not rigid.
Cartridges for DJ
Shure M44-7 Standard DJ – Accurate and Dynamic Sound for Professionals
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 g. 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.
Shure M92E – Clear Sound, High Compatibility
As the manufacturer claims, this model has a chance to become the best turntable cartridge in its price range because it 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 that allow escaping adjusting them. However, the connection with the standard tonearms is possible via a special adapter for 1/2” 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.
What is a Phono Cartridge? – Definition and Purpose
A phono cartridge (cart) is an electro-mechanical unit to turn the content 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, rubber suspension, magnet, 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.
High Time to Change a Cart – When does it Come?
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 wisely 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 on the market. 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.