Other than finding cheap grails at yard sales, phono cartridges are the most fun you can have in the vinyl hobby.
Changing your cartridge can have a dramatic impact on the listening experience, resulting in a more vivid, colorful, and downright enjoyable sound. Once you hear the difference between, “Hey, her voice sounds pretty good,” and, “HOLY COW, ETTA JAMES IS IN MY ROOM,” you can’t really go back.
That kind of experience doesn’t come down to only the cartridge, of course, but choosing the right one is crucial. Different carts speak with different “voices,” even when choosing between models made by the same manufacturer.
It can be a tough decision, so we thought a simple guide might be useful. We asked our friends at Turntable Lab if we could use their selection of carts as a database. It covers a nice range of prices suitable for any budget and includes many of the world’s most popular models.
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 terms that will definitely come in handy.
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The People’s Series
Audio-Technica is the largest manufacturer of phono cartridges in the world, and not only offers an extraordinarily wide range of choices under its own name but also provides cartridges for other brands.
The VM95 is the people’s series — the Audio-Technica (AT) line that fits the most budgets and offers the most choices. Every cartridge body in the VM95 series is identical, which means you can upgrade simply by buying a higher-end stylus. They also have threaded holes in the bodies so you don’t have to fumble with tiny mounting nuts.
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, and they mate well with virtually any commonly found tonearm. Like we said, it’s the people’s series.
The VM95C is the entry-level, ridiculously cheap option at $34 but fitted with a low-resolution conical stylus (check the glossary below for differences in stylus). It’s friendly but crude, like that uncle who makes bad jokes at Thanksgiving. Moving to the VM95E, the ubiquitous green cart included with the AT LP60 and LP120 turntables, costs an extra $15 but you get a lot for your money. The VM95EN punches above its price point; the elliptical stylus is much nicer than a conical and will also last longer. Splurging on the VM95EN 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 is where things get real. Its seriously tiny MicroLine stylus (again, check the glossary at the bottom) can really dig out some information. This cartridge has been hailed as a giant killer on numerous audio forums, and its advocates use them on turntables costing $2,000.
Many of those same users have tried the VM95SH, 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. Some feel the Shibata has slightly better bass, some feel the MicroLine has slightly cleaner highs, but since this is the world of audio, you can probably find someone who feels the opposite.
The VM95SP has a fatter spherical stylus that makes it suitable for use with 78s (but really nothing else). It’s still the same body, meaning you can buy an SP stylus and pop it on whenever you get the urge to hear Bob Crosby’s Bob Cats.
Next Step Up
These are the next step up in the VM line. The 700 series represents a real commitment to your vinyl. And 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 VM 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 has a bonded elliptical stylus while the VM540ML has a MicroLine tip. It could be that the differences in sound are, to you, not worth the extra $130, but there has to be a reason why the VM540ML has become an endgame cartridge for audiophiles on a budget.
The VM750SH and VM760SLC are said to take resolution, extended high frequencies, and clarity up a notch 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 AT 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.
These are technically all DJ cartridges, but the AT-XP5 and AT-XP7 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 OK to be wary. While a lot of lucky gear heads wouldn’t blink at $769, it’s more than many collectors are willing to pay. In other words, that’s a lot of damn records.
In Audio-Technica’s defense, they 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 but the lightest and heaviest of tonearms.
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 $37 Omega OM is often bundled with equally 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 styli get and, of course, the better your records will sound. The Super OM 10 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, and 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 Most Versatile Option
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 carts 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 debuted like gangbusters in 2007, offering a really nice-looking cartridge at a good price. A lot of people still love theirs, but it’s easy enough to find folks 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.
Many have moved on, however, to the 2M Blue‘s nude elliptical stylus, which is just as sexy as it sounds. While there are some users who didn’t hear much difference, many, many more have — and easily. In fact, putting the 2M Blue stylus on the 2M Red body has become a go-to move.
The Bronze and the Black 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.
Because of the differences in material and internal organs, it makes more sense to swap styli between the Red and Blue or the Bronze and Black. Putting a Black stylus on a Red body will work, but it’s sort of like building a kit car Ferrari with a four-cylinder engine.
For Mono Sound
The version for sale at Turntable Lab comes pre-mounted to a nice Ortofon headshell, which costs more but it’s the best way to buy these. Unless you’re Steve Buscemi in Ghost World, you’re far more likely to be playing stereo records the vast majority of the time, so it makes sense to have your mono on a separate headshell that can be swapped out. One caveat: The headshells are meant to work as far as alignment goes with common S-shaped tonearms, not straight. Pre-mounted Ortofons cannot be adjusted.
The Ortofon 2M Mono ($398) is a highly-rated mono cart that uses a spherical stylus that has been mounted nude. The internal wiring has been strapped, just as with the Grado MC+, and monophiles have praised this cart for many years. The 2M 78 ($188), aka the 78 version, has a lower quality diamond but, come on, it’s 78s. It’s not like you’re gonna hurt ‘em.
Clearaudio, Denon, and Sumiko
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. It also sounds like the ideal back-up cart, something to keep in a drawer if disaster (read: tequila) strikes your main cartridge.
Clearaudio is a Germany-based company probably best known for its least expensive turntable, the incredibly versatile and durable $1,800 Concept, and its most expensive, the outlandish $200,000 Statement.
The Clearaudio Concept V2 MM ($250) is the cartridge that comes standard with the Concept turntable and is also sold separately. It’s a modified version of the Audio-Technica AT95 cartridge, with all of the mods geared toward reducing vibration and resonances. The all-aluminum body is a rarity at this price point, plus its mounting holes are threaded into the body.
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 ($299) 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, however, which theoretically shouldn’t mate well but apparently do. Definitely avoid using the 103 with anything lighter than that.
Some of the Most Popular Carts
One of the most popular lines of cartridges in history, it’s unusual to get through your audio travels without owning at least one Grado Prestige. They’re no-brainers.
The entire line shares the Grado house sound, which is a full, generous midrange ideal for vocals, saxophones, trumpets — voices and voice-like instruments. Some prefer a more detailed treble but 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 (the Gold, for example, is the top five percent of the Silver production run). Basically, everything gets more refined as the cost goes up.
Any of these 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.
For Mono Sound
This is pretty self-explanatory: The Grado Prestige MC+ Mono ($90) is mono, not stereo. 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.
The MC+ is a modified stereo cartridge. 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 has only one speaker?
Here’s the thing: If you buy only modern reissues of mono records, they’re pressed differently and respond to both vertical and horizontal movement. That’s why you can listen to a reissued mono LP and it sounds fine with your stereo cartridge. Only invest in a mono cartridge if you have true, vintage mono LPs.
Hana cartridges are made by Japan’s Excel Sound Corporation, which has been making carts 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 down to taste; each has its strong points.
The “E” in the lower-priced model stands for elliptical, which is the stylus design. The higher-priced model’s “S” is for Shibata, a much more refined cut of the diamond. The “H” and “L” both refer to high output and low output. A lot of hardcore vinyl lovers prefer Shibata, claiming that more information is being mined from the grooves. But there’s nothing at all wrong with an elliptical; it’s a great stylus that more than gets the job done. You may hear a slight reduction in highs with an elliptical, and that’s a plus for a lot of people who prefer a less forward sound or who have bright sounding speakers.
Like the Denon DL-103, the low-output Hanas, which offer .5mV, will require a 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 carts will work with just about any tonearm that isn’t inordinately light or heavy.
And how do they sound? There’s a reason these puppies score five stars all 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.
The Rega Bias 2 ($165) generates a lot of differing opinions. Some love its brash, upbeat sound while others think it sounds splashy and a bit rude. The one thing on which everyone agrees is that Rega cartridges work best with Rega tonearms, so if you have a Rega P1, P2, or P3 and want to give the Bias 2 a spin, there will be nothing to worry about as far as set-up and compatibility.
Most typical vinyl fans seem to like it, and the late, great Art Dudley praised it in Stereophile, writing that the Bias 2 sounded like someone had cranked up a knob on his preamp labeled “Chunkify.” Whatever that means, it sounds cool. This MM design will work fine with a lot of tonearms and has an almost alarming 6.8mV output, which is hotter than a DJ cartridge.
The Rega Carbon ($65) 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.
Photo by Adrian Korte
There are a handful of terms that will come up time and again as you shop for cartridges. Some are more important than others and apply to everyone, while others come down to the question of taste and preference.
Anatomy of a cartridge
Too often you’ll hear people talk about their “needle” when describing their cartridge, but that is so 1950s. The following is what comprises a cartridge:
- The body. This is the part that attaches to your tonearm using screws. It can be made of anything from plastic to exotic woods (no vibranium — yet).
- The cantilever. This is the long, thin shaft that extends from the cartridge body and is commonly made from aluminum, but you can find them carved from ruby, beryllium, carbon fiber, and even cactus needles.
- The suspension. Usually made of rubber, this is where the cantilever is seated. It has the same job as your car’s suspension: It’s designed to give your stylus a smooth ride in the record’s grooves.
- Stylus. This is the sculpted diamond that’s attached to the end of the cantilever, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.
- Coils and magnets. These are what get the signal to your amplifier, the motor that makes Motörhead come alive.
There are three basic families of stylus shapes — conical, elliptical, and fine line — although there are variations within the families.
The conical, or spherical, is the most crude but there are some fine examples, such as the Denon DL-103. Conical styli are as a rule fatter, which means they don’t dig as much information out of a groove because they come into contact with a smaller surface area.
This has a plus side since they can sometimes miss damaged parts of the groove walls and thus transmit less surface noise (unless the damage was caused by a conical stylus, in which case you’re screwed). The downside is that you’re not hearing all of the music packed into a groove, and a conical will both wear down faster while also causing increased record wear.
Elliptical is the most common these days. An elegant and versatile shape, a nice elliptical stylus will get down into the groove and track better, causing less record wear. There are also hyper-ellipticals, which take the performance up a notch. Because an elliptical is coming into more groove contact, they need to be aligned carefully to get the best from them.
Fine line styli come in several flavors — Contact Line, Shibata, MicroLine, MicroRidge — but they’re just variations on a theme. They’re tiny, precision instruments that dig out more musical information with lower distortion, which is the whole point. They can also be a chore to align and might not even work well on tonearms that can’t be raised or lowered at the pivot end to adjust for vertical tracking angle (VTA).
Low compliance vs. high compliance
These are mechanical terms relating to a cartridge’s suspension.
Low compliance means that the suspension is stiffer and requires a tonearm with a heavier-than-average mass, or weight, so that the stylus will remain better seated in the groove. A high compliance cartridge is more springy and will work best with lighter tonearms because a heavy arm won’t allow the cartridge enough freedom to track the grooves.
In other words, the weight of the tonearm works in concert with the compliance of the cartridge.
Most common tonearms today — anything on Audio-Technica, Pro-Ject, Music Hall, Rega, etc. — are somewhere in the neighborhood of medium mass, which is 10 to 15 grams. That isn’t enough mass for a low compliance cartridge, although there are exceptions that prove the rule.
But a majority of popular moving magnet cartridges are high-compliance designs, which means that the most commonly seen tonearms will work fine with the most commonly available cartridges. You almost have to make an effort to get it wrong.
Moving magnet vs. moving coil
This explanation could easily go down a rabbit hole of effective mass, inertia, pivot points, and Satanism that no one wants to read (or write), so let’s keep it simple.
The stylus digs information out of the record’s grooves, which travels up the cantilever into a motor, or engine. A moving magnet (MM) cartridge uses a piece of magnet, while a moving coil (MC) uses coils of wire. The coils of extremely tiny wire are much lighter relative to the magnet.
The lighter weight of an MC design means that the cantilever is allowed to move more freely, which means that the stylus is allowed to trace the grooves more effectively. This can result in more air — details and clarity — but some feel it can also add a sharp bite.
The lighter an MC cartridge is made, the less wire is being used, which means that the overall voltage output drops significantly, and that will require additional amplification, i.e., more money. You’ll need either a dedicated MC phono stage or a step-up transformer, which boosts the signal before passing it on to a moving magnet phono stage.
An MC design can also be more sensitive to loading capacitance, which is real but also confusing as hell. If you have a phono stage appropriate for an MC cartridge then you should also have capacitance settings, so just change them until you like the sound. It’s a science but it isn’t rocket science.
MM cartridges are cheaper because they’re less labor-intensive — those tiny coils are wound by hand — and they have a certain sound, a more rock and roll attitude, that many prefer. A magnet more easily generates voltage so a MM will always have a higher output and will work with anything from a $75 phono stage to one that costs thousands. Capacitance isn’t an issue. Quite a few MM carts, including those made by Audio-Technica and Ortofon, have user-replaceable styli, while MC carts do not have that option.