ecoustics at TVD:
The Top 8 Phono Cartridges That Won’t Break the Bank

Need advice on your home audio set-up? We’re delighted to announce that the good folks at ecoustics are bringing their gear knowledge to TVD weeklycommencing today.Ed.

Americans bought a lot of new records in 2020. Almost 27 million LPs according to the folks at Discogs. If you are in the market for an affordable audiophile turntable, or replacement cartridge, it’s easy to get lost looking through the hundreds of affordable phono cartridges that are available. Deciding if you want a moving coil or moving magnet (or moving iron if select one from Grado Labs) cartridge is just one part of the decision making process. Compatibility with the tonearm is also something that you need to pay attention to; just because you want to mount a specific cartridge on your turntable doesn’t mean that you should without checking with the manufacturer or dealer for advice.

Many entry-level turntables come with a pre-installed cartridge from Audio-Technica, Grado Labs, Sumiko, or Ortofon. Aside from confirming the tracking weight and that the anti-skate is properly set, you’re usually only a few minutes from listening to records in this scenario.

But if you want to elevate the level of playback quality from your records, there are a number of options below $750 that extract a lot more information from the grooves and help shape the tonal presentation of the music. Your choice of phono pre-amplifier will also impact the overall sound quality in a significant way.

Do not spend more on the cartridge than the table. A better turntable with the right arm will maximize sound quality with even an inexpensive moving magnet cartridge like a Nagaoka MP-110 – versus a $750 Dynavector on an entry-level turntable. Proper set-up of your cartridge is more important than what you spend. Clean your records and your stylus. Nothing ruins a stylus faster than dirty records.

Nagaoka MP-110 ($145)
Japanese manufacturer, Nagaoka, has been manufacturing outstanding moving magnet phono cartridges for almost 70 years. The entry-level MP-110 is an excellent tracker digging into worn out grooves with authority and delivers a very open and detailed sounding presentation across the entire frequency spectrum. The 5mV output is on the high side, but that also makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers.

The cartridge is a good match on both entry-level and more expensive turntables and offers a lot of performance in a Rega, Pro-Ject, or SME tonearm for under $130. It may not be as popular as the 2M Red from Ortofon which shows up pre-installed on a lot of entry-level tables, but it offers a smoother ride and with less top end bite.
For more information: www.nagaoka.eu
Where to buy: $145 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML ($169.00)
Looking through their extensive lineup of phono cartridges can be somewhat confusing, but Audio-Technica have some really affordable cartridges below $200 that really shine on a better table. Install on something entry-level, and the sound will be fine but nothing really special considering how much potential lurks inside the cartridge body. But which one should you buy and do they really sound all that different? Not only do they sound different, but the type and shape of the stylus will have a huge impact on the sound. Even at this price level.

The AT-VM95ML is a moving magnet cartridge with a microlinear stylus and rather quiet in the grooves. The 3.5mV output makes it compatible with most internal phono preamps that you’ll find in your receiver or integrated amplifier, and it has excellent channel separation. It’s not the warmest cartridge that we’ve ever heard so pair it with a warm sounding phono preamp or amplifier. Detail freaks will love this cart. Bass freaks will find it somewhat lean and quick sounding in the lower registers. It’s a clean sounding cart that has a little more emphasis in the treble than the Sumiko Moonstone.
For more information: www.audio-technica.com/en-us/at-vm95ml
Where to buy: $169 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Denon DL-103 ($229)
Denon introduced the DL-103 in 1962 for professional broadcast use, and it has proven to be of the most popular and reliable phono cartridges of its kind. The low output moving coil design (0.3mV) requires a higher mass tonearm; opening the door to used Fidelity Research, SME, or EMT arms or more expensive modern arms from Kuzma, or Jelco (which recently decided to cease production). Jazz listeners have long prized the DL-103’s tonal balance and open presentation that make both brass instruments and vocals come alive.

The DL-103 requires at least 60dB of gain to come alive; sticking a step-up transformer between the affordable DL-103 and the moving magnet input of your phono stage can be a transformative experience when everything is set-up correctly. Third party manufacturers have been offering modified DL-103 variants for the past few years at considerable expense, but our advice would be to stick with the stock model from Denon.
For more information: usa.denon.com/en-us/product/turntables/dl-103
Where to buy: $299 at Turntable Lab

Sumiko Moonstone ($299.00)
Sumiko offers an extensive lineup of both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges; a number of models come pre-installed on Pro-Ject tables being distributed in North America and there is a lot to like about the Moonstone at under $300. This 3mV moving magnet cartridge is in the middle of the range and possibly the smoothest sounding of the bunch. The Moonstone has excellent channel separation and tracks exceptionally well.

How does it compare to the other cartridges in this survey? It’s certainly smoother sounding than the Audio-Technica, but that comes at the expense of some detail in the treble and it doesn’t create a huge soundstage like the Dynavector or Hana. Out of the box, it’s a tad polite but that changes for the better after about 20-30 hours of use. Clarity, refinement, and a punchy low-end describes the Moonstone rather well. Do not use this cart with overly warm sounding phono preamps — way too much of a good thing.
For more information: sumikophonocartridges.com/product/moonstone-mm-phono-cartridge/
Where to buy: $299 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Hana EL ($475)
Hana’s parent company has been an OEM manufacturer for a number of prestigious Japanese phono cartridge brands for years, but the decision to enter the marketplace with their own cartridges under the “Hana” label has been a huge success so far. Hana offers three tiers of phono cartridges; creating some welcome competition for Ortofon, Grado, and Audio-Technica, and it is the low-output EL (0.5mV) utilizing an elliptical stylus that shines the brightest with a quality moving coil phono pre-amplifier.

An excellent tracker, the EL offers a lush sounding midrange, and slightly rolled-off treble making it an excellent cartridge with a wide range of music and systems. Partnered with a phono pre-amplifier from iFi Audio or Moon by SimAudio, the Hana EL can deliver a lot of performance for only $475.
For more information: musicalsurroundings.com/products/hana-el-mc-cartridge
Where to buy: $475 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Ortofon 2M Bronze ($440)
A century of cartridge development expertise and manufacturing has to count for something so it’s not surprising to see at least one cartridge from the Danish manufacturer on our list. Ortofon offers a wide range of cartridges from under $100 to almost $10,500 for the Anna MC cartridge, but our favorite affordable model from their line-up is the 2M Bronze. The 2M Red comes pre-installed on a lot of entry-level turntables but we think the additional $375 is well worth it for a lot of reasons. The 5mV output makes it compatible with almost every available external phono pre-amplifier and integrated amplifier, and it’s extremely easy to install – although those who are thinking about installing it on a Rega tonearm will require spacers to achieve the correct set-up height.

The 2M Bronze delivers tonal accuracy, pace, and a boldness that love with tube pre-amplifiers or warming sounding systems. Imaging is excellent, and the top end is far smoother sounding than the 2M Red. We’ve long believed that a better table is more important than spending a fortune on a cartridge and the 2M Bronze is a decided overachiever on expensive turntables. You may listen and decide that your records have never sounded any better.
For more information:
www.ortofon.com/ortofon-2m-bronze-p-325-n-1579

Where to buy: $440 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Grado Labs Timbre Series Sonata3 ($600)
Grado Labs has been designing and manufacturing its award-winning moving iron cartridges in the same Brooklyn facility for more than 40 years, and this family-owned business rarely changes its designs unless the improvements are going to be significant. The Timbre Series Sonata3 moving iron cartridge housed in an Australian Jarrah wood chassis may be one the best from the venerable brand for under $600.

The 4.0mV output makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers and it’s almost impossible to not pick-up on the Grado house sound; extended dynamics, low end punch, and a warm tonal balance that is highly addictive. The new Timbre models are quieter than the previous models with improved levels of detail. The wood body Grado cartridges sound particularly robust on VPI and Clearaudio turntables.
For more information:
gradolabs.com/cartridges/timbre-series/item/121-sonata3

Where to buy: $600 at 4OurEars (Official Grado Store)

Dynavector 10×5 Mk2 ($750)
Dynavector has offered this high output moving coil cartridge (2.5mV) for more than 20 years, and while not inexpensive, the 10×5 Mk2 may be the best overall cartridge of its kind with superb tracking, a balanced presentation, and excellent dynamics making it a great choice for jazz listeners. Installation used to be a tad cumbersome, but that issue has been resolved with some minor changes to the headshell. The 10×5 Mk2 may not be the “best” at anything, but it has earned its reputation as a workhorse cartridge that manages to survive expensive table and tonearm upgrades. Vocals and brass have impressive presence, and there is a synergy between the 10×5 Mk2 and tube phono pre-amplifiers that makes it a final destination for many.
For more information: www.dynavector.com/products/cart/e_10x5mk2.html

This article originally appeared at ecoustics.com and has been published here with permission.

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