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Select the best phono cartridge

Today it’s possible to update a turntable without a serious financial loss and the necessity to buy a new device. Usually, the reason of a malfunction is a faulty cartridge. In such a situation a replacement can be a way out. Moreover, with best phono cartridge reviews, it can be easy to find a perfect component. All phonograph cartridges, even those produced of modern and reliable materials, wear down through use, so we propose a wide assortment of great elements.

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How to choose the right phono cartridge?

The needle can turn even the simplest record player into a real high-level audio unit with the divine sound. Thus, the process of choosing it should be taken very seriously. Speaking after experience, it is better to have some detailed checking and define correct accents in order to reduce the possible select options down to several units. For the easier selection process you can take the next pieces of advice:

  1. Determine your financial capabilities.
  2. Figure out the phonograph cartridge type (standard or p-mount).
  3. Figure out its type (moving magnet or moving coil).
  4. Select a stylus shape.

Set the budget for buying a phono cartridge

First of all, you need to think about the financial expenses because today the market proposes various prices (100-15,000 dollars apiece). You should understand that if you have an expensive vinyl player, a costly but high-quality needle is preferable for better sound. You are free to buy a record player cartridge under 300 dollars or a phonograph cartridge under 1000 dollars, but first, you need to read our reviews and to weigh the decision.

Such a task is very responsible because the unit has to conform to the turntable tonearm. The best helper, in this case, may be the Internet or a manual because specifications usually include a range of acceptable values. Only after data comparison it will be possible to balance the total weight of the tonearm and the cartridge for the subsequent accurate groove tracking.

Identity the cartridge’s type (from the first perspective)

For the next step, we will also need the manual. You should determine which kind of cartridge (standard or p-mount) your turntable uses. If the physical or web-version of the manual is not available, don’t become upset! It may be easy to identify the type correctly even without guidance. A standard unit is placed on the underside of the turntable tonearm and is fixed with the special vertical screws. A p-mount cartridge is put in the end part of a tonearm and is secured with a horizontal screw.

Identity the cartridge type (from the second perspective)

You have to make a decision. What is better: a moving magnet (MM cartridge) or moving coil (MC cartridge) type? The MM looks like a miniature electromagnetic generator, but unlike the MC, at the end of the needle holder, there are two permanent electromagnets. The MC cartridges are more expensive. Even the best moving magnet cartridge cannot be compared with the MC products in a sound quality (the last one sounds better). Moreover, they do not require additional devices for coordination with phono stages. You should remember: cheapest is the dearest, so let’s immediately ignore all the disposable Chinese record player cartridges with fragile needles. We are talking only about certified and reliable turntable parts.

Make a choice of the stylus shape

After solving all the aspects listed earlier, you should take care of the stylus. On the modern market we can find such stylus types: spherical (also known as conical), elliptical (otherwise known as bi-radial), line (also known as fine line or linear contact), and Shibata. The type of the stylus is very important because the surface contact between its tip and grooves of a record define the accuracy and depth of the sound, reducing phase problems and distortions. Another important thing that your record player has to have is a phono preamp. Visit the link if you need it.

Best Phono Cartridge reviews

Further I present to you the best phono cartridge reviews of a standard (1/2 inch) type. Such components connect to the tonearm with the help of visible wires. Moreover, they are secured by two screws.

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Moving Magnet cartridges reviews

Best phono cartridges under 100 dollars: a decent substitute for the predecessors

Audio-Technica CN5625AL: an entry-level cartridge with a half-inch mount

Audio-Technica CN5625AL
The device sounds amazing in both low mass straight tonearms and medium mass S-shaped tonearms. With its help, you always have an opportunity to enjoy the vinyl records because the device hides all the flaws and noises of pop music. The build quality is solid due to the straight cantilever and greatly polished stylus. The unit is perfect for everyday use and for those people, who can call themselves audiophiles. I have to mention that the CN5625AL has a conical shape needle. Moreover, I like its frequency response (20-20,000 Hz), which is enough to start the playback after the successful installation and launching a vinyl player. Even with the budget phono cartridge, the unit proves me that the vintage jazz can sound adorable.

Pros
  • The stylus guide and the cartridge body have a rectangular shape, so it is easy to perform a cartridge aligning.
  • Its sound is appealing and warm.
Cons
  • The bass is muddy.
  • Sometimes the sounding may become two-dimensional and a little bit harsh.
Audio-Technica AT95E: a breeze installation with a pop sound

Audio-Technica AT95E
The device establishes itself as a very sensitive audio unit. For installation I needed fine tools (small pliers), and this phono amp became a great addition. The device greatly extracts enjoyable music from old vinyl records. It smoothes out some surface roughness and produces very clean and deep sound. The cartridge is supplemented by an elliptical needle. It is a very thin part, and I even dropped it once. Thank God, the cartridge appeared to be very strong. Personally for me, the AT95E is the best phono cartridge under 100 dollars, but such a low-price product has an excessive emphasis on bass and not very presentable design.

Pros
  • The sound is great even in the inner grooves.
  • The AT95E fits most existing headshells.
  • It has a very affordable price.
Cons
  • The aligning process is very long. I have to watch some specialized video on the Internet to perform all the operations correctly.
  • The accompanying documentation is hard to read and to comprehend.
Ortofon 2m Red: a combination of the improved engine and increased output of 5.5mV

Ortofon 2m Red
The installation is easy. After “dropping the needle” on the first single, I paid attention to the wide dynamic range and very deep (but not muddy) lows. Of course, clear and pronounced crisp highs didn’t leave me indifferent. The cartridge has an elliptical needle shape. In the set, there are a screwdriver and a stylus brush. It is suitable for listening to modern electronic music. Thanks to the special tracking angle, I can tune the head without an effort. Among unusual disadvantages, I can name the necessity to take off the rose-colored glasses and see that some records can’t present the whole sound opportunities.

Pros
  • Stylish appearance makes the device a practical decoration.
  • All the tinkling bells, guitar chords, and bass fiddles are perfectly heard.
  • This cartridge demonstrates the great compatibility with a wide variety of phono preamps.
Cons
  • The set doesn’t include an easy-to-read instruction.
  • The device is too heavy for the Audio Technica LP120 turntable.

Best phono cartridge under 200 dollars: the combination of quality and affordability

Sumiko Pearl: it will fit devices with different tonearms

Sumiko Pearl
The cartridge has very standard sound. I made experiments with alignment and adjusted forces from 1.5-2.0 grams 1/10th at a time. This helped me find the necessary sound without hateful crisps and impairing noise. It has very good bass and a palpable midrange. There are a few interesting things: the cartridge is rather tall and doesn’t fit easily with standard length fixtures. Moreover, the head has a needle with elliptical sharpening. The sound character of the Sumiko Pearl is very rhythmic, with natural, well-developed low frequencies, and a very pleasant middle. It has unique airiness, especially noticeable when listening to acoustic recordings.

Pros
  • The setting process is easy.
  • The cartridge is perfect for classic and hard rock.
  • I truly enjoy the sibilance absence.
Cons
  • The sound range is limited, especially high frequencies.
  • The device produces the old-school sound in a negative meaning. The warm bass sounds very artificial at some moments.
Shure M97xE: it can handle even difficult musical passages

Shure M97xE
The M97xE reveals to me the original sound of old tracks. The Shure’s novel Dynamic Dampener became a pleasant surprise. The device has an ellipsoidal needle surface. With its help, I can listen to some warped records. The cartridge sounds good enough even with old records, which have deep scratches. In my humble opinion, the Shure M97xE is the best phono cartridge under 200 dollars, but the medium price category includes other decent audio components, which have a favorable price/quality ratio in the market. I have to mention that the manual includes a recommended distance from the tip of the needle to the headshell end.

Pros
  • It has an amazing stable frequency curve.
  • Due to the moving magnet and high-output design, the mentioned cartridge impressed me with its versatility. It easily cooperates with the vinyl player.
  • The build quality is at a high level. I replaced the metal body and diamond stylus seamlessly.
Cons
  • The AT cart is too bright for me.
  • I notice some unpleasant inner-groove distortions.
Ortofon 2M Blue: a device from a well-known company

Ortofon 2M Blue
The cartridge shape and color attract my attention. It looks just like a diamond. The body’s head is made of a blue translucent polymer. It is important to mention its high rigidity and really great anti-vibration characteristics. The unit has a nude elliptical stylus type. Previously I had the Ortofon 2M Red, but the modern Blue has a much better appearance. It revealed to me crisper highs and very solid bass. Moreover, I start to notice some “hidden” sound hints. Such a cartridge is a great substitution for middle-class players.

Pros
  • Quiet surface noise really impress me.
  • I don’t notice sound sharpness and such a peculiarity is perfect to me.
  • The setup process was really easy and took me nearly 10 minutes.
Cons
  • The small cleaning brush is useless. I’m using non-specialized tools.
  • For a better sound, I had to buy and install special tube preamps, thus spending additional money.

Best phono cartridge under 500 dollars: check the medium-priced device excellence

Ortofon 2M Bronze: the accurate tracking and wide frequency range combination

Ortofon 2M Bronze
The device emphasizes the bass considerably and separates the instruments. The unit has a removable insert, and with its help, I can replace the needle very quickly. All the tracks in the death/thrash metal style sound with maximum clarity. This device conveys the essence of the music recordings very accurately. The cartridge and its elliptical needle show only their best sides. In my opinion, I can say that the Ortofon 2M Bronze is the best phono cartridge under 500 dollars, which has one small disadvantage: too artificial high notes.

Pros
  • The design is unusual, but such an aesthetic solution provided me true visual enjoyment from its use.
  • I easily mounted the cartridge according to the manual’s recommendations.
Cons
  • Sometimes, the sound seems to be a little bit thin.
  • Vocals sound as if there are hands in front of the singer’s mouth.

Moving Coil cartridges reviews

Denon DL 103 Moving Coil Cartridge: quality in each element

Denon DL 103 Moving Coil Cartridge
The device has a conical needle with enough radius to perform a very accurate tracking. I noticed a single point suspension and a double needle holder, providing a great protection against resonances. I want to commend the manufacturer for good bass levels and a pleasant midrange, as well as the high-quality assembly. Due to its electrical parameters, the cartridge can be combined with popular models of phono preamps, including those with limited possibilities for the input impedance setting. High-quality correctors with good sensitivity are a great addition to the cartridge.

Pros
  • Very transparent and dynamic sound is a real gate to another level of music perception.
  • It can be a great choice for both old and new vinyl players.
  • Thanks to the preamp impedance changing, I can easily configure the sound to my liking.
Cons
  • Jazz sounds are very non-natural and superficial.
  • There is background scratchy noise on old records.

Audio-Technica AT-F7 Dual Moving Coil: the sound enjoyment is in details

Audio Technica AT F7 Dual Moving Coil
The Audio-Technica AT-F7 has the elliptical sharpening of the needle. It provides a wide radius of the tip in the frontal part and narrow on the side, which in combination allows the needle to follow exactly in the center of the track. The Audio-Technica AT-F7 demonstrates to me the maximum level of the manufacturer’s dedication because the unnecessary vibration is minimized. The whole “sound picture” is really vivid, natural and detailed. Due to the high quality of manufacturing, the cartridge has the necessary reliability for long-term work as part of a properly tuned vinyl player.

Pros
  • Plentiful sound details are a great surprise. I hear the smallest breathing moments of the vocalist.
  • The setup process is really quick and easy. The manual contains all the required information.
Cons
  • It is too light-weighted.
  • It is a fussy cartridge that only sounds good in certain tables.

P-type cartridges review

For reviewing below I chose the P-type cartridges, which have a special mount system to ease their changing and aligning. P-mount cartridges are placed into the relevant tonearm using four terminals and are secured by one screw. Such a system differs from the standard one.

Shure M92Ea universal light-tracking moving magnet

Shure M92E
Such a cartridge isn’t a pleasure for audiophile ears. It has good sound with superficial hints. I hear almost every scratch on my record, so the first attempt to enjoy the music failed miserably. I performed all the installation operations correctly and placed a right bi-radial diamond tip. Unfortunately, I did it after the second attempt. The bass is perfectly controlled and distinguished by its elasticity, composure and good “punch”. Some inner details of the cartridge tend to fall out. I believe that the assembly quality isn’t good enough, but at the same time, such a “flaw” doesn’t have a negative impact on the sound.

Pros

  • A great high-frequency response is a pleasant surprise for me.
  • It is a nice solution for old vinyl players, which have no need for the high-level cartridge.

Cons

  • There is a significant background hum (only at higher volumes).
  • I actually hear all the shortcomings in bass and treble responses.
  • The lack of crispness makes me sad.

Cartridges for DJ

Shure M44-7 Standard DJ: a product that was made specially for experts

Shure M44-7 Standard DJ
The bi-radial needle is perfect for saving vinyl during intense scratching. It leaves no visible usage marks. I truly enjoy all the sound nuances and the device endurance. This cartridge managed to reproduce an even-keeled tonality which worked over a wide variety of records. The case of the Shure M44-7 is painted black, which ensures its good stylistic compatibility with various models of tonearms. The device greatly works with 78 RPM recordings and the original M44-designed diamond stylus. I’ve tried a lot of cartridges from Shure, but for me, the M44-7 appeared to be the best turntable cartridge for DJs. It is able to build a wide and fairly deep soundstage.

Pros
  • The sound seems to be very deep and multilateral.
  • The cartridge perfectly fits both middle-class and very expensive turntables.
  • It has a smooth tone and slightly high audio level.
Cons
  • Levels come in too loud.
  • The setup is very hard. I put a lot of effort to obtain great sound.

Buyers Guide

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A phono cartridge: basic information

Briefly, the phonograph cartridge is an electro-mechanical unit, which converts the record groove data into an electrical signal, and can be increased for further music playback. There are a lot of different cartridge types, but the most popular are the abovementioned elements (MM and MC cartridges). A diamond stylus tip contacts explicitly with the record. As the stylus traces the motion of the grooves, it vibrates a cantilever. It’s important to notice, that the term “cantilever” refers to a rigid tube with a cartridge, placed on one end and a magnet on the other. Thanks to the rubber suspension, the cantilever is able to pivot so that the stylus can perform the groove tracking. After the vibration has traveled from the stylus tip to the magnet, the magnetic field of the latter starts to vary. Then a small voltage in the coils comes through a phono preamp, creating the sound.

What is the best time for a stylus replacement?

If turntable music includes some creaking and noise, it should draw your attention. The timely element replacement will obviate the need to buy a new record. The basic indicator is cartridge’s skipping or bouncing on records, producing distortion, sibilance, hiss and other unpleasant effects. One more signal: a needle head is deformed or coated with dirt. The reason for it may be different, starting from the detail’s age and ending with the bad cleaning. It is important to choose the best phono cartridge and replace it as quickly as possible; otherwise, the records may suffer serious damage and transform into very expensive trash.

What is an operation life of a stylus?

Usually, the maximum working duration reaches 800 playing hours. The minimum is 400 hours and the average rate – 500 hours. The ratio may depend on the correct diamond alignment, the skilled tonearm installation, and the whole calibration process performance. It’s better to use the device very carefully because accidental damage can cancel all the gained benefits.

Cartridge or Stylus

Some medium-priced turntables have the non-removable cartridge. Such a peculiarity allows a stylus upgrade. If on the end of the cartridge arm there are some screws, the cartridge can be replaced, and if they are absent – it might be possible to change only the stylus. The manual can become an additional source of information.

Stereo and mono cartridges: the difference

A mono record player cartridge has no vertical compliance because its stylus moves only in a horizontal plane. Stereo cartridges usually use a modern elliptical stylus with the generator wired for mono. Both systems produce great and very clear music, without annoying noise, but each of them has its own sound features.