Select the Best Phono Cartridge
The phono cartridges let you get the new flavor to your turntable sound without changing the whole system. The cartridges differ by their configuration (moving magnet or moving coil ones), tonearm connection type (universal, P-mount, proprietary ones), material, and shape of cantilever (tube alloy, aluminum, S-shaped, straight, etc.) and stylus (spherical, elliptical, micro-ridge).
The difference in cartridges affects the sound directly. The audio detail, channel separation, and frequency response might be higher or lower depending on each of the cartridge parameters. The price also varies significantly from a few dollars to several thousands. Want to pick the optimal cartridge for your turntable? First, check its parameters, second, browse the best phono cartridge reviews we’ve prepared for you, and third, opt for a worthy replacement for your record player!
Best Phono Cartridge Reviews
Moving Magnet Cartridge Reviews
Audio-Technica AT95E — Best Phono Cartridge
This cartridge belongs to the budget line; yet, it has many features present in the much more expensive models. It has the elliptical diamond stylus fitting the standard grooves with ease and retracting a lot of sound information from them. The good matching of the groove shape also accounts for the high durability of the cartridge and lets it become the favorite in various charts.
The cartridge embraces the frequency range of 20-20,000 Hz and at that scope, features the 20 dB or higher channel separation. While this might seem a mediocre level, the actual output is quite well balanced and has ample detail. The tracking accuracy is high, especially on a clean brand-new vinyl, but also quite acceptable on the old “poppy” ones.
The cantilever has a straight tube design and is made of metal alloy. It forms the stylus body as the round bonded shank and creates the base for the steady tracking. The resulting sound is dynamic and lively, with a clear and smooth frequency response.
The mounting type for this cartridge is a universal ½-inch one matching the majority of the moving magnet turntables. It’s supplied with mounting screws and nuts; however, attaching the cartridge to the non-AT tonearm takes time and requires precision.
- Works well with the anti-skating mechanism.
- Good sound imaging for instruments and voices.
- Solid bass, fits well the rock compositions.
- The sound volume is rather quiet with this cartridge.
- The extra harmonics and overtones tend to be slightly muffled.
Shure M97xE — Best Phono Cartridge under $1000
This well-known phono cartridge features the neutral yet full sound and accurate tracking. It serves well for the dynamic rock music and fluent blues playback, high-range opera plays, and simple pop tunes. This high precision is reached through the exact sharpening of the stylus edges (0.3 x 0.7mm) and its elliptical diamond tip. The tracking force of the needle is relatively light at 1.25g ensuring careful groove treatment, which is especially important with the warped and otherwise harmed vinyl disks.
The stylus in this cartridge is additionally stabilized with the viscous-damped appliance working in the dynamic mode. It keeps the stylus from getting too deep into the groove and damaging its inner curves while ensuring the optimal distance between the groove surface and the stylus tip. All this accounts for the steady movement of the stylus along the groove and the exact repetition of its curves.
In terms of the sound, the Shure M97xE phono cartridge represents all the initial harmonics and voice / instrument variations distinctly. As well as side effects like the singer’s breath. The disks inconsistencies will also be heard but not put forward. Dirt pileups in the grooves and damaged curves will result in the slight pops and clicks. However, the richness of the analog sound is represented by this cartridge with precision and fullness justifying its rather high price tag.
- The dynamic stabilizer also works as static remover.
- Neutral sound character, represents the original dynamics and character of the voice / music.
- Side Guard appliance prevents scratching the disk in case of accidental sliding on the surface.
- Doesn’t fit for dusted cartridges; the inner groove distortion is traced.
- The treble is a bit bright and sometimes harsh on the vocal records.
Ortofon 2m Red — Best Phono Cartridge under $100
As with all other units of the 2m series, these cartridges are produced in three mounting types: standard (top mount to the tonearm), bottom mount, and P-n-P mount. Their weight (0.25oz) fits the majority of turntables. The cartridge has an unusual shape reminding of the cut diamond.
The stylus in this cartridge has the elliptical diamond tip ensuring precise groove tracking. In spite of the relatively high tracking force (1.8g), with the correct alignment, it doesn’t scratch the inner groove while representing a wide spacious sound.
The sound reproduced by this Ortofon model can be characterized as open and dynamic. It transmits a lot of detail for the midline and lows, being very crisp on highs. The audio output isn’t neutral, though. It features a distinct warmth, which, however, doesn’t stand out and feels natural.
The range of the output signal of the Ortofon — 2m Red MM phono cartridge makes up to 5.5 mV, which ensures its compatibility with multiple phono stages. The cartridge is set within the standard electric parameters and thus, can be used right out of the box without specific tuning. The frequency range is extended to +3 dB over 20 kHz and to -1 dB below 20Hz. The cartridge sounds good both with the pure analog music and the modern electronic one recorded on LPs.
- Hopelex body material is rigid cutting the side vibration and resonance.
- Separated pole pins provide for the high clarity of the signal and the smooth frequency response.
- Easy mounting without the need to align the tiny bolts in.
- Demonstrates the warped disk inconsistencies brightly (lots of clicks).
- The sound gets “echo”-like at times.
Ortofon 2M Blue — Best Phono Cartridge Under $300
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. This Ortofon cartridge has a nude elliptical stylus type. It revealed to me crisper highs and very solid bass with “hidden” sound hints. Such a cartridge is a great substitution for middle-class players.
- Quiet surface noise really impressed me.
- I don’t notice sound sharpness and such a peculiarity is perfect to me.
- The setup process was really easy and took nearly 10 minutes.
- The small cleaning brush doesn’t help.
- For a better sound, I had to buy and install special tube preamps, thus spending additional money.
The Audio-Technica phono cartridge sounds fascinating in both low mass straight tonearms and medium mass S-shaped tonearms. The device hides all the flaws and noises of records. The build quality is durable 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 sound can be decent.
- 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.
- The bass is muddy.
- Sometimes the sounding may become two-dimensional and a little bit harsh.
Ortofon 2M Bronze — Best Phono Cartridge Under $500
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, the Ortofon 2M Bronze has one small disadvantage — too artificial high notes.
- The package includes a stylus force gauge, a brush, two sets of headshell screws, and a screwdriver for easy mounting.
- I easily mounted the cartridge according to the manual’s recommendations.
- Sometimes, the sound seems to be a little bit thin.
Sumiko Pearl — Best Phono Cartridge Under $200
The cartridge has a 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, having frequency response at 12Hz – 30KHz. 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.
- The setting process is easy.
- The cartridge is perfect for classic and hard rock.
- I truly enjoy the sibilance absence.
- The sound range is limited, especially at high frequencies.
- The warm bass sounds very artificial at some moments.
Moving Coil Cartridge Reviews
This is one of the best MC cartridges overall. 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 admit good bass levels and a pleasant midrange, as well as the high-quality assembly. Due to its electrical parameters, the turntable 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.
- 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.
- Jazz sounds are very non-natural and superficial.
- Sometimes, a “hum” noise appears in the background.
The Audio-Technica AT-F7 has the elliptical sharpening of the needle, having 0. 2 x 0. 7 mil. It provides a wide tip radius at the front and a narrow tip at the side. In combination with a 0. 07mm stainless suspension wire, it allows the needle to follow exactly in the center of the track. All 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.
- Sound details are a great surprise. I hear the smallest breathing moments of the vocalist.
- It is perfect for repulsing pops and making scratches.
- It is a fussy cartridge that only sounds good in certain tables.
P-mount Cartridge Reviews
Audio-Technica AT85EP — Best Budget Phono Cartridge
The Audio-Technica AT85EP is a versatile VМ-type cartridge for P-mount turntables. It is equipped with a replaceable 0.3 x 0.7 mil elliptical stylus, which can be replaced. The external visual simplicity is complemented with a high-precision and technological solutions inherent in cartridges of a more expensive price tag. Its needle is glued with a circular bar and the unit’s cantilever device is made of aluminum, making the whole Audio-Technica AT85EP solid and reliable.
Compared to tapered needles, the AT85EP sharper follows the modulation of the soundtrack, has improved frequency and phase characteristics, as well as fewer distortions. The Audio-Technica AT85EP phono cartridge allows the turntables holders (with plug-in T4P connector) to take pleasure in the decent sound without the occurrence of audio defects (noise, squeaking, etc.).
- It has a toroidal coil construction that makes arrangements for sound clarity and wide channel separation.
- The installation is easy due to the versatile design that fits all the P-mount units.
- The cartridge brings a crisp sound of vocals and cymbals. The inner groove distortion is almost unnoticeable.
- It can skip once in a while, so I have to install it anew.
- The cartridge material has an unpleasant smell of plastic.
This cartridge 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.
- 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.
- There is a significant background hum (only at higher volumes).
- I actually hear all the shortcomings in bass and treble responses.
- Lack of crispness.
Cartridges for 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 phono cartridge 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.
- The sound seems to be very deep and multilateral.
- The record player cartridge perfectly fits both middle-class and very expensive turntables.
- It has a smooth tone and slightly high audio level.
- Some distortions can be heard once in a while.
- Take a note that it lacks a headshell.
A phono cartridge: basic information
Briefly, the phonograph cartridge is an electro-mechanical unit, which converts the record groove data into an electrical signal for music playback. There are a lot of different turntable cartridge types, but the most popular are the above mentioned 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 turntable 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.
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 should be taken very seriously. For the easier selection process you can take the next pieces of advice:
- Determine your financial capabilities.
- Figure out the phonograph cartridge type (standard or p-mount).
- Figure out its type (moving magnet or moving coil).
- 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 totally different price points (100 – 15,000 dollars apiece). You should understand that if you have an expensive vinyl player, a costly but high-quality needle is preferable to obtain a 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 turntable cartridge reviews and consider all the pros and cons.
Such a task is very responsible because the unit has to correspond to the turntable tonearm. Only after data comparison (on the Internet or by examining manuals), 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 (standard or p-mount)
For the next step, we will also need the manual. You should determine which kind of cartridge (standard or p-mount phono cartridge) 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 (moving magnet vs moving coil)
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 non-original 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 (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.
What is the best time for a stylus replacement?
If turntable music includes some creaking and noise, it is your wake up call. 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 while 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.