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Blog // Sep 7

Best budget phono cartridges for your turntable

The phono cartridge is a mechanical device that converts vibrations from a stylus riding in a record groove into an electrical signal that is subsequently passed through amplification and then converted into sound by a loudspeaker system. A cartridge consist of five key components: the stylus, cantilever, magnets, coils and body. The stylus is the part that is in contact with the record surface and tracks the modulations in the groove. It is typically made of a small polished diamond or other industrial gemstone. There are two main stylus shapes: elliptical and spherical. Elliptical needles pick up more information from the record groove while spherical needles sit higher in the groove and result in less record wear. The stylus is mounted on the cantilever that transmits the vibrations to the coil/magnet assembly which generates the audio signal. The cantilever is usually made of boron or aluminium, although some manufacturers have models made of exotic gemstones. The cartridge's body is coupled to the tonearm and its function is to give the moving parts a stationary platform so that they can track the record with precision.

During the 1950s, crystal and ceramic pick-ups have been replaced by magnetic cartridges, using either a Moving Magnet (MM) or a Moving Coil (MC) technology. There are also Moving Micro Cross and Moving Iron cartridge types, but those are far less common. Generally, the best value, lower cost cartridges have a moving magnet design. In a moving magnet cartridge, the cantilever carries a small permanent magnet, which is positioned between two sets of fixed copper coils, forming a tiny electromagnetic generator. As the magnet vibrates in response to the stylus following the record groove, it induces a tiny current in the coils. Because the magnet is small and has little mass, and is not coupled mechanically to the generator (as in a ceramic cartridge), a properly adjusted stylus follows the groove more faithfully while requiring less tracking force. The moving coil is again a tiny electromagnetic generator, but with the magnet and coils reversed: the coils are attached to the cantilever, and move within the field of a permanent magnet. Since the coils are very small and made from very fine wire, the output voltage level is correspondingly low which means they often require a high-gain phono stage to bring out the best performance. Moving coil cartridges are generally expensive, but are the choice of most audiophiles due to a subjectively better performance.

Depending on how the cartridge attaches to the tonearm, there are two types of mounting systems, Standard mount and P-mount. The standard mount is the most common, it uses two screws, half an inch apart, threaded through the cartridge body to secure it to the headshell, which then plugs into the tonearm. In P-mount, primarily on Technics turntables, four prongs at the back of the cartridge plug directly into the tone arm.

In general, the phono cartridges themselves don't deteriorate, it's the cantilever and/or stylus that wear out in time. Some moving magnet cartridges have detachable stylus-cantilever sub-assemblies that allow their replacement without the need of replacing the entire cartridge when the stylus has become worn.

Here is our selection of 11 entry-level phono cartridges that will deliver audiophile grade sound quality and perform well above their price point.

 

Shure M97xE

The Shure M97xE is essentially a low-spec version of the discontinued, widely praised V15VxMR audiophile cartridge, sharing several important features with its predecessor. It has the great ability to track almost everything at a very low tracking weight, which can actually prolong the life of your records. Thanks to Shure's proprietary Dynamic Stabilizer, the stylus stays in the groove of the record even under difficult playing conditions. This viscous-damped brush, mounted on the front of the cartridge, maintains a uniform distance between the cartridge and the record when playing slightly warped records. It also reduces static and collects dust, resulting in less build up on the stylus. When such stabilization is not required, the stabilizer brush can be disengaged, which, under ideal playing conditions, can provide even better sound quality. The Shure also features a Side-Guard stylus protection system which limits stylus and cantilever damage if the cartridge accidentally slides across a record. This innovative feature responds to side thrusts on the stylus by momentarily forcing the stylus cantilever and tip upward so that the cantilever does not bend sideways. Its highly precise tracking ability and flat frequency response are made possible by Shure's unique Type II low-mass thin-wall aluminum alloy stylus cantilever, combined with a precision-crafted, finely polished, elliptical diamond tip. Also, its die cast aluminum mounting block ensures secure and vibration-free attachment to the tonearm. The M97xE is able to accurately reproduce very difficult musical passages, particularly in the high-frequency range, where audio modulations are the smallest and most concentrated. All in all, it's a great, smooth-sounding starter cartridge, balanced across the entire spectrum with slight hints of roll-off at the lowest and highest frequencies.

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A less expensive option from Shure is the M92E, a light-tracking moving magnet cartridge that fits both P-mount and standard mount tonearm types with the help of the included standard mount adapter. It features a natural bi-radial diamond tip teamed with a tubular aluminum alloy stylus cantilever which accurately traces the grooves of your records.

 

Grado Prestige Black1 & Green1

The Prestige Series of Grado consists of six cartridge models which have the same basic design but with increasing performance and price, in three linked pairs, differentiated by their color. The Black1 model is the least expensive and the next model up, the Green1, is selected from the Black1 production run and meets higher test specifications. Approximately 15% of the production run will meet these standards and become Green1 models. The next in the performance line are the Blue/Red and Silver/Gold pairings. The newly redesigned Black1 and Green1 cartridges have had their coil design reconfigured, and the effective moving mass of their generating system has been reduced by 17%. The Black1 and Green1 models use a three piece OTL (Optimized Transmission Line) cantilever/stylus assembly, designed to make the signal transfer from stylus to cantilever to magnet to coils as resonance-free as possible. The transmission line cantilever consists of separate sections that are telescoped together. All sections are made of different alloys, some have hollow, other have solid construction. These are bonded together with materials that act as dampers, and are coated with a black material which controls and absorbs resonances that travel on the surface of the cantilever (known as skin effects). The cantilever shaft is brought to a fixed axial pivot has a soft-iron element attached to it and is allowed to move freely between the two pairs of magnetic gaps. This will make your records sound quieter, improve the height, width, and depth of the soundstage, and offer more detail than previously obtainable. The system is accurately balanced, using standard oxygen free copper wire in the coils and Grado's specially designed elliptical diamond tip fixed to a brass bushing. The Prestige models are available in both standard and P-mount option to suit any tonearm. All styli in the series are user-replaceable and a special tool is supplied to facilitate removal, along with a plastic cover to protect the stylus when not in use. All Grado models have the advantage of being small and light which makes them a good choice if you have an arm with very limited adjustment options. They are not fitted with a threaded body, so you can't simply screw bolts into the cartridge itself, but need to fasten it with nuts which is a little more difficult than threaded models.

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Audio-Technica AT95E

The Audio-Technica AT95E dual magnet phono cartridge is a popular MM (moving magnet) design from a well known HI-FI company and makes a great budget choice for those who are buying a turntable that arrives without a cartridge or want to make an upgrade from a basic cartridge bundled with a new record player. The AT95E is manufactured to Audio-Technica's renowned quality standards and is meticulously hand assembled with notably tight tolerances to just thousands of an inch. The half-inch standard mount cartridge features an elliptical shaped diamond stylus that can track parts of the groove that spherical styli cannot reach. Also, this elliptical shape wears remarkably evenly, extending the lives of both the record and the stylus itself, and can lasts for at least 1,000 hours according to audiophiles. This cartridge comes with mounting hardware and a stylus guard. Over the years, reviewers from many audiophile forums have rated this affordable, high-performance cartridge as a best buy.

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If you want the absolute most out of your records and willing to spend more, the next big step up is the Audio-Technica AT440MLa cartridge, which is more advanced than the AT95E, but is also much pricier. Its MicroLine shaped diamond tip produces better high frequency response with less wear and distortion than elliptical or conventional linear contact styli. The curving rate of the MicroLine stylus does not change until the stylus is almost worn unlike that of conventional styli which increases as they are used and also has a much longer playing life.

 

Sumiko Pearl

Sumiko's Pearl is the top model in their moving magnet line of the 'Oyster Series' audiophile cartridges, offering performance beyond its price point. The Pearl has outstanding separation and frequency response, coupled with high tracking ability thanks to the bonded elliptical grind stylus. Taking advantage of the stylus's capabilities, Sumiko created a high-power generating system for the Pearl with fewer windings than traditional MM designs allowing the Pearl to offer higher output without sonic penalty. The Pearl is a musical and sweet sounding cartridge that adds nothing, and subtracts nothing from the listening experience, with smooth and extended highs, sweet and detailed midrange, and a solid and firm low end. It offers excellent rhythmic drive and a fatigue free listening being an ideal choice for all types of music. In their Oyster Series, below the Pearl is the Oyster with a conical stylus, and above it is the Blue Point No. 2 with a moving coil design.

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Nagaoka MP-100

Nagaoka is unique in the cartridge business having produced styli, cartridges and accessories for records since 1940. All parts used in manufacturing the cartridges and styli are made in Nagaoka's own factories, from the diamond tips, the cantilevers, the magnets and even the coils. The new high performance Nagaoka MP (Moving Permalloy) moving magnet cartridge line ranges from the MP-100 to the MP-500, the MP-100 being the entry level model of the range. Stringent quality control in material selection and machining, bond expertise, careful assembly and thorough inspection, perfected through Nagaoka's long experience in stylus manufacturing technologies. The cartridges incorporate the most up to date materials including a 'superfine' conical diamond tip, the light weight Permalloy oscillator at the rear end of the aluminum cantilever and the very strong samarium cobalt permanent magnet mounted in the cartridge body. They provide strong skip resistance and high-definition pickup at all audible frequencies, for clear and natural sound reproduction, thanks to Nagaoka precision craftsmanship. The cartridges of Nagaoka's MP-line produce an equal sound reproduction in all frequency ranges from the super deep low tones to the crystal clear high notes, clearly accentuating and separating every detail, however small, of the musical instruments and voices of the artists.

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Ortofon 2M Red

Ortofon is a long-established, Danish cartridge manufacturer with more than 60 years in the field. The 2M was developed together with Møller Jensen Design, the same designer who designed the award winning cartridge MC Jubilee and the Kontrapunktseries. The inspiration for designing the 2M was related to the facets of the diamond, elegantly concentrating its contours against the grooves on the record surface. Its name, 2M means MM, which is the abbreviation for moving magnet. The 2M series of cartridges features Ortofon's trademark split pole pin technology (originally presented in the 500 series and Super OM series), a tweak that enables moving magnet cartridges to have a flat frequency response, as with more expensive moving coil models. The 2M Red is the entry-level model of the 2M family, but it manages to sound very grown up and it works brilliantly with a wide variety of musical styles. It comes with a tipped elliptical diamond stylus, which is polished to the highest standards of the industry and uses an improved engine, which provides an optimized sound reproduction and a high level of sonic accuracy. Ortofon optimized the design of the cartridge for ease of mounting, and the weight and size to fit the most common turntables on the market today. The new 2M plug and play headshell is a practical and elegant solution for those who wish direct and easy mounting and replacement on their tonearm. The combination of the 2M Headshell and 2M series cartridge adds unique distinction to the turntable. The headshell body is manufactured from a special compound used for medical industry, ensures high rigidity while reducing unwanted vibration.

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Each of the 2M Series cartridges has its own individual sonic expression, and all models together represent the ensemble of five classic variations: 2M Mono and 2M 78 are True Mono cartridges, 2M Mono is for playing mono microgroove vinyl records and 2M 78 is for playback of 78 rpm shellac records. The 2M Red is an all-purpose cartridge that delivers open, dynamic sound with a slight touch of warmth. 2M Blue adds more dynamics and resolution, sounds more open and reproduces more details. 2M Bronze adds even more details and resolution but in a very evenhanded way that pays respect to all elements. The 2M Black is the best of everything, true to the groove with resolution and accurate insight into each recording.

 

Rega Bias 2

Rega entered the cartridge market in the early 80's and has six moving magnet designs. The Bias 2 is a classic, second generation moving magnet cartridge from Rega, a familiar name in the British Hi-Fi, best known for their range of fantastic turntables but also offering a broad range of product from amps, dacs, cd players and speakers. All cartridges are hand made by Rega utilizing custom coil winding techniques and ultra high precision molded bodies. They're built into a one piece, molded Pocan (a polymer with a hardness greater than industrial aluminum) custom designed body and have a non-replaceable elliptical stylus, intended to eliminate the poor mechanical link found in virtually all other MM cartridge designs. While most cartridges have five or six joints between the stylus mounting and the cartridge, Rega models have none, by this they're not loosing high frequency energy by the movements generated in those joints. With the new Bias MK2 models (Bias 2 & Elys 2), Rega have also designed and developed their own coil winding machine, which allows them to manufacture coils in a new and innovative way, utilizing approximately one third less wire than in their other cartridges. They come with a conventional half-inch centre distance and two hole mounting and will therefore fit all standard tonearms. The Rega 2 is a well balanced, clear sounding cartridge with great clarity, engaging stereo imaging and a natural dynamic performance.

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Denon DL-103

Denon's classic, the DL-103 moving coil cartridge, has been an industry standard for decades, being the cartridge of choice for many broadcasters and recording engineers. Many have heard of it referred to as a super-cart, or giant-killer because it rivaled with moving coil cartridges that cost up to $1000. Despite being designed in the 1960s it's still one of the masterpieces in audio technology and can easily compete with contemporary models. Its production has continued uninterrupted since then and has been improved a number of times since the basic model. Due to its construction, the Denon DL-103 is recommended as one of the very few cartridges suitable for heavy tonearms. Providing smooth response in many Hi-Fi systems, the DL-103 is an audiophile favorite, giving a pleasing sound and bringing out the full detail of audio recordings. It has a double walled, conical aluminum cantilever, a spherical stylus with a surface hardness orientation toward the contact surfaces, independent moving coils, a flat frequency response, and a single-point suspension system.

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The DL-103R is an updated version of the classic DL-103. It provides improved sound by using 6N copper coils wound with precision to the cantilever shaft. Audio lovers will delight with detail that is brought out by this outstanding phono cartridge.

 

Clearaudio Concept V2

To complement the Clearaudio Concept turntable, Clearaudio has introduced two affordable, high-performance phono cartridges: the Concept V2 MM (Moving Magnet) and Concept MC (Moving Coil). The entry level Concept V2 is a high-output moving magnet cartridge featuring an aluminum, threaded body with a minimalist design, based on Clearaudio's excellent Performer V2 and shares many attributes with the company's more expensive models. Their moving magnet cartridges have recently been upgraded to V2 status with a selection of improvements, including less resonant bodies, more powerful magnets and boosted output voltage. The Concept V2 features an aluminium cantilever and double polished elliptical stylus. It is supplied in excellent packaging and comes complete with a useful set of tools to easily get it up and running.

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Dynavector DV-10X5

The Dynavector 10X series High Output Moving Coil cartridge debuted in 1978 winning the prestigious Design and Engineering Award at the Chicago CES in both 1978 and 1981. The 10X series cartridges are also widely accepted at the benchmark in High Output moving coil cartridge at this price point and beyond. The DV-10X5, the least expensive cartridge in the brand's extensive range, now features Dynavector's unique magnetic flux damping and softened magnetism (patent) along with powerful Neodymium magnet that combine to eliminate any hardness or irritating edginess that commonly occurs in many moving coil cartridges. Dynavector are also renowned for the capability of winding the finest coil assemblies. This has enabled them to minutely increase the coil wire diameter of the 10X5 to achieve a reduction of impedance to 150 ohms whilst retaining a healthy 2.5mV output. This also ensures both a rugged and reliable circuitry. The 10X5 also features a newly designed Aluminium head block with M2.5 thread to provide a rigid platform for the cartridge motor and secure fixing to the tonearm.

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Goldring 1042

Goldring has been producing its 10xx range of phono cartridges for many years now, the 1042 being the cheapest of their four moving magnet series. The main difference between the models is their stylus assembly, which gets progressively better as you go up the range. The Goldring 1042 has a strong, one-piece molded body made from an ultra-rigid glass-reinforced polyester. Its highly-rated Gyger-S diamond stylus with an extended groove contact, offers fine groove modulations, producing superbly accurate and detailed musical sound. Advanced diamond tip polishing ensures excellent tracking ability and reduces record wear. Also, its highly efficient magnetic circuit makes for a smooth and extended frequency response. All fixed parts can be held securely in place and the body can be tightly bolted to the head shell to create structural unity. As with all Goldring cartridges, the Goldring 1042 phono cartridge is rigorously tested at the factory to ensure optimum standards of performance and reliability.

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Specifications

Here's a comparation table with the specifications and RRP (recommended retail price) of all the cartridges mentioned in the above article.

Frequency
response
Output
voltage
Channel
separation
Tracking
force
Weight Type
Shure M97xE 20 Hz - 22 kHz 4.0 mV 25 dB 0.75 g - 1.5 g 6.6 g MM
Shure M92E 20 Hz - 18 kHz 5.0 mV 20 dB 0.75 g - 1.5 g 7.3 g MM
Grado Black1 10 Hz - 50 kHz 5.0 mV 30 dB 1.5 g 5.5 g MM
Grado Green1 10 Hz - 55 kHz 5.0 mV 30 dB 1.5 g 5.5 g MM
Audio-Technica AT95E 20 Hz - 20 kHz 3.5 mV 20 dB 1.5 g - 2.5 g 5.7 g MM
Audio-Technica AT440MLA 20 Hz - 20 kHz 3.5 mV 20 dB 1.5 g - 2.5 g 5.7 g MM
Sumiko Pearl 12 Hz - 30 kHz 3.5 mV 30 dB 1.5 g - 2.0 g 6.0 g MM
Sumiko Oyster 30 Hz - 20 kHz 4 mV 25 dB 1.5 g - 2.5 g 5.3 g MM
Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 15 Hz - 25 kHz 2.5 mV 32 dB 1.6 g - 2.0 g 6.3 g MC
Nagaoka MP-100 20 Hz - 20 kHz 5.0 mV 22 dB 1.8 g - 2.3 g 6.5 g MM
Nagaoka MP-500 20 Hz - 25 kHz 3.0 mV 27 dB 1.3 g - 1.8 g 8 g MM
Ortofon 2M Red 20 Hz - 20 kHz 5.5 mV 22 dB 1.6 g - 2.0 g 7.2 g MM
Ortofon 2M Blue 20 Hz - 20 kHz 5.5 mV 25 dB 1.6 g - 2.0 g 7.2 g MM
Ortofon 2M Bronze 20 Hz - 20 kHz 5 mV 26 dB 1.4 g - 1.7 g 7.2 g MM
Ortofon 2M Black 20 Hz - 20 kHz 5 mV 26 dB 1.4 g - 1.7 g 7.2 g MM
Rega Bias 2 x 7.0 mV x 1.75 g 5.5 g MM
Rega Elys 2 x 8.5 mV x 1.75 g 4.7 g MM
Denon DL-103 20 Hz - 45 kHz 0.3 mV 25 db 2.3 g - 2.7 g 8.5 g MC
Denon DL-103R 20 Hz - 45 kHz 0.25 mV 25 db 2.3 g - 2.7 g 8.5 g MC
Clearaudio Concept V2 20 Hz - 20 kHz 3.3 mV 20 dB 1.8 g - 2.6 g 8.4 g MM
Dynavector DV-10X5 20 Hz - 20 kHz 2.5 mV 25 dB 1.8 g - 2.2 g 7.3 g MC
Goldring 1042 20 Hz - 20 kHz 6.5 mV 25 dB 1.5 g - 2.0 g 6.3 g MM
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