The 8 best turntable cartridges to achieve ultimate sound quality

The 8 best turntable cartridges to achieve ultimate sound quality

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When it comes to playback quality, the choice of cartridge is just as important as the amp, loudspeakers and the deck itself. On the hunt for perfect sound, our tech guru Paul Rigby reviews 8 of the best phono cartridges on the market right now.


Words: Paul Rigby


There’s a school of thought that, to achieve the best sound quality from a hi-fi system, you need to look to your source. That is, the thing that plays your downloads, CDs or, in this case, vinyl. The idea is that you spend the most amount of money on your source and less on the things that come after it, further down the chain (i.e. the amplifier and speakers). Given that philosophy, it makes sense that you should also spend as much as you can afford on the cartridge, which is inherently part of the source turntable set-up.

Cartridges come in all shapes and sizes but there are two principle technologies that power them: Moving Magnet (MM) or Moving Coil (MC). In broad terms, the latter is of a more advanced design than the former and is, therefore, more expensive to buy. Both cartridge designs can sound excellent but the MC variant has the ability to go one step further and reach audiophile heights. Generally, the best value, lower cost, cartridges are of a MM design. There are cheap MC designs out there but they generally sound poor. If you’re going to build a MC cartridge, then you have to do it properly, which means spending good money on it, producing a more expensive product. For budget purposes, MM cartridges offer far better value.

The most popular cartridge type is the stereo cartridge. Most people will be happy with the latter and will never require any other. If your vinyl collection features mono pressings, however, then those discs will sound much better with a dedicated modern mono cartridge. These little understood designs actually arrive in two flavours: 0.7mil and 1mil, which reflects the size of the actual stylus point and the groove size it fits in. Broadly speaking, from 1953 to around 1967, mono grooves were manufactured in 1mil widths which were reduced to 0.7 from that point onwards. The last modern cartridge variant is the 78rpm type for those who love their shellac.

So, what are the best cartridges out there for you in terms of sheer sound quality? This is a small selection, there’s plenty of others out there that will do the job well. What’s your favourite?


 

 cart-carbon-a

REGA CARBON
Price: £25

www.rega.co.uk

Nice thing about this budget MM cartridge is that it sounds good, despite what you might do to it. So, unlike those expensive cartridges that demand an exacting set-up procedure, the Carbon is a pretty relaxed cookie. Offering solid bass and decent upper mids, this is one cartridge that will never let you down.


 Audio-TechnicaAT95EBL

AUDIO TECHNICA AT95 EBL
Price: £34.95

eu.audio-technica.com/en/

A popular MM design from a familiar hi-fi company. This design has been around forever and for a good reason, it’s a great budget choice that is not only ideal for those buying a turntable that arrives without a cartridge but as an upgrade for a basic design bundled with a new deck.


 78

REGA RB78
Price: £68

www.rega.co.uk

You may be surprised to hear that there are many collectors of original 78s out there. Many use original equipment to play them on. Unless you are meticulous in caring for your disc, it’s easy to wreck 78s with the original 78 needles. Playing these discs on a modern turntable with a specially made ’78’ cartridge will prevent unnecessary damage.


 Ortofon-2M-MonoP_700

ORTOFON 2M MONO
Price: £240

www.henleydesigns.co.uk

If you have got a batch of mono records, why can’t you just play them with a stereo cartridge and just flick the mono switch that’s available on many amplifiers or phono amps? Well, you can but a mono cartridge sounds so much better. A stereo cartridge can’t really track a mono groove properly, losing precision and impact. This Ortofon example is ideal for post-1967 mono rarities cuts and modern reissues.


Goldring-G1042

GOLDRING 1042
Price: £285

www.goldring.co.uk

The nice thing about MM cartridges and this mid-range price point is that you really hear what top notch MM technology can really do. Despite the MC technology being inherently superior, many hi-fi users love their MM carts and actually prefer them to their MC brethren. The 1042 is a superb example of that.


 Dynavector-DV-10X5

DYNAVECTOR DV10x
Price: £370

www.dynavector.com

The reason I was generalising about MC cartridges was because of this little beauty. It’s tough to create a top notch MC cart for this sort of money but Dynavector has done it. In fact, this version is based upon a successful design that can trace its lineage all the back to 1978!


 benz_glider_high

BENZ GLIDER
Price: £750

MC cartridges really come into their own when you start hitting this price point. This example from Benz sounds very clean but also offers great bass response and so is a good all-rounder while, for the technology and for what you get, also provides great value for money.


 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

MIYAJIMA ZERO
Price: £995

www.time-step.com

Available in both 1mil or 0.7mil formats, this hand-made mono design from Japan is set within African Blackwood (known for its musical qualities, this Tanzanian wood is used to make musical instruments such as clarinets). Playing the 1mil version on old jazz vocal records was nothing short of a revelation. Put it this way, the Zero made a mono record sound far more exciting and impressive than any stereo record that I’ve ever heard. In fact, stereo sounded gimmicky, in comparison. It was that good.


  • Well, it’s hard to discuss carts made today and not mention two of the best MM designs available: the Goldring 2500 (advertised as MM but actually a smart MI design) that is far and away much more refined than the others in the 2000 and 1000 series from Goldring, and Ortofon 2M Black that is probably one of the best MM’s ever made, both of them will be extremely hard to beat with anything costing below 1500 euros 🙂

    • Paul Rigby

      Yes, I use a Black as my MM reference. It almost went it but, again, I wanted to retain a broad budget balance list.

      • gliderboy

        Paul, read you own title! “To Achieve Ultimate Sound Quality” Where does anyone get the idea you are going to focus half the reviews on small money carts?

        • Paul Rigby

          I refer you to the above reply.

  • Peter Ward

    Pleased to see a Benz in the list, but what about Decca, Koetsu, Clearaudio….? Too much focus on “best” at £25 and £35 and not enough on the real best 🙂

    • Paul Rigby

      The idea is to address a wide budget range, Peter. We like to be inclusive. All of the above are worthy too, of course.

      • gliderboy

        Agree with Peter. 25 pounds for a cartridge? Give me a break! Pick one of those and move on to people who would actually care to read your article. Which was a waste of our time.

        • Paul Rigby

          Hello gents – Well, yes I could have come over all ‘elitist’ about it and only listed those cartridges worth £2k and over. Of course. Which would have then alienated 99% of the readership of this website. ‘Ultimate’ is relative to the budget and expectations you are living at and working towards. The aim of this and other features of a similar ilk is to cater for all budgets. If you have a query about a cartridge which exceeds the above price points, then I’ll be only too happy to help right here.

    • Hulk fan

      just replaced my old Clearaudio Insider( great sound, but no longer made) with the Clearaudio Titanium!….. It’s a beast!!!! Talk about focus/precision& range!

  • alex

    Don’t listen to the haters, Paul, this article has just helped me decide on a budget cart as a first upgrade on a lower end deck. Not all HiFi enthusiasts have a dedicated listening room and 50k plus of gear, elitist attitudes scare away music lovers from our amazing hobby.

    • Paul Rigby

      Thanks Alex – I’ll try to keep the faith.

  • Bastibast

    Hello, very interesting article. I recently acquired a beautiful Lenco L78-SE. The stylus/cartridge is still the same from the start : Pickering P/AT-1 and PD07T. I would like to replace it with a reasonable budget but I’m having a hard time finding the same so I’m looking for something similar. What would be the best choice ?
    Have a nice day.

    • Paul Rigby

      Is there an issue with it or are you looking for a replacement stylus and can’t find a source or have you had enough of it and want to move on?

      • Bastibast

        What a quick answer :)! It’s just very old (the turntable was built in 1977), I can barely see a “needle” at the end of my stylus, so maybe just replacing the stylus would be enough. For the stylus I found a Santon D5107-A , does this one match the Pickering P/AT-1 (which is the same as Pickering V15 if what I read on forums is right) ? If I have to change the cartridge too, the one that often shows up on forums is the Audio-Technica AT-95E. What should I do ? Another suggestion maybe ?
        Thank you very much.

        • Paul Rigby

          If you want to go the replacement stylus route (cheaper) then head over to stylus experts such as http://www.musonic.co.uk and search for your cartridge to see the latest prices. They are highly recommended and know what they’re talking about. The Audio Technica is an excellent cart, yes, if you go for a replacement.

          • Bastibast

            Thank you very much for your help!

  • Tom

    Hi Paul,

    Thanks for a good starting point on upgrading my cartridge. I was wondering if you had any suggestions for pairing with a Planar 3 RB300 (origin live spec) arm. looking around £150-300 mark, I know pairing and cartridges are very much subject to both taste/ systems but it would be great to have some ideas! Others welcome to input their opinions!

    Cheers, Tom

    • Paul Rigby

      Check out that Goldring 1042 above (which you can pick up for a lot less than the price I stated) or possibly an Ortofon 2M Blue as a contrast.

      • Tom

        Cheers, Paul! Will investigate…

  • MARV HANKIN

    Hi Paul. Just contemplating getting back into Vinyl. I currently use a Cambridge CD player on my own design amps and speakers.
    I have dug out my old Ariston RD40 which is paired with an SME3009 (can’t remember if it is a series 1 or 2) tone arm. It had a Stanton 480EE cartridge attached which no longer works. I therefore need a new cartridge. I don’t want to spend an arm and a leg at this point and am considering something like a Grado Black or Blue device. These have a relatively low inductance which means that they can be encouraged towards a brighter sound with an appropriate capacitor. Any thoughts on this or any other part in this sort of price range???

    • Paul Rigby

      I like Grado – my very first third-party cart was a Grado, in fact. What’s your budget Marv? I only ask because I would encourage you to also check out the Ortofon 2M Red which may have the edge.

      • MARV HANKIN

        Hi Paul. Thanks for the reply. My budget would be less than £100, any more and I will have trouble getting past the household management committee.
        I probably err towards a brighter sound to compensate for my ageing ears though having said that I have always preferred it that way. I also like decent bass but am not averse to adding a bit of bass lift to compensate. My musical taste is buried in everything from classical to the Stones, The Who, Dire Straits et al.

        • Paul Rigby

          If you want to aim for the bright sound then maybe the Grados are more your thing, Marv. Stick with those and you should be happy.

          • MARV HANKIN

            Ok. Thanks for that Paul .

  • Eric Johns

    This has been very informative I have a Audio Note TT-2 and a pre amp, and at a loss to what would be the Best option for a cartridge. Any ideas?

    • Paul Rigby

      What’s your budget Eric?

  • Basil

    Hi Paul Really informative article.
    I’ve had hours and hours of pleasure with a Dynavector 10×5/Origin Live MkII set-up. Finally upgrading the TT to VPI Classic 3 but am overwhelmed by the cost of cartridges…. In your opinion could the 10X5 still hold its own and deliver a quality sound on the VPI or will an upgrade (to Dynavector 17D3 or XX 2) produce significantly superior results?

    • Paul Rigby

      Yes…and yes 🙂 That is, if you can afford it then I would encourage the upgrade to extract more detail from your grooves. That said, the TT upgrade should provide improved sonics for now, in case money is scarce.

      • Basil

        Thanks Paul
        I have the VPI set up with a 10×5. The result audible…. BUT clearly, in my experience so far, in the world of high-end audio, the quest for that perfect sound is illusive and expensive. “Just one more up-grade…….”
        That’s what I told my wife last time….

        • Paul Rigby

          Ah, sounds like you and I share the same glorious nightmare, Basil.

  • bonamin

    Well to be honest this is helpful, but I never thought there were SO many things, and SO expensive that play a role when playing back a vinyl.

    I am in the search for my first Vinyl Setup and I see so many things to choose from, that my head is in pain 😀

    PS. Never heard a Vinyl in my life EVER before. Actually never see one up close. My father used to have one. But we never used it when I was a kid. And as I grew up I only used cassettes, then CDs and now Digital Only. I think Vinyl is going to be something awesome for me as I will discover it now for the first time. 😀

  • speedrider

    Hi Paul,

    Is Rega Carbon compatible on Technics SL series headshell? Im using Sl-B202. Need your thoughts and advice.

    Thanks

    • Paul Rigby

      Shouldn’t be a problem, Speedrider

  • Tom Daly

    I’m old school. Cartridges from the actual monophonic era suit me more than contemporary cartridges. I use a GE RPX series cartridge or a GE VRII cartridge, both with 1.0 mil styli for playing mono LPs and 45s. These are convenient cartridges to use, because the styli are mounted in a t-bar that allows the user to keep two styli in the cartridge at all times. In the VRII, I keep a 1.0 mil stylus in the LP end and a .7 mil stylus for playing later mono LPs cut with stereo cutting heads, as well as for mono reproduction of stereo and rechanneled LPs. In the RPX, I keep a 1.0 mil stylus for mono LPs and a 3.0 mil stylus for 78 rpm discs. Modern JEI headhshells, such as those for Technics, Audio Technica, and Pioneer turntables (as well as SME tonearms) require a hole to be drilled in the top of the headshell to accommodate the shaft and knob of t-bar required to rotate the proper stylus into the playing position. These cartridges provide outstanding mono reproduction, as they were designed to play the vintage mono discs manufactured during the mono era. They’re readily available used (sometimes new) on eBay, they do not deteriorate, and new styli in 4 different sizes are also available (3.0 mil, 2.5 mil, 1.0 mil and .7 mil). All styli made for either GE cartridge have conical/spherical tips.

  • craigzlist2

    Rega Carbon is actually a re-badged Audio Technica AT91. I bought an AT95E out of curiosity. For the money I don’t know how they do it, I would recommend it to anyone.

  • Roderick Oates

    There is a lot to be said for turntable music. The stylus needs the rest of the machine to operate in its best condition. My own T/T is not in the same room as the speakers. Yet we can percieve huge changes in performance if the spring suspension is not exactly correct. When it is, the cartidge then needs minute changes to enable it to perform to its best. Next there is the connection between the T/T and the amplifier. This carries a tiny current and therefore needs a top class piece of wire to connect them. When all this is right, one should go back to the cartridge and keep pressing on with the alignment. The Vertical tracking angle is important. When it is right the difference you hear between a £45 cartridge and a £300 cartridge is very small. I use a Thorens deck and an AT95e Cartridge. It drives a £675 phono amp.
    By preference I would use the Goldring 1042. I have tried moving coils and found them to be so delicate as to be useless. One should be able to stick a record on and listen to the music, not mess about with mechanics.

  • Bill

    Hi Amar (or is it Paul?). It looks like your article has stood the test of time. I had to scroll pretty far down to find the “haters” lol. Anyhow, I found the article a nice refresher. My T/T has been out of service for about five years due to the need for a tonearm rewire. The t/t is handmade, and very fiddly, but sounds great when it works with Benz Ace and Kuzma arm… I almost bought the glider once, but opted for the ace on budget grounds. I love the look of the “nude” glider, but it looks so vulnerable! 🙂 I am sure any perceived fragility is in my imagination! Anyhow good to see things have not moved on too much at the low end since I used to regularly read the audio asylum vinyl forum… The only thing missing seems to be something called the 440mla… I think I may bite the bullet and get back into the game with a new PLX1000 (which would be my first “new” audio purchase in 30 years!) I am thinking it might go well with MM. I will try my ACE first (near mint condition) but I think the PLX1000 may come with replaceable headshell, so it would be easy to experiment. I am thinking something like the AT95EBL… Or the MLA440 or the AT95E (is that the same as the AT95EBL?) If I ever win the lottery I would love to hear THE CARTRIDGE MAN’s MusicMaker Mk 3 which was getting rave reviews (esp for MM) a few years back. I see it is still available, and I guess at its price it must have some followers. I also think the SHURE M97XEmight have its fans…

    My question is, what do you think for the PLX1000? Would the ACE sound good? Would MM be better? Would the sub-300 pound MM carts just be a waste of time next to the ACE?

  • Russ

    Hi, I have an Ortofon Rhondo Red mc. They have been discontinued. The Dynavector DV10X looks promising. Anyone got any alternative recommendations? Thanks.