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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.