The perfect phono cartridge can make all the difference

By Todd Whitesel

I recently came across some photographs of an LP taken with an electron microscope. The machine’s powerful magnification revealed a rarefied landscape of peaks and valleys that looked more like northern Arizona than a flat, 12-inch slab of vinyl.

The grooves and left and right channels were shown in magnificent detail and got me thinking about the near-miraculous workings of a stylus and phono cartridge, to travel those highs and lows and extract sounds ranging from a capella vocals to gargantuan symphonic arrangements. Science can explain “how” it all works, but I’m still amazed it works at all.

Many vinyl-philes and turntable aficionados assert that a phono cartridge has a greater effect on record playback than the turntable itself, and that the cartridge is as important as the choice of loudspeakers and the acoustic environment where music is played. No two phono cartridges sound alike, which gives vinyl lovers lots of wiggle room to experiment and find their ultimate sound.

Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil
The majority of phono cartridges are based upon one of two designs: moving magnet or moving coil.

Moving magnet cartridges move a magnet within copper coils, which creates a tiny voltage. That voltage is then carried from the cartridge to an amplifier, finally delivering the sound you hear from a record. Moving magnet cartridges are the most common and a good choice for recreational use or with low-output phono stages.

With moving coil cartridges, the voltage is produced as the stylus tracks a record, which vibrates wire coils within the body of the cartridge. Moving coil cartridges are the choice of most audiophiles. They are prized for sensitivity, low noise and accurate playback. One drawback of moving coils is low output, which means they often require a high-gain phono stage to bring out the best performance. Such stages are more expensive, which adds to the overall cost of the vinyl playback system.

For the most part, phono cartridges themselves don’t wear out. Generally, the cantilever and/or stylus give out before the cartridge. If you’ve spent big bucks on a cartridge — and you can spend many thousands — it makes sense to have a stylus re-tipped or the cantilever repaired. For lower-end cartridges, it’s more economical to just replace the works. If you’re looking to jazz up your turntable or haven’t replaced your cartridge in years, it’s probably time to do so.

Here are five budget-friendly phono cartridges that will have your records singing sweetly.

Audio Technica AT 95E ($49.95)
If you’ve only got $50 to spend on a cartridge and want the most bang for your buck, the AT 95E deserves serious consideration.

This humble moving magnet has been praised in the audio press for its high performance-to-cost ratio and has become something of a gold standard among low-priced phono cartridges. As an AT 95E owner, I can attest that it’s a good all-round performer that works with a variety of turntables and music. An affordable and easy recommendation.

Grado Black ($60)
The Grado Black is engineered using an Optimized Transmission Line (OTL) Cantilever/Stylus Assembly. It’s a fearsome-looking name, but at its heart, the OTL is designed to make the signal transfer from stylus to cantilever to magnet to coils as resonance-free as possible. The result is quieter playback and improved dynamics, imaging and soundstaging.

Shure MX97E ($89)
The M97xE is known as an excellent record tracker, nimbly navigating LPs thanks to Shure’s proprietary Dynamic Stabilizer.

This viscous-damped brush keeps the distance between cartridge and record from fluctuating, which is very handy if your collection includes a bunch of LPs with slight warps or other indignations.

If you’re spinning flaw-free LPs, the Stabilizer can be disengaged for optimum sound. The Shure also features a protective Side-Guard to prevent stylus and cantilever damage should the cartridge cut loose and slide across an LP.

Ortofon 2M Red ($99)
Ortofon is a long-established cartridge manufacturer, with more than 60 years in the field.

This Danish company’s 2M Red cartridge reflects the elegant sensibilities of Scandinavian design. The sporty red body features a tapered profile that mimics the facets of a diamond.

The 2M Red is a high-output moving magnet that works well with nearly any phono stage. It also features Ortofon’s split pole pin technology, a tweak to flatten the frequency response of moving magnet cartridges with playback results closer to more expensive moving coil models.

Denon DL-103 ($229.95)
The Denon 103 — our lone moving coil cartridge of the bunch — has attained an almost cult-like following among audiophiles, many attesting that it could be the greatest bargain in audio.

The DL-103 has a storied past, with Denon and the Japan Broadcasting Corporation Technical Research Laboratories working jointly to first introduce the first moving coil cartridge in 1963. The DL-103’s balanced, dynamic sound and nimble tracking ability won many fans, and soon became the cartridge of choice for many broadcasters and recording engineers. After periods of off-an-on availability, the DL-103 is again on the U.S. Market and can be had for a relative song.

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