Record Player Reviews

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Best Cartridges and Stylus

You’ll most likely need to purchase a separate cartridge and stylus with your turntable, as most turntables are either not sold with one, or are sold with a bad one. So you’ll need to upgrade right away.

There are three main types of cartridge design: Moving Iron (MI), Moving Magnet (MM), and Moving Coil (MC). MC cartridges are an option best kept to the experienced audiophile; they are a lot more costly, a lot more sensitive to set up and require a very expensive preamp to get going. For most people, the best option is to go with a Moving Magnet cartridge.

Entry-Mid-Level Cartridge/Stylus combination ($50-$75)

The $50-$75 range for a cartridge/stylus combination seems to give you the best “quality per dollar”.

Audio Technica AT110EAudio Technica AT110E: this is one of the BEST sounding cartridges in this price range, and is rated very highly. For $20 more, you get the AT120ET which is a little brighter, but also well regarded. Audio Technica cartridges are largely known for being bright sounding, which is why we like the AT110E, as it’s a tad warmer than their standard cartridge. In sum, for this price range, the AT110E is undeniably the best cartridge for the money. Buy the Audio Technica AT110E cartridge on Amazon for less than $30.

Specifications: MM cartridge, 0.4 x 0.7 elliptical tip stylus, 4mV output.

 

Shure M97xE cartridge

Shure M97xE:, this reputable cartridge is very sensitive to setup. It takes some real tweaking before getting the most out of it… But once you’re there, the performance is unbeatable for this price. We wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is new to record playing, because to truly appreciate this cartridge you need to change the impedance of your preamp with a resistor mod (that’s a topic for another day),  which is best kept for once you’re more accustomed to record playing gear. That being said, the Shure M97xE is still a good sounding cartridge out of the box, with a beautiful full-flavored sound, so you can’t really go wrong by buying it.

Specifications: 6.6g MM cartridge, 0.2 x 0.7 elliptical stylus, 4mV output, compliance 20 mm/N-High.

StoresProductPrice
AmazonShure M97xE High-Performance Magnetic Phono Cartridge

Standard mount / Elliptical stylus / Low mass / Tracking force: 0.75 to 1.5 grams / 20Hz - 22kHz frequency response

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AmazonShure M97xE High-Performance Magnetic Phono Cartridge Plus Additional N97XE Replacement Stylus

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Product prices and availability are accurate as of Jun 30 11:00:15 UTC but are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on the merchant site at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

Vintage Pickering XV-15/D400 (~$65 used): like the Stanton 680EE, these are moving iron cartridges which are known for their very warm sound. You can find them used on eBay at staggering low prices. Plus, the great thing is that they come with a very nice stylus. If you can find the Pickering with the D750 stylus, you’ve got yourself a great upgrade. Buy the Pickering XV-15 on eBay.

Specifications: 6.3g MI cartridge, 0.4 x 0.7 elliptical tip, 4.4mV output, compliance 17 cu – High.

 

Upper-Mid-Level Cartridge/Stylus combination ($75-$100)

You can find some amazing cartridges in this price-range. As the price goes up, they will tend to have better sound, so stretching your budget a bit is all worth it.

Audio Technica AT440MLa

Audio Technica 440MLa: this cartridge is a fan favorite amongst the $100-$180 cartridges. It is clear, dynamic, vivid, and gets those old LPs rocking like they were meant to be. This is THE go-to cartridge for giving your record player a kick in the butt. Nevertheless, it’s considered a tad bright to some. Make sure you get one with the ‘a’ at the end, because the 400ML without the ‘a’ at the end is an older version that was very harsh and bright.

Specifications: 6.5g, MM cartridge, 4mV output, micro-linear stylus.

StoresProductPrice
AmazonAudio Technica AT440MLA Dual-Moving Magnet Phono Cartridge

AUDIO TECHNICA AT440MLA, DUAL MOVING MAGNET PHONO CARTRIDGE

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Ortofon 2M Red: this cartridge will bring out the bass if you are missing it; it doesn’t try to present a flat frequency response, on the contrary, it actually adds a little. One reviewer said it’s similar to hitting the ‘loudness’ button on your receiver. It’s no surprise this cartridge has been said to have a lot of ‘personality’… People are raving about the Ortofon 2M everywhere. You can find this cartridge on the Ortofon website.

Specifications: 7.2g, MM cartridge, 5.5mV output, 0.3 x 0.7 nude elliptical stylus, 20mm/Ncompliance.

 

Audio Technica AT120E

Audio Technica AT120ET: this one is also an absolute classic.

Specifications: 6.5g MM cartridge, 5mV output, 0.3 x 0.7 elliptical stylus.

 

StoresProductPrice
AmazonAudio Technica AT120E/T Magnetic Cartridge

AT120E/T Cartridge: Vector-Aligned Dual Magnet design and A-T's exclusive Paratoroidal signal generator. .3 x .7 mil elliptical.. Audio-Technica

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Sumiko black pearlSumiko Pearl: some say the Audio Technica 440MLa is a tad bright and the Shure M97xE a tad too mellow, while the Sumiko Pearl strikes a perfect balance between the two. All the more reason for admiring it. Buy the Sumiko Pearl on eBay.

Specifications: 6g MM cartridge, 4mV output, 0.2 x 0.8 elliptical stylus, 15mm/N compliance.

 

Grado Prestige Green cartridgeGrado Prestige Green: this cartridge enjoys quite the love/hate relationship! Some people swear by Grado, some people are allergic to it. The truth is, everyone in the audiophile world has strong opinions, but these are VERY nice sounding cartridges. Grado cartridges have a reputation for their emphasized midrange, so vocals are usually more forward. If you like exciting vocals, buy the Grado Prestige Green. If you would rather sip wine, read a book or take a nap to your records, you’re better off with a less forward cartridge like the Shure M97.

Specifications: 5.5g MI cartridge, 5mV output, elliptical tip stylus, 20mm/N compliance.

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AmazonGrado Prestige Green Standard Mount Turntable Cartridge

The Green model from Grado uses a three piece OTL cantilever technology, standard oxygen free wire in the coils and Grado's specially designed

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AmazonGrado Prestige Green P Mount Turntable Cartridge

The Green model from Grado uses a three piece OTL cantilever technology, standard oxygen free wire in the coils and Grado's specially designed

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Product prices and availability are accurate as of Jun 30 11:00:15 UTC but are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on the merchant site at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product.

 

Denon DL-110 We won’t go into the super high-end cartridges, other than mention the much-beloved Denon DL 110.  EXCEPTIONAL things have been said over and over again about the Denon DL 110, you’re getting all the quality and flavour of a high-end cartridge at a –still– reasonable price. If you go with this cartridge, make sure you have either a heavy turntable arm or a heavy headshell, as Denon DL 110 cartridges only sound good with a lot of weight on them (read our explanation of mass and compliance further down).

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AmazonDenon DL-110 High Output Moving Coil Cartridge

Turntables & MC Cartridges

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You will have notice we put the stylus elliptical dimensions along with the recommendations. Without getting too much into the details, you still need to know a little: an audiophile-quality cartridge on a modest budget will usually have an elliptical-shaped stylus. The cheaper ones will have a ‘gemstone’ stylus, but most cartridges will say they have a ‘diamond’ tip. As you get into the next bracket of pricing there are stereohedron, micro-line, shiabata, SAS, and other shapes. Of the cartridges we have recommended above, note the Audio Technica has a micro-line which is the nicest stylus of the bunch. Also, note the Shure M97xE (0.2 x 0.7) versus the Pickering XV-15/D400 (0.4 x 0.7): the Shure has a smaller tip and will sit deeper in the record groove. That can mean more detail; it can also mean more dust ‘pops’… The choice gets complicated and seems to be a matter of opinion and personal preferences.

Another thing you need to know is the concept of synergy: if you’ve been reading around, you’ll have seen that one cartridge that sounds great with one turntable or preamp will sound ordinary on another. That’s because cartridges come in high/med/low mass and high/med/low compliance.

Mass is simply weight. For example, the Ortofon 2M Red weighs a lot more than the Shure M97Xe. Compliance has to do with how delicate and light versus sturdy and hard the stylus and cantilever system is. A Denon will have low compliance, meaning it has a stiff suspension and needs a little weight behind it. The Shure will be high compliance, meaning it has a more delicate suspension.

Another factor to take into account is the impedance presented by the preamp. Some cartridges are better ‘matched’ to some preamps. This gets complicated, but the point is, your cartridge/stylus, your tonearm/turntable and your preamp need to complement each other. If the cartridge/stylus and the tonearm/turntable are improperly matched, you could have poor sound. If the cartridge/stylus and the preamp are inadequately matched, you could have a dull sound. Overall, you shouldn’t worry about synergy in your first record player setup, and if you find the sound is “not bright enough” or is “muddy”, you’ll learn a lot about what you want and what you have and get some recommendations as to how to fix the sound. Besides, most of the cartridges recommended above will work on most tonearm/turntables, and still sound amazing.

Extras ($25)

If you are a perfectionist, you’ll want to set everything up properly. This involves putting the turntable on a solid foundation that isn’t susceptible to vibrations (such as the ones from walking around your room). You’ll need a cartridge alignment tool, and a stylus force gauge. For the stylus force gauge, get a Shure SFG-2. At $25, it’s a no-brainer, it works, and everyone loves it. As for a cartridge alignment tool, you can get one for free online here; just print out the basic one at first, then experiment with other alignments if you want to.

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