The phono cartridge is the part of the turntable that decodes the information etched into the groove of the record and transforms it into an electrical signal. It is this signal which will be amplified by the phono preamplifier before reaching the amplifier and then the speakers. The cartridge is therefore largely responsible for the audio quality of a turntable. The technology used (MM or MC), the type of diamond, the materials used for the cantilever, the coils or the body of the cartridge all have an influence on the sound reproduction. Whether you are looking to replace an old cartridge or to mount a new cartridge on your turntable to improve its performance, changing the cartridge will have an undeniable impact on the sound.
This comparative guide of the best hi-fi cartridges will help you choose a model that will bring your hi-fi turntable back to life.
The best Moving Magnet cartridges of 2022
The most popular cartridges are moving magnet (MM) models. More affordable, they are generally equipped with a removable stylus, which makes it easy to change it when it is worn. Easier to pair with a turntable than moving coil models, moving magnet cartridges offer a higher output level. This makes them compatible with all phono preamplifiers and integrated amplifiers with a phono output.
To learn more about the differences between moving coil cartridges and moving magnet cartridges, read our article: Moving magnet cartridge or moving coil cartridge: what is the difference and which model to choose?
A cartridge’s stylus also has a major influence on its performance. There are different sizes and different mounting processes for the tip on the cantilever, allowing you to upgrade your system, sometimes by just changing the stylus. The two most common mounting methods are the bonded tip and the nude tip. More economical, the bonded tip is glued to a base. This design generally increases the mass of the mobile assembly and has an impact on the transmission of information which can be heard during playback, in particular the transient response, which is less vivid. The nude tip is, for its part, directly mounted on the cantilever, thus guaranteeing a reduced mass of the mobile assembly and a more efficient transmission of vibrations. The sound is therefore richer and more detailed, especially in the highs, and the transient response is more accurate.
The different diamond sizes allow for more precise groove tracking. More difficult to produce than a conical or elliptical stylus, Line Contact, Micro Line and Shibata styli are designed to provide optimum contact surface with the groove of vinyl records. This type of tip is generally found on higher range cartridges. These allow you not only to extract all the information at the bottom of the groove, especially the treble, but also to obtain a more defined stereo effect for a wider soundstage, a more precise spatialization and a better sense of scale.
The unbeatable reference model in the mid-range moving magnet cartridge category is the Ortofon 2M Red. Entry ticket to the 2M range of the famous phono cartridge manufacturer, the 2M Red cartridge is renowned for its warm sound signature and musicality. It stands out as one of the flagship models to choose when upgrading an entry-level turntable and can be found fitted as standard on many mid-range turntables, including the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo, Elipson Chroma 400 Carbon and Technics SL-1500C. The performance of the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge can also be improved by combining it with the Ortofon 2M Blue stylus. Thanks to its nude diamond, the stylus for Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge makes it possible to extract more details, especially in the highs.
For tighter budgets, the Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge is an entry-level model that can also be upgraded by mounting the Audio-Technica VMN 95 EN replacement stylus. You can also opt for an Audio-Technica VM95EN cartridge with nude elliptical stylus for an even more accurate reproduction. Like the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge, the Audio-Technica AT-VM95E cartridge is pre-installed on certain mid-range turntables, such as the Thorens TD-202, Thorens TD 102 A and Magnat MTT 990.
With its Magnetic Duplex technology (double magnet) and aluminum cantilever, the Goldring E3 cartridge offers very good channel separation for a wide soundstage. Its warm and musical character makes it a model of choice for an entry or mid-range turntable.
High-end models include the Audio-Technica VM540ML cartridge whose Micro Line diamond is as close as possible to that of the engraving tools used for the production of vinyl records. Therefore, the contact surface is optimal between the diamond and the record. All information and micro-details are extracted from the groove and the level of distortion is drastically reduced.
In the same price range, the Grado Gold cartridge heads the Grado Prestige series. Hand-assembled in the USA, this elliptical diamond cartridge adopts an anti-resonance design and uses a dual magnet system developed to optimize the balance between the channels.
One of the most popular high-end moving magnet cartridges is another Ortofon production. The flagship of the 2M range, the Ortofon 2M Black cartridge features a nude Shibata stylus and copper coils with silver plating to deliver maximum detail extraction and optimum high frequency reproduction.
The best Moving Coil cartridges of 2022
In the moving coil category, the Denon DL103R presents itself as a reference. A variation of the legendary Denon DL-103 released in 1963 by the Japanese brand, it stands out for the use of 6N copper for the generator coil for even more finesse and greater musicality.
Audio-Technica’s AT33 moving coil cartridge range includes four models, including the Audio-Technica AT33MONO cartridge specifically designed for playing mono records. The traditional stereo cartridges in the range are the AT33EV with elliptical stylus, the stylus AT33PTG/II with microline stylus and the AT33SA with Shibata stylus. Displaying a frequency response ranging from 15Hz to 50kHz, the cartridges of the AT33 range all feature a nude stylus mounted on a duralumin cantilever associated with a PCOCC copper coil. Their aluminum and resin structure gives them great robustness and guarantees optimal damping of vibrations, sources of distortion and loss of information.
At Ortofon, the very popular Quintet range is made up of the Ortof o n MC Quintet Red, Ortofon MC Quintet Blue, Ortofon MC Quintet Bronze moving coil cartridges and the Ortofon MC Quintet Black S cartridge which closes the range. The Shibata diamond of the Quintet Black S cartridge is mounted on a sapphire cantilever to minimize the transmission of interference. The magnets are in neodymium, to maximize the magnetic force guaranteeing optimal reactivity. Enough to generate a signal that is true to the variations of the groove.
Designed by the British turntable expert, the Rega Ania moving coil cartridge features coils associated with powerful neodymium magnets for precise signal reproduction and great responsiveness. With its highly rigid PPS body, the Rega Ania cartridge benefits from an excellent anti-resonance structure to preserve the integrity of the signal. We find the latter pre-installed on the top-of-the-range Rega Planar 6 turntable.
The best cartridges under €200
The best cartridges from €200 to €300
The best cartridges from €300 to €500
The best cartridges from €500 to €1000
The best cartridges over €1000
Whether you are looking to improve the performance of your turntable, replace a worn cartridge, breathe new life into a turntable found in an attic, or equip a model sold without a cartridge, the choice of the phono cartridge is an absolutely essential step. The latter is responsible for the sound signature of a turntable and will allow you to enjoy a sound that is tailored to your preferences.