Mis à jour le 21 June 2023.
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 different cartridges and styli
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 best moving magnet cartridges in 2023
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 in 2023
In the moving coil category, the Denon DL103R is 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 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 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 78 rpm cartridges
Although not very common, fans of old records looking to enjoy the original sound of a recording often turn to 78 rpm recrods. Therefore, it would be wise not to restrict the possibilities offered by a cartridge for playing these historic items. There’s the entry-level Audio-Technica AT-VM95SP and Ortofon 2M 78 (both of which are 78 rpm versions of previously mentioned ranges). Last but not least, the Grado 78C cartridge, which is great value for money, offers a perfect reproduction with old records.
The best mono cartridges
Like 78 rmp models, mono cartridges are still being made so that purists and owners of old and more more recent mono records can continue to enjoy their favorite vinyl. The entry-level Audio-Technica VM610MONO is a good option, as is the Ortofon 2M mono. The high-end Ortofon MC Quintet Mono and Hana SL-mono models caught our attention because of their excellent sound reproduction and the rave reviews they have received from users and professionals alike.
The best cartridges under €200
- Ortofon 2M Red: moving magnet, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Goldring E3: double moving magnet, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Audio-Technica VM95EN: moving magnet, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Nagaoka Mp-110: moving magnet, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
The best cartridges from €200 to €300
- Ortofon 2M Blue: moving magnet, nude elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Audio-Technica VM540ML: moving magnet, micro line stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Grado Gold: moving magnet, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount, 10Hz to 60kHz
The best cartridges from €300 to €500
- Hana EH: high-output moving coil, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Denon DL130R: moving coil, nude conical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Audio-Technica AT33EV: moving coil, elliptical stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
The best cartridges from €500 to €1000
- Rega Ania: moving coil, elliptical stylus, Rega 3-point mount
- Audio-Technica AT33SA: moving coil, Shibata stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Ortofon MC Quintet Black S: moving coil, Shibata stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
The best cartridges over €1000
- MoFi Ultragold MC: moving coil, nude Shibata stylus, 1/2″ standard mount
- Ortofon SPU Synergy GM: moving coil, elliptical stylus, SME mount
- Sumiko Starling: moving coil, Microridge stylus, boron cantilever, 1/2″ standard mount
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, choosing a phono cartridge is an 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.
Want to build a full hi-fi system, or simply want to replace your equipment? Discover our other 2023 comparative guides:
- A comparison of the best floorstanding speakers
- A comparison of the best bookshelf speakers
- A comparison of the best turntables
- A comparison of the best portable Bluetooth speakers
- A comparison of the best hi-fi headphones