Whether you are playing your record on a home or professional DJ turntable, one thing you need is a stylus that will offer the best playback quality possible.
One way of ensuring this is to go for the best phono cartridge. While everyone will likely want to get the best, the actual challenge is finding this ‘best’ from the wide variety of phono cartridges currently available.
The quality of a phono cartridge is actually not a function of its cost. While some are quite expensive, you can get some very good quality ones if you know what to look for (Source).
There are a number of important features to consider when searching for the best cartridge under $200. Some of these include stylus shape, generator type, trackability, and output.
Not to worry, we will cover these in more detail in this guide. This will help you quickly and efficiently pick out the phono cartridge that is perfect for you.
What is a Phono Cartridge?
A phono cartridge helps music fans play vinyl records. Also known as a magnetic cartridge or needle cartridge, this is the component which makes contact with your vinyl record and follows the grooves to extract the audio signal.
Top Features To Look For
Unless you work as a vinyl DJ, you probably won’t find yourself needing to get a new phono cartridge that often. At least, if you know what features to look for and how to properly use the cartridge.
To help you find the best phono cartridge for your needs, we have compiled the most important features and specifications to check out.
Mounts onto Your Record Player
Typically, people will need to purchase a phono cartridge with a standard mount. Standard mount cartridges are put on to your tonearm using two vertical screws placed a half-inch apart. P-Mount cartridges are less common, but won’t work on certain record players.
The placement of the pins on P-mount cartridges is completely different. P-mount cartridges have four pins placed together in the shape of a square, whereas standard mount cartridges places pins in a more diagonal manner.
If you make the mistake of purchasing the wrong cartridge, though, you can always get an adapter to make it work.
Elliptical Stylus Shape
Styluses usually come in a conical or elliptical shape. The thinner the contact radius you have between your stylus and the record, the better.
This is because narrow stylus tips are able to navigate the grooves much better and extract more of the frequencies than thicker ones. For best results, getting a phono cartridge with an elliptical stylus is recommended.
High Stylus Trackability
The trackability of the stylus is the highest amplitude that it can trace before the audio signal becomes distorted. Trackability measurements can be affected by the shape of the stylus, combability with the record player tonearm, and quality of the installation.
Calculated using micrometers, the higher the trackability rating your phono cartridge has, the better. This is an important specification to check for if you want the best phono cartridge possible.
Proper Signal Generator Type
The audio put into your vinyl record needs to be extracted the generator in your phono cartridge in order to hear your music. The type of generator might help you determine whether or not you will be able to afford your favorite option.
Phono cartridges will either come with a moving coil (MC) or moving magnet (MM) generator. MC cartridges are usually more expensive and may even force you to purchase separate preamp. These are a couple of reasons why MM generators are more popular.
All the Features you Need & Within Your Budget
A professional DJ who needs a phono cartridge for scratching has different needs than somebody who wants to occasionally use a home record player. Consider your circumstances in order to determine which of the features we mentioned are most critical.
A professional DJ should get a phono cartridge which is extremely durable, long-lasting, and high-quality. On the contrary, a home record player user might decide to sacrifice a couple of desirable features to find a more affordable cartridge.
Most Common Issues People Have with Phono Cartridges?
Wrong Mount Type: It is crucial that you know what type of cartridge mount your record player has. Many people have made the mistake of purchasing a phono cartridge that doesn’t connect to the cartridge mount on their record player.
Weak Stylus: The stylus (also known as the needle) is what touches the record to create the audio signal. Depending on how you intend to use the cartridge, you may need a stylus made with an extremely durable material like a diamond.
Too Expensive: Many people don’t realize how expensive phono cartridges can be. After all, they can easily be seen by the average consumer as nothing more than a needle to touch the record. The high average price is why it’s so important to get the best phono cartridge for your needs on the first attempt.
Best Phono Cartridges
1. Ortofon 2M Red MM Phono Cartridge – Best Overall
This product is best described as an update of the best-selling OM Series of Moving Magnet cartridges. The 2M Red features split pole pins which enable it have a flat frequency response like a moving coil cartridge. This means you can expect to have a punchy, clear and detailed sound.
The enhanced engine gives an improved output of 5.5mV. It is outfitted with an elliptical diamond stylus with a narrower radius. This tracks modulations in the groove more accurately and therefore extracts detailed musical information.
It is also optimized for easy mounting, with the size and weight fit for almost every current turntable. You can get even more value for your money with an easy upgrade to the blue with a pretty simple stylus change.
Things We Like
- Sports split pole pins with a flat frequency response for more crispy sound.
- Improved engine with an output of 5.5mV.
- Has a diamond elliptical stylus for better modulation.
- Can be used on most current turntables.
Things We DisLike
- Appears to perform better on newer records.
2. Shure M97xE High-Performance Magnetic Phono Cartridge – Best for Difficult Musical Passages
It sports a cantilever made of unique Type II low-mass thin-wall aluminum alloy, which ensures a highly precise tracking ability. For difficult playing conditions, the M97xE has an exclusive viscous-damped Dynamic Stabilizer. This helps it to maintain a uniform distance between the cartridge and the record.
This also means you don’t have to worry about warped records, or mismatched tonearm mass. The most interesting feature of the M9xE is its SIDE-GUARD stylus protection system. This system prevents stylus damage if the cartridge somehow slides across a record.
Things We Like
- It’s best for accurately reproducing very difficult musical passages, especially in the high-frequency range.
- Is known for its precise tracking ability.
- Handles surface noise very well.
- It has a side-guard stylus protection system which prevents stylus damage.
Things We DisLike
- It’s a little relaxed on the top end.
3. Audio-Technica AT95E 1/2 Standard Mount Dual Magnet Cartridge -Best Value For The Money
You would wonder why this product has a five-star rating on almost every website it’s sold until you try it. For the specific need of outstandingly clear and detailed sound, you can’t go wrong with the AT95E.
The elliptical diamond stylus does the job of tracking groves with high accuracy. As you will expect, the result is outstanding audio reproduction. It is famous for excellent tracking with superb inner groove music that has almost no distortion.
The AT95E includes a mounting hardware and stylus guard. It is very carefully assembled with remarkably tight tolerances. If you are on a tight budget, the AT95E is definitely the way to go.
Things We Like
- Outstanding clarity and details in audio output.
- Has remarkably tight tolerance
- Includes a mounting hardware and stylus guard.
- Excellent inner groove tracking.
- Great for anyone on a tight budget
Things We DisLike
- Doesn’t come with easy to read instructions.
4. REGA Carbon MM Phono Cartridge – Easiest Installation
Usually supplied as a standard on the RP1 turntable, the Rega Carbon is designed with an easy-to-fit plastic stylus guard. This guard reduces the anxiety of possibly damaging it in the course of mounting and alignment.
The moving magnet cartridge has a conical stylus that is more forgiving of imprecise set up. It reproduces sounds very neatly and gives allowance for the finer details of instruments to be heard. This makes the music sound as though the band were playing right in front of you. The stylus can also be very easily replaced.
Things We Like
- Very easy to install.
- Low risk of damage during mounting.
- Stylus can be easily replaced.
- Neat sound reproduction
Things We DisLike
- Can have initial brash treble representation.
5. Sumiko Pearl MM Cartridge – Best for Lower Frequencies
The Sumiko Pearl is made for audiophiles by audiophiles and is awesome for low frequencies. With a very good resolution and a touch of midrange warmth, the Pearl is an excellent choice for all types of music. More so because it’s free of grain and with low surface noise.
The Pearl’s stylus can generate high power with fewer windings than traditional MM designs. This gives the Pearl the ability to deliver higher outputs without sonic distortions. The result is an excellent rhythmic drive with solid bass and good propulsion of the lower frequencies.
With its high tracking ability, you can be sure of getting amazing sound reproduction. If you are a big classical rock music fan, then this is definitely the cartridge you want to buy.
Things We Like
- Low surface noise.
- Best for low frequencies.
- Higher output without the usual sonic penalty.
- High tracking ability.
- An excellent choice for all types of music and especially classical rock.
Things We DisLike
- It may not easily fit standard length fixtures.
What You Must Know Before Purchasing a Phono Cartridge
Your turntable basically works by pulling a tiny diamond or other gemstone at the tip of a stylus through the grooves of a record. This process alone will not produce music. It requires a cartridge to convert the vibration generated into the sweet analog sound that we hear.
This is why the quality of sound produced highly depends on the quality of the cartridge. In a manner of speaking, the cartridge is the critical factor in a turntable.
Your choice of cartridge goes a long way to determine how well you’re going to enjoy listening to your record. It is therefore important to aim for the ones that will give you what you want in terms of quality of music.
Now that you know you should buy a good cartridge, the next natural question should be how to know the best phono cartridge to buy. The trick is not just to know the price or brand name you want, but to know the specifications of a cartridge to look out for.
Stay with us, things are about to get a bit technical.
Consider the Generator Type
Cartridges are mostly categorized into two main types in terms of how they generate their signal; they are the Moving Magnet (MM) And Moving Coil (MC). Of this two, MM cartridges are more common.
Moving Magnet (MM)
When the stylus in a Moving Magnet cartridge moves, the cantilever moves the magnet. This induces a voltage in a coil of wire placed close to it.
This wire is connected to the pins at the back of the cartridge and the movement of the magnet in the coils generate the electrical signal. This signal is then amplified by a special circuit in the turntable.
One of the advantages to using an MM cartridge is that it gives a high output delivery. This means it’s compatible with almost any phono input.
Most MM cartridges have replaceable styli. This is a plus because it is cheaper to replace just the stylus rather than the entire cartridge system should the need arise.
Moving Coil (MC)
Moving Coil (MC) cartridges use almost the same motor system as the MM cartridge. The difference is that in an MC, the magnet is fixed and the coils move.
The coils are fixed to the cantilever and have fewer turns than that of the MM. This allows for a wider bandwidth and a better retrieval of low level information.
The MC cartridge is regarded as superior to the MM, but the high cost, among other problems makes it less popular than the MM. If you’re just starting out on the vinyl journey, it is advisable to go with a simple moving magnetic set up.
When it’s installed properly, it doesn’t take anything away from musical performance. Whether you decide to go for the MM or MC, it’s important to set it up properly. If you fail to do this, you’ll get horrendous sounds you can’t stand.
Look at the Shape of the Stylus
Since it is the tip of the stylus that makes contact with and reads information from the record groove, its shape matters a great deal. The narrower the contact radius, the better and more precisely it will track the modulations in the groove.
The most common styli shapes are Conical and Elliptical. The elliptical stylus has a narrower tip and therefore a smaller contact radius than the conical stylus. This means the elliptical stylus traces grooves more accurately and therefore extracts more musical information than the conical.
It is important to always go for the component that will give you a crispier sound.
Consider its Trackability
This is an important factor to check out when buying a phono cartridge. This describes how well the stylus can track the modulations of a record groove.
It is measured by recording the maximum amplitude a stylus can trace before the signal is distorted. This spec is often listed in micrometers (μm) – the higher the trackability spec, the better. It is often listed in the specifications on seller websites
Check the Mount Type
Most cartridges are Standard Mount cartridges which are secured to the tonearm by 2 vertical screws placed half inches apart. They also have four small posts for connecting tonearm leads.
The second major type is the P-Mount. This has four slender pins that plug directly into tonearms specifically made to be used with P-mount Cartridges. It is usually better to install a standard mount cartridge as the P-mount can be pretty limiting.
Don’t forget to check out what mount your turntable has as it should match the cartridge you buy.
You Also Need to Check the Cantilever
This is the part of the cartridge that transfers vibrational energy from the stylus tip to the magnet (or other generating elements). Given its importance, it is very important that the cantilever be as light and rigid as possible.
The material, size, and construction of the cantilever all affect how well a cartridge can reproduce audio frequencies. Some of the most common materials used are aluminum alloy, carbon, boron, and certain copper alloys with the most common being the aluminum alloy.
A look at the specifications as listed on the seller’s websites usually show this.
Ready To Buy The Best Phono Cartridges?
While going for cartridges under the $200 range, you should make sure that you’re getting one that will satisfy your musical needs.
If you’re looking for a phono cartridge that will give you a punchy, clear and detailed sound, you should go for the Ortofon 2M Red MM. It comes with the added benefit of fitting almost every current turntable and can be upgraded when you wish.
However, if you are on a tight budget, then the Audio-Technica AT95E 1/2” Standard Mount Dual Magnet is the one you should definitely go for. It promises you the best value for your money.
You should remember that a good phono cartridge is supposed to not only meet a checklist of requirements but also preserve your vinyl records. This is not an exhaustive list, but we hope this guide will make it easier for you to find the best phono cartridge under $200.