Shopping for a new turntable? You’re not alone. 2020 was a busy year for manufacturers dealing with a massive surge in the demand for records, turntables, cartridges, and accessories. Companies unable to pivot fast enough to online sales or roadside pick-up did not survive. Cartridge manufacturers have struggled keeping up with the demand. We’re huge proponents of using better quality phono cartridges, but not everyone wants to spend $500 or more on a cartridge. A lot of people are discovering quality vintage turntables at garage sales or on eBay and spending some money to get them restored and working properly again. Phono cartridges below $300 represent more than 75% of the market but knowing which one to buy and mount on your vintage turntable can be confusing.
How do you know which one to select from the dozens of models from Audio-Technica, Grado Labs, Ortofon, Nagaoka, Denon, Sumiko, and Rega?
Phono cartridges are not all created equal. The construction of a moving magnet cartridge differs from that of a moving coil; as does the material used in the cantilever, and quality of the diamond used in the stylus. More expensive high-end cartridges are hand-assembled and often sold in much smaller quantities which figures into the final price.
We know people using $5,000 cartridges on restored vintage tables from Thorens, Garrard, Linn, and EMT – but that represents a miniscule percentage of the market.
Ortofon sells more inexpensive cartridges in a day than some of the exotic brands sell in a year. Or even two years.
Some basic rules before you make a decision and end up being dissatisfied with the sound of your turntable set-up.
Do not spend more on the cartridge than the table. Unless you are inheriting the table for free already and can justify the expenditure. A better turntable with the right arm will maximize sound quality with even an inexpensive moving magnet cartridge like a Grado Labs Blue V3 – versus a $750 Dynavector on an entry-level turntable. Proper set-up of your cartridge is more important than what you spend. Clean your records and your stylus. Nothing ruins a stylus faster than dirty records.
A high-output moving magnet or moving coil cartridge (anything above 2.5mV) requires between 35-45dB of gain from your phono pre-amplifier as opposed to 55-65dB of gain from your phono pre-amplifier for a low-output moving coil cartridge.
Moving magnet cartridges tend to sound warmer or more lush than their moving coil counterparts, but the trade off is a reduction in overall resolution and detail retrieval.
You can’t mount every type of cartridge on certain tonearms. Research and check the compliance of the cartridge you’re thinking about with the tonearm that is on your turntable. The counterweight (the cylindrical weight at the rear of the tonearm) will always have a specific range of cartridge weight that it can handle so that you can set the proper amount of tracking force.
So which phono cartridges below $300 do we really love? We’ve mounted all of these on our own turntables and feel rather confident that they’ll work for you as well.
Ortofon 2M Red ($99.00)
The 2M Red is one of the most popular phono cartridges in the world because of its price and the ability to install it on almost any tonearm. The 5.5mV output is on the high side making it compatible with the phono stages that come with almost every integrated amplifier or receiver being sold in 2021.
The installation should not take more than 15 minutes and you’re good to go with your record listening. Our only issue with the 2M Red is its tonal balance that is definitely tipped up in the treble. There is a hardness with this cartridge that can reveal itself in an ugly way if the rest of your system leans more towards the neutral side of the spectrum. Phono stages like the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 do wonders with the 2M Red but that’s a $700 phono stage that deserves something better like the Ortofon 2M Bronze that retails for $440. The 2M Red is a good starting point, but the Nagaoka and Audio-Technica that are $50 more are superior sounding and better long-term purchases.
For more information: ortofon.com/ortofon-2m-red-p-317
Nagaoka MP-110 ($145)
Japanese manufacturer, Nagaoka, has been manufacturing outstanding moving magnet phono cartridges for almost 70 years. The entry-level MP-110 is an excellent tracker digging into worn out grooves with authority and delivers a very open and detailed sounding presentation across the entire frequency spectrum. The 5mV output is on the high side, but that also makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers.
The cartridge is a good match on both entry-level and more expensive turntables and offers a lot of performance in a Rega, Pro-Ject, or SME tonearm for under $130. It may not be as popular as the 2M Red from Ortofon which shows up pre-installed on a lot of entry-level tables, but it offers a smoother ride and with less top end bite.
For more information: www.nagaoka.eu
Sumiko Rainier ($149.00)
Sumiko offers an extensive lineup of both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges; a number of models come pre-installed on Pro-Ject tables being distributed in North America and there is a lot to like about the Rainier at under $150. This 5.0mV moving magnet cartridge is in the lower tier of the range and possibly the smoothest sounding of the bunch. The Rainier has excellent channel separation and tracks exceptionally well.
The design enables upgrading in the future to the Moonstone or Olympia stylus. The 6.5 gram weight makes it compatible with a lot of tonearms and it’s not the hardest cartridge to mount.
For more information: sumikophonocartridges.com
Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML ($169.00)
Looking through their extensive lineup of phono cartridges can be somewhat confusing, but Audio-Technica have some really affordable cartridges below $200 that really shine on a better table. Install on something entry-level, and the sound will be fine but nothing really special considering how much potential lurks inside the cartridge body. But which one should you buy and do they really sound all that different? Not only do they sound different, but the type and shape of the stylus will have a huge impact on the sound. Even at this price level.
The AT-VM95ML is a moving magnet cartridge with a microlinear stylus and rather quiet in the grooves. The 3.5mV output makes it compatible with most internal phono preamps that you’ll find in your receiver or integrated amplifier, and it has excellent channel separation. It’s not the warmest cartridge that we’ve ever heard so pair it with a warm sounding phono preamp or amplifier. Detail freaks will love this cart. Bass freaks will find it somewhat lean and quick sounding in the lower registers. It’s a clean sounding cart that has a little more emphasis in the treble than the Sumiko Moonstone.
For more information: audio-technica.com/en-us/at-vm95ml
Ortofon 2M Blue ($236.00)
The 2M Blue doesn’t get as much attention as the entry-level 2M Red or $750 2M Black, but it is one of the best moving magnet cartridges below $400 and a serious step-up over the 2M Red which we finally rather hard sounding in a lot of systems. It features a nude diamond elliptical diamond stylus and 5.5mV output.
The 2M Blue offers improved performance over the 2M Red in a number of areas; smoother treble performance, greater clarity, wider frequency response performance, and it’s a much better tracker. Mount the 2M Blue on a Rega or Jelco tonearm and prepare to be pleasantly surprised by how much performance it offers for only $236. One the best phono cartridges below $300 and worth every cent.
For more information: ortofon.com/ortofon-2m-blue-p-333
Grado Labs Timbre Series Opus3 ($275.00)
Grado Labs invented the stereo phono cartridge and have been one of the premier phono cartridge manufacturers for almost 50 years. The Brooklyn-based company make it all in-house and having toured the building a few years ago — it’s very hard work to create these handmade cartridges. The family work there almost 6 days a week creating both their award-winning headphones and cartridges.
The Opus3 is an interesting addition to the Timbre series because it is priced below $450 — which is rare for their wood body MI (moving iron) cartridges. Grado have also decided to offer 4 different versions of the Opus3; low-output (1mV), high-output (4.0mV), and mono versions of each one.
What makes the Opus3 so worthwhile at $275? There is definitely a Grado “sound” that people either love or find too rich depending on the rest of their system. Not the quietest carts with some turntables because of a lack of shielding, but the Opus3 delivers the trademark Grado midrange and punch that is superb with vocals, rock and classical music. The current range is a tad more neutral sounding which makes this cartridge an easier recommendation as one of the best phono cartridges below $300.
Partner the Opus3 with a neutral sounding phono stage like the Moon by SimAudio LP110 V2 and prepare to laugh at those spending a lot more for the same level of performance.
For more information: gradolabs.com
Where to buy: $275 at 4ourears.com
Denon DL-103 ($299)
Denon introduced the DL-103 in 1962 for professional broadcast use, and it has proven to be of the most popular and reliable phono cartridges of its kind. The low output moving coil design (0.3mV) requires a higher mass tonearm; opening the door to used Fidelity Research, SME, or EMT arms or more expensive modern arms from Kuzma, or Jelco (which recently decided to cease production). Jazz listeners have long prized the DL-103’s tonal balance and open presentation that make both brass instruments and vocals come alive.
The DL-103 requires at least 60dB of gain to come alive; sticking a step-up transformer between the affordable DL-103 and the moving magnet input of your phono stage can be a transformative experience when everything is set-up correctly. Third party manufacturers have been offering modified DL-103 variants for the past few years at considerable expense, but our advice would be to stick with the stock model from Denon.
For more information: usa.denon.com/en-us/product/turntables/dl-103
Where to buy: $299 at Turntable Lab