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Our Favorite Phono Cartridges Below $300 to Update Your Turntable

There is no shortage of phono cartridges below $300. Selecting the best one makes all the difference between average and great sound.

Denon Anniversary Edition DL-A110 Moving-coil phono cartridge

Raise your hand if you thought there would be a plethora of great sounding phono cartridges below $300 in 2022? Those of us who carried the torch for the past two decades felt rather alone during the dark times, but we won’t pretend that we’re not enjoying the multitude of options right now.

Shopping for a new turntable? You’re not alone. 2021 was a busy year for manufacturers dealing with a massive surge in the demand for records, turntables, cartridges, and accessories. With record sales in 2021 hitting their highest levels in 30 years, the demand caused huge headaches for manufacturers suffering through supply chain issues.

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. If you’re looking for the best phono cartridges below $300 for your table, we have some suggestions.

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. 

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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)

Ortofon 2M Red Phono Cartridge

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

Where to buy: $99 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Nagaoka MP-110 ($145)

Nagaoka MP-110 Phono Cartridge

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

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Where to buy: $145 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Sumiko Rainier ($149.00)

Sumiko Rainier Phono Cartridge

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

Where to buy: $149 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Goldring M3 Phono Cartridge
Goldring E3

Goldring E3 ($169.00)

Some cartridges fly under the radar because the brand doesn’t get them into the hands of enough members of the press or because the price doesn’t create enough buzz in comparison to rivals. Goldring have been in business almost as long as Danish rival, Ortofon, and that puts them in rather elite company. 

The Goldring E Series are natural rivals to anything Audio-Technica and Ortofon have to offer below $180 and the E3 might best them all. I’ve been listening for the past two weeks (the E3 replaced both the Ortofon 2M Red on my NAD table) and it’s not even close. 

The E3 has an aluminum cantilever with an elliptical tip (0.3 x 0.7mil) while the base E1 model swaps the aluminum for carbon reinforced ABS and the tip for a 0.6mil spherical design.

The E3 is impressively clean sounding at the price, with excellent pace and just enough top end energy to keep things interesting. Unlike the 2M Red that can sound quite etched at the top, the Goldring E3 is far more balanced sounding and demonstrates better control within the grooves. This is an affordable MM cartridge that sounds quite poised with all genres of music and one that has permanently replaced the Ortofon 2M Red on my table. 

Read our detailed review of the Goldring E3

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML ($169.00)

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML Phono Cartridge

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.

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For more information: audio-technica.com/en-us/at-vm95ml

Where to buy: $169 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Ortofon 2M Blue ($236.00)

Ortofon 2M Blue Phono Cartridge

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 find rather hard sounding in a lot of systems. It features a nude diamond elliptical 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

Where to buy: $236 at Amazon / Turntable Lab

Grado Labs Timbre Series Opus3 ($275.00)

Grado Timbre Opus3 Phono Cartridge

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

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Denon DL-103 ($299) 

Denon DL-103 Phono Cartridge

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. This is one of the best phono cartridges below $300 and will continue to earn that title until Denon stops making them.

For more information: usa.denon.com/en-us/product/turntables/dl-103

Where to buy: $299 at Turntable Lab | Denon.com

Related Reading: The Best Phono Cartridges Under $750

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Kev Chen

    September 24, 2021 at 1:01 am

    I think one glaring miss is the AT VM540ML, which is only priced $60 – 80 higher than the featured AT VM95ML. While the sound bears certain similarities with it’s cheaper stablemate, also contains better foundation in the bass, with even higher articulation of the low registers! The broad midrange area sounds like cartridges priced 3 times higher, and the the high frequency is airy, extended without tizziness typical of this price level. At about $250 retail, this is one cartridge that firmly place itself at the ‘high-end’ level of sound performance, and can comfortably be matched to turntables systems as high as the $2000/- arena without being embarrassed nor any apologies for.

    • Ian White

      September 24, 2021 at 1:18 am

      Kev,

      That’s one I need to check out. I really like the AT carts and I have a “new” vintage Yamaha table that I purchased from Eric Pye with a removable head shell to try it on.

      Ian White

      • keith

        February 28, 2022 at 4:03 pm

        Ian, Are you the lucky guy that got the yam 701 from Eric? If so, very jealous. Great great table.

        cheers

        • Ian White

          February 28, 2022 at 5:36 pm

          Keith,

          Indeed.

          I am embarrassed to admit that it took me over an hour to get it running. Because I couldn’t figure out how to get the motor cover off and thread the belt with my shaky fingers.

          Ian White

  2. David J Crandon

    December 2, 2021 at 12:46 am

    Suppose I have a couple of Shure V15 Type V MR. That are hardly used, but 40 years old. What do you think? Considered one of the very best cartridges of its time

    • Ian White

      December 2, 2021 at 1:11 am

      David,

      The Shure are great carts. We really wish Shure had not stopped making them. Jico out of Japan make replacement stylus for it that sound fantastic.

      Ian White

      • RJS

        February 28, 2022 at 1:27 pm

        Second Ian with that Jico recommendation. I replaced my Shure M44-7 with the Jico and it didn’t miss a beat (literally).

        • Ian White

          February 28, 2022 at 2:14 pm

          Jico is actually introducing new models right now.

          I wish Shure had not left the cartridge side of the business but at least we have ways to update older carts.

          Best,
          Ian White

  3. Tony

    December 21, 2021 at 8:54 pm

    All of this is great except one point everybody is missing VTA. I have a Sony ps x6 mounted with a Sonus blue. Looking to replace it with a Sumiko Amethyst. Have been told by local dealer and Sumiko it might not work properly because the turntable has a set VTA. That really limits anything I would like to put on the turntable. So far I have found nothing.

  4. vincent mchale

    February 28, 2022 at 5:19 pm

    What would be the best bet for my set up. Kenwood 500 tt and Grace 707 tonearm. Thanks

    • Ian White

      February 28, 2022 at 5:37 pm

      Vincent,

      What is the compliance of the arm? And what have you used before on it?

      Best,
      Ian White

  5. Eric J

    March 13, 2022 at 4:25 pm

    I’m at the point of upgrading my Pro-Ject Carbon Debut currently with the Ortofon Red. Reading and researching which cart to upgrade to is making my head spin. One thing i have gleaned from people with a LOT more knowledge on this subject than me is to take into consideration the system. So, here’s what I have. My vinyl rig is set up in my office, which is 14′ x 14′. I have a Kenwood KA3500 integrated amp (40W a channel), the PJ Carbon Debut/Ortofon Red and a Pro-Ject phono box, JBL Stage A130 speakers. I’m all over the place with the vinyl in my collection. It could be Miles Davis one day, Peter Gabriel the next followed by Waylon Jennings and Chris Stapleton. I do not have a sub. Any help, guidance/direction on cart upgrades (sub $300) is tremendously appreciated.

    • Ian White

      March 13, 2022 at 6:33 pm

      Eric,

      Sumiko Rainier, Ortofon 2M Blue, or Goldring E3 are a big step-up.

      Best,

      Ian White

      • Eric J

        March 30, 2022 at 5:49 pm

        Thanks, Ian. Love the site, btw. I’m eyeing that Goldring E3 as the frontrunner.

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