Music lovers purchased more than 17 million new records in 2018, making vinyl the only physical music format to experience growth in the era of digital streaming; CD sales fell another 40-percent in 2018 and it is not impossible that record and CD sales will pass one another like ships in the night by 2020. There are more companies manufacturing turntables in 2019 than CD players, a reality that is not lost on companies who manufacture phono cartridges.

Japan, Denmark, and New York produce the vast majority of phono cartridges mounted to the millions of headshells in operation around the globe, with companies like Ortofon, Audio-Technica, Grado Labs, and Denon operating at full capacity just to keep up with demand.

Phono cartridges are not all the same. The construction of a moving magnet cartridge differs from that of a moving coil, as does the material used in the cantilever, and the quality of the diamond used in the stylus. High-end cartridges are hand-assembled and often sold in much smaller quantities which figures into the final price.

The cost to re-tip a really high-end phono cartridge can be prohibitive considering the number of hours that you may get if you listen to a lot of records on a regular basis. A $500 cartridge, however, is likely to last a long time if you properly clean it and the re-tip cost is likely to be less than $70. But is there a real perceptible difference between a $99 moving magnet cartridge from Ortofon and a $750 high-output moving coil from Dynavector? We think so.

What To Know Before Buying

Here are a few important guidelines to maximize your purchase.

Rule #1: Do not spend more on the cartridge than the table.

Rule #2: A better turntable with the right arm will maximize sound quality with even an inexpensive moving magnet cartridge like a Grado Labs Blue V2 — versus a $750 Dynavector on an entry-level turntable.

Rule #3: Proper set-up of your cartridge is more important than what you spend.

Rule #4: Clean your records and your stylus. Nothing ruins a stylus faster than dirty records.

Rule #5: 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.

Rule #6: Moving magnet cartridges tend to sound warmer or more lush than their moving coil counterparts, but the tradeoff is a reduction in overall resolution and detail retrieval.

Denon DL-103


Denon DL-103

Best All-Around

Originally designed by Denon in 1962 for professional broadcast use, the venerable DL-103 survives as one of the most popular phono cartridges every produced. A long-standing audiophile favorite, the DL-103 has been copied and modified by more than a few third-party manufacturers including Zu Audio who offer their own version of the cartridge. The DL-103 is a low-output moving coil (0.3mV) design that sounds better in a higher mass tonearm; opening the door to used Denon, Fidelity Research, and Jelco tonearms or much more expensive tonearms from Shindo Labs, or Schick Audio. If you love jazz, there may not be a better affordable cartridge than the DL-103; provided that you are using a moving coil phono stage with 60dB or more of gain and adjustable load settings. The DL-103 is not a simple plug-and-play cartridge but when properly set-up, reproduces music with a level of vitality that few can touch.

An alternate choice: Ortofon 2M Bronze High Output Moving Magnet ($440)

Nagaoka MP-110


Nagaoka MP-110

Best Budget

Nagaoka may not be a Japanese brand that’s as well known as Denon, or Audio-Technica, but they have made some of the best tracking, and musical sounding cartridges to come out of Asia for almost 70 years. Visit any hi-fi shop in Tokyo, Singapore, or Hong Kong and their MP-series of high-output MM cartridges will be well represented. Vinyl lovers in North America have to look a lot harder which is a pity because they offer a genuine alternative to the entry-level products from Ortofon and Grado Labs; the MP-110 tracks pristine and worn out grooves with authority, sounds open and detailed across the frequency spectrum, and sounds great on a U-Turn Orbit, restored Thorens, or Rega Planar-series turntable. The MP-110 outputs a healthy 5mV making it compatible with a wide range of moving magnet phono stages.

An alternate choice: Grado Labs Prestige Blue V2 ($125)

Hana SL


Hana SL

Best Upgrade

Audiophiles with deep pockets have had a love affair with expensive Japanese phono cartridges for many decades; entry-level models from brands such as Koetsu, Miyajima, and Ikeda, start well above $2,000. Having listened to a number of these cartridges on very high-end turntables, there is no question that some of them offer something unique; but they are also not something one who listens to vinyl on a daily basis would sensibly consider. Hana is a relatively new brand, but its parent company has been an original equipment manufacturer for a number of Japanese cartridge brands for many years. Their decision to enter the marketplace with their own cartridges was a welcome one and the results so far have been exemplary. The low-output SL (0.5mV) utilizes a Shibata stylus and it is one of those rare affordable high-end moving coil cartridges that works well on many arms and one that brings its “Mifune” to every record you play. It requires a few records before it loses some hardness on top, but once it settles in, you’ll discover just how good vinyl can really sound.

An alternate choice: Dynavector 10×5 MK II ($750)