Unlike any other format in common use today (and that ‘common’ means a nod to you diehard cassette users), Vinyl relies on direct mechanical contact to work. The process of dragging a tiny diamond on the end of a needle through the groove of a record is half precision engineering and half magic but there is one unavoidable side effect. After a period of time that little stylus will wear out. Depending on your existing cartridge, you might be able to simply replace the stylus to bring it back to life but you can also take the opportunity to upgrade it and boost your performance.
The five models listed below have been selected for three reasons. Firstly, as reflects how international Vinyl Me Please is, they are available in almost any country you happen to be in. Secondly, they are priced at a level that won’t require you to sell a kidney to secure them. Finally, they all deliver sparkling performance and if you are using an affordable turntable, should give your vinyl playback a significant boost. So, without further ado, here is a quintet of analogue excellence for your consideration.
Ortofon 2M Red $100
Based on the photos that pop up in the Twitter feed, it is clear that many of you use members of the Pro-Ject Debut, Essential and Genie family as your turntables and this is a no bad thing. These brilliantly effective decks are capable of fine performance and many of them are rather handsome things as well. As a rule of thumb almost all of these decks come fitted with the Ortofon OM5 cartridge which is a very fine performer- with one useful benefit.
Ortofon makes a truly biblical range of cartridges and if you have a turntable with an OM5 type cartridge, you can effectively ‘straight swap’ it for the 2M family as a quick and simple upgrade. If the arm works with one, it is almost certain to work with the other. And the benefits to doing so are considerable. The 2M range is a clean sheet design intended to deliver the highest performance possible at a sensible price. The faceted design is intended to reduce resonances and they use slit pole pins derived from moving coil cartridges to keep stray currents at bay.
The result of all this frenzied effort is a cartridge that pulls a phenomenal amount of detail out of the groove and manages to sound bigger and more controlled than its little brother. The 2M Red is the least expensive of the family but it manages to sound very grown up and it works brilliantly with a wide variety of musical styles. Furthermore, as an Ortofon, you get all the tools you need to get it installed and setup and you can buy replacement styli to keep it going for years. It also has different mounting options for separate headshell and P-Mount arms. What more could you ask for?
If your turntable doesn’t currently sport an Ortofon cartridge, you may feel less need to take advantage of the mounting advantages and look elsewhere. Should you do so, you could do a lot worse than look to Grado for a excellent budget option. The Prestige series is a considerable range differentiated by their ‘colour’ suffix and although the range actually starts at $75 with the Black, finding an extra $20 to secure yourself a Green pays dividends. All of the models have the considerable advantage of being small and light though which means that if you have an arm with very limited adjustment options, they are amongst your very best options to get fitted into an arm of this type. They are also available in standard mount and P-mount options.
The Grado is not fitted with a threaded body- in other words you can’t simply screw bolts into the cartridge itself which means you need to fasten it with (supplied) nuts which is a little more fiddly than threaded models but does contribute to the small overall size. Internally, the Prestige Series all make use of a pivoted cantilever that provides a more accurate response and avoids the need to internally balance the cantilver- which further reduces the mass.
What does this all mean? Simply put, while it isn’t as detailed and powerful as the Ortofon, the Grado has a sense of life to the way it handles voices and instruments that is beyond what you might expect for less than $100. Music flows effortlessly from the record and pulls you into the performance. If you’re about the midrange, this is where you need to be looking. Once again, having made the initial purchase, you can then buy replacement styli to keep you going for years to come.
Shure M97XE $160
For many of us, Shure has been about two things- earphones and mics and to be perfectly clear, the reason why they are synonymous with these categories is because they are seriously good at both. Tucked away in the Shure portfolio though is a little gem for the vinylista that might qualify as one of the last true bargains of the hifi industry. Descended from the discontinued and much missed V15- a cartridge so good that the Library of Congress bought the last examples for use in their archive- the M97XE is imbued with many of its ancestors virtues.
This means that the M97XE is designed to do two things above everything else. The first is that it will track almost anything. The ability of the Shure to stay in the groove of the record even under the most difficult of conditions is beyond almost any other cartridge. The second is that it can manage this impressive feat at a very low tracking weight. The arguments over whether such a light weight actually prolongs the life of a record will run and run but the M97XE needs very little force to work which can be helpful if you are replacing another light cartridge.
All this would be completely irrelevant if the Shure didn’t sound good but in many ways, the M97XE shares some traits with the company’s mighty in-ear monitors. There is stacks of detail and the performance is extremely accurate. It then manages to balance this accuracy with the ability to make even poor pressings sound pretty good. The Shure is surprisingly forgiving for something that sounds this consistently real and it makes it one of the most capable all rounders you can buy at the price. A little word about that price too. Although the list of the M97XE is $160, if you look around it can actually be one of the most affordable carts on this list.
Sumiko Pearl $119
Against the rather wider profile of Grado- who have taken full advantage of the headphone boom to become a much more recognised brand- Sumiko often gets forgotten as the other American cartridge manufacturer of note. This is a mistake because they have calmly and quietly developed an excellent range of cartridges and their moving magnet range is small but boasts high performance at sensible prices. The Pearl is the flagship moving magnet design and there is then a $300 gap to the Blue Point moving coil designs.
The ‘killer ap’ of the Pearl is the channel separation which is better than cartridges many times as expensive . What does this actually mean in reality? Well, in terms of a great stereo image, the Sumiko is going to have a head start over the competition and if you have to have speakers fairly close together, this is going to be a means of getting a slightly better stereo image out of them. This is coupled with a warm and inviting presentation that gives music an inviting and thoroughly enticing sound. If you have a vinyl front end that is currently a little sharp or sibilant, this is a surefire way of adding a little slice of refinement to your discs.
Like the Grado, the Sumiko is not the easiest cart in the world to fit and for reasons best known to themselves Sumiko ignores the ‘standard’ pin layout for the cartridge tags but once fitted, like the other carts here, you can change the stylus and keep it installed in your system for as long as you like.
Nagaoka MP100 $103
The last cartridge on this list only just makes the cut- but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. You see, this is the equivalent of letting slip the location of your favourite unspoiled beauty spot or the little restaurant that serves steaks that are both better and cheaper than anyone else. Nagaoka is a Japanese company that specialises in precision engineering like cemented carbide machining and other fairly hardcore categories. Then, they also make phono cartridges. Staggeringly good phono cartridges.
The MP100 is the cheapest cartridge that the company makes but it shares the same- rather retro- body with the bulk of the range. The MP100 makes do with a conical stylus but one developed and built in house by Nagaoka. This is partnered with a
samarium cobalt magnet and carbon fibre reinforced cantilever mount- fairly impressive technical chops for a sub $100 cart.
The result of this determined engineering is a cartridge that delivers an extremely potent, musical and entertaining performance. All Nagaoka cartridges sound more expensive than they actually are and this means that MP100 delivers a sound that is consistently able to bring you closer to the artist. I have used an MP150 as my test MM cart for two years now and the only thing I’d change it for is another Nagaoka. It sounds good, it tracks well, sits happily in most arms and is determinedly over engineered- what more could you want?
All five of these carts represent a cost effective boost to affordable turntables. They should work with your existing phono stage and while some are easier to fit than others, none of them are going to deliver the sort of buttock clenching terror that fitting a ‘nude’ moving coil can provide. Once in situ, you can replace the stylus when you need to, or you can consider how much further up the ladder you might want to climb- something we’ll be visiting in due course.