I’ll admit it…
Listening to vinyl always gives me goosebumps. And occasionally, tears in my eyes.
It’s all about the sound baby!!
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If you’re in a rush, you can check out my favorite turntable cartridge, Audio-Technica VM530EN, on Amazon.
Or, check out a summary of my favorite picks.
Milking the best sound quality from your TT is all about the source.
What’s the source?
It’s the part closest to the vinyl – your cartridge and stylus.
Cartridge Buying Guide
Full disclosure, before researching this post, I had no idea it was called a cartridge and that it can make such a difference to your listening experience. My budget originally was about
Obviously, if you are more into vinyl therapy you probably did know.
Now that I have shown I may be a bit of a novice before we delve into the best cartridges. We need to discuss what you are looking for when considering purchasing a new cart for your turntable.
- Stylus- The stylus is the little tiny piece on the end that actually touches the record and determines how the grooves read. You have a few decisions to make regarding the kind of stylus you want.
- Construction- they come in a bonded or nude construction. The nude stylus construction is superior to the bonded construction because it allows for fuller frequency and less distortion.
- Shape- There are three stylus shapes. Conical, elliptical and line contact.
- The conical stylus is cheaper and more widely used. It has a rounded tip that touches the center of the record groove. You may miss some of the detailed sounds.
- The elliptical has two radii, one being smaller and allowing more accurate tracking of the grooves. This also cuts down on the distortion.
- The line contact is shaped to optimize high-frequency response. However, if you have older vinyl records that may have some surface damage a line contact stylus can amplify a lot of that.
- Generator – there are two common types of generators.
- Moving Magnet (MM)- This is the most common generator. This design has the magnets connected to the cantilever. The magnets move, as the name suggests, inside a stationary coil.
- Moving Coil (MC)- has a coil connected to the cantilever and the magnet is stationary. This set-up allows the cantilever to move easier so it can pick up more detail. However, it has a lower voltage output.
This will require you to have more specialized equipment like a preamp.
- Cantilever- This is the little arm the stylus is mounted on. As the stylus picks up the grooves it moves the cantilever which transfers the energy to your chosen generator.
It is important for the cantilever to be stiff and lightweight. The most common material for the cantilever is aluminum. Carbon and Boron can also be used sometimes.
- Frequency range- You will find the base range to be around 20-20,000 Hz. Higher-end cartridges will have an extended range that goes higher and lower in Hz. As the range extends it is able to pick up more detail.
- Mount- How the cart is secured to the tonearm is more about it fitting to your TT and less about how it will affect the sound like all the features above. There are three common mount options, standard, universal and P-mount.
- Standard mount- This mount is secured by 2 screws usually about ½” apart. It also has four small post for connecting the leads.
- P-Mount- This cartridge has four slender pins that plug directly into the tonearm that is specifically made for P-mounts. It is then secured with a single screw.
- Universal mount- is created to be able to be used with either the standard or P-Mount.
Keeping all of this in mind, of course, you want the best turntable cartridge for the money. Right?
So here at RPP, I’ve brought you a roundup of carts that’ll give you the most bang for your buck.
Use the Quick Navigation and be magically transported to a review of each cart…
Quick Navigation Menu
- Audio Technica AT 95 E
- Audio Technica VM 530 EN
- Ortofon OM 5E
- Ortofon 2M Red
- Ortofon 2M Blue
- Ortofon 2M Bronze
- Ortofon Omega
- Rega Carbon
- Shure M 44 – 7
- Sumiko Pearl
Best Turntable Cartridge for the Money – Comparison Table
Flip your smart device for the best view of this table.
|Product (click to see at Amazon)||Price Range||My Rating (out of 10)||My Full Review|
|Audio Technica AT95 E||$||6||AT 95 E Review|
|Audio Technica VM 530 EN||$$||9||VM 530 EN Review|
|Ortofon OM 5 E||$||7||Ortofon OM 5 E Review|
|Ortofon 2M Red||$||8||Ortofon 2M Red Review|
|Ortofon 2M Blue||$$$||9||Ortofon 2M Blue Review|
|Ortofon 2M Bronze||$$$||9||Ortofon 2M Bronze Review|
|Ortofon Omega||$||6||Ortofon Omega Review|
|Rega Carbon||$||5||Rega Carbon Review|
|Shure M 44 – 7||$||7||Shure M 44 – 7 Review|
|Sumiko Pearl||$$||8||Sumiko Pearl Review|
Best Turntable Cartridge for the Money
Audio Technica AT95 E
This cartridge from Audio Technica has a history spanning a quarter of a century. That’s a damn long time! And it still has an impeccable reputation.
You’ll find vinyl lovers all over the forums singing its praises as a go-to budget cart that still offers good performance.
Audio Technica’s AT LP 120 TT comes standard with this cart. And it’s easy to see why.
It’s a great choice if the cart on your lower end TT needs upgrading. You’re likely to hear a reduction in semblance splatter (any sounds the vocalist makes in the front of their mouth).
The recommended tracking force is 2 g. And for a cart in this price class, it tracks well.
Its highs and lows are outstanding. But you might be less satisfied with the mid ranges. Although they still do fairly well.
It’s very merciful on old records and tends to hide the impurities.
The output voltage is 3.5 mV so it tends to be quieter than other carts like the AT 100 E for example.
Some folks have complained that it’s tricky to remove the stylus from the cart body before mounting. But honestly, I’ve done this several times with no issues whatsoever.
It’s worth noting that some folks did complain about lousy packaging. Although, from my research, it’s the exception, not the rule.
If you have a higher mass tonearm the AT 95 E is likely the best cartridge choice under 100 bucks.
And if you’re playing older records you’ll like the performance from the conical stylus.
Audio Technica VM 530 EN
2017 ushered in a total revamp of Audio Technica’s phono cartridges with the new VM series. And the beautiful VM 530 EN is the latest version of the AT 120 EB.
The ‘VM’ tech uses 2 magnets to match the left and right channels in the groove walls.
The VM 530 EN also has a nude stylus. So the stylus and the shank are made from a single diamond.
This ‘nude’ design and ‘VM’ tech offer excellent tracking, channel separation, and frequency response.
One noticeable change is the 2 gram Vertical Tracking Force of the VM 530 EN. In theory, the heavier VTF offers deeper bass.
From my research, I’ve found folks are floored by the smoother and more detailed sound than the AT 120 EB.
My previous cart was the AT 120 EB, which is the discontinued version of this baby. I’ll admit it’s not merciful to older vinyls. But with the improvements, I believe the VM 530 EB will perform better on weathered LPs.
The reduction of IGD is also notable, and the silences between tracks are also quieter.
Folks, did mention that the sound output of the VM 530 EN is much brighter though. This can probably be chalked down to a new stylus not being broken in yet.
If you like bright highs or have ‘middle-aged’ ears, this shouldn’t be an issue for you.
The cart is a little on the pricy side. But it’s well worth the investment. And in my opinion the VM 530 EN falls in the category of best cartridge for the money.
Ortofon OM 5 E
I love the Ortofon OM 5 E. It’s the cartridge I’m currently using on my old Pioneer PL 720 TT.
Sure it’s not Ortofon’s top of the range but it gives a great performance. And its price will suit any pocket.
The OM 5 E has an elliptical stylus which is ideal for tracking tightly in the grooves. And tracks at a recommended 1.75 g. From my experience, it tracks damn well!
In case you are wondering, the ‘OM’ stands for Optimum Match. There’s a tiny weight plate tucked into the mounting bracket.
Which makes the entire OM series compatible with just about any tonearm. So even if you have a low mass tonearm this baby will play nice.
I’ll be honest, I was a little worried that the OM 5 E would highlight the imperfections on my older records.
While I’m writing this, I’m listening to a vintage pressing of Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Bark’. And I’m pretty darn happy with its presentation.
To begin with, I tested it on a ’90s pressing The Doors. And to me, the sound was strained. Almost shrill-like on the highs (and you know how Jim liked to shout sometimes!). The lows also had no definition.
I know The Doors is demanding music, so chalked it up to the suspension needing time to loosen up.
After breaking it in with about 20 hours of play I’m impressed! Especially for a price tag under triple digits.
Even something like Portishead which is bass-heavy has definition through all the ranges.
It’s really got a great range and good channel separation. And I’m in love with its warmth and depth.
Also, there’s no splatter in the semblance that I can detect. I listen to records every day and I can tell the sound is improving even more as time goes on.
Overall I’m loving the OM 5 E at the moment. It’s kind to my older records and my new pressings alike. Which is great since I loathe switching out carts.
I’m definitely going to go with the Ortofon OM 5 E as the best turntable cartridge under 100.
Sure, it’s not top of the range. But I think it’s value for money at the mid point of a budget. And offers damn good performance.
Ortofon 2M Red
The Dane’s are die-hard vinyl enthusiasts and Ortofon never gave up on vinyl! They still offer some of the best carts and styli out there!
The 2M Red is a budget cart by Ortofon. But don’t let this fool you.
It’s not entry-level by any stretch of the imagination.
Like the AT 100 E stylus is bonded to the shank so it’s slightly heavier. But overall most folks do just fine with a tracking force of 1.8 grams.
The 2M Red works well with a variety of turntables. But if you have a low mass tonearm, this baby will play very nice. So it’s worth considering for those graphite arms.
One great benefit of the 2M Red is you have room to upgrade the stylus to the 2M Blue at a later stage. Without having to shell out for a new cart.
From my research, the 2M Red offers a great deal more sound from the grooves. Re-discover new sound is a phrase that pops up over and over.
But some listeners have reported that the 2M Red tends to highlight imperfections. While other folks report almost perfect tracking and no inner groove distortion.
There’s definitely more rhythm from the Red. And the sound comes across as warmer and clear.
If you’ve ever installed a new cartridge, you know how damn frustrating it can be.
One extra feature of the 2M Red I like is how easy it is to set up. Ortofon designed the 2M Red with threaded screw holes on top.
So you’re not fiddling to screw tiny nuts to the bottom of the headshell.
There was one complaint about a broken stylus within one week. But I’ll bet that was due to poor handling.
Some folks have commented that the sound is muddy and dull. This could be due to poor alignment or just a personal preference.
Although, a stylus only really reveals it’s true sound after 20 hours or so of play. So keep that in mind before making a call on the sound.
Ortofon 2M Blue
The 2M Blue is the big bro of the 2M Red. And another home run by Ortofon.
This one has a nude stylus, which is shaped from a whole diamond. This really opens up the sound spectrum. So you’ll hear hefty bass without sacrificing on the crisp highs or mids.
The Blue performs really well on older vinyls and there’s a marked reduction in hissing from surface noise.
To fully enjoy the quality of sound, the cart does need at least 40 hours of break-in time according to Ortofon.
The Blue is a high compliance cart and does a superb job on a low mass tonearm. And the 2M Blue is a great upgrade from the 2M Red.
A bunch of folks I know on forums are running the Ortofon 2M Blue stylus on their 2M Red carts.
It’s worth noting here that proper alignment is essential to get the most out of the Blue.
So I recommend hooking yourself up with a protractor from vinylengine.com. They are super accurate.
Or pick up a stylus protractor off Amazon, which are dirt cheap.
It’s tough to find anything bad to say about this big boy. But if I had to find a downside, it might be the price.
The Blue doesn’t come cheap. But it’s a fantastic piece of tech. And can definitely be considered the best turntable cartridge for the money.
Ortofon 2M Bronze
The Ortofon 2M Bronze is designed with a highly polished fine-line nude stylus.
This sleek profile means the stylus sits tightly in the grooves and tracks to perfection. Or as close as perfect can get. Ortofon recommends an ideal tracking force of 1.5g.
The Bronze does a superb job of unearthing detail to the point where you can feel yourself standing inside the recording space.
It offers rich, deep bass and velvety midranges. And the highs are detailed but not harsh.
As Ortofon puts it, this cartridge is perfect for “extremely demanding material”. Think along the lines of Pink Floyd here.
And if you’ve got vinyl that’s seen better days, you’ll be happy to know that the Bronze is merciful on older vinyl. So there’s less of that annoying hiss, even during silent periods.
If I had to pick a downside to this cart it would be the 100 hours of break-in time it needs before it really ‘sings’.
Yup, 100 hours! But I think it’s worth the wait. Besides, time is one of the beauties of vinyl.
Also, I’d say it’s essential to get this cart set up correctly.
So the 2M Bronze is not Ortofon’s flagship cartridge. But some folks would argue that it outperforms Ortofon’s Black.
The Bronze is exceptionally pricey. But that also depends on what you’re willing to spend. Although, in my opinion, it’s one of the best for the money if you’re ready to make the leap into a different class.
The Omega is a low budget cartridge from Ortofon. But don’t let its low budget rep fool you.
It sounds more than decent and performs well. And tracks like a bloodhound. Which is great if you have old records.
Ortofon is known for its low wear carts and the Omega is no different. So you can be sure that it’ll treat your new pressings with care.
Overall the sound is nicely balanced. Although the bass is not overwhelming if you enjoy more bass in your music you’ll love what the Omega has to offer.
You might be a little disappointed with the mid ranges though – they won’t stun you. But they are still clear.
Like with any cartridge, I do recommend a period of ‘breaking in’. With a minimum of 20 hours play to give the suspension time to loosen up.
It’s at this point you’ll start enjoying the sound from the Omega.
Some folks on audio forums are calling the Omega the deal of the century considering its performance and price.
And I don’t think they are far off. It’s a good choice if you’re ready to dip your toes into the higher quality cart but still want to stick to your budget.
It’s worth mentioning that Ortofon doesn’t offer a replacement stylus for the Omega. But you can pop just about any other Ortofon stylus on the Omega body.
Although, if you like the Omega and budget is important, you can pick up a new one for next to nothing.
I like the Omega as a cart that performs well in the sound and budget category.
The only downside is some folks have complained about their cartridge arriving in poor packaging. But luckily Amazon has a great return policy and you can have a new one sent out in no time.
The Omega by Ortofon is a more than decent cartridge and its price point is rather sweet. It’ll even leave you with enough greenbacks to buy a few records too.
The Rega Carbon is the cartridge that comes standard with Rega’s RP 1 turntable.
Considering that, you might think this cart is somehow special. But in fact, it’s a hybrid Audio Technica AT 91.
Basically it’s an entry-level Audio Technica cart with a carbon fiber cantilever. Where the stock standard AT 91 has an aluminum tube cantilever.
The carbon cantilever performs well to offer up a velvety sound. And it tracks pretty well too. This makes it’s kind to older records with scratches.
The recommended tracking force is 2 g. But I’ve seen folks say 1.5 g to 1.6 g provides better sound.
It’s got good bass too. Although it’s got a sharpness to the treble you might not like.
The Rega Carbon has a conical stylus which I’m not fond of. But some folks love the highs it gives.
From my own experience, I’ve found that the suspension on the AT 91 is weak and tends to fail quickly.
So for me, I don’t think the Rega Carbon is worth the money, even if it has a carbon fiber cantilever.
It’s not the worst cartridge out there. But I think for the price there are better options out there.
Shure M 44 – 7
Like I mentioned before the Shure name ain’t what it used to be. But that doesn’t mean their carts are crap.
The one main thread with Shure carts is they’re merciful towards older vinyl with more surface noise. And the M 44 – 7 is no different.
In fact, a lot of record stores use this cart on their TTs for customers to test LPs before they shell out.
Essentially it’s designed for DJ’s but it works a treat for the home Hifi setup too. And it can handle some pretty demanding conditions.
It’s high in bass and treble which makes sense since it’s a DJ cart. So if you’re not into a deeper bass sound, this cart might not be for you.
It’s a great cartridge though, but again, you might be missing out on the finer sound detail with the heavier focus on bass and treble.
From my research, I’ve found it tracks like a dream – between 1 and 3 grams – with little to no skipping. And folks have reported low wear on their vinyls.
One drawback is the price of the replacement needle is steep considering the price of the cart and stylus combo.
Also there have been some complaints about the diamond tip giving up the ghost way too soon. This is rather annoying and speaks to the poor QC complaints about Shure.
But this can also be chalked up to poor user handling.
The M 44 – 7 isn’t a bad cart by any means. If you’re spinning old wax or deep bass gets your feet tapping, this cart is up your alley.
In my opinion, the Sumiko Pearl doesn’t get the credit it is due.
Sumiko spends most of its R & D budget on their Moving Coil range. And that’s what they are best known for.
So, the Pearl is the flagship Moving Magnet cart by Sumiko.
Although, if you consider the mixed reviews on the performance you’d think it’s a hit-and-miss cart.
Generally, I’ve found that listeners rate the Pearl warm and capable compared to other carts in its price range.
It also offers low surface noise. Which makes it a great choice for older and weathered LPs.
Although, some listeners find Pearl’s soundstage flat and lacking in depth. And there’s a loss of sound on the highs which can disappoint and performance is not great on the low end.
You should keep in mind that any cartridge needs a minimum of 20 to 30 hours of break-in play. So it’s tough to make a call from the mixed bag of opinions.
But if you’re after an understated cartridge in a price class that suits your pocket, you might be pleasantly surprised by the Sumiko Pearl.
My Favorite Pick
My first choice for the best turntable cartridge for the money is hands down the Audio Technica AT 530 EN. It’s a pretty high end cart, that performs exceptionally well. And it’s great value for money.
The next choice is the Ortofon 2M Blue. It’s a little pricier than the 2M Red. But it has a nude stylus so it really opens up the spectrum of sound. And it plays nice with older vinyls.
Audio Technica AT 95 E and the Ortofon Omega fall into the same class in my opinion. The AT 95 E is only slightly more expensive but it has a conical stylus.
The Omega has an elliptical stylus. But Ortofon doesn’t offer replacement styli for it. So you’ll need to buy a whole cart and stylus when it’s time for a new one.
Rega Carbon is my least favorite of the bunch. The cart itself is an AT 91, I think you can do a lot better for the price.
Personally, I would steer clear of the Shure carts. Only because of the poor QC complaints. Although if you get one that’s working perfectly and you like more bass to your sound, you’ll like either of them.
Okay, so you know what to look for in a cartridge. And I’m guessing you have a clear idea of how to find value for your money.
Now you can shop with confidence and pick the best turntable cartridge for your money and your taste.
Keep spinning that wax!
Frequently Asked Questions
How important is the cartridge
It is probably one of the most important parts of your turntable. If the cartridge/stylus doesn’t get a good read from the grooves and doesn’t send a good signal to the amp then you don’t have a good, clean signal.
Without good music what is the point of being an audiophile, right?!
How do I know if my turntable cartridge is bad?
Records sounding raspy? Like a sound, you may notice when the stylus is dirty. But if you keep cleaning the stylus and the raspy sound doesn’t go away you probably have a bad cartridge and will want to look at replacing it.
How long does an MC cartridge last?
This can obviously depend on the maker of the cartridge and you can check the manufacturer’s recommendation. According to Ortofon, world-leading cartridge manufacture, they have found the MC can last up to 1000 hours of playing time without sound quality issues. To get the best sound and longest life out of your cartridge be sure to keep it well maintained!
Are turntable cartridges universal?
No. Cartridges are not universal because there are two main types of mounts P-Mount and Half-Inch. Each will fit the turntable differently so it is important to have the correct type for your setup.