Best Phono Cartridge Under $200
As an audiophile, you know that in order to have great sound quality you must have great components. Only when those components work together and do the job they are meant to do properly will you have an unparalleled sound experience. At times, though, it seems that turntable and sound system creators will sacrifice components in order to include other components and keep the price low. More often than not, it is the cartridge that will be of lower quality, forcing you to replace if to get the sound quality you want.
Really, though, this is not all that surprising. Cartridges are ubiquitous and are the most customizable piece on the turntable, with numerous choices depending on the type of turntable you have and the sound quality you want. Indeed, this is both a blessing and a curse: while many audiophiles want to replace their phono cartridge, there are so many possibilities that it can be hard to choose. The key is to find the right cartridge for your turntable at a good price. Since you are an audiophile and are in it in order to get great sound quality, you may be willing to spend upwards of $200 to get the best cartridge out there. For this price, you have a wide array of choices.
What Is A Phono Cartridge?
Before we get into the best phono cartridges for under $200, it is best that we describe what a phono cartridge is and what it does in case you are looking to replace the cartridge, don’t know a lot about it, and are willing to pay a little bit more. A phono cartridge, in as jargon-y a definition as possible, is an electromechanical transducer that aids in translating vibrations into sound waves. It sits on the end of the tonearm and has the stylus attached to it, so that when the stylus creates and picks up vibrations from running across the record, the phono sends it across the tone arm to the internal components of the turntable unit.
Top-quality sound starts with a cartridge that ensures that the vibrations from the album are picked up and properly pushed to the unit’s amplifier. A good cartridge does two things: it picks up the vibrations from the stylus and record and sends it to the internal components and makes sure that other vibrations are not being included in the sound being sent to the internal components. Generally the cartridge does not do this alone: rather, the other components help dampen outside vibrations but a cartridge that does that as well will help make the sound clearer.
One last thing to note before getting into the best cartridges for less than $200: there are two broad categories that you should look out for when considering what type of phono cartridge to get. The first category allows the user to scratch records, like a DJ; this will not do for individuals who are just looking to listen to records. The other type, which covers the vast majority of phono cartridges, are for individuals looking to just listen to vinyl records. Both types will be featured on this list.
Ortofon’s 2M Red Cartridge Mounted on a SH-4 Headshell takes the components that make Ortofon’s cartridges great in general (see other Ortofon products below) and places them on a headshell the allows it to work beautifully with a wide variety of turntables while also cutting down on outside vibrations that could be picked up from the outside. Essentially, this is Ortofon’s 2M Red Cartridge added to a metal mount that help it perform that job of keeping excess vibrations out of the sound.
The ability of the metal headshell that the Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge is mounted to does such a beautiful job of keeping outside vibrations outside makes this one a winner, yet there are other components that really make this cartridge worth the money ($129 on Amazon). On top of this plus is Ortofon’s trademarked split pole design stylus, which produces a really beautiful and great sound quality. With the SH-4 Headshell, this piece is really easy to install and can be in place and running within minutes, even if you have never installed a cartridge. The cartridge itself is a moving magnetic design that can produce really good sound.
While the headshell does help cut down on vibration and makes the cartridge easier to install, it is a bit light, causing reports that it can skip (the more proper the weight on the cartridge, the less it will skip and the truer the sound). However, reports of skipping are rare and in any case you can remove it and still use the cartridge. One other thing to note is that with Ortofon’s split pole design stylus, numerous reviewers have reported treble issues, but this can be dealt with using a sound system that can adjust levels.
We’ve said it once and we will say it again here: Audio-Technica makes really good audio equipment for a really reasonable price. The Audio-Technica AT95EX Phono Cartridge Elliptical Stylus ½” Mount is not removed from that judgment. Though it is a bit less effective than other Audio-Technica cartridges that cost more than $200, it is still a really good cartridge that you can get for less than $60 ($58.99 from Amazon, to be exact). Its design provides all of the needed components to make an exceptional sound and is a definite buy if you are looking to replace your cartridge but do not know what to get or if you don’t want to spend that much money.
The Audio-Technica AT95EX has a lot to offer for a really good price. Starting with the cartridge itself, the materials it is made out of ensures low distortion and keeps out excess vibration, which in turn helps provide great sound quality. The stylus is Audio-Technica’s unique elliptical bounded round shank, which is picks up a good deal of the vibrations coming off of the record. The weight of the piece itself is heavy enough that not a lot of tonearm adjustment is required to provide great sound quality. Finally, it is a durable dual-magnet design housed in a unit that is easily installed and can be playing music within minutes.
As noted above, if you are willing to spend more money, you can get an even better Audio-Technica cartridge that will provide an even more superior sound quality. Unfortunately, the next best Audio-Technica cartridge that costs more, the Audio-Technica AT440MLB Phonograph Cartridge will run you around $250 from a third-party seller on Amazon. You should also take note that this cartridge fits half-inch mount turntables, so you will need to make sure that your turntable has that specification or you will be ordering a mount that won’t work for you. However, if you are just getting into customizing your turntable and don’t want to spend more than $200, this piece will be perfect for you (as long as your turntable is a half-inch mount).
Nagaoka is a Japanese company, and it is little wonder that their products are often bestsellers due to the care that goes into crafting these instruments. The Nagaoka MP-100 MM Cartridge offers a great introduction to new cartridges that can really boost your turntable’s sound quality. The components of the cartridge work well together to deliver a sound quality that will absolutely leave your turntable’s default cartridge in the dust (unless, of course, your turntable already comes with a really good cartridge which, we will admit, it may).
In order to describe the pros of the Nagaoka MP-100 MM Cartridge, we are going to have to do a little differentiating. If you are in the camp that likes using your turntable to listen to rock and metal music at high levels, this cartridge is going to be perfect for you. This is because the stylus design and the components utilized to make the cartridge are particularly suited for picking up particular vibrations that are more evident in rock and metal albums, with a particular emphasis on vocals ringing through quite beautifully. For the wide audience out there that are interested in playing the vinyl records they had from their youth in the 1960s and 1970s and plan to play Kiss and Skynyrd and Sabbath, this cartridge will perform beautifully for you. Miles Davis fans? You might want to look elsewhere.
The reason for that selectivity is due to the design of the cartridge. At first glance, it may appear to be rather cheap, with a plastic housing and a stylus that doesn’t appear to be anything special. This is why many reviewers have complained about the sound quality. Yet those reviewers tend to be the audiophiles that are really interested in hearing and listening for particular instruments ringing through, which this piece doesn’t always provide. Moreover, reviewers on message boards around the internet have also reported that the product takes some breaking in, meaning that it will not be providing the best sound quality immediately as some of the other products on this list do.
On audiophile websites, the Rega Carbon MM Phono Cartridge has been called a great introductory cartridge, but the quality of the components in it make it a great cartridge for a wider audience than just beginners. It is a moving magnet phono cartridge that is really quite easy to set up and install and can provide great sound quality for a wide array of turntables. In fact, its overall design is meant to allow the turntable user to set up on their own rather than having to take it to a professional to get it installed (which is quite common on more expensive, more complex cartridges).
As detailed above, the design of the product makes this one an option that you have to consider. It cuts down on excess vibrations, has a needle that works well with a variety of genres, and is easy to install on your own. Of particularly good quality is this cartridge and stylus’ ability to pick up and relay bass, providing a really rich sound to the overall sound quality. Overall, the cartridge provide great sound quality for a pretty affordable price, but if you want as near to perfect sound as possible, check out some of Rega’s higher priced cartridges as well.
Just like the Nagaoka MP-100 MM Cartridge, this cartridge is really good for certain categories of music while being sort of subpar for other genres. In particular, those who like rock, metal, electronic, or hip-hop records will find that they like this cartridge as it tends to pick up bass more than other sound components. Moreover, the stylus isn’t anything to write home about, but will provide pretty good sound quality for the price. Other reviewers also note a rather large emphasis on the high end of music, with the bass in particular having extensive focus.
As you can see, there are many cartridges that you can buy that are less than $200. Indeed, many of these are priced below $100 as well, but in terms of quality between $0 and $200, there isn’t much of a difference between the products. Going north of that $200 mark will land you in a much higher quality sound experience, with makers like Audio-Technica, Clearaudio, and Ortofon offering professional-level equipment at just north of $200. However, if you are just looking to replace the cartridge that came with your turntable, and are worried a bit more about price, than these will provide you great sound quality for that price. It must be noted as well that these are just great all-around cartridges, but if you are looking for something specific, check out other cartridges from these manufacturers and others like it: they are more than likely going to have a cartridge that will work really well for you and your turntable.