If you love vinyl records, then there’s a great chance that you know the importance of a good, quality phono cartridge.  But finding one that meets all your needs, and one that’s priced well, is no easy task.

That’s why, in today’s article, I’m going to provide you with five of the best phono cartridges under $200 that I feel are on the market today.  And, to better help you, please take a moment to compare and contrast several budget phono cartridges by using our interactive table below.

PhotoModelPriceKey Feature
Ortofon 2M Red$MM Phono Cartridge
Ortofon 2M Blue$$MM Phono Cartridge
Ortofon 2M Bronze$$MM Phono Cartridge
Ortofon 2M Black$$$MM Phono Cartridge
Grado Prestige Black2$Cartridge w/Reconfigured Coil Design
Grado Prestige Blue2$Cartridge w/47K Input Load
Grado Prestige Gold2$$Cartridge is 5.5 ounces
Nagaoka MP-100$Load resistance: 47KΩ
Audio-Technica VM540ML$$Tracking Force: 1.8 to 2.2g
Denon DL-103R$$Improved sound over DL-103
Denon DL-110$$MC Cartridge
Shure M447$Cartridge for scratch DJ’s

What is a Cartridge?

A cartridge is an electromagnetic transducer that converts the vibrations from the record grooves into the amplified sound that comes out of the speakers. It is in the same electric family as microphones and guitar pickups.

You will also hear it loosely referred to as a “needle” in the record collector or DJ community.  In actuality, the needle is really what’s called the stylus.

Moving Magnet vs Moving Coil Cartridge

Much like anything else, there are a wide variety of cartridges on the market. Some are simple, some are exotic. Some are muddy and dull, while others put out floor thumping bass. Regardless of those attributes, there are 2 main types cartridges on the market: moving magnet and moving coil.

  • Moving Magnet: Moving magnet cartridges feature a stylus cantilever connected to a fixed magnet, which then moves back and forth inside a fixed coil. They tend to be warmer and “lush” sounding and offer a higher, more robust output, but they also are more prone to distortion. Moving magnet cartridges are thought to be more beginner and user friendly due to their ease of stylus replacement. Make no mistake though, some of these needles are really great. Especially the higher end ones.
  • Moving Coil: Moving coil cartridges, to the contrary, use a light coil of wire in conjunction with a relatively larger magnet in the cartridge body in order to generate an electrical signal. They tend to track better, offer a more accurate reproduction of music and distort the signal less. But, they are way less user friendly with respect to stylus replacement and are not recommended for a novice.

Understanding More About the Stylus

Here’s an easy parallel for the new vinyl enthusiast: if the whole cartridge assembly itself is a “car,” then the stylus is the “engine.”

It’s that simple.

Without the stylus, you will get nowhere! The stylus is a little plastic piece with a small metal arm attached called a cantilever. Attached to the cantilever, at the very end, is the “tip.” The tip sits in the groove of the record and is usually made of diamond or another gemstone.

There are 2 types of styli, spherical and elliptical. Here’s how they breakdown:

Spherical

  • Pros: Less expensive to make, more popular choice of needle, they have less drag and are better for scratching.
  • Cons: Higher record wear, less high frequency response.

Elliptical

  • Pros: Less record wear, higher frequency response.
  • Cons: More expensive to make, therefore it’s less popular and harder to find replacements. Not good for scratching.

The stylus itself usually suffers the most wear and tear and will probably need more frequent replacement. The stylus is also going to get dirty too, so it’s always good idea to keep a little brush handy to keep it grime free.

If you don’t want to use a small brush, you can also consider something like the Onzo Zerodust Stylus Cleaner

A lot new cartridges come with cleaning brushes inside the package, though.

Mounting Types

A turntable’s cartridge doesn’t just connect to the tonearm, it has to be mounted first. Here are the 2 types of mounting systems:

Standard Mount: Standard mount is the most common cartridge type. Usually, these cartridges need to be mounted to a headshell.

First, with two small bolts then, connected to the headshell with 4 color coded wires, and finally screwed into the tonearm. The color coding system for the cartridge wires is as follows:

  • White: Left channel cartridge positive.
  • Blue: Left channel cartridge negative.
  • Red: Right channel cartridge positive.
  • Green: Right channel cartridge negative.

*By the way, the most is common headshell style is called the H-4 Bayonet Mount. There is a good chance then when you see a headshell, it is almost always an H-4 Bayonet Mount. You can also find these modified to have a small weight screwed to the top. This helps provide traction for scratch DJing and fast-paced mixing.;

  • P-Mount: P-Mount cartridges are designed for use of ease. You basically just plug it in and start rocking.

Why You Need a Very Good Cartrigde

You are listening to records because of their warm, analog sound. In order to make sure that they sound as good as possible, you won’t want to cut corners here.

But, you also don’t have to break the bank either. So in order to determine the best cartridge/stylus combo for you, you first have to determine how you are using your turntable?

  • Is it just a record player that provides background music for you sanctuary?
  • Is it for rocking a party with smooth mixes?
  • Is it a weapon for you to prove your skills against other DJ’s?
  • Or, will it be used for a little bit of all of the above in a more well- rounded general fashion?

While only you know the answers to those questions, I can tell you that I personally prefer and suggest that a “well-rounded” cartridge is the way go.  Unless you are an audiophile with an ear for the most minute of details, you can find quite a few cartridges that sound fairly good overall, give energy to your club mixes, offer solid tracking as a battle weapon, and won’t kill your pockets.

Also, you might want to look into the price of replacements, as well. If financially feasible, I highly recommend that you buy at least 2 replacement styli at the same time. It’s even better if you can stockpile them.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry, and unfortunately things happen, but you want make sure that you’re always prepared to handle the unexpected.

The Best Cartridges Under $200

It’s important to first understand that everyone has different wants and needs when it comes to turntable;es and cartridges. Some people use turntables for sampling.  Others try beat juggling and scratching in Traktor.  Other people, however, just want to play James Brown or Queen records after a long day at work.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at my top 5 phono cartridges (in no particular order) priced under $200.

Sumiko Pearl

Pros: Exquisite tracking and output.

Cons: Best when used on a high end system.

Ortofon Q-Bert Concord

Pros: Offers heavy tracking with low record wear and loud powerful output. Great for digital DJing.

Cons: It is expensive!

Ortofon 2M Red

Pros: I think you could make an argument that this is the best cartridge on this list.  The 2M red provides warm sound that’s also engaging to listen to.  And, if you ever are interested in upgrading the the more expensive 2M Blue (over $250), a quick swap of the cartridges’ stylus.  The 2M Red came with my Pro-Ject Debut Carbon a few years ago, and I think it was an excellent way to get introduced into the world of budget cartridges that provide excellent bang for your buck.  And the great thing is if you ever want to upgrade, jumping to the Ortofon 2M Blue only costs about $100 more and its incredibly easy to install the Blue stylus.

Cons: It is heavy!

Ortofon Concorde MkII CLUB

Pros: Perfect for sampling, digital DJing and archiving.

Cons: Slight record wear.

Nagaoka Cartridge MP-110

Pros: Offers a clean, balanced, well rounded sound.

Cons: For the price, none.

Shure M97xE

Pros: High performance and impeccable music reproduction.

Cons: Not many.

Shure M44-7

Pros: Solid groove tracking and loud booming output. Perfect for scratching.

Cons: Might be a bit too bass heavy for casual listening.

Stanton 500 V3

Pros: Sound is comparable to the Shure M44-7.

Cons: It’s difficult to find the right tracking force.

Ortofon Q.Bert

Pros: It finds the groove and stays there! It also offers a high, clean output.

Cons: Some of the highs have been cut for optimized scratching output. This makes it less desirable for casual listening.

Ortofon Concorde MkII MIX

Pros: Clear sound and easy to use.

Cons: Breaks easily.

Conclusion

Now, with all of that said and done, I will tell you that I personally prefer a moving coil cartridge with a spherical stylus.  Again, I am one who uses the same needles for a multitude of applications.

Moving coil cartridges give me a less colored sound and this helps me maintain sonic consistency whether I am on stage, in the club or in the studio. The spherical styli give me a peace of mind knowing that, short of any blunt force, the needles will almost always stay locked in the groove.

Also, this combination of cartridge and stylus are economically friendly. Of some of the more popular brands and styles, you may even find 2 cartridges packaged together as a promotion with a slightly lower price point offered as opposed to buying 2 cartridges separately. I don’t know about you but, all of the above plus keeping some money in my pocket is a great way to win my business.

As we close this thing out, I hope that this article not only provides you with some good information to help you get the best possible sound from your system, but also saves you some money and wasted energy.

In an era where music is consumed primarily in little crappy earbuds and portable speakers, I sincerely appreciate the fact that you take pride in how you listen to your favorite music and want to hear as many details as possible.

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