When you’re ready to make a drastic improvement to your setup’s sound, a record player cartridge’s direct impact on sound quality, the limited lifespan of the stylus, and its effect on your record collection make it an obvious place to start.
Whether your stylus has been worn down after giving you hours of listening pleasure, or you’re just ready to make a change, there are a plethora of options.
This article will be help you better understand your buying options when it comes to finding the best phono cartridge under $300. We will discuss not only the key features of a great phono cartridge, but also how to replace your cartridge on your tonearm (if doing it yourself), and how to care for your cartridge as the months and years pass.
|Ortofon 2M Blue||$$||★★★★||MM Phono Cartridge|
|Audio Technica AT440MLB||$||★★★★||VM/MM Cartridge|
|Rega Elys Mk2||$$||★★★||Output: 6.8 - 7.2mV|
|Rega - Exact Mk2||$$$||★★★★||MM Phono Cartridge|
|Denon DL-110||$$||★★★★||MC Cartridge|
|Grado Prestige Black||$||★★★★||Cartridge w/Reconfigured Coil Design|
|Clearaudio Concept MM||$$||★★★★||Aluminum-Magnesium Alloy Body|
|Grado Prestige Gold||$$||★★★★★||Cartridge is 5.5 ounces|
|Ortofon 2M Red||$||★★★★||MM Phono Cartridge|
|Shure M447||$||★★★★||Cartridge for scratch DJ’s|
|Sumiko Pearl||$||★★★★||MM Cartridge|
Stylus vs Cartridge: What’s the Difference?
As your records spin under the direct contact of the record player stylus’ tip, it wears away little by little. The lifespan of a stylus depends on a number of factors, including the shape and material of its tip, the amount of tracking force pressing it into the grooves, how its handled and even the weight and care of your records.
In some cases, a cartridge’s stylus is not replaceable (or, at the very least, is challenging to replace), so the entire cartridge would need to be replaced.
Other times, you may simply be unhappy with the sound quality of your current cartridge, and will want to swap it out with a higher quality option.
When Should I Change My Stylus or Cartridge?
There are some obvious signs that its time to change your stylus or (simply the entire cartridge) out of necessity. Audibly, if you are noticing a difference in sound quality, and there is not dust or debris on the record or needle, there is a good chance that it’s because the stylus tip has been degraded.
A needle that has been worn down will produce a duller, yet noisier sound and will physically skip or even bounce on the surface of a record. It will be fairly evident that the needle no longer fits properly within the grooves.
In some cases, you will be able to notice a visible bend in the stylus, or a hardened residue coating its tip. Additionally, if you’re noticing any obvious scratches from regular usage, stop using the cartridge immediately, as this will only get worse and do irreversible damage to your records.
How to prolong the life of a cartridge
In order to maximize your cartridge and stylus’ life, it is important to handle it with care, as the stylus is generally the most fragile piece of the turntable. This can be done by gently placing the needle onto the record, if your turntable is not automatic, rather than dropping it abrasively, avoiding dragging the needle across the grooves from side to side, for your stylus and records’ sake.
Keeping your records clean from dust and debris with a brush or homemade solution (and keeping the tip free from dust and debris by very gently removing any build up) will also go a long way in prolonging the life of your stylus.
How to change the cartridge
The specifics of installing a cartridge depend on the type of cartridge and mounting system used by the turntable. With a standard mount, the cartridge will typically be placed under the headshell and screwed in place using two small screws, the tonearm will typically have four wires hanging out of it that need to be connected to four pins in the back of the cartridge, these are usually color coded.
With a P-mount, the cartridge is attached directly to the tonearm using one screw and the pins in the back of the cartridge are inserted directly into corresponding ports within the tonearm. Most cartridges will come with instructions, have them available online, or there are a number of tutorials available on YouTube.
However, once the cartridge has been installed, it must be calibrated to ensure optimal functionality.
A Stevenson Protractor can be printed from the internet for free and they are generally easy to use and understand. Simply place the piece of paper over your turntables platter, pushing the center pin through the designated spot on the paper and then drop the needle in the center of one grid on the paper so that the cartridge is parallel to its lines.
If the cartridge is not parallel, loosen the screws connecting it to the headshell and rotate until it is completely even with the lines and then repeat on the farther grid. If the cartridge is parallel to both grids’ lines, you’ve successfully calibrated your cartridge. \
Last but not least, cartridges come with a recommended rate of vertical tracking force, or VTF, which is the amount of weight needed to be placed on it to produce optimal sound quality and avoid damage to your records. Most turntables’ tonearms are easily adjustable, but it can require a little bit of tinkering.
If you plan to do this yourself, and especially when investing in a higher quality cartridge, the best way to track VTF is with a stylus force gauge, a tiny machine that will tell you exactly how much weight is being put on the stylus. Stylus force gauges are widely available online and where audio equipment can be found for less than $20.
An added expense, sure, but a necessary one to make sure you’re getting the most out of your investment and protecting the ones on your shelf.
Simply drop the needle onto the gauge’s scale, check the reading and adjust the counterweight usually found at the back end of the tonearm. Once this reading matches the recommended weight of the manufacturer, you’ve successfully installed your new cartridge! It is worth noting that some cartridges have a break-in period and performance may actually improve after a few hours of play.
The Best Cartridges for $300 or Less
Let’s begin with the Ortofon 2M Blue.
The 2M line from Ortofon is one of the most popular and trusted series of cartridges on the market and their blue model is a little more than midway up the series. Developed in conjunction with Danish designer Møller Jensen, the 2M series is aesthetically pleasing and sure to stand out mounted from your tonearm.
The 2M Blue model is a moving magnet cartridge that will run you $235 and is easily installed fitting standard mounts. For the price, it offers fantastic sound quality that boasts great performance at high frequencies and deep bass that will breathe life into your older records. It also offers dynamic midrange and helps to audibly separate instruments and sounds during play in a fashion that is to be expected with higher prices and more accustomed to the more expensive moving coil cartridge.
Grado is renowned within the HiFi world for making quality products and the Gold2 cartridge is at the top of their economic Prestige line. At $260, the Gold2 is a moving magnet cartridge that fits a standard mount and features a chassis that has been optimized for low resonance and very pure copper used for the coils, all scrupulously assembled by hand and tested.
People describe a signature “Grado sound” that refers to a warm, crisp presence that is the result of exceptional tonal balance, dynamics and realism and it is definitely on display with the Gold2. This cartridge is an instant upgrade at a friendly price point that is sure to give you a whole new appreciation for your collection.
Audio Technica is one of the biggest brands in audio and deservedly so. Their VM540ML cartridge will run you $249, it is a dual moving magnet cartridge and fits with standard mounts. The ML stands for Microline, which refers to Audio Technica’s uniquely shaped stylus that is very thin. This allows the needle to trace the grooves of a record with extreme accuracy delivering a quality of sound reproduction that they claim is unmatched by elliptical and conical styluses.
The stylus also boasts a multi-level shape to reduce wear on records. These factors do make the replaceable stylus even more delicate, but the cartridge does include a plastic guard that can be lowered to protect it, so some extra attention is needed. A low-resonance polymer cartridge housing helps to minimize vibrations and distortion while a center shield plate placed between the left and right channels negates crosstalk between channels, contributing to a very clean sound. These components along with a low price make it an appealing step up from a beginner’s cartridge.
Rega is another big name HiFi brand and their ELYS line of cartridges lives up to the name. At $295, this moving magnet cartridge features a three-point mounting system that may not be compatible with many turntables that aren’t also made by Rega, so it is important to check before purchasing.
Its unique blue and silver casing is one piece made from pocan, a polymer denser than industrial aluminum is sure to grab your attention, but it is also important to note that the stylus can not be replaced. However, a one-piece cartridge means no joints, and no joints means it retains all the high frequency energy typically lost by movements in joints within the cartridge and it is hand crafted for a much smaller gap between the moving magnet and the pole pieces.
All of this equates to a unique sound that will deliver high frequencies with ease, make the bass boom and give your records some added oomph. It is also worth noting that this construction will require some extended playing to break in, but once it gets there, it is sure to impress.
The DL-110 is one of the most modestly priced moving coil cartridges on the market at a surprisingly reasonable cost of $210. While most moving coil cartridges produce a very low signal, the DL-110 delivers an output impedance of 160 ohms, making it compatible with a wider range of turntables and amplifiers, but obviously, it is important to do your due diligence and make sure it will fit your setup before purchasing.
The elliptical diamond stylus is well-crafted and durable. This cartridge is known for its exceptional balance of sound that accentuates jazz music in particular, but performs well across a wide spectrum of genres and frequencies. It is constructed well, very durable and stable during use and again, the great price is welcoming to beginners and audiophiles alike.
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