Comparison Review: The Best Budget Cartridges 2020

The most important part

A new and better cartridge is the simplest and best solution for better sound. Comparison review of the Best Budget Cartridges 2020.

Best Budget Cartridges

The music flows out of the speakers and the warm, pleasant sound spreads like a dawning summer day around the body. At the same time, a small stone, smaller than a pinhead, is dragged along deep grooves in a rotating vinyl record.

The contact surface is so marginal that a small vibration can endanger the entire operation and stop the music. The mechanical connection is quite delicate.

It does not matter what kind of cartridge the turntable has. It should not only keep track all the time, it should preferably make it as undisturbed and accurate as possible. If it fails, it goes beyond the sound quality, playback and in the worst case creates wear on discs – and pins.

To get all the music out of the grooves, there are a long list of things with turntables that need to clap. If we assume that the turntable is good, and in good condition, the most important single part of the player is precisely the cartridge.

This is also where it is easiest to upgrade to better sound, something you should definitely consider. Instead of replacing the pin, a newer and better cartridge can give an audible boost in sound quality.

More marked bass dynamics, clearer midrange, improved stereo perspective and clearer treble are just some of the things that can provide audible improvements with a better cartridge. In short, there will be more partying and fun with better cartridges.

In this test, we have collected five different cartridges in the same price range. Here, the quality is several notches up from the usual unmarked cartridges which unfortunately come with many turntables.

Our recommendations in the budget class

We usually recommend replacing the old pin with a brand new cartridge. For turntables at the lower end of the price range, this usually means Ortofon 2M Red – or 2M Blue – Sumiko Pearl or Rega Elys2.

But here we have taken the step up a class, and compare cartridges that are suitable for most players between 2,000 and 10,000 kroner.

As you can read here, they also have different properties, and here it is important to find out which one is best. Some are better at classical than rock, and vice versa, and others have qualities that some value more than others.

So read the tests before you decide.

Important about RIAA

All cartridges need a custom entrance. For turntables or amplifiers that do not have it built-in, you need a separate box called turntable amplifier, phono amplifier or RIAA stage. These cost from a few hundred bucks, and are often adapted to either Moving Coil or Moving Magnet cartridges. Check which one you have before you buy.

To set up the turntable on 1, 2, 3

The best advice to get good sound from the plates is to read the installation instructions.

When unpacking a turntable, you need to find all the parts. Lay them on a table so you have an overview. In addition to the player and a transparent dust cover, you must have a power supply, audio cables, turntable, felt or rubber turntable, drive belt and a counterweight to the arm.

It must also be accompanied by assembly instructions. It’s smart to follow.

Most turntables have belt drive. The rubber strap is tightened as shown in the installation instructions, the plate and the mat are put on and the counterweight is mounted as described. The scale has a scale that rotates to zero when the arm is in balance. Then it ‘floats’ level – in line with the plate. Remember to carefully remove the plastic cover on the cartridge before adjusting the weight.
You do this by turning the scale and the weight at the same time, usually to 2 grams of pin pressure – still without the plastic protection on.
Next to the axis of the arm, there is usually an anti-skating scale. Unless otherwise indicated, turn it to half the pin pressure, or one and a half value (1.5) if the arm is still forced outward when lowering the pin into the plate grooves.

If you do not get any bass, or the pin jumps all the time, increase the weight by 0.1 gram until it fits snugly in the grooves. Otherwise, with too high pin pressure, the sound is distorted and the wear on pins and plates increases.

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2.5 / 5. 2

Audio-Technica AT-F7

Refined sound master

This cartridge will sweep into the record collection like a breath of fresh air, opening up for sounds you have not heard before.

Our verdict

Superb richness of detail, beautifully focused midrange and good dynamic contrast.
Slimmer bass than the competition.
  • Weight: 5 g
  • Recommended pin pressure: 2 g
  • Output voltage: 0.35 mV
  • Recommended resistance: 100 ohms
  • Elasticity: 35×10-6 / duvet
  • Channel balance: 1.5 dB
  • Channel separation: 27 dB
  • Frequency response: 15 – 50,000 Hz
  • Grinding: Elliptical
  • Needle arm: Aluminum
  • Vertical tracking angle: 23 degrees
  • Pickup housing: Light metal / plastic
  • Coil material: Copper
  • Magnetic material: Neodymium
  • Replaceable pin: No.
  • Web: bergsala.com
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Price 289 £

The silver-gray cartridge from Audio-Technica is in a price range where Moving Magnet cartridges are more common. Since this is a Moving Coil cartridge, it has two disadvantages compared to an MM cartridge. The entire cartridge must be replaced when the pin is worn out. The pin cannot be replaced. And it delivers low 0.35 mV, which means you need a phono input for MC.

It is also not among the easiest to assemble. It is not difficult, but requires extreme caution. The supplied screws can not be screwed into threads in the cartridge, but must be threaded through and fastened with round nuts. Then the pin protection must be removed, so care is a virtue here. The cartridge belongs to Audio-Technica’s affordable motorcycle series, which we have good experience with, and is much better built than usual in this price range.

The weight is moderate 5 grams and it fits well with a wide range of turntables. The pin pressure should be 2 grams. The coils are wound in high quality oxygen-free copper, and that leads us to the sound quality.

Focused and open

Tight, defined, open and detailed. Briefly described. This cartridge will definitely give new life to the record collection, and delight especially those who love the small nuances of the music. For example. in classical, opera and jazz.

It brings more details out of the vinyl, with a clearer focus than any of the other four in this test, but the bass is slimmer and not as full-bodied here. It is noticeable on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy where the rhythm in The Man in The Long Black Coat, does not get the same drive here. The bass is deep enough, and well defined, it just lacks a little fullness.

It is also noticeable on the piano sound at Radka Toneff’s Fairytales, where the felt hammers’ touches of the strings are clearly defined, but where the lowest octave sounds a little more withdrawn. Vocals, acoustic instruments and strings, sound phenomenally well focused.

This is a cartridge with sparkling dynamics, sharp focus and beautiful midrange sound. But before you think that it is perfect for death metal, you should rather choose this for music that thrives to a greater extent with a clear focus on details, nuances and microdynamics.

Conclusion

Audio-Technica AT-F7 is a good choice for those who want to get more nuances out of the discs. It tracks excellently, is quiet and dynamic, and a good choice in the price range. At least for those who are not interested in forward-leaning bass and shy away from a sharp focus on details. Perhaps the best in class on vocals in particular, and acoustic in general.

Ortofon MC Quintet Red

The balance artist

Ortofon MC Quintet Red is the obvious choice for those who want a neutral sound image.

Our verdict

Balanced sound image with almost completely neutral sound. Easy to assemble.
The dynamics do not sparkle, and the sounds lack a little depth.
  • Type: Moving Coil
  • Weight: 9 g
  • Recommended pin pressure: 2.3 g
  • Output voltage: 0.5 mV
  • Recommended resistance:> 20 Ohm
  • Elasticity: 15 “m / Mn lateral
  • Channel balance: <1.5 dB
  • Channel separation: 21 dB / 1 kHz
  • Frequency response: 20 – 25,000 Hz
  • Grinding: Elliptical
  • Needle arm: Aluminum
  • Vertical tracking angle: 20 degrees
  • Pickup: ABS
  • Coil material: Copper
  • Magnetic material: Neodymium
  • Replaceable pin: No.
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Price 299 £

Most people who have one, or have owned a turntable, have heard of Ortofon. The 100-year-old company has been making cartridges longer than most. The angled Concorde cartridge, which has stood on thousands of DJ players, is among the best known.

This one, The Ortofon MC Quintet Red, is made for discerning ears, and is a pure Moving Coil cartridge.

However, the MC Quintet Red is one of the more affordable motorcycle cartridges from Ortofon. The Quintet series consists of five models, and this is the entry-level model.

The red cartridge is relatively heavy and weighs in at nine grams, while the pin pressure should be 2.3 grams. It delivers 5 mV output and needs an MC input on the amplifier, or an MC phono stage.

With threads on top of the red housing in ABS plastic, the cartridge is easy to mount. The pin guard can be on while turning, and the straight sides make it easy to fine-tune the cartridge.

Quintet Red fits perfectly in tone arms with medium mass. In other words, those who are on most turntables in the price range Ortofon cartridge belong.

Balanced

The red Orthophone cartridge is a successful compromise. The tuning of cartridges is an art Danish master, and here they succeed with a balanced soundscape where everything is in place. But it also does not excel in any particular area. It just does a decent job, without compromising on a sound ideal or a musical style.

It sounds nice on Radka Toneff’s Fairytales, and the piano sound comes out well in the soundscape. The vocals do the same, but there is something gray about the presentation. The focus on detail is subdued here, and there are not as clear sound nuances here as e.g. at Denon- or Audio-Technica. Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy sounds dynamic enough to give you a sense of the rhythm of Political World.

So it does not squirt the sound here, but control is a good thing. In classical and jazz, the fine balance in the sound ensures a fairly believable presentation, but it lacks a little communication ability.

The orthophone cartridge is so well balanced that it is almost a bit boring. For some it is perfect, for others not.

Conclusion

Ortofon MC Quintet Red is a good choice for those who need to lift the sound from the vinyl collection, but are not looking for special qualities. The qualities of the orthophone cartridge lie in an outstanding balance, almost completely neutral sound and a rock-solid presentation of all music, even of complex music as well as classical. An acoustic boost for most turntables.

Sumiko Olympia

Affordable multi-artist

Sumiko Olympia is an affordable all-rounder that will clearly be experienced as an upgrade for many.

Our verdict

Rhythmic and dynamic sound with rich sound.
Slightly muted detail and relaxed treble.
  • Type: Moving Magnet
  • Weight: 6.5 g
  • Recommended pin pressure: 2 g
  • Output voltage: 4 mV
  • Recommended resistance: 47 kOhm
  • Elasticity: 12×10-6 cm / duvet
  • Channel balance: 1.5 dB
  • Channel separation: 30 dB / 1 kHz
  • Frequency response: 12 – 30,000 Hz
  • Grinding: Elliptical
  • Needle arm: Aluminum
  • Vertical tracking angle: 20 degrees
  • Pickup: ABS
  • Coil material: Copper
  • Magnetic material: Ferrite
  • Replaceable pin: Yes
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Price 249 £

Sumiko is not Japanese, but American and is both an American distributor and the company behind Sumiko Cartridges. Their Black Pearl and Blue Point Special are among the very best pickups in a reasonable price range.

This is also one of the nicer ends of the price scale, and the Moving Magnet cartridge Olympia is one of the slightly more expensive among Sumiko’s pickups.

Among other things, it has a replaceable pin, and you can upgrade to a better pin when the time has come to replace a worn pin.

Sumiko’s new Oyster series consists of four models. Rainer is the most affordable, Sumiko Olympia is next, while Moonstone and Amethyst are the two more expensive models. Technically they are the same, but the pins and suspension are better on the more expensive versions.

Olympia has a medium mass of 6.5 grams, and needs a pin pressure of 2 grams. It delivers 4 mV out, and fits in all MM inputs. Like most cartridges in this class, it is adapted to medium-mass tonearms, and most turntables.

The threads at the top make it easy to mount the cartridge, and just like with the Ortofon MC Quintet Red, it is easy to adjust exactly.

Precision instrument

The Sumiko cartridge will be a clear upgrade, from the generic cartridges that come pre-assembled on most players.

The sound from the pin on the green Olympia cartridge, fits perfectly with pop, rock and rhythmic music. It may be reminiscent of the sound from Grado Gold 1, but here there is more dynamics, and tighter and control over the bass. Which is almost as full-bodied. The strength lies in the rich sound that gives bass, guitars and drums on Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, depth and commitment.

The sound is more subdued on Radka Toneff’s Fairytales, where the piano is not allowed to sound as freely as from the Denon or Audio-Technica cartridge. The vocals are also a bit more withdrawn in the soundscape, which is otherwise well balanced.

The focus on details is more subdued at Olympia, which rather has its qualities in rhythm, dynamics and timbre.

Conclusion

With an upgradeable pin, Sumiko Olympia is an exciting alternative in the price range. You can start on a fuel burner, and upgrade to better sound with a better pin. Then Olympia is a good starting point. A skilled all-rounder that is easy to set up and easy to live with. It also has a favorable price, and therefore receives our clear recommendation.

Denon DL-103

Classic sound from Denon

The Denon DL-103 is worth every penny and almost perfect as an all-round cartridge.

Our verdict

Open sound image with sparkling dynamics and sharp focus.
Loses some of the definition in the treble.
  • Type: Moving Coil
  • Weight: 8.5 g
  • Recommended pin pressure: 2.5 g
  • Output voltage: 0.3 mV
  • Recommended resistance: 100 ohms
  • Elasticity: 5×10-6 cm / duvet
  • Channel balance: 1 dB
  • Channel separation: 24 dB 1 kHz
  • Frequency response: 20- 45,000 Hz
  • Grinding: Spherical
  • Needle arm: Aluminum
  • Vertical tracking angle: Not specified
  • Pickup: Plastic
  • Coil material: Copper
  • Magnetic material: Ferrite
  • Replaceable pin: No.
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Price 249 £

The Japanese construction is older than the undersigned. The Denon cartridge was launched in 1962, and has since come in a wide range of variants. The cartridge is a Moving Coil, and has gained an ever so small legend status, since it was conceived for broadcasting use over 50 years ago.

Denon DL-103 is easy to set up and fits most turntables, with the exception of some of the most exotic and nervous tone arms. It delivers a low 0.3 mV and weighs 8.5 grams, and is not an ideal partner for the lightest arms.

As you typically find on the cheapest players in the market.

The cartridge does not have threads, but the screws can be mounted without having to remove the pin protection, and since this is a motorcycle, you can not remove the pin when it is to be mounted.

The pin pressure should be 2.5 grams and the spherical pin tracks best when the pin pressure is set correctly.

It is available in a more expensive version called the DL-103R as well. Where the coils are wound with copper in a slightly higher quality. One of our favorites and the starting point for Musikraft’s modified version of the same cartridge.

Live sound image

When listening to the Denon DL-103, it is strange to think that the construction is approaching 60 years. For it plays with an exuberant vitality that many newer cartridges do not have. That does not mean it is perfect. It lacks the airiness at the top and can sound a little flat at the treble. But it delivers an open and focused soundscape, with great richness of sound.

The bass on Bob Dylan’s The Man in The Long Black Coat is well defined, and the harmonica is razor sharp. The sound image is also deep enough to create a kind of three-dimensionality, and the dynamic contrast is very good.

There is more depth in the bass on the Grado Gold 1, but the Denon cartridge is better defined. The piano sound at Radka Toneff’s Fairytales has more sound depth and the vocals are better focused here. The same applies to details, which come out better in the soundscape.

The Denon cartridge may not have the same timbre as the Audio-Technica, but it is a better all-round cartridge.

Conclusion

Denon DL-103 is one of the best buys in the price range. It plays everything, and does it excellently with a large, open, and transparent sound image. Good dynamic control and fast transient response make it a small firework on the turntable. A good choice with a varied record collection, especially if the focus is on acoustic music, and especially on jazz and classical.

Grado Gold 1

Rocks your record collection

Grado Gold 1 is an obvious choice for those who want a colorful sound image with more impact.

Our verdict

Full-bodied sound and potent bass reproduction.
Lack of resolution, dynamic contrast.
  • Type: Moving Iron
  • Weight: 5.5 g
  • Recommended pin pressure: 1.5 g
  • Output voltage: 5 mV
  • Recommended resistance: 47 kOhm
  • Elasticity: 20 ”m / Mn lateral
  • Channel balance: 1 dB
  • Channel separation: 35 dB 1 kHz
  • Frequency response: 10- 60,000 Hz
  • Grinding: Elliptical
  • Needle arm: Aluminum
  • Vertical tracking angle: Not specified
  • Pickup: ABS
  • Coil material: Copper
  • Magnetic material: Ferrite
  • Replaceable pin: Yes
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Price 275 £

Headphones, most would say if we mention Grado. But watchmaker Joseph Grado of Brooklyn, NY, actually started with handmade cartridges. Which he made at home and resold. In 1959, Grado had been making pickups for six years, when the first Moving Coil version in stereo was patented.

The rest is history as they say, and Grado Gold 1 is one in a long line of fine cartridges from the south side of Brooklyn. It is among the most affordable from Grado, and of the Moving Iron type, which, like the Moving Coil, has low moving mass, but the starting voltage of the Moving Magnet principle.

Here it means 5 mV that can be used on all MM inputs without a separate phono stage. The 5.5 gram light cartridge also has a detachable pin, which can be easily replaced when worn out.

The Grado cartridge is one of the few that can also be delivered with a P-socket, which is used on older Technics players, among other things. Then you do not have to mount, just push the pickup gently into place.

This has no threads, and the screws must be mounted with screws and nuts. This can be done without having to remove the pin guard.

The pin pressure should be 1.5 grams low and the Grado cartridge thrives well in most tone arms that do not have too high a mass. In practice, this means that everything from Rega, Thorens, Dual, Pro-Ject or Technics, will not present any problems.

Full all-rounder

What the Grado cartridge lacks in richness of detail and finesse, it makes up for in tone, warmth and fullness. For this is a cartridge that definitely does not sound either slim or shrill.

It fits perfectly with rock and jazz, for example, but can play classical if you prefer. But then you do not get the same resolution as e.g. Audio-Technica or Denon delivers, but you get a beautiful sound image with rich sound from top to bottom.

On Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, you feel the bass rhythms on your body. Especially on the opening track Political World, where the bass really takes hold. But the guitar chords sneak back a bit in the soundscape. The vocal reproduction at Radka Toneff’s Fairytales is beautiful. Warm, flattering and full of depth, but the piano does not sound quite as free and open as you might want.

The Grado cartridge is especially suitable for correcting the sound from a player who sounds shallow in the bass, and thrives like the plum in the egg on rhythmic music.

Conclusion

Grado Gold 1 does not bring out all the nuances of classical music, but it sounds very rich and sounds great on most of the music. It is not as fast to the bone and does not let through as much detail as other cartridges, but convincing bass dynamics, warm and beautiful sound, as well as a large sound image are its main strengths. A clear upgrade of the sound, especially for those with the most pop, rock and maybe a little jazz in the collection.

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