With so many ways to listen to music today, sitting down to listen to a vinyl record has made somewhat of a resurgence.
Though speakers are needed to convert the audio signal into sound waves, another transducer, the needle and cartridge, is required to read the mechanical grooves of the record and convert them into electrical audio signals for the system to amplify and reproduce.
Since phono cartridges are such an essential part of the vinyl record listening experience, it makes sense that there are plenty of options on the market. With so many options to choose from, it can be difficult to find the perfect phono cartridge. In this article, I’ll share my take on the top brands to produce phono cartridges.
Though obviously subjective and prone to biases, I’ve done my best to list out these brands based on the following metrics (in no particular order):
- Company reputation
- Performance of the phono cartridges
- Longevity of the phono cartridges
- Variety of phono cartridges (brands with moving coil and moving magnet options are prioritized)
- Accessibility of the phono cartridges (how easy they are to find/buy)
- The company must currently be in operation
With all that being said, let’s list out the brands.
The Top 11 Best Phono Cartridge Brands Are:
Let’s get into each of these brands in greater detail and explain why they belong in the top 11 best phono cartridge brands. I’ll share their country of origin, a bit of history, an example of a moving coil and moving magnet cartridge (if possible), and a link to their official website.
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Ortofon is today, after well over a century of hard work and continuous innovation, the largest producer of magnetic cartridges in the world. Indeed, the company sells around half a million cartridges every year to every location in the world you can think of.
Much of this reputation as the best in the industry comes from being the inventor of the moving coil magnetic cartridge in 1948. If you are looking for the best cartridge for your turntable, the chances of it being an Ortofon are sky-high.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Ortofon MC Anna Diamond
This moving-coil cartridge belongs to Ortofon’s highest-performing line and represents the pinnacle of their technology. The cantilever used for it is made of diamond, and together with the Ortofon Replicant 100, they offer uncanny responsiveness, extreme transparency, and high speed.
No other cartridge in the Ortofon line will give you an experience close to that of the Anna Diamond. If you’re looking for the best, this is a serious candidate.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Ortofon 2M Black LVB 250
The best just got better; this cartridge by Ortofon symbolizes the pinnacle of their MM line. Its name is an homage to the 250 years that have gone by since Ludwig Van Beethoven passed away.
Also, this is the flagship cartridge for Ortofon’s MM technology, and thus, utilizes the best materials to create crystal-clear sounds. For example, the Nude Shibata diamond sitting elegantly on a boron cantilever ensures a wider contact area, making the most out of every groove.
Finally, since its reproduction is so detailed and wide, the higher frequencies sound crisper and closer than ever before.
Audio Technica is one of the few companies in the world immersed fully in every stage of sound creation and enjoyment.
Indeed, they manufacture state-of-the-art recording equipment and also high-end headphones, turntables, and magnetic cartridges. This level of insight into the recording process allowed the company to create audio equipment that could reproduce as faithfully as possible the sounds captured by their equipment.
Audio Technica is a definitive audio brand, and its cartridges are famous for being as musical as it gets. If possible, give them a try before you buy!
Notable moving coil cartridge: Audio-Technica Consumer AT-ART9XA
This notable MC cartridge represents the highest point in Audio Technica MC Technology so far. First off, with its gold-and-black matte finish, it looks classy and smart. Also, the non-magnetic core offers the user a superior spatial representation.
Furthermore, the dual moving coils form an inverted V, which provides a wide response, translating into minimal distortion and clear sound localization.
Finally, the Shibata stylus and solid boron cantilever excel in the mid-low frequencies and are capable of crisp, defined highs.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Audio-Technica Consumer VM760SLC
The flagship MM cartridge by Audio Technica is capable of crystal-clear reproduction and uncanny durability.
To begin with, the VM dual-magnet cartridge and special-line stylus represent the pinnacle in Audio Technica’s MM technology. The stylus is attached to an aluminum tapered cantilever and features paratoroidal coils that further improve performance efficiency.
Finally, the center shield plate reduces the crosstalk between left and right channels, and the die-cast aluminum gold and black housing adds a natural electric shield while reducing vibration.
Since the early 70s, co-founders Roy and Tony set out to create Hi-Fi equipment capable of delivering the best experience to every music lover in the world. In that pursuit, what had started as a tonearm company soon expanded to complete systems. That holistic approach of building every unit and concept from scratch gave the company insight into sound few others have.
As a result, every Rega cartridge is the outcome of decades of research and development and is ready to provide the best experience to every Hi-Fi lover in the world.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Rega Aphelion 2
The Aphelion perfectly represents the kind of performance Rega is capable of. On the one hand, the boron rod cantilever and the fine line profile for the nude diamond stylus ensure clear, accurate reproduction of the sound in your favourite records’ grooves.
On the other hand, the black anodized aluminum body, iron micro cross, and coil assembly make it one of the world’s smallest MC generators. That being said, don’t be fooled by its size since it is the world’s most powerful miniaturized neodymium magnet as well.
Finally, it comes with a lifetime warranty.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Rega Exact
Proudly handmade in England, this MM coil cartridge represents the company’s top tier.
The “vital” profile coming right out of a rectangular diamond billet is the secret to its performance. With this profile, the stylus can extract more out of every groove with enhanced accuracy. As a result, your records will sound like never before in every frequency; the bass response will get fuller, mids will jump out, and high frequencies will sound crisp and clear.
This company started in Berlin, Germany, in 1906 as one of the pioneers in the gramophone industry and was a privileged insider to every major change until today’s modern turntables.
Throughout all that time, Goldring presented groundbreaking enhancements in matters of sound-applied technology and continues to revolutionize the industry to this day. They have been making state-of-the-art sound systems for well over a century, and they undoubtedly know what they're doing.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Goldring Ethos
The Ethos is a high-end MC cartridge featuring a polyhedral line-contact profile nude-diamond stylus. This stylus combines a low tip mass and a large contact area. Thus, it is capable of retrieving even ultrasonic frequencies from recordings while remaining narrow front to back.
In its heart, a hand-built Goldring GOL-1 moving-coil generator translates everything to sound.
Also, an award-winning, hand-wound soft iron armature with a low resonance aircraft aluminum chassis tuned to precision by experts creates sound like you’ve never experienced. As a result, you’ll be immersed in music like never before.
Notable moving iron cartridge: Goldring GL2500
This high-output moving-iron cartridge features a tapered cantilever with dual SD diamonds for smooth yet highly detailed sound. Also, the fine metal body provides the low end for defined, rumbling lows.
In addition to that, the gold-plated connector pins eliminate all corrosion and minimize contact resistance. Furthermore, the super permalloy pole shoes provide maximum sensitivity while the shield reduces noise pickup. Finally, the Samarium cobalt magnet ensures maximum output.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Goldring 1042
This MM cartridge represents every audiophile's dream: ultimate sonic performance with the convenience of a replaceable stylus. That being said, the included stylus is a nude, natural diamond Gyger S profile.
This revolutionary piece was designed to be closer to the record cutting head than any other design. As a result, the sound coming out of the speakers is the closest possible to the shape of the groove with none of the high-end sibilance. It doesn’t get much more detailed and accurate than this.
Yoshiaki Sugano was what people call a “Renaissance Man” because he was a passionate person who excelled in every field: as a boxer, a sword maker, an automotive executive, and a music lover. It was his love for Western classical music that made him go the extra mile to come up with some of the most revolutionary cartridge designs in the world.
Moreover, he was a pioneer in the use of high-purity materials such as 6N copper and platinum iron magnets. His legacy continues to fuel the company that manufactures in Japan with a USA-based headquarters.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Koetsu Blue Lace Onyx
Did you ever think your records would sound their best when played with a stone cartridge? Well, the pinnacle of Koetsu’s technology involves a stone body machined and polished to perfection. Besides being eye-catching on the outside, the inner parts make it soul-catching as well.
This is because the rare platinum magnets are joined by tightly matched silver-sheathed copper coils, recreating the grooves' sound as accurately as humanly possible. Furthermore, together with the uncanny stone housing, they create an ethereal sound and feel for which Koetsu is famous worldwide.
By 1959, Joseph Grado already had the patents for the first Stereo Moving-coil Cartridge design. Fast forward to the present, three generations of skilled craftsmen and talented engineers who breathed music and sound from the crib now run the company.
The entire family was in the epicentre of music’s most important achievements and capitalized on every move, making some of the best-sounding cartridges in history. If you haven’t already, give Grado a try; they will surely surprise you.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Grado Timbre Reference3
Like Koetsu utilizes groundbreaking technology to shape stone and make cartridges, Grado revolutionized the industry, making them with high-grade timbre. In this case, the company integrates Jarrah, diamonds, and a twin magnet system with their patented Flux-Bridge technology to achieve outstanding performance.
Moreover, they modified their cantilever to get an extra 5% mass reduction, increasing resonance. Also, they used ultra-high purity long crystal along with an oxygen-free copper wire for the coils to increase transparency.
Finally, the Grado-designed ellipsoid diamond rounds up one of the best-sounding MC cartridges on the list.
Notable moving iron cartridge: Grado Aeon3
What can be the outcome of sapphire, diamond, and wood? The answer to that question is nothing but the purest sound with outstanding tonal balance, dynamics, and realism. Furthermore, the exceptional level of detail, colour-correct harmonics, and low end make this a one-of-a-kind cartridge.
This unit is hand-built in Brooklyn by some of the most experienced and talented craftsmen in the industry to bring you uncanny performance every time you set it on the grooves of your favourite record.
One of the secrets to Nagaoka’s uncanny reputation as a masterpiece maker is that they take care of all the steps in the production of their cartridges in-house in their Yamagata facility in Japan.
This grants the company the capability to perform thorough quality assurance tests at each step of the path, ensuring that only the best-performing, reliable, and well-made cartridges ever leave the factory.
This one-of-a-kind approach to cartridge making has earned them a reputation for being one of Japan’s best-kept sonic secrets for many decades. It is about time you discover them.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Nagaoka MP-500
The MP in the name of this state-of-the-art cartridge comes from moving permalloy, one of the best materials for building cartridges in the world. Besides that feature, this cartridge utilizes a superfine line diamond mounted on a high-strength boron cantilever to translate vinyl grooves into the most detailed, wide-range music coming out of your speakers.
Besides the detail, and because of the samarium cobalt magnet, this little unit is also capable of some serious power, weighing only 8 grams. Finally, the anti-ferromagnetic permalloy shield casing keeps the audio as clean as possible.
Clearaudio started its life with a direct goal: to indulge every audiophile’s dream with state-of-the-art products that could solve their problems. With that objective in mind, the company moved from niche to niche, manufacturing tonearms, speakers, cartridges, and finally, complete Hi-Fi audio systems.
This leverage acquired by commercializing every piece of equipment needed for amazing audio reproduction granted them an uncanny understanding of sound.
As a result, every Clearaudio product leaves the factory ready to make audiophile history. Check their cartridges out before buying if you haven't already.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement
Speaking of audiophile dreams, the motto accompanying this product is “The Ultimate Dream”. This is because they achieved a goal they could only dream of in the past: utilizing 12 magnets perfectly matched in a symmetrical shape that can grant the user a dynamic range of 100 dB.
But it doesn’t end there; the RF shielding, 24K gold wire for the coils, and the solid 14K gold mounting for the magnet array make this a one-of-a-kind cartridge. Finally, the world-famous Micro HD diamond stylus rounds up an impressive product worthy of the best grooves in history.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Clearaudio Maestro V2 Ebony
Ebony is one of the world’s most expensive, rare, and elegant woods. Moreover, it has been chosen by music brands for ages because of its uncanny resonance and resistance. Clearaudio echoed these properties and used ebony to create some of the world's best-sounding, most organic cartridges.
Featuring a round and full bass that stays in its place and non-harsh, beautifully musical highs, this MM cartridge by Clearaudio can take any turntable to the next level.
This company was founded in an attempt to compete with Japan’s greatest audiophile brands. Although they didn’t put out their first product until ten years after it formed, the initial Talisman model caused a revolution in the industry.
Later, as time went by, the company branched out, and nowadays, its catalogue includes high-end, audiophile-grade cartridges and entry-level models. Whether you are a highly discerning music lover or just starting with this art form, Sumiko has got a model for you.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Sumiko Blue Point No.2
Handmade in Yokohama, Japan, this high-output moving coil makes your turntable believe you are playing your records with an MM. How so? Well, Sumiko’s unique approach blends the power of an MM cartridge with the refinement of an MC. The result is robust bass response, rich mids, and airy non-compressed highs.
The Sumiko Blue Point No.2 is a must-try before you buy.
Notable moving magnet cartridge: Sumiko Amethyst
The best quality the Amethyst can give your music is transparency. Indeed, the nude line-contact diamond stylus is as nimble as it can be, and the resonance-optimized housing drastically reduces any extraneous noise in the recordings.
What you can expect from this MM cartridge is effortless dynamics, impeccable realism, and a natural soundstage that will make you feel even comfier on your couch with your favourite record.
Benz Micro Switzerland
This company utilizes Swiss precision and technology to create some of the best-sounding cartridges in the world. It was founded by Ernst Benz, who made an early decision not to outsource any of the production line processes. As a result, their independence from other providers has made them grow non-stop since the early seventies to this day.
Benz Micro is known worldwide for being utterly reliable, precise, and great-sounding. If you are looking for Swiss perfection to play your favourite records, look no further.
Notable moving coil cartridge: Benz Micro Switzerland Benz LP S
The presence of ebony in Benz Micro’s flagship, most advanced, best-sounding cartridge is not at all a coincidence. Moreover, the warm tone of ebony can enhance any record in any style.
But that’s not all; the high-mass brass frame (50% more mass than any previous design) allows an enhanced vibrational and resonant result that will bring life to any recording.
Finally, the dynamics, deeper bass, and crisp lows are effortless and will make your records sound like never before.
My Sonic Lab
Although he founded his company in 2004, Mr. Yoshio Matsudaira was already a legend in the world of cartridges. Moreover, he designed models for all the great Japanese brands with outstanding results. It was only after being one of the most sought-after names in the industry that he decided to found his own venture and outdo all competition.
Although their price tag might be prohibitive for a certain audience, those in the search for “the best money can buy” will feel they’ve reached the summit of their audiophile career by playing their favourite records through one of My Sonic Lab’s outrageously great cartridges.
Notable moving coil cartridge: My Sonic Lab Signature Platinum
To say that this is the pinnacle of My Sonic Lab’s technology might very well mean it is the best cartridge in the world today. To begin with, the black ion-hardened titanium body is completely free from any audible resonance. Also, the boron cantilever is lighter, faster, and more accurate than any other in the industry.
Furthermore, the legendary design by Matsudaira involves fewer coil windings, optimizing results, and getting more output and gain without any of the noises or distortion usually associated with it.
Finally, this high-efficiency approach also enhances the dynamic range, meaning that you’ll hear all the frequencies printed in every groove without any disturbances.
For the truly discerning audiophile with a big budget, this is the best cartridge you can buy.