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The 7 Best Cartridge Upgrades for Turntables

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular, best sounding and most loved phono cartridges that are perfect to upgrade affordable and midrange turntables.

If you are looking to make your turntable sound better, a cartridge upgrade is a very good place to start.

The cartridge has a huge impact on the sonic performance of a turntable, and most affordable and midrange turntables come standard with cartridges that don’t extract their full sonic potential.

There is often a lot of sonic potential left on the table that can be tapped into with a higher quality cartridge.

I upgraded the cartridges on both my turntables last year and I was very pleased with how much better it made the turntables sound.

I have tried i variety of mods and upgrades on my turntables, but a cartridge upgrade is definitely the upgrade with the biggest impact on sound quality.

In the video below, turntable and tonearm designer Frank Schröder points out that a cartridge upgrade usually is the best way to make a normal turntable sound better.

In his opinion, it will only make sense to upgrade other parts (motor, drive, tonearm, etc.) before the cartridge if you have a very high-end turntable and cartridge.

I completely agree with Frank Schröder. Starting with a cartridge upgrade is the way to go for most of us.

Why is a cartridge upgrade so effective?

When I got tired of listening to digitized music and went back into the vinyl format a few years ago, I first bought an AT-LP120 turntable that set me back about $300.

It is a very popular turntable and very well built for its price, but I quickly realized that it just didn’t provide the sound quality I was looking for. It sounded a bit closed and boring in my ears.

So it didn’t take too long before I ordered another turntable. A $700 Rega Planar 2. It sounded better than the AT-LP120, but still not fantastic.

I then started to do a lot of research on cartridge upgrades.

After hours and hours of research I finally ordered Rega’s top of the line Moving Magnet cartridge, the Rega Exact, to replace the stock Rega Carbon cartridge on my Planar 2 turntable.

I fitted the new cartridge and voila!

From the first tone there was a big difference. Everything was changed. The music sounded so much more open and engaging. The dynamics were so much better. More drama. Tighter bass. The vocals sounded much more real and present.

It amazed me how much a quality cartridge improved the sound of my Rega Planar 2 turntable.

This got me thinking that it might be hope for the AT-LP120 as well. The turntable I bought first. After many more nights researching cartridges, I pulled the trigger and ordered a cartridge upgrade for my AT-LP120 too. I chose an Audio-Technica VM540ML MM cartridge.

I mounted the VM540ML cartridge to my AT-LP120 and exactly the same happened. The turntable was transformed. It opened up and sounded much more lively and engaging. It almost made me sorry for having dismissed the AT-LP120 so quickly initially. It became a much better sounding turntable with a better cartridge.

You can read my full article on finding the best cartridge for my AT-LP120 here and my full article on finding the best cartridge for my Rega Planar 2 here.

So, why does a cartridge have such a big impact on sound?

The cartridge performed a highly complex task. It transforms the tiny physical grooves in the record to a tiny electrical signal. It takes an extreme level of precision to make the electrical signal an accurate representation of the physical grooves in the record.

A high-quality cartridge will perform that task with much more precision than a budget cartridge. A high-quality cartridge will read the grooves more accurately and transform it from the physical format to the electrical format with higher precision.

The result is a more detailed, more precise, more open and more engaging sound from the turntable.

Also, since the cartridge is the very first component in the signal chain of a vinyl playing Hi-Fi, it is impossible to correct the errors made by the cartridge in later stages.

All the details, nuances and dynamics that are lost with a low-quality cartridge, are lost forever.

This is why a cartridge upgrade is a very good place to start when you are looking to improve the sound of a vinyl playing stereo setup.

What is the best turntable cartridge?

Best is subjective. It is impossible to pick a cartridge that is best for everyone. It depends on personal preference, system and budget.

But there are a handful of cartridges that I have found to be more popular, more loved and higher praised than the rest.

When I did my research on the best cartridge upgrade for my turntables, there were a handful of cartridges that showed up over and over again.

Cartridges that are loved by the vinyl community as a whole. And praised by experts.

Here they are.

THE 7 BEST CARTRIDGE UPGRADES FOR TURNTABLES
1. Ortofon 2M Red
2. Denon DL-110
3. Ortofon 2M Blue
4. Audio-Technica VM540ML
5. Ortofon 2M Bronze
6. Denon DL-103R
7. Grado Prestige Gold

Let’s take a closer look at each one.

1. Ortofon 2M Red

MM/MCMM
Output Level5.5 mV
Weight7.2 gram
Tracking Force2.0 gram
Cost$
Performance3/5

PROS

  • Affordable
  • Forgiving
  • Can be upgraded with Ortofon 2M Blue stylus

CONS

  • Less involving than its bigger 2M brothers
  • Good performance, but not high-end

VERDICT

The Ortofon 2M Red is the cheapest cartridge from the legendary Ortofon 2M series that consist of the Red, Blue, Bronze and Black. It offers improved sound over most standard cartridges that are fitted to affordable and midrange turntables. But we won’t tap fully into the sonic potential of most turntables with the Ortofon 2M Red. It is a great first cartridge upgrade if you are on a budget. But it might not be your last.

Click here to check price on Ortofon 2M Red on Amazon.

2. Denon DL-110

MM/MCMC
Output Level1.6 mV
Weight4.8 gram
Tracking Force1.8 gram
Cost$$
Performance4/5

PROS

  • High output MC cartridge
  • Works with MM phono preamps
  • Detailed sound
  • Powerful bass

CONS

  • Work best on high-mass tonearms
  • Low output level (compared to MM)
  • Might need a MC phono preamp to truly shine

VERDICT

The Denon DL-110 is a MC cartridge with a high output level. So it can be used with regular MM phono preamps. It is a very popular cartridge, especially among those that like to listen to rock type music. It has good details, but also lots of groove.

Click here to check price on Denon DL-110 on Amazon.

3. Ortofon 2M Blue

MM/MCMM
Output Level5.5 mV
Weight7.2 gram
Tracking Force1.8 gram
Cost$$
Performance4/5

PROS

  • Detailed
  • Precise
  • Good tracker

CONS

  • Nothing at this price point

VERDICT

The Ortofon 2M Blue might be one of the absolute best picks if you looking for a cartridge upgrade for an affordable or midrange turntable. It will outperform the stock cartridges on most turntables by quite some margin, without costing crazy money. A very good and popular option.

Click here to check price on Ortofon 2M Blue on Amazon.

4. Audio-Technica VM540ML

MM/MCMM
Output Level4.0 mV
Weight6.4 gram
Tracking Force2.0 gram
Cost$$
Performance4/5

PROS

  • Good tracker
  • Balanced sound
  • One of the most popular quality MM cartridges of all times

CONS

  • Nothing at this price point

VERDICT

The VM540ML replaces the discontinued and very popular AT440MLa/b, which has been the go-to cartridge upgrade for many vinyl enthusiasts for decades. The VM540ML is a balanced and very good sounding cartridge that can transform the sound of your turntable.

I chose the VM540ML when I upgraded my Audio-Technica AT-LP120. And I have never looked back, the VM540ML is a very good cartridge for the money.

Click here to check price on Audio-Technica VM540ML on Amazon.

5. Ortofon 2M Bronze

MM/MCMM
Output Level5.0 mV
Weight7.2 gram
Tracking Force1.5 gram
Cost$$$$
Performance5/5

PROS

  • One of the best sounding MM cartridges on the market
  • Perfectly balanced
  • Highly praised by critics and the vinyl community

CONS

  • Nothing if you can afford it
  • Pricy

VERDICT

The Ortofon 2M Bronze is one of the very best sounding MM cartridges on the market. But also, the most expensive cartridge on this list. This is the cartridge for those that want the best of the best.

The Ortofon 2M Bronze was my runner-up when I chose the cartridge to upgrade my Rega Planar 2. I wanted the very best, and the 2M Bronze is an outstanding cartridge. I did, however, choose a Rega Exact in the end, because it is easier to mount on Rega tonearms.

Click here to check price on Ortofon 2M Bronze on Amazon.

6. Denon DL-103R

MM/MCMC
Output Level0.25 mV
Weight8.5 gram
Tracking Force2.5 gram
Cost$$$$
Performance5/5

PROS

  • Upgraded version of the legendary Denon DL-103
  • Known to outperform MC cartridges that cost many times more
  • Pricy, but still high value for money

CONS

VERDICT

The Denon DL-103R provides a budget option into the world of fantastic sounding high-end MC cartridges. A world were cartridges often costs thousands of dollar. The DL-103R is an upgrade of the legendary DL-103 and are considered significantly better than its predecessor. This cartridge will require a MC phono preamp, and will not work with a regular MM phono cartridge. It is often reported to sound as good (or better) than high-end MC cartridges that cost many times more.

The DL-103R is probably the next cartridge I will buy. For some reason, I overlooked this cartridge when I upgraded my turntables. But it is now on my Amazon wish list. Just need to save up.

Click here to check price on Denon DL-103R on Amazon.

7. Grado Prestige Gold

MM/MCMM
Output Level5.0 mV
Weight5.5 gram
Tracking Force1.5 gram
Cost$$$
Performance4/5

PROS

  • One of the warmest and sweetest sounding cartridges on the market
  • Smooth sound
  • Lots of charm and soul

CONS

  • Can sound dull and boring for those that fancy details
  • Sensitive to tonearms

VERDICT

This is the cartridge for those that want something a bit different. The Grado Prestige offers a silky, smooth and warm sound that sets it apart from almost every other cartridge in its class. It can, however, be a bit tricky to make it perform at its best because it can be sensitive to tonearms. It is reported to be great on some turntables, but not on others.

The Rega Prestige Gold is a cartridge that has always intrigued me. I have almost ordered it many times. I haven’t pulled the trigger yet. But one day I will.

Click here to check price on Grado Prestige Gold on Amazon.

Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil

Let me briefly explain the difference between MM and MC cartridges.

On a MM cartridge, there is mounted a permanent magnet on the stylus cantilever. As the stylus tracks the grooves, the magnet that is mounted on the stylus cantilever vibrates between two sets of fixed coils inside the cartridge. The moving (vibrating) magnet inside the fixed coils form a tiny electromagnetic generator that produces the electrical music signal.

On a MC cartridge, the coils are mounted on the stylus cantilever while the magnet is fixed. Here, the moving (vibrating) coils inside the fixed magnet form a tiny electromagnetic generator that produces the electrical music signal.

So one a MM cartridge, the magnet moves with the stylus. While the coils move with the stylus on an MC cartridge.

The coils that are mounted to the stylus cantilever on a MC cartridge will have lower mass (weight) than the magnet that is mounted to the stylus cantilever on a MM cartridge.

The lower mass of MC cartridges enables the stylus to move more freely and extract more details from the record grooves.

Because MC cartridges can be more accurate and pick up more details, they are generally considered better sounding than MM cartridges by hardcore audiophiles.

The downside with MC cartridges are that they are much more expensive than MM cartridges and outputs a much lower voltage signal that requires a more sophisticated (and more expensive) phono preamp to function properly.

MM cartridges, on the other hand, doesn’t pick up as much details as MC cartridges and are sometimes considered more pleasant to listen to and more forgiving for that reason. Also, MM cartridges are usually much cheaper than MC cartridges and can be used with a standard MM phono preamp.

You can read more about the difference between MM and MC phono preamps in this article.

MM cartridges are found on most affordable and midrange turntables. While MC cartridges are more popular on very high-end and very expensive turntables.

How to change a turntable cartridge?

Replacing the cartridge is something most vinyl spinners will be able to do themselves. With the right tools and a bit of patience, it is not too difficult.

I recommend that you take a few close-up pictures of the current cartridge to be able to look back on how it was fitted and how the four color coded wires were connected.

The basic tools you will need are a long nose plier, a small Allen key or a small flat-bladed screwdriver (depending on the type of screw used), a Stylus tracking Force Gauge and a cartridge alignment protractor tool.

None of these tools are very expensive and you probably have some of them at home already. Or a friend that can loan them to you.

I have included a video that shows the cartridge replacement process below. I recommend watching a few different videos before you start on the job. Just search “replace turntable cartridge” on YouTube and you will be given a list of good videos to choose from.

Cartridge break-in time

When a new cartridge is fitted, it will need time to break-in. So, for the first 30 hours of use, the cartridge will gradually sound better until it is completely broken in and sound its best.

How often should I upgrade my cartridge?

The needle/stylus last about 1000 hours before it should be replaced. It can vary a bit from cartridge to cartridge.

For most MM cartridges, it is possible to buy a replacement stylus. Which means that you don’t have to replace the whole cartridge.

MC cartridges, on the other hand, don’t come with the option to easily replace the stylus. The reason is that the wires are connected to the stylus cantilever. So with MC cartridges, you will either need to replace the whole cartridge, or take the cartridge to a workshop where a specialist replaces the stylus. Which usually cost a few hundred dollars.

Why upgrade turntable cartridge?

The main reason to upgrade a turntable cartridge is to make the turntable sound better overall.

Other reasons to upgrade the cartridge might be to change the characteristics of the sound, improve tracking, or increase signal levels.

You can read more about the four main reasons to upgrade your turntable cartridge in this article.

Where to buy turntable cartridges?

A great place to buy cartridges is Amazon. They stock all the popular cartridges and their pricing is usually very good.

Another option is to visit your local Hi-Fi dealer. They can probably order the cartridge you want if it is not in stock. And they will usually replace the cartridge for free. And it is always good to support our local shops, right.

Recourses

Ortofon 2M cartridges (Ortofon home)

Audio-Technica cartridges (Audio-Technica home)

Denon cartridges (Denon home)

Grado Cartridges (Grado Labs home)