Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?


The 10 Best Affordable Phono Cartridges to Upgrade Your Turntable: Editor’s Choice 2023

Get the best sound from your turntable by upgrading its phono cartridge. Our buying guide cuts through the noise with purchasing options for any budget.

Ortofon 2M Bronze Phono Cartridge on Turntable

Vinyl finds itself at an unexpected crossroads in 2023; a new generation of listeners has turned the format into a billion dollar industry again and there are not enough phono cartridges in stock to satisfy global demand. Streaming might be 85% of the market but phono cartridges are one of the hottest categories right now and that caught some with their pants down. Our picks for best affordable phono cartridges are all proven winners and compatible with a wide range of tonearms.

The RIAA‘s (Recording Industry Association of America) final report on U.S. Music Sales Revenue for 2022 revealed that the growth reported in its previous 2022 mid-year report held steady, which is good news for vinyl listeners.

Revenue from vinyl records increased in 2022, while CD sales revenue fell flat. Vinyl Record sales surpassed that of CDs for the first year since 1987 (that’s 35 years!).

Vinyl record sales increased for the 16th year in a row. For 2022, that increase amounted to 17% over 2021 to $1.2 billion dollars. That represents 43.5 million albums sold. 

Vinyl Album Sales From 1995 to 2022

Whilst the increase in vinyl sales is a positive for the segment, there is softness in the market due to inflation, high album prices, and a lack of supply. There are not enough pressing plants to meet the demand and it takes time for these types of facilities to open and start supplying the market. There are at least 3 new pressing plants opening in the U.S. in 2023 but we will have to wait until the H1 2023 sales figures are released to know if things are changing.

If you are in the market for an affordable audiophile turntable, or replacement cartridge, it’s easy to get lost looking through the hundreds of affordable phono cartridges that are available. Deciding if you want a moving coil or moving magnet (or moving iron if select one from Grado Labs) cartridge is just one part of the decision making process.

Compatibility with the tonearm is also something that you need to pay attention to; just because you want to mount a specific cartridge on your turntable doesn’t mean that you should without checking with the manufacturer or dealer for advice.

Many entry-level turntables come with a pre-installed cartridge from Audio-Technica, Grado Labs, Sumiko, or Ortofon. Aside from confirming the tracking weight and that the anti-skate is properly set, you’re usually only a few minutes from listening to records in this scenario.

But if you’re looking to upgrade what you already own or don’t love the sound from the pre-installed cartridge on your new table, these are very worthy alternatives and excellent value for the money.

But if you want to elevate the level of playback quality from your records, there are a number of options below $800 that extract a lot more information from the grooves and help shape the tonal presentation of the music. 

Your choice of phono pre-amplifier will also impact the overall sound quality in a significant way.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Do not spend more on the cartridge than the table. A better turntable with the right arm will maximize sound quality with even an inexpensive moving magnet cartridge like a Nagaoka MP-110 – versus a $800 Dynavector on an entry-level turntable.  

Proper set-up of your cartridge is more important than what you spend. Clean your records and your stylus. Nothing ruins a stylus faster than dirty records.

10 Phono Cartridges You Need to Consider

Nagaoka MP-110 Phono Cartridge

Nagaoka MP-110 ($133)

Japanese manufacturer, Nagaoka, has been manufacturing outstanding moving magnet phono cartridges for almost 70 years. The entry-level MP-110 is an excellent tracker digging into worn out grooves with authority and delivers a very open and detailed sounding presentation across the entire frequency spectrum. The 5mV output is on the high side, but that also makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers. 

The cartridge is a good match on both entry-level and more expensive turntables and offers a lot of performance in a Rega, Pro-Ject, or SME tonearm for under $150. It may not be as popular as the 2M Red from Ortofon which shows up pre-installed on a lot of entry-level tables, but it offers a smoother ride and with less top end bite. 

For more information:

Where to buy: $133 at Amazon | Turntable Lab

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML Phono Cartridge

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML ($169.00)

Looking through their extensive lineup of phono cartridges can be somewhat confusing, but Audio-Technica have some really affordable cartridges below $200 that really shine on a better table. Install on something entry-level, and the sound will be fine but nothing really special considering how much potential lurks inside the cartridge body. But which one should you buy and do they really sound all that different? Not only do they sound different, but the type and shape of the stylus will have a huge impact on the sound. Even at this price level.

The AT-VM95ML is a moving magnet cartridge with a microlinear stylus and rather quiet in the grooves. The 3.5mV output makes it compatible with most internal phono preamps that you’ll find in your receiver or integrated amplifier, and it has excellent channel separation. It’s not the warmest cartridge that we’ve ever heard so pair it with a warm sounding phono preamp or amplifier. Detail freaks will love this cart. Bass freaks will find it somewhat lean and quick sounding in the lower registers. It’s a clean sounding cart that has a little more emphasis in the treble than the Sumiko Moonstone.

For more information:

Where to buy: $169 at Amazon | Turntable Lab

Grado Labs Timbre Opus3 ($275.00)

Grado Timbre Opus3 Phono Cartridge

Grado does offer some rather expensive phono cartridges but the vast majority of its sales are below $300 and products like the Opus3 make one question why you need to spend a lot more; I have always believed that it makes more sense to buy a better table and use an overachieving cartridge like the Grado Labs Opus3, Denon DL-103Nagaoka MP-110, or Ortofon 2M Bronze instead.

The Opus3 is nestled inside a Maple housing (8 grams) and I discovered that it sounded the best on my vintage Yamaha YP-701 and the replacement Ortofon LH-2000 Headshell that I ordered during the pandemic for another cartridge.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

The cantilever is made from aluminum and the Opus3 uses an elliptical diamond stylus; mounting the cartridge was quite easy and I settled on a tracking force of 1.8 grams which was within the range but closer to the very top. 

Grado offers multiple versions of the Opus3 including the high output (4mV) version supplied, a low output model (1.0mV), and a mono version as well.

The Grado does vocals about as well as any $200 – $300 phono cartridge on the market and it doesn’t matter if you’re listening to Amy Winehouse, Sarah Vaughan, Alison Moyet, Orville Peck, or Jason Isbell.

Presence, tone, texture, and detail have to be present or it’s just some flat rendition of something that doesn’t engage you at all. The Grado Labs Opus3 succeeds in every way with the kind of vocals that I enjoy listening to and that makes it a keeper.

If your budget ceiling is $300, the Grado Labs Timbre Opus3 is definitely a high-output cartridge to seriously consider. 

Where to buy: $275 at Amazon | 4ourears

Goldring E4 Phono Cartridge Front Underside

Goldring E4 ($299.00)

Some cartridges fly under the radar because the brand doesn’t get them into the hands of enough members of the press or because the price doesn’t create enough buzz in comparison to rivals. Goldring have been in business almost as long as Danish rival, Ortofon, and that puts them in rather elite company.

The Goldring E Series are natural rivals to anything Audio-Technica and Ortofon have to offer below $300 and the E4 might best them all. I’ve been listening for the past month (the E4 replaced both the Ortofon 2M Red and Golding E3 on my NAD table) and it’s not even close.

The Goldring E4 is designed to be compatible with all medium-to-high-mass tonearms of the type found on the majority of budget to midrange turntables.

What’s different about the new E4?

The super-elliptical nude diamond stylus features lower effective tip mass, and improved rigidity, which should result in better high frequency detail retrieval than ‘bonded’ elliptical alternatives. 

The E4 features a ‘nude’ super-elliptical stylus of just 7.6 x 18 microns (0.3 x 0.7 mil), which is cut and polished from a single homogeneous piece of diamond.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

To complement its low tip-mass stylus, the E4 now features a hollow aluminum cantilever tube. 

The Goldring E4 delivers a more open and neutral sounding presentation with a wider soundstage. It is also easier to sculpt into a very specific type of sound which will appeal to those who use vintage receivers or amplifiers, or entry-level integrated amplifiers below $1,000 than often veer to the darker side. 

Combine all of that with excellent speed, timing, and resolution and you have one of the best sounding entry-level phono cartridges available below $300.

For more information: Read our Goldring E4 Review.

Where to buy: $299 at

Denon DL-103 Phono Cartridge

Denon DL-103 ($349) 

Denon introduced the DL-103 in 1962 for professional broadcast use, and it has proven to be of the most popular and reliable phono cartridges of its kind. The low output moving coil design (0.3mV) requires a higher mass tonearm; opening the door to used Fidelity Research, SME, or EMT arms or more expensive modern arms from Kuzma, or Jelco (which recently decided to cease production). Jazz listeners have long prized the DL-103’s tonal balance and open presentation that make both brass instruments and vocals come alive. 

The DL-103 requires at least 60dB of gain to come alive; sticking a step-up transformer between the affordable DL-103 and the moving magnet input of your phono stage can be a transformative experience when everything is set-up correctly. Third party manufacturers have been offering modified DL-103 variants for the past few years at considerable expense, but our advice would be to stick with the stock model from Denon. 

Where to buy: $349 at Amazon |

Sumiko Moonstone Phono Cartridge

Sumiko Moonstone ($299.00)

Sumiko offers an extensive lineup of both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges; a number of models come pre-installed on Pro-Ject tables being distributed in North America and there is a lot to like about the Moonstone at under $300. This 3mV moving magnet cartridge is in the middle of the range and possibly the smoothest sounding of the bunch. The Moonstone has excellent channel separation and tracks exceptionally well.

How does it compare to the other cartridges in this survey? It’s certainly smoother sounding than the Audio-Technica, but that comes at the expense of some detail in the treble and it doesn’t create a huge soundstage like the Dynavector or Hana. Out of the box, it’s a tad polite but that changes for the better after about 20-30 hours of use. Clarity, refinement, and a punchy low-end describes the Moonstone rather well. Do not use this cart with overly warm sounding phono preamps — way too much of a good thing.

For more information:

Where to buy: $299 at Amazon | Turntable Lab

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Hana EL Phono Cartridge

Hana EL ($475)

Hana’s parent company has been an OEM manufacturer for a number of prestigious Japanese phono cartridge brands for years, but the decision to enter the marketplace with their own cartridges under the “Hana” label has been a huge success so far. Hana offers three tiers of phono cartridges; creating some welcome competition for Ortofon, Grado, and Audio-Technica, and it is the low-output EL (0.5mV) utilizing an elliptical stylus that shines the brightest with a quality moving coil phono pre-amplifier. 

An excellent tracker, the EL offers a lush sounding midrange, and slightly rolled-off treble making it an excellent cartridge with a wide range of music and systems. Partnered with a phono pre-amplifier from iFi Audio or Moon by SimAudio, the Hana EL can deliver a lot of performance for only $475.

For more information:

Where to buy: $475 at Amazon | Turntable Lab

Ortofon 2m Bronze Phono Cartridge

Ortofon 2M Bronze ($419)

A century of cartridge development expertise and manufacturing has to count for something so it’s not surprising to see at least one cartridge from the Danish manufacturer on our list. Ortofon offers a wide range of cartridges from under $100 to almost $10,500 for the Anna MC cartridge, but our favorite affordable model from their line-up is the 2M Bronze. The 2M Red comes pre-installed on a lot of entry-level turntables but we think the additional $375 is well worth it for a lot of reasons. The 5mV output makes it compatible with almost every available external phono pre-amplifier and integrated amplifier, and it’s extremely easy to install – although those who are thinking about installing it on a Rega tonearm will require spacers to achieve the correct set-up height. 

The 2M Bronze delivers tonal accuracy, pace, and a boldness that love with tube pre-amplifiers or warming sounding systems. Imaging is excellent, and the top end is far smoother sounding than the 2M Red. We’ve long believed that a better table is more important than spending a fortune on a cartridge and the 2M Bronze is a decided overachiever on expensive turntables. You may listen and decide that your records have never sounded any better. 

For more information:

Where to buy: $499 at Amazon | Audio Advice | Amazon | Turntable Lab

Grado Timbre Sonata3 Phono Cartridge

Grado Labs Timbre Series Sonata3 ($600)

Grado Labs has been designing and manufacturing its award-winning moving iron cartridges in the same Brooklyn facility for more than 40 years, and this family-owned business rarely changes its designs unless the improvements are going to be significant. The Timbre Series Sonata3 moving iron cartridge housed in an Australian Jarrah wood chassis may be one the best from the venerable brand for under $600.

The 4.0mV output makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers and it’s almost impossible to not pick-up on the Grado house sound; extended dynamics, low end punch, and a warm tonal balance that is highly addictive. The new Timbre models are quieter than the previous models with improved levels of detail. The wood body Grado cartridges sound particularly robust on VPI and Clearaudio turntables.

For more information:

Where to buy: $600 at Audio Advice | 4OurEars (Official Grado Store)

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Dynavector 10x5 MK II Phono Cartridge

Dynavector 10×5 Mk2 ($800)

Dynavector has offered this high output moving coil cartridge (2.5mV) for more than 20 years, and while not inexpensive, the 10×5 Mk2 may be the best overall cartridge of its kind with superb tracking, a balanced presentation, and excellent dynamics making it a great choice for jazz listeners. Installation used to be a tad cumbersome, but that issue has been resolved with some minor changes to the headshell.

The 10×5 Mk2 may not be the “best” at anything, but it has earned its reputation as a workhorse cartridge that manages to survive expensive table and tonearm upgrades. Vocals and brass have impressive presence, and there is a synergy between the 10×5 Mk2 and tube phono pre-amplifiers that makes it a final destination for many. 

For more information:

Where to buy: $800 at Audio Advice

Related reading: Best Budget Phono Cartridges Below $300



  1. Dave E.

    September 20, 2021 at 1:32 pm

    The Dynavector is a good choice for most turntables. I like the Grado “woodie” line better but they really need an arm with a lot of inertia else imperfect records make the arm quiver with audible artifacts. Will likely buy a Hana SH for next cartridge because nude mounted and shibata matters… seen too many solder mounted stylii that just fell out from normal use.

    • Ian White

      September 20, 2021 at 1:40 pm


      I’ve used the Dynavector 10X5 for almost 3 years along with a Denon DL-103 and Hana EL. $750 is my absolute ceiling for cartridges. I really like the Grado Sonata3 but my Thorens tables don’t interact well with it. The platter and cart create a hum that I couldn’t get rid of.

      Hana makes really good carts. Very impressed so far.


  2. Lash

    September 20, 2021 at 1:56 pm

    I wonder if the Hana or Grado would be much of an improvement over my Denon 304…

    • Ian White

      September 20, 2021 at 2:03 pm

      Denon stopped making that excellent cartridge which is a pity. I have the new Denon DL-A110 (just the DL-103 in a fancy titanium removable headshell) which I really like but I’m not sure about its $599 asking price.

      The Hana EL is $475 (unless the price changed) and a new Grado Sonata (Timbre Series) is an excellent cartridge depending on the tonearm.

      I really like the Grado carts but I think you need a neutral phono stage with them. They are not as “warm” sounding as they used to be but they have a definite sonic signature. Still made in that skinny townhouse in Brooklyn.

      Ian White

  3. BobPM

    December 6, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    I’m sure there are a million cartridges left off your list, but I believe the real bargain you missed is the AT-OC9XML. Where else can you get into a MC cartridge with a boron cantilever and microline stylus housed in a milled aluminum body for about $549? Purchased one last month for my SL-1200GR, and it sounds quite amazing.

    • Ian White

      December 6, 2021 at 2:25 pm


      Definitely a great cartridge based on what I’ve heard from others. We’ve been adding based on what we get to listen to.

      I’m currently listening to the next generation Grado and Goldring carts and they’re fantastic for the money. The AT is definitely on our radar.

      Ian White

  4. David Crandon

    January 1, 2022 at 4:37 pm

    Why can’t my Shure V15 Type V MR last forever!? Wah, wah, wah….

    • Ian White

      January 1, 2022 at 9:48 pm


      Jico just introduced a new stylus for it.

      Ian White

  5. Stephen P Fleschler

    February 17, 2022 at 5:15 am

    I would choose the Dynavector first as it will sound great on the most varied LPs. The Denon 103 in a ceramic body is awesome but the standard inexpensive version here is a second choice for vivid presentation. I have a Dynavector 10X2 as a back up cartridge in case of an accident on my main rig (modified SMEIV, modified VPI TNT VI).

    • Ian White

      February 17, 2022 at 11:21 am


      I use a Dynavector 10×5 on my Thorens and Denon DL-A110 (recent anniversary version of the DL-103) on my vintage Yamaha. Both get the job done.


      Ian White

      • Stephen P Fleschler

        August 14, 2023 at 6:57 am

        Ian, great inexpensive choices. After my Benz Ruby3 passed from wear, I replaced it with the Dynavector 20X2L in a $20K analog rig (Zesto Allesso SUT alone is $3600). It makes 90%+ of my 28,500 LPs sound great. Maybe I am missing some resolution, ambiance, etc. that a $4K and up cartridge can provide but three of my friends use the high output version on various VPI tables (sounding great) and one uses a special upgraded and ceramic bodied Denon 103 when he listens to LPs (mostly CDs). I still have the 10X2 as a backup.

  6. Mike Constant

    September 30, 2022 at 1:32 am

    I currently have a Pro-ject Carbon Evo tt with a Sumiko Ranier cart mated to a Denon AVX-2700H receiver. Not overly happy with the sound on my old vinyl. Getting some mixed ideas from Audio Advice. One says to update the stylus to the Moonstone, another says adding a phono pre-amp will give the most noticeable affect, another says upgrade cart to Ortofon 2m Bronze. Thoughts? TIA

    • Ian White

      September 30, 2022 at 10:04 am


      It’s all cumulative. The phono stage in the Denon is the weak link. The 2M Bronze is $400+ upgrade. It’s definitely the best bang for the buck in the 2M range. I’ve used the 2M Black for 4 years and I don’t think it’s twice as good as the Bronze considering the price difference.

      The Sumiko Wellfleet is the same price as the 2M Bronze and just as good.

      An external phono stage will have the biggest impact depending on the rest of the system. It will impact the tonal balance and dynamics for sure.

      Ian White

  7. Andres Hermosilla

    March 9, 2023 at 8:42 pm

    What do you think of the Rega Exact?

    • Ian White

      March 10, 2023 at 12:03 am


      Depends on the table and the rest of the system.

      Anything more you can share?


      Ian White

  8. nj

    May 17, 2023 at 11:19 am

    went from a grado sonata to a soundsmith zephyr and feel that despite the large price increase that it was worth every penny. it is mounted on a vpi classic tt and running through a rogue sphinx, and I’ve never enjoyed my system and music collection more than I do now.

    • Ian White

      May 17, 2023 at 3:43 pm


      Peter makes amazing cartridges. The Zephyr II is a wonderful cartridge. I’ve heard a number of them on the Classic 3, Direct Drive, and even an older HW-19 MKIV and they were all superb cartridges. Enjoy your music. And don’t upgrade!


      Ian White

  9. ORT

    August 5, 2023 at 10:35 pm

    I have a Sumiko Moonstone installed in my favorite ‘table my X2 or is it 2X Pro-Ject with the SB and humongous acrylic platter!!

    Hah! Take that, Will McCormick! I am one of the cool kids now so you can take an airborne intercourse back to the House at Poop Corner, Piglet.


  10. TonyE

    August 13, 2023 at 6:44 am

    I had a Sonata (low output) for years… but I upgraded to the Master 2 (low output) and it was money well worth it.

    Particularly as Grado gives you a healthy trade in chunk as you move up the line.

    My TT is a Linn LP12 with the Ittok LVII tonearm, Lingo/Karousel/etc.. and my preamp is a DIY fully adjustable job (resistive load, inductive load, gain) based on the Pass Pearl 2.

    Note: the Grados want a 47K load impedance and don’t care much about the inductance (moving iron design). So, if you get a low output version (currently 1mV) you need a “sort of” hybrid preamp… high gain (as for MC) but 47K load (as for MM).

    Also, you didn’t mention the cartridge set up which requires much more than just tracking weight and anti skating… you also have to set up its azimuth, rake, VTA, etc… the wooden Grados are hard to set up because the stylus is set back in the body and are hard to see from the front.

    The step up transformer is pretty much no longer needed… just get a phono preamp with settings for MC and spend the money on a better TT/tonearm/cartridge/preamp.

    Oh, BTW, what’s with that note: “Only 50% of vinyl buyers own a turntable”? What’s the point of buying records if you can’t play them?

  11. N J Flanigan

    August 22, 2023 at 2:51 pm

    absolutely love my soundsmith zephyr, well worth the upgrade cost from my sonata 3

    • Ian White

      August 22, 2023 at 3:26 pm


      Peter makes amazing cartridges. Not even a question. When I can get a more current review sample, it will likely make this list.


      Ian White

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You May Also Like


The $190 Grado Labs Prestige Red3 might be the affordable cartridge upgrade your turntable needs.

Gift Guides

Start your year off right with the gifts that will bring you a higher fidelity entertainment experience in 2024.

A/V Receivers & Preamp/Processors

Marantz and Denon AVR owners now have a very effective tool for dealing with bass issues in their rooms. Dirac Live Bass Control is...


Does it make any sense to spend more than $400 on a phono cartridge? The Goldring Eroica HX makes a very strong case once...

Gift Guides

Shop this season's best DTS powered products for everyone on your list - from gamers, music lovers, content creators, and cinephiles.

Integrated Amps & Stereo Receivers

Limited to only 1973 units, NAIT 50 celebrates Naim Audio's 50th Anniversary with a vintage inspired refresh of the original NAIT 1.


The Goldring E4 combines excellent clarity, speed, timing, and resolution for one of the best deals in MM cartridges below $300.

Gift Guides

Extended Cyber Monday deals are still available on award-winning products from SVS, Q Acoustics, Technics, Creative and more.


ecoustics is a hi-fi and music magazine offering product reviews, podcasts, news and advice for aspiring audiophiles, home theater enthusiasts and headphone hipsters. Read more

Copyright © 1999-2024 ecoustics | Disclaimer: We may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site.

SVS Bluesound PSB Speakers NAD Q Acoustics RSL Speakers ProjectorScreen Focal Naim Audio Cambridge Audio