Frequently I encounter people who have taken the plunge, and bought themselves a decent turntable to enjoy their growing vinyl collection. Some bought them this time last year, and are now starting to think, either as a present to request, or a treat after Christmas, what the first steps would be if they wanted to improve their systems, and usually the first thing they think of is the cartridge.
The most common entry-level turntables that we have sold or encounter tend to have Ortofon, Rega or Audio-Technica cartridges. People with older turntables, either second-hand, or that they've owned for a long time tend either to have a very very old cartridge, that needs to be completely replaced, or an Ortofon 2M.
Unlike most moving magnet cartridges, those made by Rega don't feature removable styluses, so upgrades involve replacing the whole cartridge body. If your turntable came with, say, the entry level Carbon, the next step up would be the Bias at £79, or the Elys at £119. Compared to Project or Audio-Technica, I tend to think the cartridge is the weakest part of a Rega deck.
On a direct comparison, the standard cartridge fitted on the Planar 2 (a £375 deck) is still the Carbon, which retails for £26. Contrast that with a Project Debut Carbon DC (£349), which comes with an Ortofon 2M Red, which is £95. Arguably this represents a difference of focus. 7% of your investment on the Rega goes on the cartridge, which you will want to upgrade and replace at some point. 27% of your investment on a Project goes on the cartridge. Sure, it's a better cartridge, but the corollary is that at the price point, you're getting more turntable for your money with the Rega.
On the whole, I tend to the view that transducers have always been the Achilles heel for Rega. I've never been entirely convinced by either their loudspeakers or their cartridges, but love their turntables and electronics. It seems I'm not alone in this view, particularly with respect to the cartridges, and for this reason it's doesn't surprise me that it's quite common for a Rega to be sold with a 2M red, providing an upgrade path, and improving on the budget Carbon cartridge.
Ortofon is probably the most popular cartridge manufacturer at the 'decent moving magnet' price point. They're fitted as standard on Project decks, and, as we've seen, often dealers will elect to fit them on Regas instead of the Rega cartridges. The entry level OM range and next level up 2M range have replaceable and upgradeable styluses, making it easy to upgrade at an attractive price.
The starter cartridges are the OM series - maybe am OM5E or OM10. These are included on the Essential and Elemental series of Project turntables. These all have replaceable and upgradeable styluses, so if your deck came with a Stylus 5E, you could replace it with a 10 or 20.
This is great option - the OM10 upgrade costs just £55, the 20 being £145. It's simple to do, and the improved profile and quality of the stylus will certainly enhance your listening experience.
Similarly, if you spent a little bit more on your turntable in the first place, you might have an Ortofon 2M cartridge - perhaps the Red or Silver. Again, the stylus can be swapped out - the Blue stylus upgrade is £135.
The Audio-Technica turntables come with the AT91R or AT95EX cartridges. The AT90 series represents Audio-Technica's budget cartridges. They're exceptionally good value, great-sounding, reliable cartridges. The LP5 turntable comes with the AT95EX, and the LP3 comes with the AT91R. Although their styluses can be replaced, they can't be upgraded.
The next step would be to move up to the VM series cartridges, which start at £99 for the VM510C or £119 for the VM520EB. These can be upgraded with elliptical, microline, and shibata profiles, and better cantilevers, right up to a very high level.
Keeping it in the Family?
I tend not to recommend Rega cartridges, for the reasons I've stated above. So if a customer comes to me looking for an upgrade, and they already have a Rega cartridge, I'm likely to point them in a different direction.
If you already have an Ortofon cartridge, keeping it in the family has some obvious advantages. On the face of it, your upgrade cost is lower, because you're not changing the cartridge body. For £135 you'll end up with a cartridge which would have been £150. Also, by the time you're ready to upgrade, you're already familiar with the Ortofon sound, so any improvements will just give you more of what you like already.
However, here's where I tend to suggest keeping an open mind. I like to give customers the opportunity to think creatively. It's true, Ortofon and Project turntables tend to go hand in hand, because they're fitted as standard, and sold together. Additionally, the cartridges are fitted by a machine, so the tags are often quite tightly fitted, which can discourage end users from ever changing, so unless they've been to see a dealer who is confident in changing cartridges, and willing to suggest different avenues to pursue, they're likely to stick with Ortofon.
There's certainly a good synergy between Ortofon and Project, but there are other options available, with a different presentation, different future upgrade path.
Personally I find the Ortofon sound a little clinical and dry. Accurate, sure, but perhaps emotionless, until you get up to the Candenza series of moving coils, where I think they become very good indeed. I also think that the popularity of the brand carries a price penalty. Pound-for-pound, I think Ortofon is slightly over-priced compared to alternatives. Also, as a dealer, especially in the 2M range, I've had a statistically significant number of problems with noisy cartridges, cartridges losing sound in one channel, or cartridges where the pins have come out when moving from deck to deck, so on the whole my experience of Ortofon has not been overwhelmingly positive.
Anyone who has visited Expressive Audio will tell you I am a massive fan of Audio-Technica. At every level their products are superb - keenly priced, excellent quality, and engaging, precise, and enjoyable sound. The OC9/ML2 is a stupidly good moving coil for the money. Even the humble AT95E can embarrass cartridges twice its price, and is certainly more than a match for an OM10. One of the finest moving magnet cartridges ever made is the 440Mlb, sadly discontinued last year, but still in use on one of my own turntables, and happily installed on many of my customers' systems.
Against that backdrop, I can wholeheartedly endorse the new VM range, which takes the 440Mlb level cartridge a step further. The entry-level 510 should be skipped, but starting with the 520, at a mere £120, you have a stunning performer, which I would put up against a 2M blue any day.
The rest of the VM range is excellent, and the 520 cartridge body will accommodate the top-of-the range stylus, meaning that until you're ready to consider a different class of cartridge, you're sorted for affordable upgrades.
However, there are three other options I recommend - Goldring, Grado, and Nagaoka.
Goldring was my first grown-up cartridge - I upgraded from an OM10 to a Goldring Eroica High Output moving coil. I've also a big fan of the 10xx series of moving magnet cartridges. At the top of the range is the 1042, which at £325 is arguably one of the very best cartridges for lovers of classical music.
It offers a simply stunning, liquid, airy presentation, and is equally happy with a Bruckner symphony, a Schubert lied, or a Beethoven quartet. The entry point is the 1006, at £195, and for Jazz and Classic connosiours, this is often one to consider seriously. The stylus can be replaced over time to reach the 1042 level, so it's a sensible upgrade path.
If Rega transducers are a disappointment, Grado are the opposite. They only make transducers - headphones and cartridges - and the never fail to fill me with joy. An old-fashioned American hifi company, hand-made in Brooklyn, a family business through-and-through, there's nothing not to like.
Grado cartridges sound big and rich. They're forgiving of surface noise, and tend to soften out harsh-sounding recordings. For people who listen to large orchestral music, with lots of brass, or 80s/90s grunge/lofi, a Grado prestige is a good option. The Prestige Black is also only £85, and there are incremental improvements available up to the range-topping Gold, at £219.
It's possible I'm saving the best to last. Japan has always been legendary when it comes to high-end cartridges - Koetsu, Lyra, Zyx all makers of some of the finest moving coil cartridges ever known. Of course, my beloved Audio-Technica are also Japanese, but another slightly less-well-known manufacturer, Nagaoka, also have some superb cartridges.
The top-of-the-range MP500 is exceptional. Until recently this is what I've been using on my own turntable, and depending on your phono stage, can be a better option than a low-mid-priced moving coil.
The Nagaoka range begins with the MP-100, which is an excellent performer, and at £89 is easily affordable. I would choose it over a 2M red every time, and it offer a neutral, natural sound which makes it less opinionated than the similarly-priced Grado Prestige Black.
However, the star of the range is the MP-110, which, at £110, is a giant-killer. These work particularly well on legacy Rega decks - the synergy with RB250 and RB300 is remarkable. I'd put it on a par with the VM540, and I'd certainly recommend it over a 2M Blue.
There's a bit of a gap in the range after the MP-110. The MP-150 is £279, and while the stylus in the 110 can be upgraded at this price point, I'd be looking at the 1042, or the VM740ML. For this reason I tend to recommend the MP-110 for people who don't feel like they're going to be able to go further with their cartridge, and want the very best they can get for their money.
Putting it all together.
Having considered all this, let me present to you some upgrade ideas and options based on my experience.
Very tight budget, looking for a basic cartridge better than the Rega Carbon: Audio-Technica AT95E - £36.00 - terrific value. You won't regret it.
Less than £100, upgrading from OM series or Rega: Nagaoka MP-100, or, for grunge/lofi/rock fans, Grado Prestige Black.
£100-150 budget, considering 2M Blue upgrade, or 2M Red replacement: Nagaoka MP-110, if you don't plan a future upgrade, or VM520EB, if you do.
Existing Audio-Technica VM owner: Easy. Stylus replacement in line with budget.
£150-250 budget, looking for a significant upgrade, with potential: Goldring 1006, with upgrade path to 1042, or VM540ML, with upgrade to 700 series styluses.
As always, if you have any questions about cartridges, or upgrade paths, get in touch. I'd be delighted to help.