Best cartridges Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best cartridges you can buy in 2023.
Looking for a new turntable? Hold your horses. You might be able to improve the sound of your current record player just by switching in a new cartridge. It's the 'don't move, improve' of the hi-fi world.
Turntable cartridges come in two types: moving magnet and moving coil. Moving magnet (often abbreviated to MM) cartridges have a cantilever which transfers the mechanical vibrations picked up from the record groove directly into the cartridge's magnet. Its constantly changing magnetic field creates a magnetic flow which generates an electromotive force in direct proportion to the vibrations. This signal is then amplified and turned back into sound by the speakers.
In order to use a moving magnet cartridge, your amplifier will need to have an MM phono input in order to boost the low voltage and drive the speakers.
A moving coil cartridge, however, has a fixed magnet and mobile coil. This coil moves within the magnetic field created by the fixed magnet, generating an electromotive force. Because its moving mass is much closer to the pivot point, it reduces inertia, creating a more high-fidelity sound. The downside? Moving coil models tend to be more expensive.
We've included both types in our list of the best cartridges, which runs from budget to break-the-bank. Take a look, and consider which could be the best cartridge for you. Higher-quality audio is just a step away...
This impressive Goldring is a cinch to fit and is compatible with plenty of turntables, making it a very versatile cartridge indeed. The sound is clean and precise, with plenty of clarity and power where required. It also handles rhythm well, and has attack in spades. The perfect accompaniment to many a midrange deck and easily one of the best cartridges we've heard at the money.
Read the full Goldring E3 review
Sumiko knows plenty about cartridge manufacturing. The company was founded in 1982 and continues to build all of its cartridges in Japan to this day. The Rainier moving magnet sits at the more affordable end of the company’s Oyster range and looks to be a good choice for those itching for that first upgrade to their turntable.
This Sumiko is a thoughtful design that’s easy to fit thanks to captive nuts inset into the body and sensibly squared-off edges that make fitting and alignment a breeze.
Once up and running it's a surprisingly musical and engaging performer. Detail levels are good, but it’s more the cohesive way that the Rainier delivers all that information that makes it special. There’s a good dose of dynamics and plenty of punch when required. In a carefully chosen system, this is a superb performer.
Read the full review: Sumiko Rainier
Ortofon has been making turntable cartridges since 1948, and it seems like all its expertise went into this one. The Blue is a true five-star product: simple to fit, not too heavy, so easy to balance out, and capable of a sound that's worth every penny of its asking price. It's an agile sound, with a high level of sonic precision that's brimming with detail. Plenty of refinement is evident too, and it's rhythmically surefooted with a good sense of attack. Just make sure you partner it with the right kit. Otherwise it'll be like fitting pram wheels to a Ferrari.
Read the full review: Ortofon Quintet Blue
The Sabre moving magnet is a carefully considered design, as we’ve come to expect from Vertere. That bold orange body isn’t just for show. It’s machined out of a solid block of aluminium for rigidity and clamps onto the generator structure with four bolts rather than being glued on performance and alignment grounds. The cartridge body’s top is raised at three points to ensure a solid and even contact with the headshell, and the front of the top even has a ridge to aid easy alignment.
The result is a bold performer that's confident without being in any way overbearing. Listening to Orff’s rambunctious Carmina Burana, we can’t help but be thrilled by the energy and drive of the music. The Sabre delivers this dramatic piece with all the gusto it demands. We get explosive dynamic peaks coupled with an impressive sense of control.
While the Sabre's price puts it deep into traditional moving coil territory, this is one premium moving magnet we can really get behind.
Read the full review: Vertere Sabre MM
The DS2's body is made of a synthetic polymer and shaped by laser, in a bid to create a low-resonance base and help performance. And it works. The sound is thoroughly robust and dynamically expressive, with plenty of punch and bags of bass. The presentation is composed, and there's a ton of detail to get your teeth into. It's a doddle to fit and align too, thanks to its square-shaped body. A truly capable and musical performer.
Read the full review: Pro-ject Pick-it DS2
Britain's oldest cartridge company doesn't disappoint with this model. The 1042 has been around since the 90s, and is still one of the best cartridges of its type. It's made of Pocan, a glass-reinforced plastic material that’s high in rigidity, so it's definitely built to last. It might be tricky to fit, but once in place it will reward you handsomely: the sound is incredibly detailed, letting you deep into the recording, with next to no noise in the background. Well worth the effort.
Read the full review: Goldring 1042
Another Ortofon, another great buy. This one is a lot more wallet-friendly than the Blue, but still puts in a great performance for the money. The midrange sounds full and expressive, especially vocals. Bass and treble also score well, though the former could do with a bit more presence. But that's a minor quibble. It's simple to fit and align, and provides a more than enjoyable listening experience. Proof that the best cartridges needn't cost the earth.
Read the full review: Ortofon 2M Red
Easy to fit and align, this cheap and cheerful cartridge gives a bright, breezy listen that will immediately brighten up a dull system. It has a sweet midrange too. Downsides? The bass could do with a bit more authority, and the treble is a touch edgier than similarly priced rivals. But in terms of dynamics, this cartridge punches way above its weight, sounding like a much pricier model. If you're on a budget, it's well worth investigating.
Read the full review: Nagaoka MP110
This is a step up from the 2M Red also in this list, and as such it's a little more pricey. It has the same angular body of the Red, and has a removable stylus that's easy to replace should it break or wear out. The unit feels well built, despite its largely plastic construction, while getting it set up isn't too tricky if you know what you're doing. So, sound? The Blue delivers a real sense of vitality to recordings, and brings a good sense of timing to proceedings. If you can put up with a little more background noise than some rivals, this is a very capable little cartridge indeed.
Read the full review: Ortofon 2m Blue MM
Audio Technica has been making turntable cartridges since the vinyl heyday of the 1970s, and its models come in all shapes and sizes, to suit all budgets. This is one step up from entry-level, but you could be mistaken for thinking it's a lot pricier: the build quality is superb, feeling satisfyingly hefty in the hand. And it sounds beautifully refined, while still managing to pack plenty of impact. It's more suited to music that's on the more delicate side, rather than exploding with energy. As many would agree, that's no bad thing.
Read the full review: Audio Technica AT-F7
Despite its lack of straight sides, the 2500 is easy to set up, thanks to its easy-to-align shell and use of captive nuts. And once set up it sounds assured and silky smooth, with a nicely handled tonal balance providing crisp treble, clear midrange and bass that's tighter than a worm's belt. There's plenty of warmth to the vocals too, giving songs a good deal of emotional punch. These sonic skills mean tunes are packed full of detail too, with impressive dynamics. All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable listen.
This generation of Roksan cartridge has been 30 years in the making, so to say anticipation is high is something of an understatement. It's a pretty heavy unit, and is a little fiddly to fit. But the sound is more than worth it. It's a refined, precise presentation, with tunes sounding crisp and detailed. The soundstage is wide and expansive – the sonic equivalent of a rolling vista – and there's a great level of insight. It treads a fine line tonally too, with plenty of body and authority. At times it lacks a little verve, but overall it's at home playing host to a wide range of musical styles and genres.
Read the full review: Roksan Corus2
How we test cartridges
Why you can trust What Hi-Fi? Our expert team reviews products in dedicated test rooms, to help you make the best choice for your budget. Find out more about how we test.
Here at What Hi-Fi? we review hundreds of products every year, from TVs to speakers, headphones to hi-fi systems. We have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door – including cartridges.
What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, so we listen to every cartridge we review against the current leader in its field to gauge how it compares to the best-in-class competition. We keep What Hi-Fi? Award winners and a range of cartridges in our stockrooms so we can always pit new products against ones we know and love, and we do our best to review as many new models in as many markets as possible to ensure our contextual knowledge is the best it can be.
We are always impartial in our testing and ensure we hear every cartridge at its optimum – connected to the appropriate turntable and phono stage, and all placed on a sturdy and level surface. We'll use them in their best use case with different partnering kit and at the appropriate price range. We'll also play plenty of records and genres of music through them. Naturally, we give them plenty of listening time (and time to run in) too.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team as a whole rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
You can read more about how we test and review products on What Hi-Fi? here.