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Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

Best cartridges Buying Guide: Welcome to What Hi-Fi?'s round-up of the best cartridges you can buy in 2021.

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 hi-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...

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Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

1. Goldring E3

One of the best cartridges we've heard at the money – a fine all-rounder.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 6.9g
Nominal tracking weight: 2.0g
Tracking weight: 1.5–2.5g
Reasons to buy
+A refined performer+Expressive+Plays nice with other kit
Reasons to avoid
-Nada at this price

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

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Goldring)

2. Goldring 1042

This Goldring takes a bit of effort to get in place, but the sound is worth it.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 7.6g
Nominal tracking weight: 1.70g
Tracking weight: 1.5–2.0g
Reasons to buy
+Great sense of timing+Good levels+Easy to replace
Reasons to avoid
-Tricky installation-Sensitive to set-up

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 Goldring 1042 review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Future)

3. Ortofon Quintet Blue

An excellent moving coil cartridge that's very modestly priced.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: No
Moving Coil: Yes
Cartridge weight: 9g
Nominal tracking weight: 2.3g
Tracking weight: 2.1–2.5g
Reasons to buy
+Detailed, precise+Plenty of expression+Simple to fit
Reasons to avoid
-Demands the right kit

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 Ortofon Quintet Blue review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Ortofon)

4. Ortofon 2M Red

A great upgrade or first stage cartridge for your turntable.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 7.2g
Nominal tracking weight: 1.8g
Tracking weight: 1.6–2.0g
Reasons to buy
+Excellent resolution+Decent midrange+Bags of insight
Reasons to avoid
-Could use more power

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

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Nagaoka)

5. Nagaoka MP110

An affordable but very capable cartridge.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 6.5g
Nominal tracking weight: 1.8g
Tracking weight: 1.5–2.0g
Reasons to buy
+Light, breezy sound+Good detail and insight
Reasons to avoid
-Could use more dynamics-Iffy treble

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 Nagaoka MP110 review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Ortofon)

6. Ortofon 2m Blue MM

A steady hand that lets music shine through.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 7.2g
Nominal tracking weight: 1.8g
Tracking weight: 1.6–2.0g
Reasons to buy
+Great timing+Dynamically surefooted+Easy to install
Reasons to avoid
-Could use more insight-Too much background noise

This is a step up from the 2M Red in the number four slot 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 Ortofon 2m Blue MM review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Audio Technica)

7. Audio Technica AT-F7

It might be a bit fiddly, but once installed you'll reap the rewards.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: No
Moving Coil: Yes
Cartridge weight: 5g
Nominal tracking weight: 2.0g
Tracking weight: 1.8–2.2g
Reasons to buy
+Refined sound+Brilliant for acoustic music+Solid build quality
Reasons to avoid
-Timing could be better-Fitting it is difficult

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 Audio Technica AT-F7 review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Goldring)

8. Goldring 2500

One of the best cartridges in terms of fitting, and well worth a listen.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 8.6g
Nominal tracking weight: 1.7g
Tracking weight: 1.5–2.0g
Reasons to buy
+Full-throated audio +Fits easily +Great tonal balance and detail
Reasons to avoid
-Nothing of note

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.

Read the full Goldring 2500 review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Future)

9. Pro-ject Pick-it DS2

This moving coil cartridge bursting with talent and musicality.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: No
Moving Coil: Yes
Cartridge weight: 9g
Nominal tracking weight: 2.2g
Tracking weight: 2.0–2.5g
Reasons to buy
+Entertaining sound+Simple to fit+Gets the best out of any genre
Reasons to avoid
-Nothing

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 Pro-ject Pick-it DS2 review

Best cartridges 2021: budget and premium options for your turntable

(Image credit: Future)

10. Roksan Corus2

A capable cartridge, but it could do with a touch more verve.

Specifications
Moving Magnet: Yes
Moving Coil: No
Cartridge weight: 8g
Nominal tracking weight: 2.0g
Tracking weight: 1.8–2.2g
Reasons to buy
+Measured presentation+Accurate sound+Tons of detail
Reasons to avoid
-Could be more thrilling-Awkward to set up

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 Roksan Corus2 review

  • Ozapata
    Hello
    With all due respect, I think that knowing which is the best cartridge is subjective because you can choose any of the 10 brands mentioned and try them on pressed vinyl (the 70s to 90s) in the United States, Latin America, Germany, Japan or England and you will notice that the listening response is not the best in some cases; you must have a collection of cartridges that fit every need.
    Reply
  • Mrs.Wright
    Audio-Technica Canada has recently changed distributors. They used to use Erikkson Audio, but now are using a third party fulfillment center. Products are being shipped out of a Mississauga warehouse. Products that are returned are visually inspected and restocked as new and resold as new. Whether you're buying directly from AT Canada, or through an authorized dealer - the inventory comes from the Mississauga 3rd party logistics warehouse. I would strongly recommend avoiding Audio Technica products because there's a very strong chance you'll receive a previously used item.
    Reply