By Don Lindich with Erik Harrie
Welcome to Sound Advice Vinyl, where we are kicking things off with an awesome mega-test shootout of 11 moving magnet cartridges, all priced under $1,000!
It was a lot of work for one person, so I enlisted the help of my friend Erik Harrie to help me evaluate the cartridges. If he isn’t with his family or at his day job, Erik spends pretty much every free waking moment listening to vinyl or doing research on Discogs. He has a great ear and a lot of insight, and it was a pleasure working with him on this feature. It was 4 months in the making, and we hope you enjoy it.
A real-world, multifaceted test
The testing methodology and ideology was simple: we were going to work out butts off listening to these cartridges using a lot of different equipment, both current gear and vintage gear of high quality, spanning many price points. (Tough work, we know.) Each of us would have a primary system to perform the initial evaluation. Afterwards we would experiment using the cartridges with other gear we had on hand, to see how they performed with different types of speakers and electronics. There were not a lot of surprises in this regard, and some of the ideal pairings were obvious as we listened. When we were finished we hoped to be able to describe the essence of these cartridges to you, providing our overall impressions and when necessary commenting about what equipment it matched well with.
Don’s main test system
Erik has two systems he likes equally well that he used as test systems
We used several different direct drive and belt drive turntables from a wide variety of price points to evaluate the cartridges.
Introducing the Technics SL-1200GR
A new Technics SL-1200GR turntable was loaned by the good people at Panasonic to serve as the primary testbed. As an SL-1210M5G owner I’d been wanting to review one anyway, and the easily-adjustable VTA, removable headshells, advanced drive technology, impeccable technical specs and overall high performance made it ideal. It is also unfussy and the tonearm works well with all types of cartridges.
VTA adjustment is seen at the base of the tonearm. The tonearm is beautifully finished, notably better than older generations of the SL-1200 series.
Removable headshells, as well as its overall performance, made this turntable a perfect testbed.
I’ll tell you right now before I publish the full turntable review, the SL-1200GR is absolutely amazing and I am talking to Panasonic about buying one. It is extremely hard to imagine living without it at this point, and I was surprised at how much more I liked it than my noticeably more expensive AVID Diva II/Rega RB303 combo. Bill Voss of Technics/Panasonic says that the $1,699 SL-1200GR provides 85% of the performance of the top-of-the-line $4,000 SL-1200G. It is pretty hard for me to imagine a 15% improvement, but I take his word for it. It is unlikely I will be testing an SL-1200G as I know the likely end result is I will become $4,000 poorer.
Other turntables used in testing
AVID Diva II with Rega RB303 arm
Panasonic RD3500 belt-drive turntable
Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB (with and without internal phono preamp)
Fluance RT81 (with and without internal phono preamp)
Receivers and Amplifiers
Celestion SL6S stand-mount speakers
We chose our winners based on their overall sound quality and performance, in three price classes. That is not to say that a cartridge that did not win its category might not be the right cartridge for you. Anyone familiar with Hi-Fi knows the importance of system-matching, especially with turntables, cartridges, and speakers, and that is why we rolled out such an arsenal of equipment to use with them. In the summaries we tried to provide enough information that you can pick your own personal winners that will fit best in your system. For example, someone with a warm-sounding system may find the boron-cantilever The Vessel B3SS to be a better fit for their system than The Vessel R3SM, due to its ability to provide additional detail, as well as the possibility the warmish R3SM might make the system TOO warm. Someone with a $200 budget is going to have a lot less choices, though there are definitely some clear standouts. If you read what we have to say and think about your own system and what you think it needs, it should help you find a good match from among what we have covered here, or perhaps even send you in a different direction.
Now… on to our findings!
Winner- above $400
LP Gear The Vessel R3SM $649
The clear winner. What more can we say?
The LP Gear The Vessel R3SM differs from the other The Vessel cartridges with its Ruby cantilever and MicroLine stylus. This cartridge was the clear winner, and impressed us from the moment it first started playing, and even more so after break-in. If you think of it as a slightly less detailed, yet more involving, warmer and musically rich version of the Ortofon 2M Black, you have the essence of The Vessel R3SM. It combines many of the best qualities of the 2M Black, such as the precise rendering of a tremendous amount of detail, solid imaging and soundstage, and excellent bass and mid-bass reproduction, with the musicality and tonal richness of the Nagaoka MP-200, without directly resembling either of them. It’s a tough act to follow. Technically, the 2M Black is superior in some respects, having a slightly bigger soundstage and as said before, pulling a bit more detail out of the grooves. The 2M Black also fleshes out the bass with palpable presence unlike any other cartridge in this test. What The Vessel does that the 2M Black does not is bring the music to life, in a way that will make it hard to stop listening. It combines the best qualities of digital like great detail, clarity and precision, with an abundance of the warmth and beautiful sound everyone associates with vinyl. It’s a phenomenal combination and it is remarkable how the Ruby cantilever takes The Vessel cartridge to incredible heights.
This cartridge also scores points for not being especially system-dependent and for being relatively forgiving of less-than-perfect vinyl. Surface noise is very low and backgrounds are dark and silent. Combined with The Technics SL-1200GR it was a music maker par excellence, and like the other The Vessel cartridges it matches really well with the modest Pro-ject Phono Box phono preamplifier. If I had $2,500 to spend on a vinyl playback system, I would get the Technics SL-1200GR, The Vessel R3SM, and a Pro-ject phono box. In fact, that is exactly what I am doing as I am so smitten with this combo that I am buying the SL-1200GR and using it as my main turntable, retiring my AVID Diva II to testing and review duties when I need to try something with a belt-drive turntable.
Winners- $200 to $400
Nagaoka MP-200 and Audio-Technica VM740ML (tie)
After days of discussion we could not decide between these two, so we called it a tie. Listeners looking to add warmth and lushness to their system should consider the Nagaoka MP-200, everyone else should look at the VM740ML.
Nagaoka MP-200 $397
“Really, really nice.”
This cartridge was something of a surprise. Given my good past experience with the Nagaoka MP-110 (my favorite budget cartridge until The Vessel A3SE came along) I knew I would like the MP-200. The surprise was how very much we liked it. It is warm and lush, with sweetness in every aspect of the sound, with the detail one would expect from a cartridge with its boron cantilever and superfine elliptical stylus.
Given its euphonic nature the MP-200 made a wonderful match with SVS Prime Towers, which are extremely analytical. Erik said, “The Nagaoka is really, really nice. It is an ideal match for the SVS speakers, I’ve never heard them sound better. My wife usually does not care or know what is going on with my systems. When she heard the MP-200 with the SVS Prime Towers she told me to go buy that cartridge, because she wanted to keep that sound in the house.”
Though the Nagaoka MP-200 and its musical qualities could bring out the best in the SVS towers and sweeten their sound, they never made a warm-toned speaker like the Wharfedales sound too warm or soft. It’s a good fit for most any system, but especially for those that need a touch more warmth and musicality from the analog front end.
Audio-Technica VM740ML $329
This cartridge is like a more refined version of the VM530EN described below, without any of its shortcomings. The VM530EN summary was written before this one, so rather than duplicate a lot of the same information you can read the VM530EN summary and then come back to this one to get the full story.
We loved listening to this cartridge. It sounds like a rather good high output moving coil, lacking just a bit of the delicacy of an MC perhaps, and has the same sparkle as the VM530EN but it is better controlled. The bottom octaves are handled with authority and the sound is even and full from the highest treble to the lowest bass, correcting the biggest shortcoming of its lower-priced stablemate. If you are familiar with Audio-Technica’s AT150MLX, this is like a less bright, more lively version of it with the rough edges removed, as the VM740ML never sounds harsh. The resolution of fine detail is tremendous and the presentation somewhat forward, with excellent tonal color and the lively nature that we liked so much in the VM530EN. The winning Vessel R3SM and its stablemate the B3SS sound more refined, natural and musical, but the VM740ML really is knocking at the door of high-end greatness. Both Erik and I would much rather have it in our systems than the 2M Black, despite it costing half as much. It was an especially good match with the Cambridge Audio Aeromax 6 speakers, but like the best cartridges here sounded good with everything.
Audio-Technica is really on to something with their new VM cartridge designs. Nice job, A-T!
Winner- under $200
Audio-Technica VM530EN $179
Hopefully the “sparkling brilliance” tagline doesn’t make it sound like this cartridge is bright, because it isn’t. This cartridge is exciting and has sparkling, lively sound yet somehow avoids sounding bright, and brilliant describes the overall performance. It is REALLY fun to listen to! It has tremendous resolution for a $179 cartridge and besides the lively personality, it really reproduces sheen well and has great horn reproduction. Compared to the higher performing cartridges in this test the soundstage is somewhat constrained, and it lacks some fullness. The bass could also be better, and the lean-ish bass means the sound is slightly tilted to the midrange and treble, rather that sounding absolutely even from the lowest to highest frequencies. There are also times when it has trouble separating instruments and can sound congested. I’d say it offers about 85% of the precision of the top cartridges like Ruby and boron-cantilevered Vessel cartridges and 2M Black, and it doesn’t take you quite as deep into the performance as they do. But boy, does it sound good!
As far as its sparkling character, if you had a number line from 1-10 with 1 representing overly warm and 10 being very bright, with 5 representing absolute neutrality, this cartridge rates as about a 6.5 , but as stated, does not really sound bright. I mentioned congested sound and it does break down sometimes, for example when playing my favorite pressing of Pictures at an Exhibition The Vessel R3SM can play it all the way through without a single misstep, hitting every note just right and never sounding challenged no matter the demands of the record. The VM530EN occasionally flubs the reproduction or gets behind the music to remind you that you are listening to a record, not a performance
The Vessel A3SE is a close second at about half the price, and for many listeners may be a better choice despite the lower cost of entry. The Vessel A3SE has a more balanced presentation from top to bottom and has musical qualities that are hard to define, qualities that we did not quite hear in the VM530EN. At the end of the day though, the VM530EN and its lively nature, outstanding resolution, and sparkling personality won us over to secure the win in the under-$200 class.
Though we did nitpick a bit, we really love the VM530EN and hope that came through in the paragraphs above. You won’t find a more lively performer or higher resolution for $179.
Though they may not have placed in the top three, one of the other cartridges we evaluated may be the right one for you and your system. They are presented in price-descending order.
Ortofon 2M Black $755
High Energy, highly demanding and highly system dependent
This cartridge certainly has a great reputation, and when I tour CES or other audio shows it is the demo cartridge used by many manufacturers of turntables and other electronics, including Technics, manufacturer of our test turntable. Technically the 2M Black is superior to every other cartridge in this test, the Shibata stylus pulling out details you have never heard before, even with other high-end cartridges. The bass is simply awesome, both in depth and definition from the lowest bass all the way to the mid-bass. In fact, the mid-bass reproduction of this cartridge is the best I have ever heard.
So why didn’t it win? Despite everything it does right, somehow this cartridge left both Erik and I kind of cold. It doesn’t sound cold, but it is almost digital in its precision and character and at times it can sound harsh. That’s not what most people want from vinyl. Both Erik and I agreed it was the most technically excellent cartridge, but no matter what system or speakers we used, something was missing. After some discussion we realized what we both were feeling. Does the cartridge make you want to listen, do you love it? Does it get you excited about the music?
For both of us, the answer was no. There were a lot of other cartridges we preferred listening to, even though they were less expensive and less perfect performers. The Vessel B3SS comes extremely close to the 2M Black’s technical excellence, but never, ever sounds harsh and is a lot more listenable overall. The Audio-Technica VM cartridges are also a lot more fun and enjoyable to listen to, and cost hundreds less.
The 2M Black was also by far the most system-dependent cartridge, and it is known to require very precise alignment and VTA adjustment. More than any other cartridge in this test, the 2M Black expressed its character over the speakers in use. When used with the SVS Prime Tower speakers it sounded harsh and like there was TOO much energy. It acquitted itself nicely with the Wharfedale Diamond bookshelf speakers, where their warmth tamed the cartridge a bit. The sound was very clear and open with the Acculine towers, with an especially big soundstage, but again, lacking musical involvement. With the top-of-the-line system with the Ohm Walsh 5000s/Cambridge Azur separates/SL-1200GR and Phonomena II and Pro-ject preamps, it sounded almost CD-like. With the Ohms it was impressive to be sure, and had a bigger and more precise soundstage than The Vessel R3SM, but switching from the 2M Black back to the R3SM or B3SS was like a breath of fresh air.
If you have a system with heavily euphonic qualities, like tube amps and warm-sounding speakers, it could be a great match to the 2M Black. It definitely needs some warming up downstream.
LP Gear The Vessel B3SS $679
Similar to the winning R3SM, and may be a better match for some systems
The Vessel B3SS has The Vessel body with a Super Shibata stylus and boron cantilever.
This cartridge is extremely detailed, and very tight and refined in its musical presentation. Bass is excellent and extremely well-controlled, the soundstage is open (though not as big as the 2M Black) and it has the musicality that is present in all the cartridges in The Vessel series. It shares a lot of the qualities of the winning R3SM, though they are easy to differentiate when listening to them back-to-back.
In short, choosing the B3SS means you give up some warmth of the R3SM, and in exchange you get a bit more detail and resolution, more precise rendition of everything and tremendous evenness and control throughout the entire audible range, without sounding digital or sterile. It exhibits much of the technical character of the 2M Black while being a lot more enjoyable and easy to listen to, and like the other cartridges in The Vessel series, it is not especially system dependent, either. In the end we preferred the euphonic qualities of the R3SM, but we would never fault anyone for going with the B3SS, especially if you want precision and a high standard of technical excellence with sound that is musically engaging and very easy on the ear.
Nagaoka MP-150 $329
A less good version of the MP-200
There is nothing wrong with this cartridge , but its pricing and market position make it hard to recommend. As the tagline says, it is similar to the MP-200 but you get less of everything, and it lacks the MP-200’s sweetness and magic. Spending $50 more for the MP-200 gets you a much nicer cartridge. The overall sound of the MP-150 is very similar to the less expensive Grado Silver1, but the Nagaoka is better shielded so you won’t get hum. At $329 it is a tough sell. We think you would be better served with the VM740ML at the same price, or spending a bit more and getting the MP-200 if you want the Nagaoka sound.
Clearaudio Concept MMV2 $250
While this cartridge doesn’t do anything wrong, it doesn’t do anything especially great, either. The Vessel A3SE sounds better for a lot less money, and other cartridges around the same price or less are notably superior. Add in the fixed stylus that means you must replace the whole cartridge when the stylus is worn out, and recommending the Clearaudio Concept MMV2 becomes very difficult indeed.
It is competent and pleasant, but nothing special. The Audio-Technica VM530EN is a much better choice, and it is also less expensive and has a replaceable stylus. The same can be said of the Grado Silver, if you are a turntable and arm that are a good match for it.
Grado Silver1 $225
Good with anything
There was once a catch phrase, “No one ever got fired by hiring IBM” which was an analogy for playing it safe, and getting known performance and support. It does not exactly transfer to the vinyl world and audio reviewing, but somehow it came to mind when reviewing this cartridge. It is a safe bet, a cartridge of known quality that performs well in any system, with a single caveat. It is hard to imagine anyone being dissatisfied with it.
The Grado Silver1 is fast, detailed, has excellent clarity and resolution with a touch of characteristic Grado warmth, and is altogether musically satisfying. We clearly preferred it over the Clearaudio Concept MMV2, and it is actually quite similar to the Nagaoka MP-150 despite costing much less. It has superior resolving power compared to The Vessel A3SE, yet The Vessel A3SE has a broader tonal palette and more tonal color overall, and it seems to be a bit more engaging when used in a system with a neutral character. If your system already has some richness baked-in and leans toward the euphonic so resolution and detail are what you are after, the Grado is probably a better choice. Otherwise, a strong case can be made for The Vessel A3SE at less than half the price.
The Grado Silver1 can be a little bit unforgiving of dirty or scratched vinyl, but just a little bit, not to the point of being objectionable. The only real caveat is you have to be careful with direct drive turntables, as they can hum. We did not have hum problems with the Technics, but we did with the Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USB.
The $260 Grado Gold1 is identical to the Silver1, except Gold1 cartridges are picked from the top 5% of performers from Silver1 production.
P-Mount versions of Grado Silver1 and Gold1 cartridges
This cartridge has the advantage of being available in a P-Mount version, as are the other Grado Prestige cartridges. It is also one of the very best (if not THE best, along with the Grado Gold) P-Mount cartridges available. I even used a P-Mount version for our illustration above, as installed on my beloved Technics SL-MA1 turntable… the first good turntable I ever owned, purchased way back in 1986! Interestingly enough, I got it at a clearance sale at a Florida audio chain called… Sound Advice! It was the floor model, and I only paid $175 for it vs. an MSRP of either $450 or $625, I do not remember exactly. Suffice it to say it was a deal, and my SL-MA1 is one piece of equipment I will never, ever sell.
LP Gear The Vessel A3SE $99
The $100 masterpiece
I’ve raved about this cartridge multiple times in my newspaper column, and my enthusiasm continues even now, almost a year since I first tried it. The Vessel A3SE just plain sounds great. It has great tonal balance, good detail, an appropriate amount of warmth, and it’s lively nature brings music to the forefront without being in your face about it. It can’t be beat by anything under $100, and it competes well with many of the more expensive cartridges in the test. It’s a great match with direct drive turntables, and apparently LP Gear thinks so too as they offer several Audio-Technica models featuring a pre-installed A3SE.
I have said enough about this cartridge in the past that I don’t need to rehash it here. Here are a few links to past columns about the LP Gear A3SE, as well as a link to my 2017 Holiday Gift Guide where it is featured.
Another plus to The Vessel A3SE is you can upgrade it by replacing the stylus, which is interchangeable with other Vessel models. So, if you started with a modest turntable like an AT-LP120-USB fitted with the A3SE, then when you upgrade your turntable later you can take your cartridge with you and upgrade it as well. An A3SE today, an R3SM tomorrow seems like a great upgrade path to me!
LP Gear CARBON FIDELITY CF95SE $59
The Audio-Technica AT95E is a known quantity, and is regarded in the industry as the best $49 cartridge you can buy, as well as a good starter cartridge. That’s why you see it on so many entry-level turntables, such as the Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB and the Fluance RT81.
The CF95SE is an AT95E with a new stylus assembly that features a carbon fiber cantilever with a Spectra elliptical diamond. It’s only $10 more than the AT95E, and it is really a whole lot nicer. While the performance still rates as entry-level, it is smoother and more detailed, the soundstage is bigger and it is more even in its musical presentation. It is not a quantum leap over the AT95E, but it is noticeable and as a whole the CF95SE seems a lot more refined. If you are buying a new entry-level cartridge and can’t stretch for The Vessel A3SE, this is a fine choice. You surely won’t do better for $59, and if you have an AT95E already and you need to change the stylus or want a simple, inexpensive upgrade, this is a no-brainer. Just pull out the old stylus and put in the new one, re-adjust the tracking force and you are done.
For AT95E owners upgrading or replacing their stylus: CF95SE stylus
Final, random thoughts
- None of the cartridges were actually bad, though the $250 Clearaudio, coming from a manufacturer that also sells $100,000 turntables, and the most expensive cartridge, the $755 Ortofon 2M Black, impressed us the least relative to their competitors, even less expensive ones. Given the Clearaudio name and the pricey Ortofon’s reputation, we expected more from them.
- The latest moving magnet models, The Vessel series from LP Gear and the VM series from Audio-Technica, were at the top of the pack and impressed us the most overall. Phono cartridges are far from new technology, yet new designs and engineering are still raising the bar.
- The Technics SL-1200GR was a star of this show as much as the cartridges were. It is a very impressive piece of equipment from its quality of construction and materials to its performance. It is extremely quiet and neutral, allowing the cartridges to do their job and create music, the sound flowing from the grooves out of a dark, silent background. We really got the sense of each cartridge and what it could do when using this turntable.
- The Vessel cartridges are even more appealing given they all have interchangeable styli, and it adds to their value equation. A stylus upgrade will turn your A3SE into an R3SM or B3SS, so you can start with the $99 A3SE and take it with you even if you buy a very expensive turntable. This is nice because for a lot of cartridge lines this is not possible. For example, you can’t upgrade an Ortofon 2M Red to a 2M Black by changing the stylus.
- Though this was not a speaker test, some of the vintage speakers we used, like the Celestion SL6S, hold up well even today.
- The Pro-ject Phono Box USB really is a good little phono preamp, especially for the money. It does not get a lot of respect in certain audiophile circles, but it is unfussy and sounded good with all the cartridges.
- The Cambridge Audio amplifiers and Aeromax 6 speakers sounded really, really great. Why Cambridge Audio isn’t talked about more in North American audiophile circles, I just don’t understand. Perhaps more people need to be exposed to their equipment.
- We wish more manufacturers made cartridges with threaded mounts, like the Ortofon 2M Black and the Clearaudio Concept MMV2. It makes mounting so much easier!
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