The 5 Best Phono Cartridges Under $500

Phono cartridges are one of the most critical parts of a record player. The mechanism transfers the sound from the needle, allowing you to listen to your vinyl records. However, they can get quite pricey!

The best phono cartridge under $500 is the Audio-Technica VM540ML. It’s best for those just getting into vinyl. It provides excellent sound, has a solid build, and is easy to install. Additionally, it costs significantly less than $500! Audio-Technica is well-known for its quality vinyl products.

However, the Audio-Technica VM540ML won’t suit you if…

  • You’re on a tight budget. Go with the Audio-Technica AT-VM95C (available on Amazon).
  • You want the best sound quality and don’t mind paying more. Choose the Denon DL-103 (available on Amazon).
  • You want a phono cartridge that’s very easy to install. The Ortofon 2M Blue (available on Amazon) is what you should choose.
  • You enjoy reduced noise and clarity for better hi-fi. Then choose the Grado Timbre Series Opus3 (available on Amazon).

This article will go over what you need to consider when buying a phono cartridge under $500. I’ll also cover why the Audio-Technica VM540ML is the best choice for most people and what options you have for different situations. Here’s everything that you need to know!

Factors To Consider

There are a few main factors that you’ll want to consider when buying a new phono cartridge. They include:

  • Moving magnet or moving coil
  • Tracking force
  • Ease of installation
  • Price

I’ll explain these four factors below:

Moving Magnet or Moving Coil

These options are tiny electromagnetic generators that convert needle vibration into sound. Moving magnet (or MM) cartridges use magnets on the stylus. They use a cantilever to transfer vibrations from the vinyl to the magnet. Your amplifier will need to have MM inputs for it to work well.

A magnetic phonograph cartridge on a vinyl record groove.

A moving coil cartridge has a mobile coil paired with a fixed magnet. The coil moves in the magnetic field that the magnet generates. You’ll receive a more robust high-fidelity sound with this option, making it the perfect choice for audiophiles. However, you’ll have to pay a lot more for this option.

Here’s how the phono cartridge options on this list break down:

Phono Cartridge ModelType
Audio-Technica VM540MLMoving magnet
Audio-Technica AT-VM95CMoving magnet
Denon DL-103Moving coil
Ortofon 2M BlueMoving magnet
Grado Timbre Series Opus 3Moving coil

In general, the more expensive options tend to use a moving coil. If you want to pay more for quality sound, a moving coil is often the better choice. However, these options won’t fit into everyone’s budget.

Tracking Force

Phono Cartridge ModelTracking Force
Audio-Technica VM540ML1.8 to 2.2g (2.0g standard)
Audio-Technica AT-VM95C1.8 to 2.2 g (2.0g standard)
Denon DL-1032.5g standard
Ortofon 2M Blue1.8g standard
Grado Timbre Series Opus 31.6 to 1.9g (1.75g standard)

The tracking force is quite significant. It refers to the amount of pressure the phono cartridge puts on your vinyl when you play it. You want the ideal weight — too much can scratch the records, while too little gives you a bad sound quality.

You’ll want a lighter tracking force for your records to keep them in good condition. When the record player first came out, tracking forces of three grams were common. Today, however, you’ll find more options with less than half that force, which is ideal.

Some brands give you a tracking force range. You can expect the pressure to fall within that range, although the “standard” is what you can expect the most often. The standard tracking force usually falls in the middle of the spectrum, so you know what to expect with the phono cartridge.

If you have a heavier phono cartridge, you’ll want to adjust the arm and needle to account for it. That way, the needle won’t press too deeply into the vinyl. You’ll need to check your record player for ways to adjust the weight, as all models are slightly different.

Ease of Installation

It’s also good to think about the ease of installation of the model. Some are universal and can easily snap into place on your machine without much effort. However, others can be more difficult to set up correctly.

These models are pretty easy to set up and should fit almost any record player out there. You won’t spend long installing your phono cartridge when choosing one of them.

However, ease of installation is still essential for you to consider. You wouldn’t want to choose a phono cartridge that doesn’t fit correctly! It could damage the vinyl or produce lousy quality sound.

Price

Lastly, you’ll need to consider the price. While the options below are all under $500, some are still more expensive than others. Make sure to consider your budget beforehand — you don’t want to overspend!

Higher-quality phono cartridges do tend to have higher price tags associated with them. However, not everyone wants to pay for them — and that’s okay! There are plenty of excellent budget options that offer great sound quality as well.

First things first, make sure that you know how much you’re comfortable spending. It makes it easier to stay within budget, even when searching for a phono cartridge under $500. You can also buy a cheaper one now, then upgrade to something more luxurious later.

Best Overall: Audio-Technica VM540ML

The Audio-Technica VM540ML is the best phono cartridge for most people. You can buy it as is or in a kit that includes the headshell. It’s a reasonable price for a cartridge, and you get good sound. Listeners find it produces a sound that isn’t too bright or dull.

Audio-Technica VM540ML MicroLine Dual Moving Magnet Stereo Turntable Cartridge Red

It won’t create any unnecessary noise or distortion. The tracker is one of the best parts of this cartridge, too. It’s not too forceful. It glides smoothly along records without any problems.

Moreover, the phono cartridge is very easy to install. It shouldn’t take you more than a few seconds to put on. It may take a few minutes to adjust the needle and arm balance for the best sound, but it’s an effortless procedure.

It’s worth noting that this product uses a moving magnet. It won’t get you as good a quality sound as a moving coil would. However, the other features make up for it, so you still get impressive audio.

Bottom Line: The Audio-Technica VM540ML is perfect for most people. It’s excellent for beginners to vinyl, has a reasonable price, is easy to install, and uses a moving magnet. For the price, you get high-quality sound, making it a good deal!

Pros

  • Price. You get a fantastic value for the quality.
  • Smooth tracker. The tracker is very soft and reduces noise.
  • Easy to install. It fits many record players and doesn’t take much effort.
  • Great sound. You get a clear, smooth sound.

Cons

  • Doesn’t pick up small details. The only downside is that the sound is neutral; you won’t get the more subtle details in a song.

Product Specifications

DimensionsWeightScore
4 x 2 x 3 inches (10.16 x 5.08 x 7.62 cm)0.23 ounces (6.52 g)9/10

Best Budget Option: Audio-Technica AT-VM95C

Audio-Technica AT-VM95C Dual Moving Magnet Turntable Cartridge Blue

If you can’t afford the best overall pick, the Audio-Technica AT-VM95C (available on Amazon) is the perfect budget option. It’s significantly less than $100, allowing it to fit into almost any budget. If you’re new to vinyl, then you’ll want to start with this cost-effective option. It’s also effortless to mount and get running. 

This model is the “entry-level” product in Audio-Technica’s VM line. It’s better than the previous AT95 series, offering bolder, richer sound, even at this price point. The Audio-Technica AT-VM95C won’t provide you an extensive range of sound, but it’s still great for the cost.

It does make the sound a little bright, but it’s not noticeable to most people. However, users did mention that it had a “break-in” period. The vocals will sound a little off and distorted at first. But the more you use the phono cartridge, the better the audio becomes.

Overall, this product is a bargain! If you need a cost-effective replacement, this is the best option for you under $500.

Bottom Line: The Audio-Technica AT-VM95C is perfect for anyone looking for a cheap phono cartridge. It makes a great replacement if your current one ever breaks. It’s great if you’re new to the world of vinyl collecting and don’t know what you want yet.

Pros

  • Price. This cartridge is the cheapest on the list. You won’t find other phono cartridges at a lower price without losing all quality.
  • Good entry model. This model is perfect for exploring Audio-Technica products for the first time.

Cons

  • Long break-in period. You’ll need to spin a lot of vinyl for the cartridge to produce the best sound.

Product Specifications

DimensionsWeightScore
4 x 1 x 3 inches (10.16 x 2.54 x 7.62 cm)1.3 ounces (36.85 g)6/10

Best Sound Quality: Denon DL-103

Denon DL-103 Moving Coil Cartridge

Maybe you want enhanced audio quality and don’t mind paying more for it. The tracking of the Denon DL-103 is outstandingly smooth overall. It launched in 1962 and instantly became a considerable part of radio broadcasting.

It’s straightforward to install. It should only take a few minutes to fit it to the arm. However, it does have a higher track force than the other options on this list. You’ll need to be very careful to ensure you don’t increase the pressure too much on your vinyl.

This model offers outstanding audio quality. The vintage design is timeless and sounds better than many new phono cartridges. The only downside is that the treble portions can sound a little flat, but you get incredible range and rich sound overall.

Bottom Line: With the Denon DL-103, you get a deep sound and outstanding quality. The original design is over 60 years old. It’s best for those with a higher budget who want the best sound quality. Due to the high cost, it’s not for everyone.

Pros

  • Sound quality. You get three-dimensional, high-fidelity audio at an impressive quality level.
  • Easy to install. The model fits nearly every record player and takes a few minutes to put on.
  • Moving coil. The model uses a moving coil for sound transfer, giving you better audio.

Cons

  • Cost. The model is very expensive.

Product Specifications

DimensionsWeightScore
1.06 x 0.59 x 0.59 inches (2.69 x 1.49 x 1.49 cm)0.3 ounces (8.50 g)8/10

Best Universal Fit: Ortofon 2M Blue

The Ortofon 2M Blue is a universal fit for turntables. By choosing this option, you’ll feel confident that you won’t have to send it back because it doesn’t fit your gear.

Ortofon 2M Blue Moving Magnet Cartridge

Plenty of reviews praise this model online — and for a good reason. It’s a reasonable price for a phono cartridge, and it offers great sound quality. You get impressive highs and lows, giving your music a remarkable range and Hi-Fi qualities.

It’s also great for very old albums with a lot of noise. The phono cartridge helps clear them up a bit, making it possible to listen to your favorite vinyl records again. It does use a moving magnet, but the sound is still impressive.

Finally, this brand has great customer service. If you have any problems with the phono cartridge, you can reach out to them, and it’ll get taken care of quickly!

Bottom Line: This phono model is perfect for those who need a universal fit and want good audio quality. It’s also great for old record collectors.

Pros

  • Reasonable cost. The price falls into the middle range.
  • Easy to install. It takes less than 10 minutes for most people to install this model.
  • Clear sound. The cartridge brings out the best in old vinyl.

Cons

  • Not the best for beginners. Those new to vinyl may have a more challenging time setting it up.
  • Design. Some people don’t like the blue design because it stands out too much from most record players.

Product Specifications

DimensionsWeightScore
4.72 x 3.54 x 1.18 inches (11.98 x 8.99 x 2.99 cm)0.32 ounces (9.07 g)7/10

Best Hi-Fi Option: Grado Timbre Series Opus3

Lastly, if you want the best high-fidelity sound, the Grado Timbre Series Opus3 should be your first choice. It falls into the middle price range and has a unique design. Plus, it’s made of real maple wood! 

Grado Timbre Series Opus3 High Output Stereo Phono Cartridge w/Stylus

Hi-Fi means that you get a life-like sound close to what the artist intended. This model is the “entry-level” for the Timbre series, all wood cartridges. While it’s the cheapest option in the series, it has great audio quality.

Bottom Line: This model is best for those looking for an authentic Hi-Fi experience with vinyl. It’s also great for those who want a traditional wood design.

Pros

  • Hi-fidelity sound: You get very realistic audio with this model.
  • Unique design: This model is the first to use maple wood.

Cons

  • Not for beginners. It may not fit every turntable and take more effort to set up.

Product Specifications

DimensionsWeightScore
4.3 x 3.6 x 1.7 inches (10.92 x 9.14 x 4.31 cm)6.4 ounces (181.43 g)8/10

Key Takeaways

Overall, the Audio-Technica VM540ML is best for most people. It is a good price, easy to install, and has good sound quality. It’s also suitable for both beginners to vinyl and old-school enthusiasts.

Always consider the four main factors when buying a new phono cartridge. You can’t go wrong with any model from the list!