For millions of music listeners, the smartphone has become their primary source component; digital music streaming services now represent close to 80% of the market with more than 50 million subscribers in the United States alone. Consumers put greater value on convenience vs sound quality and that shift has been a rude wake-up call for the high-end audio industry that has marketed expensive separates, loudspeakers, cables, and accessories for decades.
The reality is that consumers no longer see a need for so many expensive boxes; wireless active loudspeakers and one-box integrated amplifiers which include both wired and wireless digital streaming connectivity have made them unnecessary. The good news for consumers is that while prices at the top end have escalated beyond the cost of a luxury automobile for some audio components, there have never been as many affordable high-end components than what is available right now and that makes it a great time to assemble a system.
Nagaoka MP-110 ($121.99)
While not as well-known as its other Japanese rivals, Nagaoka has been manufacturing outstanding moving magnet phono cartridges for almost 70 years. The entry-level MP-110 is an excellent tracker digging into worn out grooves with authority and delivers a very open and detailed sounding presentation across the entire frequency spectrum. The 5mV output is on the high side, but that also makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers. The cartridge is a good match on both entry-level and more expensive turntables and offers a lot of performance in a Rega, Pro-Ject, or SME tonearm for under $130. BUY NOW
Denon DL-103 ($299.00)
Introduced by Denon in 1962 for professional broadcast use, the DL-103 has proven to be of the most popular and reliable phono cartridges of its kind. The low output moving coil design (0.3mV) requires a higher mass tonearm; opening the door to used Fidelity Research, SME, or EMT arms or more expensive modern arms from Kuzma, or Jelco. Jazz listeners have long prized the DL-103’s open presentation, and tonal balance that make both brass instruments and vocals come alive. The DL-103 requires at least 60dB of gain to come alive; sticking a step-up transformer between the affordable DL-103 and the moving magnet input of your phono stage can be a transformative experience when everything is set-up correctly. BUY NOW
Hana EL ($475.00)
The parent company has been an OEM manufacturer for a number of prestigious Japanese cartridge brands for years, but the move to enter the marketplace with their own cartridges under the “Hana” label has been a huge success so far. Hana offers three tiers of phono cartridges; all excellent values in comparison to the competition from Ortofon, Grado, and Audio-Technica, but it is the low-output EL (0.5mV) utilizing an elliptical stylus that shines the brightest with a quality moving coil phono pre-amplifier. An excellent tracker, the EL offers a lush sounding midrange, and slightly rolled-off treble making it an excellent cartridge with a wide range of music and systems. BUY NOW
Grado Labs Reference Sonata 2 ($650.00)
Grado Labs has been manufacturing its award-winning cartridges in the same Brooklyn facility for more than forty years, and this family-owned business that also manufactures headphones, rarely changes its designs unless the improvements are going to be significant. The Reference Sonata 2 moving magnet cartridge housed in an Australian Jarrah wood chassis may be one the best of its kind. The 4.8mV output makes it compatible with a wide range of phono pre-amplifiers and it’s almost impossible to not pick-up on the Grado house sound; extended dynamics, low end punch, and a warm tonal balance that is highly addictive. BUY NOW
Dynavector 10×5 Mk2 ($750.00)
Dynavector has offered this high output moving coil cartridge (2.5mV) for more than 20 years, and while not inexpensive, the 10×5 Mk2 may be the best overall cartridge of its kind with superb tracking, a balanced presentation, and excellent dynamics making it a great choice for jazz listeners. The 10×5 Mk2 may not be the “best” at anything, but it has earned its reputation as a workhorse cartridge that manages to survive expensive table and tonearm upgrades. Vocals and brass have impressive presence, and there is a synergy between the 10×5 Mk2 and tube phono pre-amplifiers that makes it a final destination for many. BUY NOW