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Budget Phono Cartridge Review

The tough part about this hobby is the never-ending quest for better sound. I tweak and test and change things constantly in my setup. Since the Technics tone-arm is easy to adjust I can swap phono cartridges in a breeze.

When friends stop by our entertainment involves swapping mats, cartridges, and recently phono sections. I seek their input and refferals and an unbiased ear. Our visits often return interesting conversations about records versus CDs, mp3, and portable audio.

Audio is my addiction and so we speak of my labor of love. I dig records over CDs, wav files over mp3s, and would rather bend my mind to understand fooBar2000 scripting and compressing flac files and cue sheets. My stubbornness is something I can't shake. The truth is mp3s are easier to manage and tag and iTunes is a great music management system and its easier to buy the best than modify and tinker. However, if I'm giving the option to buy or build I'd rather build because I enjoy the journey.

About the phono cartridges I have:

Denon DL103: This Denon is the most widely modified cartridge on hand. It matches will with my Carver MC phono section and so I have refrained from building a step up transformer (SUT) to increase it's gain. I would like to add mass to the arm so that it can really sing with the Technics.

Audio Technica AT440MLA: This is the cartridge body I currently use. I like it best with the ATN120E stylus. I find the sound to be more rewarding than the tinny-sounding micro stylus.

Tonar Banana: This is DJ cartridge that I dig the with an Arkiv stylus. Having it make want to cross-fade tracks and layer music together. It matches well with all many phono sections.

Ortofon OM5e: This cartridge surprised me in a recording session. It sounded much like the AT440MLA without the tinny brightness. It has a very natural presence I prefer it over the Shure M97xe cartridge.

Audio Technica AT120E: This cartridge does not get played often because it's sounds somewhat bloated. I've moved it's stylus to the AT440MLA body. The cartridge still remains a Great cheap cartridge.

Shure M97xe: This cartridge does not get played often. I like its brush and trackability but something is off sound wise (might be a bad unit).

Shure M93E: This is my first good sounding cartridge I pulled for an old unit and so I keep it around as a backup.

Ortofon Arkiv: I like the stereo separation with this cartridge it is a bit sterile sounding and so I match its stylus with the Tonar Banana more often. Tags


Aaron Tate said...

My understanding with respect to the AT440MLa is that it works best with a resistive load of 37k Ohms. Most moving magnet inputs are 47k. This site is good for helping to create cheap tweaks for weird custom loads:

I tried running my DL-110 at 43k Ohms instead of the 50k that is standard for my Musical Surroundings Phonomena II preamp, but while the depth improved, the highs seemed even more phony. I'm not sure if it was the quality of the plugs that I used, or if it's just a bad load setting. I could try 47k, but it seems like more trouble than it's worth, when I'd really rather just buy a DL-301 MK2 (eventually).

Using a non-microline stylus with the AT440 just seems backwards to me. It's like putting skinny tires from a hybrid on a sports car. Having a microline stylus for such a low price is what makes the AT440 such a popular cart! You're ditching it's best feature! Tweak the load, and you should get some much better results.

I've been curious to try all of this myself, but my experiments with the Stanton 680 that came with my Technics left me cold. I think I prefer the realism provided by the ultrasonic frequencies of moving coil.

Innerurban said...

Great observations! I have tried loading the carts to taste as well. The goal being to work with what you have until you can attain better. I will subjectively disagree about the micro-line stylus. My preference is for the elliptical stylus. Revisiting the idea I'd like to understand why sonics were thin sounding with the micro-line (cantilever composition, spongy suspension, poor alignment).

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