As a lover of vinyl records and as a person with a collection which according to his wife “is getting out of hand”. I want my music to sound as good as possible and for that, you need to have a good phono cartridge. I was lucky enough to be given the chance to check out some of the best phono cartridges available right now. Best of all, these are all well under 500 bucks which proves you can have great sounding vinyl without having to spend Kanye West levels of money. So if you are looking for an affordable way to breathe new life into your record collection, keep on reading to find out what is the best phono cartridge under $500.
What Is A Phono Cartridge & Why Do I Need One?
For people who have been listening to vinyl long before it became cool again, you may be laughing at this, but there are plenty of people just getting into the awesome world of listening to music through vinyl. Basically, the phono cartridge is what you most likely call “the needle” well the needle is just one small part and the “phono cartridge” is the whole thing altogether.
So let’s say you found an awesome old school record player, but the sound is bad or it is just not working. If you took it to a store and they told you that you needed a new phono cartridge, this is what they are talking about. It is worth noting that many people will just say needle, even when they mean phono cartridge. It sounds complicated, but it really is not.
The Different Phono Cartridges
There is a huge selection of phono cartridges so knowing what is the best phono cartridge under $500 can be tough, but some people may be surprised to know that there is a lot of variety when it comes to phono cartridges. There are some very strange designs out there, but the majority fall into two categories, P Mount and Standard Mount.
The P Mount is the easiest way to go, you find the right one for your turntable, you buy it and you plug it in.
The Standard Mount is the more common one you will come across and there may be a little bit of tinkering for you to do in order to make sure it is aligned properly.
The Best Phono Cartridge Under $500 Reviews
Here I have for you four different phono cartridges. I personally have tested three of these and the other one is one that I feel is pretty cool and is worth your time looking at.
- Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge
- Denon DL-103R Moving Coil Cartridge
- Audio-Technica AT440MLB Phonograph Cartridge
- Ortofon – 2M Bronze MM Phono Cartridge
1. Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge
- Has a really funky and interesting design
- The price is incredibly reasonable
- You will not have any trouble installing it
- Makes even older records sound great
- Ortofon is known to have great customer service
The first one I took a look at was this very nice looking blue one from Ortofon. At under 250 bucks, this is well below the 500 bucks price range we are talking about so it gets two big thumbs up for that. I found out that this phono cartridge is the work of a famous designer called Møller Jensen Design who is pretty well known in the world of music. If you are the kind of person who as well as wanting great sound quality, wants their turntable set up to look cool as well, you will really appreciate how awesome this phono cartridge looks.
Of course, looks are not everything and there are a ton of reviews praising the sound quality of this turntable phono cartridge so I was excited to put this through its paces. One thing I will say is that out of all the phono cartridges I have looked at lately, this one is one of the most positively reviewed I have ever come across so my expectations were very high.
Great highs and deep bass was something that I read time and time again about this and I have to admit that is the best way to describe it. It was very easy to connect to my turntable and I tested out around 10 albums such as Bon Jovi Slippery When Wet and Poison Open Up And Say Ahh… I was on a bit of an 80’s hair metal kick when I was testing this.
Now on the phono cartridge, I was using before this, that particular Poison album was a little scratchy and noisy, but with this, the sound was really nice and crisp. I must have listened to it a ton of times just to see and I was impressed each and every time. I feel that this phono cartridge is one of the best in this price range and while we are talking about the best phono cartridge under $500.
- Blue might not fit in with the style of your turntable
- Might not be ideal for a first turntable
If anything close to that $500 tag we are talking about is out of the question, you really would struggle to beat this, especially at the asking price. I could honestly leave this connected to my turntable and be happy with it.
2. Denon DL-103R Moving Coil Cartridge
- Classic design
- Sound is amazing
- Works great with older and newer vinyl records
- Worked with every turntable I tried it on
- Has that classic Denon design
Next up is this one from Denon, I was very happy to get the chance to try this out as it is one of the higher end phono cartridges that I have had my eye on for a while. But as you can see the asking price is over $400 so while I could easily class this as one of the best phono cartridges under $500, I get that the asking price may still be a little on the high side for some people. Before we get to the sound quality, let me tell you this one here has a great look.
While at first glance it is rather unassuming, I really like the classic and classy look that this has and for a real audiophile who has a rather classy looking record player, this is going to look fantastic. Denon really does make some lovely looking phono cartridges and this is one of the best.
Of course with that high price tag, you would expect amazing sound and let me tell you that this does its job so well that it kind of goes unnoticed after a while. I know that does not sound all that great, but it is a testament to how well designed this phono cartridge is. I took a deeper look into it and as this is a moving coil kind of phono cartridge, the way the coils have been wound to perfection allows this to just glide along your records and really make them seem like you are hearing them for the very first time.
I have some newer pressed records that are a little heavier than some of my 80’s classics. For example, the relatively new pressing of Nirvana Unplugged In New York and it sounded incredible. I even tested this phono cartridge out on my older turntable that I have upstairs and it sounded great.
- Price may be a little high for those on a budget
- Does require a little bit of setup to get best out of it
The set up may be a little finicky and require some patience, but as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait and the sound this produces is out of this world.
3. Audio-Technica AT440MLB Phonograph Cartridge
- Costs right around 200 bucks
- Is very simple to get up and running
- It is great for someone just getting into vinyl
- Has a very sturdy design to it
- Provides good sound
At a little under a couple hundred bucks, you may wonder why this is on a list for the best phono cartridge under $500. But I do feel this is worth looking at if you want that good quality sound, but you do not want to pay a super high price. Audio-Technica is a company that makes great hi-fi products at affordable prices so I was interested in checking this out.
The style is not the coolest and while the version I checked out was made of a blue plastic, I have come to learn that there is a red one available. It has a little bit of a plastic look to it and I will admit in pictures it does have a bit of a “cheap” look to it. However, when you touch it, it does have a strong and well built feel to it so it is far higher quality than it looks.
To start with, if you are looking for a phono cartridge for a turntable that is easy to set up, this is as close to plug and play as you can get. Even if you are new to the hobby and just bought some records and a record player from the Goodwill, you would be able to plug this in right away. Sound quality wise, I was very happy with this. While the sound might not be quite as rich as with the other two phono cartridges I checked out, I can tell you that this provides a much crisper sound than the phono cartridge that comes with a record player will have.
For the average joe, I feel that this would be a perfect phono cartridge. It is affordable, it is easy to set up and it really will make them fall in love with vinyl records. For a real audiophile that loves to feel their music just as much as hear it, you might want to go for something a little more high end.
- Talk of a newer version about to be released
- Not the greatest sound I have ever heard
Also as of writing this review, I have learned that there is talk of a newer and improved version of this phono cartridge due in the next few months so keep that in mind, but if something lower priced is what you are after, you should take a closer look at this.
4. Ortofon – 2M Bronze MM Phono Cartridge
- Very cool design
- Made by Ortofon
- Loved by audiophiles
- Ideal if you want extreme clarity in your music
- Simple to set up
So full disclosure on this one, this is the one that I have not actually personally used, but I had such a great experience with the Ortofon one I was able to check out, I wanted to look at one of their higher end models. True with this one, we are getting close to that $500 price tag.
But if you are willing to spend that money and you are looking for the best phono cartridge under $500, I do feel that this is worth taking a closer look at. It has a really cool design, which they say is bronze, but I feel that it has an almost orange, amber kind of style face that I feel will compliment pretty much any record player set up.
Of course, I have not actually used this, but when looking on Amazon, it has some great reviews. Ortofon really goes all out saying that the tracking ability of this phono cartridge is fantastic and that is what is going to give your records an truly fantastic sound. I have heard that for live albums, in particular, this really does bring them to life and that is something I am very interested in experiencing.
- Rather high price
- Not for the casual music listener
I think that this is the kind of phono cartridge that is aimed at people who really want to feel that deep bass, experience the high treble and experience true vocal clarity. It is certainly not for the novice vinyl collector, but for someone who is serious about the hobby, I do feel that you need to take a closer look at this.
What Is The Best Phono Cartridge Under $500
At a guess, I would say that between the three phono cartridges I tested out I easily listened to 30 – 40 albums, many more than once. So I feel that I am in a good position to pick between the three. It is far harder than you would think, I really, really liked the Denon and it is between that and the Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge. Both provided fantastic sound quality and I am sure both will offer many years of use. The thing is there is one heck of a large price difference between the two.
I consider myself to be a real audiophile and even I did not notice a huge difference between these two phono cartridges. Which makes the huge price difference something that I have to take into consideration and as a result out of the three I tested, I would have to say that the Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge is, in my opinion, the best phono cartridge under $500. It sounds great, looks cool and costs just a little over 200 bucks, which if 500 bucks is your budget gives you way more money to spend on records!