Recommended Components 2022 Edition Phono Cartridges

Phono Cartridges


Air Tight PC-1 Coda: $10,000
Manufactured for Air Tight by Yoshio Matsudaira of My Sonic Lab, the PC-1 Coda MC cartridge has a very low impedance of 1.7 ohms and an output of 0.5mV, the latter higher than the moving coil norm. Its body is made from an alloy of aluminum, magnesium, and silicon, plated first in nickel and then in chrome. Compliance specs aren't supplied for the 12.7gm PC-1 Coda, but the tracking-force range is given as 2-2.2g; MF found the lower number insufficient and declared the cartridge's tracking capabilities only "moderately good" at best. Yet the PC-1 Coda impressed him as a "masterfully voiced, low-coloration cartridge that worked well with all musical genres." (Vol.42 No.4 WWW)

Analog Relax EX1000: $16,000
The top-of-the-line cartridge from Japanese company ZOOT Communication has a higher output voltage and a higher output impedance than typical moving coils. Nevertheless, not only did MF find that the Audio Relax was a superb tracker; he also wrote that "Velvet Fog" Mel Tormé had never been better served on record than through the EX1000: "The sonically sensual vocal presentation oozes 'velvet' without sounding at all soft, warm, or muffled, nor does it sacrifice transient articulation. This cartridge gets more of that correct than any other cartridge I've heard." (Vol.44 No.12 WWW)

Audio MusiKraft First Series DL-103: $989–$1529 ★
MusiKraft started business making precision-machined metal shells for the classic Denon DL-103 cartridge, but soon found themselves selling shells with stock DL-103s installed, and shell-only sales ended in late 2019. These "First Series" products are sold direct only and are distinct from the company's Nitro Series products, which use modified Denon cartridges, and which we have not auditioned. The MusiKraft shell is machined in such a way that its two pieces, when assembled, tightly clamp the Denon cartridge's top plate; each shell is predrilled with five sets of tapped mounting holes, thus making cartridge mounting and alignment easier than ever. Prices start at $1499 for a clear-anodized aluminum shell in which a new Denon DL-103 has been installed. A MusiKraft Denon with a polished aluminum-lithium shell ($1689) impressed AD all to hell and back: The MusiKraft lacked "the slight treble glare" associated with his stock Denon 103, and provided "pitches and pitch relationships [that] were steadily, solidly right," and "vocal textures and tones with real meat and color." In 2019, MusiKraft introduced a bronze shell ($1959 with DL-103); whether or not because the higher-mass material is more suited to the low-compliance 103, the new version impressed AD with an even more nuanced, impactful sound. Even in light of a recent price increase, AD felt the MusiKraft combinations of high-tech shells and stock DL-103 cartridges offer very good value. (Vol.40 No.8, Vol.42 No.10 WWW)

DS Audio Master 1: $22,500 with equalizer
The Master 1 is no longer the top model in DS Audio's line of three optical cartridges—transducers that use the vibrations of a phonograph needle to modulate the otherwise steady output of an LED instead of generating an electrical signal from scratch (sorry). The Master 1 replaces the DS-W1, which MF reviewed in the September 2015 Stereophile. Because the vast majority of phono stages are designed to cope with signals produced by velocity-sensitive cartridges, the amplitude-sensitive Master 1 requires a very different sort of stage, and so a dedicated equalizer is included in its not-inconsiderable price. In his review of the DS-W1, Mikey had wondered if the "distractingly overemphasized bass" he heard was attributable to a flaw in that product's equalizer; that guess became a near certainty when he tried the Master 1 with its all-new equalizer: the latter offers three different output curves, and one offered enjoyably flat, unboosted bass. The verdict: "In the Master 1, DS Audio has fulfilled the promise of the original DS-W1." Pertinent specs: The Master 1 weighs 8.1gm, sports a MicroRidge stylus on a sapphire cantilever, and requires a downforce of 1.6–1.8gm. (Vol.41 No.10 WWW)

EMT TSD 15: $1950 $$$ ★
The EMT TSD 15 is an A-style pickup head weighing just over 17.5gm and available with either EMT's proprietary diamond-shaped output-pin pattern or the more common SME square pattern. It has a high impedance of 24 ohms, a high output of 1.05mV, and a moderate recommended downforce of 2.5gm. The EMT's overall sound was open, clear, and transparent, with above-average presence, body, and color, and an outstanding sense of momentum and flow. "A fine all-arounder, combining starkly honest music-making with the sorts of refined sonic attributes most audiophiles cherish," said Art. Examining the EMT with a microscope revealed its distinctly small, sharp, spherical tip, which, AD conjectured, may be the reason for the stylus's exceptionally low groove noise. For special systems only, as it is a complete pickup head, not just a cartridge. (Vol.34 Nos.5 & 9 WWW)

Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue: $5750
Etsuro Urushi's Cobalt Blue moving coil cartridge—the least expensive of its three models—features scantly wound coils, a samarium-cobalt magnet with soft-iron flux-director pieces, and a sapphire-pipe cantilever fitted with a Microline stylus, all in a Duralumin body covered with blue Urushi lacquer. Specs include an impedance of 3 ohms, output of 0.25mV, and a weight of 8.1gm. HR got the best from the Cobalt Blue by pairing it with the 1:10 version of the EMIA Phono step-up transformer, writing that during the time it was in his system, "I never once took the Cobalt Blue's beguiling occupy-the-room presentation for granted. Every day it pleased me. Every day I thought, This cartridge could compete with any cartridge at any price." HR's closing thoughts: "I could dream away my sunset years listening only with the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue: It does everything I desire." "Analog is sensuous and tactile by nature, as is the character of the Etsuro Urushi Cobalt Blue," he subsequently wrote. (Vol.42 No.8, Vol.43 No.6 WWW)

Fuuga: $9275
The creators of the Fuuga—its name is Japanese for "elegance with flair"—were inspired by the classic Miyabi cartridges designed and built by Haruo Takeda, now retired. The low-compliance Fuuga retains the semicylindrical body of the best-known Miyabi models but exchanges their trademark alnico magnets for neodymium types. Output and impedance are both low—0.35mV and 2.5 ohms, respectively—and the hyperelliptical stylus tracks at 2.0–2.2gm. In his original review, MF praised the Fuuga's neutral tonal balance, lack of harshness/hardness, and "startling macrodynamic slam." His conclusion: "The Fuuga is, without a doubt, among the handful of highest-performing, most-enjoyable cartridges I have heard." In a Follow-Up, MF concluded that "Its spectral balance is as neutral as that of any transducer I've experienced, and its transient performance satisfies on every musical genre and maintains its consistency from bottom to top." (Vol.38 No.10, Vol.43 No.9)

Grado Epoch3: $12,000
Mikey wrote that the original Epoch, a moving iron design with a sapphire cantilever that pivoted at its innermost end and a body machined from the tonewood cocobolo, "glided silently and smoothly through the groove like no other cartridge I've heard." He also heard from the Epoch "a harmonic and textural richness laid on without too thick a coating of aural honey." The Epoch3 includes a newly developed four-step shielding technique that, according to Grado, "allows for the isolation of the wire turns in the four coils." MF found that the Epoch3 was similar in character to the original (and measured and tracked equally well), but "gets a better grip on everything, particularly in the bass and midbass, and is better focused." (Vol.40 No.12, original Epoch; Vol.43 No.4 WWW)

Grado Labs Lineage Epoch mono: $12,000
Based on the original, stereo version of Grado's Lineage Epoch (see elsewhere in "Recommended Components"), the Epoch Mono is a moving iron cartridge built into a bulky body carved from cocobolo, a dense tonewood. Although equipped with the usual two pairs of output pins, the Epoch Mono has only one pair of coils (the stereo version has two pairs), configured to respond to only the horizontal modulations of a single-channel groove. Those coils are wound from 24K gold wire; other precious substances in evidence are the Epoch Mono's diamond stylus and sapphire cantilever, the latter a first for a Grado cartridge. It tracks at between 1.5 and 1.9gm and wants to see a load of 47k ohms—and a healthy amount of quiet gain. That seen to, per Mikey, the Epoch Mono "beat every other mono cartridge I've heard in terms of effortlessness, harmonic transparency, and … harmonic expressiveness," and its "dynamic expressiveness was also unmatched." (Vol.42 No.3)

Grado Lineage Series Aeon3: $6000
This low-output (1mV) moving iron cartridge is housed in a broad cocobolo-wood body that, according to John Grado, allows more of the cartridge's 12gm mass to be balanced around the stylus point, stabilizing the motions of the cantilever. HR was surprised that when the Aeon3 was mounted on the J.Sikora Initial turntable, it out-Koetsu-ed the psychedelic Koetsu Rosewood Signature. "The Koetsu sounded slightly brighter, punchier, and sprightlier—but not more full-power dynamic than the Aeon3," he wrote, though he felt that the Grado was less corporeal than the Koetsu in the upper registers. After comparing the Aeon3 with other cartridges, both on the Initial and on the Dr. Feickert Blackbird turntable, HR decided that the Grado appeared to be "uncovering new, previously buried deposits of recorded microdata. That trait alone is making LPs extra-engaging and more pleasurable," he concluded. (Vol.43 No.6 WWW)

Hana Umami Red: $3950
The Umami Red features a gloss-red Urushi-lacquered Duralumin body with an ebony wood inlay. Stylus is a nude MicroLine diamond mounted on a boron cantilever. High-purity copper coils are wrapped on a square permalloy armature centered in a magnetic circuit that combines a samarium/cobalt magnet and an iron pole piece. Loaded with 80 ohms, this low-output moving coil impressed HR with the intensity with which it endowed familiar recordings, as well as the enhanced intelligibility of vocals, "natural-feeling contrast levels, grain-free clarity, and lifelike solidity." The Umami Red displayed sharper, more precisely focused images than the much less expensive Hana ML, he decided. (Vol.44 No.4 WWW)

Haniwa HCTR-CO MarkII: $10,000
The original version of this moving coil cartridge tracked everything cleanly at 1.2gm downforce, found MF. Used with the HCVC01 passive current-to-voltage converter (see "Phono Preamplifiers"), its presentation was on the cool side, though MF noted that "warm records did not lose their warmth altogether. The bottom end on everything I played, while not as prominent and rich-sounding as I've heard it, was taut, well-defined, and all there." He described the combination's presentation as "superfast, clean, transparent, and transient-precise" with excellent rhythm'n'pacing. Since that review was published, Haniwa's Dr. Kubo came up with what he considered significant improvements that included higher compliance and a new damper. He felt that anyone who'd already spent $10,000 on the cartridge deserved the upgrade free of charge. Compared with the original, the CO Mk.II "delivered a texturally and timbrally enriched sonic performance and overall greater transient finesse and delicacy," MF found. He concluded that when used with the HCVC01, the CO Mk.II offered "absolutely honest spectral balance and remarkable imaging solidity and stability, combined with "textural delicacy." (Vol.42 No.10, Vol.43 No.7 WWW, original version; Vol.44 No.6 WWW)

HiFiction X-quisite ST: $13,160
The high-mass, low-output X-quisite features a unique, patented "monobloc" transducer element consisting of a one-piece, high-strength ceramic cantilever and a square coil body that eliminates the joint almost always found in cartridges using aluminum, boron, sapphire, or diamond cantilevers. The stylus is an "X-diamond" MicroRidge, the armature is wound with silver wire, and the ST's body is made from layers of titanium, aluminum, and wood. The manufacturer recommends loading the cartridge at 400–800 ohms and setting the tracking force between 1.9gm and 2.1gm. Despite the usual low-frequency resonances having a higher Q than usual when the ST was mounted in a Kuzma 4Point arm—or maybe because of it—MF found that the X-quisite was the fastest, most direct and flat-out exciting-sounding cartridge he'd heard, with among the most natural, open, silky-smooth upper octaves. "Its sound was free of artificial ingredients—no hyperdefined edges or peaky, tipped-up top end to produce fake excitement; no resonant tricks that create 'sensuous warmth' not found in actual music." MF bought the review sample but the sound continued to change, finally settling in with a "shelved" quality in the upper octaves that worked for some recordings but not others. "The easily noticed character was disconcerting," he wrote, but was minimized when he used the X-quisite with the matching SUT X-20 step-up transformer. (See "Phono Preamplifiers.") (Vol.44 Nos.3 & 9 WWW)

Koetsu Onyx Platinum: $10,995
As AD noted in the December 2018 issue, "To compare the specifications of Koetsu's 15 different models is to glimpse little in the way of variety: all Koetsu cartridges have the same recommended ranges of VTF and load impedance; all of their platinum-magnet cartridges have the same 0.3mV output, while all their samarium-cobalt magnet cartridges output 0.4mV." That said, it turns out the Onyx Platinum's nominal mineral was the first nonwood, nonmetal material used in a Koetsu cartridge—and its nominal element went on to be used for the magnets in all of the company's top-end cartridges. Whether that makes the Onyx Platinum the pivotal model in Koetsu's line is anyone's guess—but AD was smitten by its abilities to let music sound colorful, forceful, well textured, and downright human when called for. (Vol.41 No.12 WWW)

Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum: $8495
Designed by Fumihiko Sugano, son of Koetsu founder Yoshiaki Sugano, the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum exhibits moderately low output (0.3mV), moderately low resistance (5 ohms), expects a downforce of 1.8−2.0gm, and is priced more or less in the very middle of Koetsu's product line. Of his time with the Rosewood Signature Platinum, HR wrote that "this Koetsu, with its lacquered rosewood body, silver-plated copper coils, quadrahedral stylus profile, boron cantilever, and platinum magnet, gave me a sixth-row seat for [a] long-cherished recording." When Herb loaded it with 100 ohms, "the result was an exceedingly rich and unaffected sound," and the Koetsu "seemed engineered to do nothing but hold my attention—my pleasurable fascination—as it showed me the art behind the music." Later comparing the Koetsu with a budget Audio-Technica moving magnet, HR wrote that he heard sublime ease and dramatic understatement: "Immediately, I grasped how unsubtle the VM95C was. I also received what felt like infinite amounts of micro-level information." However, although he felt that he didn't get closer to the living performers, as he had with the cheap cartridge, the Koetsu "did what it was designed to do: transform the quotidian into the marvelous." (Vol.41 No.12, Vol.44 No.1 WWW)

Lyra Atlas SL λ Lambda: $12,995
It's a Lyra tradition that the company often follows up their standard cartridges with low-output versions of same; so it goes with this most recent version of the Atlas SL, whose low output is accomplished with fewer turns of wire, resulting in less moving mass, lower internal impedance, and, presumably, faster response. Upon auditioning the new λ Lambda version, in which "the tapered dampers of the original cartridges are separated into flat, elastomer damping discs, while an additional support 'pillow' has been added to serve as the cantilever preload element," MF wrote that it "sounds like an entirely new cartridge," possessing a "quality of top-to-bottom, luxurious textural suppleness, sustain, timbral generosity, and midband warmth, while losing none of the speed, slam, and detail retrieval for which the Atlas SL (and the brand in general) is best known." (Vol.43 No.4 WWW)

Miyajima Labs Destiny: $7600
As with other Miyajima models, the Destiny is a "cross-ring" MC design that places the cantilever's suspension dampers in front of the coil former: Thus is the motor's fulcrum positioned for maximal dynamic swings as compared with other designs. Other specs include an African blackwood body, a 16 ohm internal impedance, output of 0.23mV, a recommended downforce of 2.5gm, and a line-contact stylus that's nude-mounted in a metal ferrule, itself bonded to a tapered-bamboo cantilever. In addition to praising the Destiny's build quality—azimuth and SRA were both spot-on—MF reveled in the new cartridge's sonic presentation, which "takes the [Miyajima] Snakewood's speed and detail, backs it off slightly, returns some of the early [Miyajimas'] bottom-end richness and weight, and makes everything bigger and bolder, yet well-proportioned." His conclusion: "the Destiny is for now Miyajima Labs' best performing cartridge." (Vol.42 No.12 WWW)

Miyajima Labs Infinity mono: $3475
Miyajima makes no fewer than five single-channel cartridges. The most expensive, the Infinity Mono, can be ordered with either a 0.7 mil or a 1.0 mil stylus attached to its aluminum cantilever. Carved from African blackwood and fitted with a robust magnet, the Infinity Mono is big and, at 14.8gm, more than a bit heavy. Specs include a 0.4mV output and a recommended downforce of 34gm (Mikey had good results at 3.5gm). Of the Miyajima monos Mikey has heard, the Infinity Mono struck him as "the line's fastest and most linear and neutral sounding." (Vol.42 No.3)

Miyajima Labs Madake Snakewood: $7500
Like the Miyajima Madake moving coil cartridge (see elsewhere in this edition of "Recommended Components"), the Madake Snakewood has a cantilever made in part from a strain of bamboo that grows only in the mountains surrounding Kyoto, Japan. Unlike the Madake, the body of which is carved from African blackwood, the Madake Snakewood's body is made of—get ready for it—snakewood, a substance so difficult to carve that it takes months to produce a single usable body. The Madake Snakewood has an output of 0.23mV, a suggested downforce of 2.5gm, and a low-compliance suspension. Describing the Snakewood as "a meth-infused Madake," MF praised its "faster, cleaner, leaner" sound, and opined that the Snakewood has "a more neutral midrange … and a faster, cleaner bottom end" than one usually associates with Miyajima cartridges, and that the Madake Snakewood performed well "with every kind of music." (Vol.41 No.4 WWW)

My Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent Ex: $6995
Notably, the titanium-bodied Ultra Eminent Ex moving coil cartridge mates an output level that's only moderately low (0.3mV) with an exceptionally low internal resistance (0.6 ohm). It does so thanks to the discovery by its maker, Yoshio Matsudaira, of a new magnetic material that allowed him to use fewer turns of coil wire—yielding lower moving mass, and the potential for greater detail retrieval—while maintaining a healthy output level. Recommended tracking force is 2gm. As HR wrote, "what struck me was how much the Ultra Eminent Ex's presentation sounded like analog tape," adding that the cartridge "excavated so much microlevel information that it seemed to reach some perceptual limit where recorded detail … begins to materialize into the person, instrument, or environment the information represents," and in doing so sounded "less mechanical than any other MC I've experienced." (Vol.41 No.12 WWW)

Ortofon MC A Mono: $5039
The MC A Mono ($4999) is an Ortofon A95 moving coil cartridge (reviewed in May and June 2015) with the cross-coil armature rotated 45° and wound only on the lateral axis so that it only reads horizontal (mono) groove modulations. It retains the stereo version's boron cantilever and Replicant 100 stylus profile. While MF still heard a few pops and ticks when listening to a mono album that had suffered from some "wear crackle," he found that the "wear crackle" was gone. "Not just diminished: gone," he wrote, adding that while the stereo A95's smooth, even, spectrally balanced persona was also evident, "standing behind that was the stability and black backdrop that only a true mono cartridge can provide." He described the MC A Mono as producing a more intense and forward picture (though neither cool nor bright) than the Miyajimas or the Grado Epoch3, concluding "It's one to consider if mono rock albums are in your mix, but not if you want more romance—in your phono cartridge, that is." (Vol.43 No.4)

Ortofon MC Anna Diamond: $10,499
Ortofon's MC Anna phono cartridge, introduced in 2013, apparently remains a popular choice for analog perfectionists who can afford its $8924 price, but it has now been joined in the line by a newer, more expensive variant, the MC Anna Diamond, into which has downtrickled the diamond cantilever of the company's limited-edition MC Century cartridge. In the MC Anna Diamond, the business end of that cantilever is fitted with Ortofon's Replicant 100 stylus, said to be the closest of any playback stylus to the lacquer-cutting stylus. Additionally, the new cartridge features a specially tuned suspension, an SLM-formed titanium body, and a nonmagnetic armature; specs include an output of 0.2mV, an internal impedance of 6 ohms, a weight of 16gm, and a recommended 2.4gm downforce. Used in his SAT CF1-09 tonearm, the Anna MC Diamond rewarded MF with sound that was "joltingly fast, clean, and transparent, yet with solidity, weight, and body." (Vol.42 No.9)

Ortofon MC Windfeld Ti: $5159
Derived from the first Windfeld model—which was designed by Ortofon's head of R&D, Leif Johannsen, and named for his predecessor in that position, Per Windfeld—the new Windfeld Ti MC cartridge differs from the original in its use of a titanium body core that flares at the top to form its mounting platform, which is drilled and tapped for cartridge bolts of the usual sort. (The Windfeld Ti's outer body is made of stainless steel.) The Ti's armature is also less magnetic than the first Windfeld's: a windfall (sorry) of the new cartridge's more sophisticated magnet structure. Other pertinent specs include an output of 0.2mV, an internal impedance of 7 ohms, and a specially polished, nude Replicant 100 stylus tip. According to MF, the Windfeld Ti, with which he used a vertical tracking force of 2.3gm, "retained all of the sweetness and lushness of the original Windfeld." He added that "no one will be disappointed by the Windfeld Ti's reproduction of space." Mikey's conclusion: "[$5159] buys you a piece of the highest echelon of cartridge performance for thousands fewer bucks." (Vol.40 No.8)

Ortofon MC Xpression: $5639
A unique blend of new and old technologies, the Xpression derives from Ortofon's cutting-edge MC A90, but is designed as a drop-in replacement for any G-style pickup head. It uses a Replicant 100 stylus, has a recommended downforce of 2.6gm, an impedance of 4 ohms, and a low (0.3mV) output. Compared to AD's original Ortofon SPU, the Xpression sounded just as solid, colorful, and forceful, but was more detailed, open, tactile, and revealing of nuance and technique. "The difference was real: Love my older Ortofon though I do, the Xpression was clearly more dramatic, with no penalty in texture or color," said Art. Not long after AD's review, JCA tried an Xpression with his combination of vintage Thorens TD 124 turntable and Schick 12" tonearm; for various reasons—at the time he felt it "cost way too much for what it was"—he set it aside, returning to it only recently. Improvements, in the interim, to his system and a better listening room left JCA "better prepared to hear and describe" the Xpression, which he now believes is "clearly and significantly better" than his own Ortofon 90th Anniversary SPU, with "less SPU-ish coloration" and "none of the attenuation of high frequencies that I [hear] from classic SPUs, but no extra tizz, either." (Vol.35 No.2, Vol.41 No.9 WWW)

Ortofon SPU Wood A: $2519
Earlier this century, fans of Ortofon's SPU pickups were saddened when the company ceased building their historically long-lived A-style SPUs: the stubby, squarish ones in which the distance from stylus tip to mounting socket is a relatively short 30mm—this in contrast to the longer, sleeker, G-style pickup heads, which endure. Yet 2018 saw the first new A-style model in over a decade, the descriptively named SPU Wood A. Built into a hardwood shell with an urushi lacquer finish, the Wood A has an internal impedance of 2.4 ohms, an output of 0.18mV, and a short aluminum cantilever fitted with a spherical stylus; recommended downforce is 4gm. AD wrote that the Wood A sounded "tactile, dynamic, meaty, and colorful, with a great sense of scale," and that it "excelled at conveying instrumental and vocal textures." The SPU Wood A offers tremendous bang for the buck. (Vol.41 No.12 WWW)

Ortofon Verismo: $6995
Housed in a titanium body produced by Selective Laser Melting, the low-output Verismo moving coil features a diamond cantilever to which is attached a Swiss-manufactured Replicant 100 line-contact stylus shaped to resemble a cutting stylus as closely as possible. MF found the Verismo's sound "fast," with sharp, finely drawn high-frequency transients yet with a lush and generous midrange and a tight, nimble, well-controlled bottom end—"knit together into a coherent sonic package." He found that the Verismo "deftly places well-focused, three-dimensional images in a natural-sounding space." (Vol.45 No.1 WWW)

Phasemation PP-2000: $6999
This Japanese manufacturer's top-of-the-line, low-output moving coil cartridge features an Ogura line-contact stylus mounted to a boron cantilever. The Duralumin body is attached to a stainless steel mounting base, both finished with a diamond-like carbon coating. MF wrote that "Even before break-in, the PP-2000 produced an expansive soundstage and a smooth spectral balance that was free of obvious defects or easy-to-hear limitations. … Instrumental attack was not overly sharp, but neither was it soft." MF found that electric bass sounded slightly soft, but the Phasemation did everything well enough to make it an easy and enthusiastic recommendation for classical and jazz lovers. Rock fans, he warned, are probably best off elsewhere. (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

Tedeska DST201ua: €5600 (approx $6370)
Made in Berlin by musician Hyun Lee, the Tedeska DST201UA is a hand-built moving coil cartridge encased in a hardwood body to which shellac has been applied using a traditional French polish technique. Its copper-wire coils are wound on an air-core former, bathed in the flux lines of a samarium-cobalt magnet; a line-contact stylus is fitted to the business end of its boron cantilever. Specs include an output of 0.3mV and an impedance of 18 ohms: a curious combination, as the latter seems much higher than the former would lead one to expect. Recommended downforce is 2gm. With the Tedeska in his system, MF expressed some disappointment that macrodynamics were less than fully expressed—"I wanted more oomph"—but praised the DST201UA as "a well-balanced, high-performance cartridge that bridges the gap between being too soft and too analytical." (Vol.42 No.1 WWW)

Top Wing Suzaku (Red Sparrow): $16,500
Described by its manufacturer as employing "coreless straight-flux" technology, the Suzaku moving magnet cartridge has a very low output (0.2mV), a moderate internal impedance (12.3 ohms at 1kHz), and a downforce range of 1.75–2gm, and is said to be nonsensitive to load capacitance. Because it's an MM design, the Suzaku's stylus is factory-replaceable for a mere 19% of the cartridge's total retail price; unfortunately, because that price is over $16k, a new stylus will nevertheless cost $3135: more than the price of many Class A phono cartridges. MF's first review sample of the Top Wing Suzaku, which performed disappointingly, turned out to be defective; a second sample impressed Mikey with its "smooth, airy, velvety, and vivid" sound, "with a particularly rich midrange that I wanted to sink my ears into." (Vol.42 No.5)

Tzar DST: $10,000
Tzar DST (wood-bodied): $11,000
Whereas most moving coil cartridges have their stylus at one end of a cantilever and their coils, wound on tiny coil formers, at the other, the Tzar DST—like the vintage Neumann DST 62 cartridge on which it's modeled—says to hell with the formers: Its coils are glued right to the cantilever just behind the stylus. The theoretical result is far less dynamic compression than with traditional MC designs—and reduced compression is precisely what AD heard from the Tzar: "The Tzar DST is the most incredibly tactile, forceful, and altogether open-throttled pickup I've ever tried." He added that the Tzar "allowed strings to sound sweet and utterly huge, with extraordinarily good, snappy, vibrant note attacks." Created under the direction of tonearm designer Frank Schröder, the Tzar DST differs from the Neumann in its use of an aluminum body and a carbon-fiber cantilever. Its compliance, though unspecified, was observed by AD to be very low—recommended downforce is 3.2–4gm—and its output is a mere 0.25mV. (Schröder recommends pairing it with a step-up transformer of moderately high inductance; AD had best results with a borrowed NOS Neumann Bv33.) AD asked, "Is there a place in the market for a $10,000, Siberia-made phono cartridge?" The Tzar DST answers with a resounding Yes. In a Follow-Up, MF echoed AD's praise for the original Tzar and said about the wood-bodied version, which also has a brass top plate, that it produced "all of the aluminum-bodied version's weight and 'straight from the groove to your body and brain' musical communication, but it lightened the heaviness somewhat, with some rounding and airiness where the original was angular and literal." (Vol.39 No.1, Vol.43 No.9 WWW)


Aidas Audio Gala Gold LE: $5500
This "midline" cartridge features coils wound with 99.5% pure gold wire. A Namiki MicroRidge stylus is attached to an "Adamant boron composite" cantilever. Recommended VTF is 1.9–2.1gm, and the suggested loading range is 100–1000 ohms. MF described the Aidas cartridge's timbral balance as "neutral, particularly in the midbass and midrange, and well-extended from bottom to top with a subtle, slightly warm sonic signature (no lumps and/or bumps)." "It did everything well and nothing poorly," he decided, noting that if rock is your main music, you might want something with a slightly harder edge. (Vol.44 No.1 WWW)

DS Audio DS-E1 optical cartridge and equalizer: $2750
MF was not a fan of the original DS Audio optical cartridge, but he was impressed by this version version. An elliptical stylus is attached to an aluminum cantilever, and the DS-E1 tracks between 1.6gm and 1.8gm. MF wrote that the earlier version's "plasticky sound" was completely gone, and the low-frequency balance was "in the pocket"—not at all overemphasized. He added that even with its elliptical stylus, this optical cartridge was fast and remarkably transparent. The price includes the necessary equalizer module. (Vol.44 No.2 WWW)

DS Audio DS003: $2500 plus price of energizer
This "optical" cartridge operates by projecting light from an LED onto a tiny "shading plate" mounted at the center of the cantilever. As the stylus moves through the record grooves, the cantilever and shading plate move and varying amounts of light reach the photodetector, which generates an electric current in proportion to the amount of light it receives. All optical cartridges need to be used with an energizer; HR started his auditioning with the $1500 E1 energizer, then upped his game with the 003 energizer ($3500). With the E1, HR felt that the DS003 was quieter and more 3D-lucid than the DS-E1 cartridge with the same energizer. (MF reviewed the DS-E1 in Vol.44 No.2.) However, when HR connected the 003, he realized that the E1 sounded dry and slightly gray. HR concluded that the DS003 and the more expensive energizer "specialized in producing a vivid clarity framed in a beguiling chiaroscuro" coupled with "super-silky silences" and "taut, tuneful, textured bass." (Vol.44 No.11 WWW)

Dylp Audio NATURE Ruby-1 MC FG II: $1200
See Michael Fremer's review in this month's Analog Corner.

EMT HSD 006: $1860
Subsequent to moving their phono-cartridge division from Germany to Switzerland, EMT introduced the new entry-level HSD 006, built into a semi-open aircraft-aluminum body with threaded mounting holes. Inside is a version of EMT's classic TSD-series motor, characterized by high impedance (24 ohms) and output (1.05mV), with an alnico magnet and an aluminum cantilever to which is fitted a Super Fine Line stylus. Recommended downforce is 2.4gm. In AD's system, the HSD 006 sounded "like a TSD 15, but a little more modern. All of the old model's strengths are here but with an increase in detail." The HSD 006 impressed AD as "more spatially accomplished and perhaps a little more tactile" than the TSD 15, and suggested that, when partnered with the right tonearm and phono stage, "it will sing." (Vol.42 No.12 WWW)

Goldring E3: $169 $$$
Goldring's budget E series—"designed in the UK, made in Japan"—consists of three versions: the conical-tipped, carbon-cantilevered E1 ($100), the conical-tipped, aluminum-cantilevered E2 ($129), and the elliptical-tipped, aluminum-cantilevered E3 ($169). When HR auditioned the E3, he commented that "It brought out every note with a precision I never imagined a moving magnet could muster." He added that the E3 "played [music] with much of the realism and complexity it does with a Koetsu" and noted the cartridge's superb PRaT (pace, rhythm, and timing). (Vol.44 No.1 WWW)

Hana EL MC: $475 $$$ ★
Commissioned by Sibatech Inc. and manufactured by Excel Sound, both of Japan, the Hana EL is a low-output (0.5mV) moving coil cartridge built with alnico magnets and fitted with an aluminum cantilever and elliptical stylus. (A higher-output version, the Hana EH, is available for the same price but has not yet been tested.) Compliance is medium to medium-low—and thus well suited to the SME M2-9 tonearm used by HR, who declared that "the EL's basic sonic character was highly musical and exceptionally nonmechanical." (Vol.39 No.8 WWW)

Hana ML Moving Coil: $1200 $$$
Forget that the new Hana ML is the costliest Hana so far: This low-output (0.4mV) moving coil cartridge is nevertheless priced lower than the perfectionist-audio average. The Hana ML boasts a Delrin body topped with a brass cap, the latter with threaded inserts for the mounting bolts; an aluminum pipe cantilever; an alnico magnet; and a nude Microline stylus. Specs include a lowish compliance, a weight of 9.5gm, and an impedance of 8 ohms. HR heard from the ML a tendency to smooth out those natural textures that more expensive cartridges are paid to excavate, but it was also capable of letting music sound "brilliant and conspicuously in the room." HR loved the Hana's "beguiling, tubelike sound," but he noted that it "could not out-rock or out-reggae the Zu/Denon [DL-103]." His conclusion: "a stunning-sounding, artfully engineered phono invention that loves all music, and a fantastic bargain." (Vol.42 No.8 WWW)

Hana SL Mono: $750 $$$
Like the standard Hana SL, the Hana SL Mono is a low-output (0.5mV), highish-impedance (30 ohms) moving coil cartridge with an alnico magnet, an aluminum cantilever, and a nude Shibata stylus. That last spec surprised HR, most of whose favorite mono pickups have spherical styli—yet during an afternoon of playing 45s, he was won over by the SL Mono's "unprecedented ability to hear everything that had never before been exposed by my spherical-tipped cartridges. Single after single, the Hana SL Mono made sound that was decidedly present, punchy, finely detailed, and liquid." Unlike those cartridges regarded by purists as true mono pickups—such as EMT's discontinued OFD models—the Hana SL Mono does exhibit vertical compliance, and the output signal appears on both its pairs of output pins. (Vol.41 No.10 WWW)

Hana SL: $750 $$$
Herb Reichert wrote about the Hana SL almost immediately after reviewing a slew of $5000+ cartridges, and observed that switching to the $750 Hana "did not feel like a depressing step down." At the business end of the Hana's aluminum cantilever is a Shibata stylus—cause, HR says, for the user to give "more-than-usual care" to cartridge alignment and downforce and antiskating settings—and deep in the Hana SL's plastic-bodied heart is an alnico magnet, to which Herb attributes the cartridge's timbral realism and ability to make "singers and instruments sound denser and more real." Pertinent specs include a low (0.5mV) output, a recommended downforce of 2gm, and a recommended load impedance of over 200 ohms. Like its stablemate, the Hana SL Mono, this moving coil cartridge impressed Herb with its "naturally supple viscosity and glowing vivid tone." (Vol.41 No.10 WWW)

MuTech Kanda: $5000
Like the Transfiguration Temper before it, the MuTech RM-Kanda Hayabusa moving coil cartridge uses a yokeless system in which a mu-metal coil former is precisely positioned within a powerful neodymium ring magnet. The proximity of coil to magnet and the coil's position at the magnet's center is claimed to produce a uniformity of magnetic flux field—and, in MF's words, "more linear frequency response and greater spatial coherence." That this low-impedance (1.5 ohm) cartridge outputs a relatively healthy output (0.45mV) is further evidence of its magnetic efficiency. Other specs include a boron cantilever, a semi-line-contact stylus, and a recommended downforce of 1.8–2.0gm. In Mikey's system, the RM-Kanda Hayabusa was "more linear and honest than flashy or wow-inducing," and its top-to-bottom response featured "well-controlled, unbloated bass, a smooth, full-bodied midrange, and satisfying top-end extension and air." (Vol.42 No.3)

Ortofon 2M Black LVB 250: $999
Compared with the basic 2M Black, the LVB uses the low-mass boron cantilever/nude Shibata assembly found on Ortofon's Cadenza Black. The new rubber suspension compound is based on a multiwall carbon nanotube nano filler compound for which Ortofon claims "desirable mechanical properties" as well as greater environmentally friendly production characteristics. Used with the SME Model 6 (see "Turntables"), the 2M Black LVB "sounded detailed, open, and extended on top," wrote MF. (Vol.44 Nos.5 & 9 WWW)

Ortofon Cadenza Black: $2879
Playing a 1997 test pressing of Ahmad Jamal's Alhambra, MF found that, with the Cadenza Black, SME's Model 6 turntable "exploded to life." It offered "drum slam, transparency, and bass finesse." (Vol.44 No.5 WWW)

Sculpture A.3l: $1955
Based on the venerable Denon DL-103 moving coil but "heavily modified," this French cartridge features a body of vaporized and impregnated wood and a nude, line-contact III stylus attached to a boron cantilever. MF found that the Sculpture cartridge, used with the Sculpture A SUT (see "Phono Preamplifiers"), was "magic" on a Bill Henderson LP, commenting that with fairly dry, closely miked recordings with acoustic instruments, the listenability was off the charts. But he cautioned that with other kinds of recordings—hard rock and especially ambience-rich, distantly miked ones—the cartridge had a "wet kiss from your least favorite aunt" quality that, while still magically liquid, artifact-free, and you-are-there enticing, could swallow detail and transient information in a sea of warmth and atmosphere that was not, strictly speaking, on the record. HR agreed. (Vol.44 Nos.5 & 11 WWW)

Sumiko Songbird: $899
With its aluminum cantilever and elliptical stylus, the high-output Songbird moving magnet reminded HR of Sumiko's famously high-value Blue Point that Stereophile favorably reviewed in 1993. "In lower-priced cartridges, I look for accurate tone and some type of natural vitality. Which is exactly what the mildly broken-in Songbird exhibited," wrote HR, concluding that the Songbird, "with its sweet tone and subtle textures, is cut from the same sonic cloth as its Reference series sibling, the Starling." (Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

Sumiko Starling: $1899
Sumiko's newest high-compliance (12 × 10–6 cm/dyne), low-output (0.5mV) moving coil is specified as having a 28 ohm internal impedance. It weighs 9.5gm and has a boron cantilever fitted with a MicroRidge stylus. Loaded at 200 ohms, the Starling's sound was sweet and smooth. "Less obviously, it showed a quiet, grainless, highly spatial character that made it feel luxurious," wrote HR, adding that "in my room, through my system, the Sumiko Starling played my records with a dark, nanodetailed refinement that elucidated whatever sophistications the recordings and the music had to offer." (Vol.44 No.7 WWW)

Zu Audio DL-103 Mk.II: $499–$1099 $$$
The Zu/DL-103 Mk.II cartridge replaces the original Zu Audio DL-103 (see Stereophile's October 2007 issue), itself the first modification of the classic Denon DL-103 to achieve widespread recognition and commercial success. For the Mk.II version, the basic formula remains—Zu strips away the Denon's plastic housing and repackages its motor and output-pin block in a precision-machined aluminum body—but here the body has been reshaped to make better contact with the motor and better resist the buildup of sound-sullying resonances. Also new are an improved epoxy for holding the motor in place, and a body shape that permits the use of the Denon cartridge's original stylus guard. The Zu DL-103 Mk.II is available in three versions, the differences between them determined by the tolerances Zu observes while hand-selecting stock Denon cartridges: Grade 1 ($599), Grade 2 ($699), and Grade 2 Premium ($999). AD, who regarded the original Zu Audio/Denon DL-103 as a giant-slayer of Homeric proportions, thought the Grade 2 Premium Zu DL-103 Mk.II went even further, offering fine musical timing and "an ocean of tone." (Vol.41 No.4 WWW)


Audio-Technica AT-VM95C, E, H, ML & SH: $39–$199 depending on stylus $$$
A series of cartridges based on the no-longer-available Audio-Technica AT95E, the VMs all use the same body with a choice of interchangeable styli. Comparing the top-model, the Shibata-tipped AT-VM95SH ($199), with his reference moving magnet, Ortofon's 2M Black, HR felt the A-T had more push and bounce, keeping the beat and carrying the tune better than the Ortofon. Switching to the elliptical-stylus VM95E ($49), he wrote that "the sound had even more pulse, presence, and genuine reggae-music energy. … It made the Shibata-tipped VM95 sound overly smooth and polite." Changing to the conical-stylus AT-VM95C ($34), HR found that it sounded "cool, fast, and powerful but also detailed and invigorating." He concluded that the cheapest A-T with its conical stylus was, music-pleasure–wise, the most satisfying cartridge of the family. (Vol.44 No.1 WWW)

Denon DL-103: $349 $$$ ★
In production since 1962, the DL-103 is a resolutely old-fashioned cartridge with a two-piece plastic body. Its two-piece aluminum cantilever drives a cross-shaped armature wound with several turns of fine-gauge copper magnet wire. Its nude, square-shank diamond stylus is ground to a spherical tip. Though the Denon offered excellent bass depth and impact, with an overall exciting and "pleasantly forward" sound, its high-frequency response peak made bright recordings "a bit more forward than ideal." Nonetheless, AD deemed it "a superb cartridge and a remarkable buy." Compared to Denon's new DL-A100 100th Anniversary moving coil phono cartridge, AD's old DL-103 was tubbier in the bass, but just as dynamic and dramatic. Performance with the stock spherical stylus tip squeaks into low Class B, he adds, saying that, "apart from various Miyajimas and the always-recommendable Miyabi 47, it's hard for me to think of another standard (non-pickup-head) type of cartridge that has this much impact and drama." KM's go-to cartridge. Borderline Class B. (Vol.3 No.9, Vol.30 Nos.10 & 12, Vol.34 No.12, Vol.39 No.9 WWW)

Dylp Audio Windbell MC100 MkII: $350
See Michael Fremer's review in this month's Analog Corner.

Dylp Audio Windbell MC100 Mono: $325
See Michael Fremer's review in this month's Analog Corner.

LP Gear Carbon Fidelity CF3600LE: $49.98 $$$
Based on Audio-Technica's ubiquitous and universally heralded AT3600, the CF3600LE replaces the AT3600's aluminum cantilever and conical diamond stylus with a 0.0003" × 0.0007" elliptical stylus and a carbon-fiber cantilever. HR found that this moving magnet initially failed to satisfy—but after 12 hours of continuous play, the CF3600LE sounded quiet, lushly detailed, and engaging, especially on female vocals. (Vol.44 No.1 WWW)

Ortofon 2M Black: $695 ★
Partnered with the budget-priced Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3 phono preamp, the "ridiculously good" Ortofon 2M Black produced a bright, open sound with "surprising heft and slam." Because its Shibata stylus is sensitive to rake angle, the 2M Black should be used only with tonearms that permit adjustment of VTA and SRA, Mikey advised. (Vol.32 No.12)

Ortofon 2M Blue: $239 $$$ ★
Affordable moving magnet cartridge with user-replaceable elliptical diamond stylus. With the Blue mounted in a Music Hall Ikura turntable and arm, BJR found that "the transients and bloom of the string quartet were reproduced with no trace of coloration or smear." Superb transient articulation and dynamics. "Competes with cartridges at double its price. Also an excellent match for both the Music Hall Ikura and VPI Nomad turntables," he adds. (Vol.37 No.12 WWW)


Ortofon 2M Red: $99 $$$ ★
The least expensive of Ortofon's 2M moving magnet cartridges (the series name is shorthand for MM), the Red offers a 5.5mV output, a replaceable elliptical stylus, highish compliance, a recommended tracking force of 1.8gm, and a square-front body with threaded mounting holes, for ease of installation. SM declared the 2M Red's dynamic range "vastly wider" than that of the less expensive Ortofon OM 5E, and praised the new cartridge's clean, fast, grainless sound. SM's verdict: "If you're looking for a high-value cartridge … the 2M Red is an excellent place to start." Borderline Class C. (Vol.37 No.5, Vol.38 No.2 WWW)

Audio-Technica ART1000, Dynavector 10x5, Koetsu Rosewood Standard, Kuzma CAR-50, and Car-60, Miyajima Saboten and Saboten L, Ortofon CG 25DI Mono Pickup Head, Techdas TDC01 TI, Rega Elys 2 MM, not auditioned in a long time.

donnrut's picture

Not a single disc player reviewed under $4 thou??? Come on. I don't drive a Porsche Taycan or a Lambo. I have a $7 thou turntable rig assembled over several years of upgrades. My SACD player died 5 years ago, and now, I am in the market for $500 or $1000 disc player. I'll stream eventually but I have listened to my CDs, tossed out the bad ones and have maybe 200 that are well engineered/mastered, about 50 SACDs. I want S'phile to help me get a decent player. There are maybe half a dozen newish models.

johnnythunder1's picture

been doing a little research. The Hegel (discontinued) was 5k. The Bryston is 3+k. Ive had my eye on a Rotel CD 11 Tribute. It's like $600 and gets very good reviews.

AndyT2050's picture

I have a Rega Research Apollo Cd Player. Beautiful sound, nice design in my opinion. Not too expensive

moinau's picture

Nothing in the 500 to 1000$ range SACD player, although this Arcam might interest you.
Arcam CDS50

Ulfilas's picture

There is one recommended in the integrated amps category:

I have one myself, and grateful for the recommendation I am.

rlo's picture

Can you please bring back the links on the mobile page that let you jump to the relevant recommended component page? This has been missing for the last few. It’s quite annoying to have to switch to desktop theme to be able to go directly to the page I want (e.g. loudspeakers, amplifiers etc)

Jonti's picture

I've had mine for about 18 months and still have a sense of quiet awe every time I listen to/through it.

Tube-rolling can also yield excellent results. I have switched to NOS Mullards, which work a treat by (to my EAR) thickening the syrup and stirring the pot in such a way that the ends and edges of trailing sounds glisten, firing off from a weightier centre. (The stock EAR-stamped tubes were fine, just different: lighter-sounding, I think; I assume Tim would have approved the use of NOS Mullards given his views on the quality of many new tubes doing the rounds.)

Just for the benefit of any readers thinking about rolling those tubes, here's some extra instruction I received from an engineer at EAR Yoshino on how to go about it:

"Remove the top cover by removing four screws on the bottom of the unit. The jumper plug is located on the left side of smaller power supply circuit board labeled ECC83 and 13D16. The default position for the jumper is 13D16 with standard 13D16 valves fitted. If ECC83 valves are fitted then move the jumper one position to the right in the ECC83. position."

And finally, on the subject of MM/MC carts, I think it's fair to say (as correctly reflected in its rating here) that the Phono Box gives a solid platform to MC carts but really excels with MM/MIs. Try it with a London Decca!

[Edited version of post on Herb's original review]

hesson11's picture

The comments under the heading "Harbeth P3ESR XD" seem to imply that the XD version is identical to the 40th Anniversary edition, which Herb reviewed. Is that, in fact, the indisputable truth? I don't believe I've ever seen any official word that this is, in fact, the case.