This is what I currently use as front end: A Garrard Classic 401 idler drive turntable, bought new old stock, fitted on a massive Baltic birch plywood plinth, sitting on top of a block of limestone. Instead of attaching it straight to the mains I use an external motor controller designed as an adjustable sine wave generator which makes my 401 measurements as good as the best currently produced turntables while maintaining the huge torque and bottom extension only classic idlers can come up with.
Two tonearms, on the right side sits the vintage classic SAEC 308 in the long version, with SAEC’s stabilizing weight along with several original counterweights and a variety of headshells for all possible combinations. Above there is the fabulous, oil damped, Kuzma 4point, an absolute reference tonearm that simply put, goes out-of-the-way sound-wise, while providing the perfect support for any given cartridge. Tonearm cables come from Signal Projects, namely, their Apollon and Andromeda.
Phono stage was sourced from German firm ASR, the Basis exclusive, a battery operated behemoth with two independent, fully adjustable modules and enough filtering capacitance to run a house for a week (1.2Farad..)
Cartridges wise and depending on the period I might have something like ten on constant rotation, divided among moving coil and moving magnet designs almost equally. Truth be told I tend to use the MCs more than the MMs and my precious one remains the ZYX 1000 airy3 – copper coils – low output version. Also in hand the Denon 103R, 102 mono, Fidelity Research PMC-1 (air core coil design) and the Shure V15 III, 97xE, Audio Technica 20SLa among others.
Does all this sound like an expensive hobby? Yes, at $35K probably more than it should be. The question is, can you have fun with less? Much less preferably? Read on, these are my perennial recommendations for spare change entry-level to affordable high-end analog components.
Starting with cartridges, the cheapest, won’t buy you peanuts money, cart I can recommend is the Red Ed, an OEM product discovered by Ed Saunders a few years back and retailing for the amazing amount of $15.95. Please check the pics, does it look somewhat familiar? Yes, it is pretty much the same with the Goldring Elan (or for the matter the Empire 105, the Fischer ST55D and another dozen carts out there). What you get is the un-badged version of a classic cheapo but absolutely not bad sounding cart. For another 22.95 you can even have a conical 78rpm tip for your shellac collection.
Fancy spending a bit more, try the Audio Technica 95e (e as elliptical stylus tip). Officially priced at $74.00, can be found for 39.99 on Amazon and sometimes for even less on eBay stores. Bought one as a gift to my sister, whose daughter made sure to half destroy her Project TT and clearly ripped the tip away from their Ortofon OM-5E. The AT95e uses the dual magnet design just like the pricier AT carts, in fact rumor has it that the same generator is what can be found inside the Clearaudio MM cartridges (although with better bodies and much more refined stylus tips) which still retail ten to twenty times more.
Up next, the Shure M97xE with MSRP at $99. No matter what you read this is not on par with the venerated V series. I know as I have both a V15 III and a nice 97xE, the V15 is on another league and remains my favorite MM design for the smooth, relaxed and full-bodied sound. The 97 comes very close, character is quite similar and for those who might find the AT95e a bit harsh on the upper octaves the 97xE will be manna coming from the sky. Packaging is exquisite considering the price, the 97 arrives on a nice metalic box complete with screw driver and cleaning brush.
Things start to get very interesting with this next proposal, the all time classic Denon 103R. A design capable to hold its own for more than 50 years, the 103 has seen several iterations but the one to have, value for money wise is the “R”, retailing for $379 (though as always it can be found for less). This is a fantastic cartridge with nice, silky mid range and rather good bottom extension. It might lack some upper range detail but it will never sound harsh or metallic like some of the entry-level MMs. There is a catch, it absolutely needs a heavy tonearm/ headshell to properly work and add to the bass extension its intrinsic hefty character. Also keep in mid that it will only output 0.25 to 0.3mV depending on how lucky you are, mine is perfectly balanced at .27 for both channels, so you do need a phono stage capable of handling low output moving coils or a nice step up transformer.
Speaking of which let me introduce you to CineMag. The US company was founded in the late seventies and currently produces microphone transformers and inductors for Hollywood pros. What is all this have to do with us? Microphone transformers are very similar to MC step up transformers. You see where I am going here, don’t you? If you have some elementary DIY skills Cinemag is your ticket to analog heaven. With a cost of less than $300 depending on the model you might choose you could build a fantastic sounding SUT for your Denon 103R (use the middle gain leads) just like the one that I have been using for years with excellent results. No good in soldering a few cables and connectors? Try Bob’s Devices. Bob has been assembling his devices with off the shelf or custom designed transformers for years and depending on the model prices range from $1195 to $1650 for the VPI add-on version. Scot wrote about these back in 2014.
The only tonearm I will recommend for this price range is the Jelco SA-750, built-in Japan to strict tolerances from Ichikawa Jewel Co. If it does not ring any bells let me inform you that Jelco has been providing OEM tonearms to half the turntable manufacturers out there, who will usually pick the entry-level 250 design over the more complex 750 one. The 750 in fact comes in 9, 10 and 12inch lengths and thanks to the two counterweights, SME type removable headshell and adjustable VTA it can accommodate just about every cartridge on the market.
The 750 even offers the possibility to oil damp the pivot which is a feature usually found on much pricier designs, nothing to do with the $600 give or take of the Jelco models. With the Jelco 14gr HS-25 headshell this is a match made in heaven for the Denon 103R. Staying in Jelco territory, the company offers a very nice set of affordable tonearm cables with both XLRs or RCAs, built with studio grade Mogami Neglex 2534 cable and high quality connectors. I keep this as my affordable alternative to the Signal Projects cables which cost 30 to 40 times more.. The complete Jelco set including the tonearm, headshell and cable can be found for less than $900.
Going back to cartridges and for those who want to go entry-level high-end the Shelter 501, now in the mkIII version is the safest bet for smooth, detailed and finely articulated sound. This is probably the best all-rounder I can think of, making sweet music, extended from top to bottom and being fatigueless at the same time. To be picky I could accuse it of being somewhat polite even on rock tracks, and bass is not as fast as with the ZYX 1000, but at almost one-third of the price it sure looks like an audiophile bargain. The mk II already was an excellent cartridge and could be found for less than $900, unfortunately the current mk III went up a couple of hundred $ but still remains a valid if not unbeatable offer for the money.
Phono stage choice is probably the trickiest as I cannot stress enough the importance of a quiet device. When it comes to analog the difference between a nice set up and a great one comes from signal to noise ration of your phono stage. Reason is rather simple, you need to amplify the signal by hundreds of times for your main amplifier to be able to handle it. The slightest noise will also be amplified and there goes fine detail retrieval and dynamic range. If your receiver/ pre amplifier does not offer a decent phono input the iFi iPhono deserves your attention as it packs just about every possible feature one could ask, including the absolutely necessary capacitance and resistive loading option that will make your pick up work properly. Had the iPhono for a long period and placed it against the ASR basis exclusive which obviously bettered it in aspects like microdynamics, treble and soundstage though the small iFi managed to hold its own pretty well. For $399 you cannot ask for more, or maybe you can as since my review iFi launched an improved mk II version which promises even more dynamic range thanks to the redesigned and more quiet circuits.
Going up a bit, the Trichord research Dino mk III at $700 for the base model also offers selectable gain and loading while with some extra cash one can upgrade to even higher quality external power supplies which add to the package non indifferently. Whatever your choice in phono stages is always make sure they come with adjustable settings, a fixed gain or loading most of the times ends up being a disaster no matter how good the circuitry is.
Saved for last a couple of turntables that will get you there, in analog bliss land. The first is a no brainer, the Rega Planar 3. Roy Gandy, the brilliant owner of the UK company found the guts to replace the award-winning, and for good reason, RP3 when it was clear he could better certain aspects of the previous model by introducing redesigned bearing, sub-platter, tonearm and making the d@mn thing even more sexy with high gloss paint job and a glass platter. Like every audiophile leaving this side of the Atlantic I had a Rega turntable as a student, a Goldring rebadged one actually, which kept me company for years before moving to bigger toys. That Rega has been on permanent loan for years now as I am using it for making new analog acolytes among friends who eager to try what vinyl is all about. Currently fitted with the Shure 97xE mentioned above, the only downside of this turntable remains the fact that requires careful placement such as a wall-shelf. The cartridge-less version of the P3 can be found for less than $900.
Finally moving a bit closer to audiophile territories the VPI Scout 1.1 retailing just above $2000 when fitted with the JMW-9T tonearm should be on your top picks for quality affordable turntable. The Scout packs most of the features usually found on much pricier models such as a heavy, damped, aluminum platter, an isolated motor from the main chassis for reducing vibrations and finely machined bearing with PEEK thrust plate for low rumble. Despite the footers being a step above the ones found on the Rega P3 I wouls still advise for a nice shelf or isolation platform. The JMW-9 tonearm presents an inertial mass of 10gr to the cartridge, meaning that all choices discussed earlier, with the sole exception of the Denon 103R, will be a nice match for your VPI; still for such a design I would opt for the Shelter 501 and call it a day.
One last thing, make sure you save some money for records, even the best analog gear won’t play a tune without a fine record collection. Keep things in perspective, if you own just a handful of LPs set up an entry-level rig, once you get to a more substantial library move up with your equipment as well. In the future we might make an all-out assault on high-end analog equipment.
Cables : Signal Projects Monitor and Hydra speaker cables, Signal Projects Apollon and Atlantis tonearm cables, Golden Sequence power cords, Jelco JA506XLR tonearm cable, Black Cat Triode RCA interconnect, Stereolab Superleggera Blue interconnect, Belkin Gold USB cables, Das Klang USB cable,
Raspberry Pi 2 streamer (linear PSU, Moode OS, Archphile OS)
About the Author
Born and raised in Athens, Greece, I had my first experiences with music through my uncle’s reel to reel rock tapes, grandfather’s 45’s of folk music and a futile passage at the conservatorium where I was supposed to learn the guitar. The guitar never happened but music grew strong into me and during the 80’s, I could not get myself off the boombox, listening to just about everything I could lay my hands on.
By the time I was 15, I had my own radio show at a local station, rock music mostly. What a year it was for me to actually go on air with my “the other side” weekly. It was the early 90’s, so a mix of vinyl and CD would do the job.
Time flew and I found myself in Italy, studying medicine and listening to classic music. And as the musical tastes evolved, so did my hifi system. From Marantz, NAD, B&W, Rega all the way to ASR, ATC, Garrard and with a touch of DIY I loved each and every single piece of hardware.
I honestly believe that there are more ways to happiness. I enjoy using both solid state and tube gear, MM and MC carts. I must admit that I am particularly fond of the analog sound of vinyl and my music collection is heavily biased towards the black and not the silver discs.
Financial Interests: Pan is also a contributor to Enjoy The Music while recently launched his personal site, Audiohub.gr. And yes, he really is a practicing medical doctor.
Welcome to the Best Phono Cartridges, Tonearms, and Headshells section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2022. The Guide is more than “We heartily endorse this [fill in the blank ].” This collection represents […]