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The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges | Buyers Guide 2021











the best tonearms

The Best Tonearms

[Editor’s note: Welcome to the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for 2021! This year we decided to mix it up a little by breaking up the Buyers Guide into sections, which makes it a far more manageable read. And oh, we know what you’re thinking–the best tonearms and cartridges? Have you seen the prices of those things lately? What we really need is the best tonearm/cartridge combo for under $100, amirite? Let’s clear this up: these are the best tonearms and cartridges that we, the PTA team, have heard.]

Tonearms

Thomas Schick ($2,000 USD)

This tonearm has a relatively low price because it’s a relatively simple design, but its elegance is off the charts. The Schick arm is ideal for SPUs and can be ordered to match both SPU-A and SPU-G designs. You can also select from a long list of options—arm lengths, finishes, headshells, cables and more.

The Wand Master Series ($2,500-3,250 USD depending upon length)

The flagship Master Series of unipivot tonearms from New Zealand’s The Wand features an unusually thick carbon-fiber arm tube that is much more rigid than normal tubes, and enough accessories to mount it on many, many different ‘tables. (It comes in 9.5”, 10.3” and 12” lengths.) Competitive with much more expensive arms, The Wand will convince you that a properly designed tonearm can have a huge impact on the sound of your analog rig.

Kuzma 4Point ($3,795-8,995 USD depending on length and options)

Named for the fact that its zero-play bearing is configured on four points, the Kuzma has quietly emerged as one of the finest tonearm designs on the market today. (A certain designer of a six-figure turntable we know claims nothing else comes close.) The four-point design certainly thrills the engineers out there—it’s an elegant way of ensuring the cartridge stays in the groove with minimal vibrations, sort of an important feature.

Audio Origami PU-7 ($3,995 USD)

We reviewed the Audio Origami tonearm from Scotland with the Palmer 2.5i turntable–it’s a synergistic match that sells extremely well out there in the world. But the PU-7 excels because it is so unfussy about set-up. It moves with precision and deliberation, and avoids all possible quirks (except for a headshell that’s a little too big if you’re using a record clamp or weight). Also ideal for Linn LP-12s.

EMT 997 (from $5,500 USD depending upon options)

Yes, this is the very same banana-shaped tonearm you’d find on beautiful old EMT turntables from the ‘50s and the ‘60s, but this design is still one of the most impressive in history. The 997, like the EMT ‘tables of yore, possesses a powerful and authoritative demeanor that might not yield the most delicate and detailed sound, but it will get to the heart of the music rather quickly. If you’re going to splurge on an old EMT ‘table, you’d better put a 997 on or it just won’t make sense.

Reed 3P ($5,700 USD)

The Reed is beautifully designed, easy to adjust—and we’ve heard it on some of the finest analog rigs in the world. Part of the magic of the Reed comes, ironically, from the company’s slavish dedication to math, physics and engineering. (This might be the tonearm Dr. Sheldon Cooper would pick if he was an audiophile.)

Ikeda IT-407CR1 ($6,500 USD)

Ikeda has a long and storied history of analog playback going back to the 1960s—maybe you remember a company named Fidelity Research? Mr. Ikeda is still around, and these gorgeous tonearms are still being made by hand in Japan. This is the perfect arm for those who enjoy the singular beauty of Japanese hi-fi—mount a Koetsu or a Kiseki on this and forget all your troubles.

TW Acustic Raven 10.5 ($6,500 USD)

After spending years recommending other arms for their turntables, TW Acustic decided to start making their own and it’s a fabulous match. We’re not just talking about TW ‘tables, but nearly every ‘table made since it was designed with an effective mass that can be used with numerous designs. The tolerances of the bearings are among the finest in the industry, leading to a tonearm that simply gets out of the way of the music.

AMG 12JT Turbo ($8,500 USD)

The AMG is a beautifully machined tonearm, simple in design but impressive in build quality. This German company worked hard to create an arm with both reduced friction and increased stability—not an easy concept when you think about it. The AMG is also incredibly easy to install, which makes it the ideal tonearm for the vinyl lover who wants the best but doesn’t want to fiddle around with adjustments all the time.

Thales Simplicity II ($9,450 USD)

The Simplicity II is a pivoted tangential arm which moves like a normal pivoted arm, but it has the ability to move its headshell so that it tracks like a linear tracking arm. It’s an ingenious design which combines the strength of both a pivoted tonearm and a linear tracker, without sharing much of their weaknesses. This is an elegant design with ultra-precise machining quality.

Glanz MH-124S Premium ($26,500 USD)

Sure, that’s a lot of money for just a tonearm. But this Japanese design answered our question about these types of lofty designs: “How can perfection be made any better?” Coated with DLC (Diamond-like Carbon), the Glanz achieves new levels of hardness, damping and efficient energy transfer. “If the price is no object, then the Glanz MH124S Premium tonearm will surely hold a permanent position in [the] arsenal of the world’s best tonearms.”


Phono Cartridges

Ortofon 2M Blue ($236 USD)

For many years, the high-output MM Ortofon 2M Blue has been the safe choice to recommend to your friends with simple analog rigs such as the lesser Regas, Pro-Jects and Fluances. The Blue might not be the last word in detail, and there is a bit of grain in the upper registers, but that’s only in comparison to cartridges that cost a lot more than the Blue. Easy to mount, easy to align and easy to listen to.

Denon DL-103 ($349 USD)

It’s astonishing that an affordable MC cartridge designed in 1962 still sounds so good, but the 103 is still loved by a surprising number of knowledgeable audiophiles. You might prefer the more updated sound of the 103R, but the original 103 still provides a classic window into the finest recordings ever made. Plus you can modify the 103 with various tips, cantilevers and body upgrades that will turn it into a super-cart for just a few hundred more.

Denon DL-103 plus The Cap (additional $85)

The Cap is a simple aluminum shell from Canada that fits over the body of a stock Denon 103 and adds considerable weight to the lowest frequencies, and it tightens up imaging as well. There are many ways to modify a 103 into a super-cartridge with modern performance, but this is the most cost-effective way to do it—you won’t find a better $85 upgrade to your analog rig than The Cap.

Hana EH ($475 USD)

After mounting this affordable high-output MC on a very expensive table with two tonearms, and against another cartridge that was more than five times the Hana’s cost, we were surprised that the lower bass frequencies were fuller and more satisfying—possibly at the cost of that last bit of inner detail. This is crazy inexpensive for such a high-quality Japanese cartridge.

Hana SL ($750 USD)

We called this LOMC from Japan a “killer sub-$1000 cartridge,” noting that it lacks any sort of pretense and is made for those who honestly love music. The Hana is also quiet in the groove—you may wonder if you lowered your tonearm once you sit down.

Sumiko Songbird ($900 USD)

Like its open-architecture big brother, the Sumiko Starling, the Songbird excels at low bass reproduction and gobs of detail for less than half the price. The only differences between the two is the material used for the cantilever and stylus, otherwise the Songbird has the same noise-suppressing material in its body that makes these Sumiko References so quiet in the groove. Solid performance at an affordable price, and an ideal partner for many mid-priced turntables. (We loved it with the Technics SL-1200G).

ZYX Bloom 3 ($1,100 USD)

ZYX makes some of the finest phono cartridges in the world—at a significant price. (See examples below.) But their entry level model, the Bloom 3, offers a considerable chunk of the musically honest and transparent sound of the bigger boys at a price that seems like a typo. “This sounds like most $3000-$4000 cartridges from other manufacturers,” we decided. Winner of an Editor’s Choice award.

Hana ML ($1,200 USD)

Until recently, when this Japanese cartridge manufacturer announced the new $3450 Umami Red, the ML was the flagship in the Hana line–and it sounded like a flagship despite its very modest price. Hana has a no-nonsense way of making cartridges that keeps the costs relatively low while preserving an unusually high level of performance, and we found that the ML was perfectly at home with some very expensive analog rigs. Next to the Denon 103, this might be the biggest bargain in phono cartridges.

Goldring Ethos ($1,500 USD)

This came mounted on our review sample of the Thorens TD-1601, and it was so impressive that we broke it out and gave it a separate review. Goldring has been around for ages, known for being smooth and refined in that British way, but the Ethos just might be the best Goldring ever made. It has detail, it has smoothness, it tracks great. To put it succinctly, it sounds like a much more expensive cartridge.

Sumiko Starling ($1,899 USD)

The new flagship of Sumiko’s Reference Line, which started with the original Blue Point Special so many years ago, the Starling’s secret is effective damping in the aluminum body. We felt that this Sumiko sounded incredibly neutral throughout the frequency range, with plenty of detail and very impressive and realistic bass.

Miyajima Zero Mono ($2,150 USD)

Is this the finest mono cartridge available today? That’s a confusing question for most audiophiles, but if you get the idea that mono recordings can feature a wealth of tone, timbre and emotion, you’ll appreciate the beauty of this cartridge.

ZYX Ultimate 100 ($2,200 USD)

One step up from the amazing ZYX Bloom 3 is the Ultimate 100, which “is all that and more for a moderate bump up in price.” We felt the Ultimate 100 possessed many of the same attributes as the scary-priced carts out there–smooth, liquid midrange and just the right amount of detail–leading us to proclaim that the ZYX is off the charts when it comes to the price-performance ratio.

Dynavector 17DX ($2,250 USD)

Though the price has risen steadily over the last few years and the classic KARAT design is no longer the bargain it once was, the 17DX is still one of the most neutral cartridges ever made. (Even digiphiles are impressed with its measurements.) It’s unusually incisive and mates well with a wide variety of tonearms.

Ortofon Cadenza Black ($2,729 USD)

Using a nude Shibata stylus with a boron cantilever, the Cadenza Black is a wonderfully neutral cartridge. The trick here is lightness in the materials used, which results in a fast, dynamic sound. If you’re a huge fan of ginormous soundstages and pinpoint imaging, the Black is an excellent choice at its price point.

Charisma Audio Signature One ($3,800 USD)

Bernard Li of Toronto-based Charisma Audio has come up with a winner for his flagship Signature One moving coil cartridge. The Ebony bodied Signature One features a Ruby cantilever with a super fine line contact stylus that produces a richly detailed, dynamic, and vividly holographic soundscape. The medium-low .4 mV output means you won’t need crazy amounts of gain from your phono stage to make those shiny black discs come alive.

ZYX Ultimate 4D ($4,395 USD)

We referred to this very low output (0.24mV) cartridge as “clean but not lean,” with a very modern sound that gave us quite the adrenaline rush. The Ultimate 4D transported us directly into the musical landscape—one of us feels it’s the best cartridge he has used with his restored Garrard 401.

Soundsmith Hyperion II ($7,999.95 USD)

Peter Ledermann explained it best when he said this about the Hyperion’s cactus-needle cantilever, which offer exception stiffness and damping: “Humans have been designing cantilevers for LP’s for 70 years, but nature has been making perfect ones for millions of years.” The sound of the Hyperion is so incisive and yet so listenable—it’s one of the few cartridges out there that seem impervious to any kind of tension or stress.

Fuuga ($8,950 USD)

The Fuuga is one of those rare Japanese cartridge designs that floats in a sea of inner beauty, so much so that you’ll probably start writing magnificent poetry while you’re listening to records. This is a tribute to the classic Miyabi cartridges that also featured a cylindrical body, and its distinctive look will capture the imagination of even the most tech-minded audiophiles.

Lyra Etna SL ($9,995 USD)

The Lyra is beautifully made, with a body machined from a solid block of titanium. While past Lyras have been a bit too detailed and revealing, the Etna indulges itself in the sheer beauty of the music—it’s still incredibly neutral while it digs deep into harmonic structures and textures. With the right analog rig, the Etna can sound positively flawless.

Lyra Atlas λ Lambda SL ($12,995 USD)

Intact is the accuracy, speed of the original Atlas. For the new Lambda SL, music is imbued with more passion. The SL now carries some of those qualities we love in a wood cartridge, an almost a tube-like quality has been added when compared to the original Atlas. Dynamic and super accurate, the Lambda SL now brings about more soul—it’s also the best cartridge ever to ride the grooves in Mohammed Samji’s home.

ZYX Universe Optimum 1 Ohm ($16,995 USD)

At this price it shouldn’t surprise you that this ZYX is one of the finest cartridges we’ve used, but we were still amazed at just how good it really is. With such a low impedance and an output of just 0.12 mV, you’ll need the right ancillaries to make the Optimum work, but you’ll be rewarded with a cartridge that possesses a “greater sense of realism” than most of the competitors. “Astonishment, personified,” we concluded.


The Buyers Guides of 2021

 

Looking for even more? Check out our “Best Of” awards in our year-end roundup on The Occasional Podcast. Now streaming on iTunes and all podcast platforms. We also offer educational and informative breakdowns for digital audio, getting into turntables and mastering in this year’s episodes.











5 Comments on The Best Tonearms and Phono Cartridges | Buyers Guide 2021

  1. Thanks for the reply, Mark!

  2. John Klaber // December 4, 2020 at 3:18 PM //

    I would appreciate some discussion on the following as a neophyte on this topic:
    What is the difference between moving magnet, moving coil, moving iron and will my Rega MM phono preamp work with MI and MM and possibly high output (whatever that means) MC?

    I’ve a vintage Technics SL 1301 that we hauled out of the basement after 30+ years in a box in the basement. Speed is dead on and the sound with the Dynavector cartridge seems to be good.Currently 33 only and the arm picks up at the end of a recording…..yeah! (I’ve been down to fall asleep) With my wife’s propensity for dropping needles just outside the edge of the record, I’d like to fix that automatic function, as well. It had probably less than 100 hours of use when originally purchased (CDs had just come out).
    Is it worth investing in making all the automatic functions work?

    • That’s a lot of questions that would require lengthy explanations. You can get some quick, straightforward answers on most audio forums. Short answer: I would try to get the Technics back to 100%. MM phono amps will not work with low-output MC cartridges, and vice versa, but the issue is more about output. You Rega will work with high output cartridges, whether they are MM or HOMC. Probably 2.5 mV or higher.

  3. Thank you very much for this excellent and timely article! I was just thinking of upgrading both my cartridge and my tonearm. My only disappointment is that I wish the tonearm recommendations started at a lower price point, that is, in the sub $1000 to, say, $1200 range. I’d love to hear some suggestions as I am hoping one day to replace a very old Linn Basik LVX. Thanks!!

    • This has been an issue for quite a while–there aren’t a lot of affordable tonearms out there other than Rega. We would have included Rega based on past experiences, but almost all their current tonearms are fairly new and none of us have spent serious time with the lesser turntables in the last few years. (Dave McNair uses the P10 with the flagship arm.) I’d certainly say that the RB-250 and RB-300 are all-time classics, but they’ve been replaced with newer and presumably better arms.

      Another issue is Jelco closing its doors. They were the other choice below $1K. Pro-Ject is another choice.

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