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 our enthusiasm. Every product listed in this guide is beloved by at least one team member. These products have elicited responses such as “I was gobsmacked every minute I spent with this” or “The shipping box was wet with the tears of my lost innocence” or, too often, just “Take my money!” In other words, this isn’t about high-end audio products that we merely like. These are the products we love — and we think you will, too.
No list like this can ever be complete since we’re bound to forget something that has duly impressed the heck out of us. We’ve attempted to capture a moment in time — one year — and collect together, in one place, all of those products that we want to have and hold and use in our own systems right now.
If you’re looking for our list of “the best stuff to check out right now” — the best loudspeakers, CD players, amplifiers, turntables, cartridges, preamplifiers, DACs, and more — this is it.
The Best Phono Cartridges, Tonearms and Headshells
The best phono cartridges, tonearms and headshells portion of our buyers guide is broken down into subcategories. Each section is organized by price in ascending order. Enjoy!
The Best 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. More than being one of the the best phono cartridges at its price. It’s 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 USD)
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 one of the best phono cartridges to feature Japanese high-quality.
Sumiko Amethyst MM ($600 USD)
It’s rare when a high-output MM cartridge crosses the PTA threshold, but we’re always interested in a over-achieving MM that can emulate the sound of a moving coil. We found the Amethyst to be punchy and rhythmic, prompting us to bring out our classic rock albums from the ’60s and ’70s. “If you’re still loyal to MM, the Sumiko Amethyst has to be one of the most musical and balanced choices you can make.”
Hana SL ($750 USD)
From the best phono cartridges we’ve seen come out of Japan at this price. 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 ($1,200 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 way too reasonable. “This sounds like most $3000-$4000 cartridges from other manufacturers,” we decided. Winner of an Editor’s Choice award and one of the best phono cartridges we’ve heard.
Hana ML ($1,200 USD)
Until recently, when this Japanese cartridge manufacturer announced the new $3,950 Umami Red, the ML was the flagship in the Hana line–and it sounded like a true 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)
In terms of mono playback, is this one the best phono cartridges 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.
Vertere Acoustics Mystic ($2,699 USD)
This British cartridge from the mind of Touraj Moghaddam measures razor flat, and offers a completely balanced sound which includes “an articulate and detailed top end, with mids that were clear and rich without conspicuous coloration and bass that was tight and linear without feeling dry or overdamped.” From England to you, one of the best phono cartridges we’ve had the chance to review.
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.
Sumiko Celebration 40 ($2,799 USD)
This version of the venerable wooden-bodied Celebration cartridge honors Sumiko’s 40th anniversary by adding the micro-ridge stylus from the Palo Santos, and using “plumwood” as opposed to the traditional pearwood for the body. We found the 40 to be “the ultimate chill-out cartridge with its huge sense of space and three-dimensionality.” Who said the best phono cartridges can’t also have a psychedelic vibe?
ZYX Ultimate Airy X ($3,295 USD)
Moving up from the wondrous Bloom 3 and Ultimate 100, which we love and admire enough to own, the new Ultimate Airy X features the new C-1000 carbon cantilever–made from 1000 pieces–which makes it more rigid and lighter than most materials and truly makes this cartridge sing. With both the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature and the Technics SL-1200G, the Airy was “the one that makes us deliriously happy for a very reasonable price, the one that’s accompanying us to the next level of analog playback.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Ana Mighty Sound TSD-15N (starting at €3,500)
This French company is well-known for its superb cartridge re-tipping and re-building work, and now they’ve decided to use a “skeleton” of the lauded EMT TSD-15 as a launching pad for their own designs. (There are four versions, which vary in coil materials and impedance.) “The copper-coiled Ana Mighty Sound TDS-15N carries all the traits which are found in ultra high-end top shelve cartridges, namely minute details, frequency extension, dynamic contrast as well as an ultra-quiet background.”
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.
Hana Umami Red ($3,950 USD)
If Hana can make $1200 cartridges that sound like $4,000 cartridges, what happens when they actually make a $4000 cartridge? The answer is the Umami Red, which is unusually transparent while also being a “Bali Hai” cartridge–warm and breezy and huge in sound. We found it to be a stunning match with the Technics SL-1200G and 1210-GAE turntables. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
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 one of the best phono cartridges he has used with his restored Garrard 401.
Allnic Audio Amber MC ($4,900 USD)
This Korean-made low-output MC immediately distinguished itself by its ability to provide a flabbergasting amount of inner detail without once sounding bright or harsh. Allnic moves the coils closer to the stylus, away from the pivot, which results in this greater detail, and the “cutter head” type of design employs a new rubber damper along with copper clad aluminum (CCA) coils. A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
Koetsu Black Urushi ($6,495 USD)
Returning to Koetsu after at least a dozen years of self-imposed exile, we found all of the mystique and inner beauty of these Japanese cartridges to be undiminished since the passing of Sugano-san. The Black Urushi is part of Koetsu’s lacquer-bodied, silver-plated coil line and it’s saturated with that “lit from within” energy that makes music just a touch more beautiful, a touch more rewarding–especially with the Koetsu Stepup Transformer ($4995). A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
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 LPs 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.
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.
Acoustical Systems Palladium ($10,500 USD)
We used the Palladium with the stunning Acoustic Signature Typhoon NEO and T-5000 tonearm and found that grooves and textures leapt out of the speakers. “It blossomed into a full, warm-yet-ultra-detailed thing of beauty,” we proclaimed. A Reviewer’s Choice award winner.
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 one of the best phono cartridges 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 best phono 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 Best Tonearms
This conversion kit from our own Richard H. Mak requires that you already own a Fidelity Research FR-64S, which will cost you $1,500 to $2,500 USD on the used market. But here’s the catch: this $1,200 kit turns the 10″ FR-64 into a 12″ FR-66, and the ’66s usually fetch around $10K. You’re basically getting a new, longer arm tube and two counterweights, but the result will be a classic tonearm that many enjoy far more than modern designs.
Sorane TA-1L ($1,875 USD)
From the Japanese company formerly known as Abis, this elegant and simple 12.7″ tonearm was well-made, easy to set up and a pleasure to pair with the Gem Dandy PolyTable Signature. Add the ZYX Ultimate Airy cartridge and you have a modestly-priced analog rig that makes a compelling argument for the most performance for under $10K complete. Winner of a Reviewer’s Choice award.
Vertere Acoustics SG-1 Mk. II ($2,495 USD)
The SG-1 proves that designer Touraj Moghaddam has thought more about counterweight design, and how it contributes to the entire performance of the tonearm, than almost anyone else. A lower center of gravity from this arrangement, combined with a tri-point articulated bearing that acts like a unipivot but isn’t, makes the modestly-priced SG-1 a winner: “With its dead quiet rendering of vinyl, it brought a great certainty and ease to anything played.”
The Wand Master Series (starting at $2,500 USD)
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 (starting at $3,795 USD)
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 audiophile 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.
Reed 3P (starting at $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.
Brinkmann 12.1 ($6,200 USD)
The Brinkmann 12.5 tonearm–yes, the model number refers to its length–is an endlessly fascinating piece of gear that is based on the remarkable Breuer arms, regarded by some of us as the finest tonearm ever built. Tight tolerances in the bearings are one of the keys to its excellence.
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.
Acoustic Signature TA-5000 ($7,895 USD)
This German tonearm features a triple-layer carbon armtube, high-purity silver wiring and SKF hybrid bearings for “super-clean” analog playback that bordered on “digital clarity.” Our reviewer “heard a whole lot more of what I love about playing records when we played them on the Acoustic Signature TA-5000 setup.” A Reviewer’s Choice winner.
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.”
The Best Headshells (Removable)
Nasotec 202A1 “Swing” ($359.99 USD)
This unique headshell moves somewhat freely on the lateral plane, which reduces stylus wear and ensures the cartridge is equally balanced in the groove. Its inherent wiggliness makes cueing a new adventure, but the Nasotec is also effective at eliminating tracking distortion.
DS Audio HS-001 ($450 USD)
Beautiful fit and finish, robust leads and a mechanical integrity that brings out improved performance–this Japanese headshell is a superb choice for Technics SL-1200G and 1210-GAE turntables.
ZYX Live18 ($700 USD)
Tooled from a single block of aluminum, the Live18 has been optimized for ZYX cartridges but will improve performance in your analog rig by reducing standing wave resonances.
Acoustical Systems Arche ($795 USD)
Heavy and complex, this headshell’s major innovation is that you can make all of your adjustments while the cartridge and headshell are already mounted on the tonearm. Structurally sound to the point where the Arche seems to improve the sound of every analog rig.