Welcome to the Phono Cartridges, Tonearms, and Headshells section of the Part-Time Audiophile Buyers Guide for Summer 2023.
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” — this is it.
The Best Phono Cartridges
Ortofon 2M Red ($99 USD)
Some of us believe that the moving-magnet 2M Red is THE cartridge for $100, while a few others believe it’s the only one worth considering at the price. There is some grain at the top, and a slightly thin balance, but the tonality is exceptional in its class. Added bonus: the upgrade path through the 2M line, a mere swapping of the stylii, is as simple as it gets.
Ortofon 2M Blue ($239 USD)
For many years, the high-output MM Ortofon 2M Blue phono cartridges have 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. 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.
Sumiko Amethyst MM ($599 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.”
Zu Audio DL-103 Mk. II ($599-$1,319 USD, depending upon grade)
The Zu Audio version of the legendary Denon DL-103 phono cartridges still retains the motor of the original, while substituting an Alcoa alloy body. The Mk. II version of the Zu also changes the shape of the housing for more strength, and adds a new epoxy that reduces noise and stabilizes the stylus assembly. “The midrange is rich in a way that would never be considered neutral, but is recognizable and touches the spirit down to the roots,” our reviewer concluded.
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.
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 phono 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 original Denon 103, this might be the biggest bargain in phono cartridges.
ZYX Ultimate 100 ($2,195 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.
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.”
Vertere Acoustics Mystic ($3,099 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.”
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. 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 EU)
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 0.4 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 $1,200 phono 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.
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.
Van den Hul Crimson XGW Stradivarius ($5,495 USD)
Crimson means it’s the second line from the top. XGW means it has cross coils that are gold, along with a wooden koa body. And Stradivarius means the body has been coated with the same 400-year-old recipe used for the famous violins. The Crimson was exceptionally detailed and neutral, with “the same sweet, extended highs that first reeled me in when I fell for hi-rez digital streaming.” A Reviewers Choice award winner.
Koetsu Urushi Black ($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 phono 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 ($4,995). 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 phono cartridges out there that seem impervious to any kind of tension or stress.
Acoustical Systems Palladian ($11,995 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)
The speed and the accuracy of the original Atlas is intact, but with the new Lambda SL the music is imbued with more passion. The SL now carries some of those qualities we love in wood phono cartridges, 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.
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 (from $2,995 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.”
Pear Audio Blue Cornet 2 ($2,495 USD)
The Cornet 2 is a unipivot design that is unusual in regards to maintaining azimuth and avoiding silicone with a “special material, developed with viscosity properties that do not flow and do not require settling time.” The carbon fiber arm tube arranges the fibers lengthwise for greater resonance control and rigidity. A Reviewers Choice award winner.
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.
Audio Origami PU-7 ($4,395 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.
Brinkmann 12.1 ($6,200 USD)
The Brinkmann 12.1 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. Together with the Brinkmann Taurus turntable, the 12.1 received a Reviewers Choice award.
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.
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.”
Nasotec 202A1 “Swing” ($359.99 USD)
This unique headshell moves somewhat freely on the lateral plane, which reduces stylus wear and ensures that phono cartridges are 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 phono 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 phono cartridges and headshells are already mounted on the tonearm. Structurally sound to the point where the Arche seems to improve the sound of every analog rig.