These days did you know that obsolete audio formats are making a comeback?
Look at the rise of turntables and the sale of vinyl as an example.
But how can you make sure that your vinyl collection continues to keep sounding great year after year and play after play?
Many audiophiles will already know that the heart of any good vinyl collection is the turntable.
But how can you make sure that the heart keeps on beating?
That’s where a phono cartridge comes in.
For those who are unaware a phono cartridge is for your turntable.
A great phono cartridge can elevate listening to your vinyl collection from being a hobby to something that sounds truly spectacular.
That’s why in this article I am going to give you a rundown of all the best phono cartridges you can buy for under $500.
After all, normally, phono cartridge prices can often exceed much more than this.
But with these phono cartridges, you’re able to take your vinyl listening to new heights without breaking the bank.
When you think of a vinyl record player what do you think of?
Usually, it’s the turntable and the needle.
It’s this needle that is essentially the phono cartridge.
Well, that’s not strictly true.
The needle is one piece of the overall phono cartridge, but hopefully, you get the idea that it’s a big deal for your turntable and its sound quality.
If you know friends who are also in to listen to vinyl and they say that they want a new needle what they are saying is that they want a new phono cartridge.
It’s pretty much the same.
So, without further ado, let’s go through some of the best phono cartridges you can buy for your budget.
In fact, no.
Time to take a step back.
We’ve explained what phono cartridges are and why they are important.
So, let’s dig deeper and go through the different types available. There are two different types.
The first type is called The P mount.
This is the easiest one to find and install.
You simply purchase the one for your particular turntable and plug it in.
But finding this type of phono cartridge is not always that easy.
The second type is The Standard Mount.
These are more common, but there is often a bit more tinkering involved for you to get it to fit your turntable and ensure that it is aligned properly.
Now there are tons of different phono cartridges out there that can be tested.
So, for this article, I’ve narrowed it down to four that I think are the best ones you can get for your budget.
Let’s put the needle to the record and take a look at each one in turn.
4 Best Phono Cartridges Under $500
Let's look at our top contestants:
Audio Technica VM540ML Phonograph Cartridge
This is one of the cheaper priced phono cartridges on my list.
I added this to the list, even though it is well below our budget, because you may want good sound quality at a budget price point.
Everyone knows that Audio Technica makes great audio products that are high quality and affordable after all.
Now the first thing about this phono cartridge is that unlike some others on the list that are stylish this one doesn’t score many points when it comes to its aesthetics.
And even though the one I looked at was blue, with a red version also available, it is made of plastic and kind of has that plasticky look to it.
That means that when you look at it in pictures it may look cheap.
However, when you touch and feel it you can see that it’s well made and solidly constructed.
So, looks, in this case, can be deceiving.
Another added benefit of this particular cartridge is just how easy it is to install.
You can just plug it in and away you go.
Unlike other cartridges that may require some additional work then one is as easy as it gets to install and get up and running.
The sound quality is good.
But it’s not as rich and deep as other cartridges I review on this list.
But it still provides better sound quality than the default cartridge that your record player comes with as standard.
So, it’s a definite upgrade choice, especially if you are on a strict budget.
For the casual vinyl enthusiast, this is a great choice.
It’s an affordable way to feel and experience the power of vinyl without having to break the bank.
But if you want to feel the music as well as hear it then you are going to have to spend more money on something that is higher end.
Furthermore, there is talk that Audio Technica might be releasing an updated version of this model.
This is unconfirmed, however, so the choice is yours as to whether or not you wish to hold off and wait or not.
Ortofon – 2M Bronze MM Phono Cartridge
Here is another entry on my list from Ortofon.
Now before I write this little section, I will be honest with you and tell you that I have never actually used this phono cartridge before.
But because I am a big fan of Ortofon, and they provide such great equipment I wanted to add one of their higher-end models to my list.
This is very close to our $500 budget.
For many people that may be off-putting to start with.
But if you are willing to spend this much money on a phono cartridge then I think you should seriously consider this one.
For one, it has a cool design.
And whilst they say it is bronze it looks more orange, and that’s not a bad thing either in my opinion.
Whether you think the color of its style face is orange or amber there is no question that it won’t compliment the setup of any record player.
As I said, I haven’t used this particular model.
But when I looked it up on places such as Amazon, I found that it has very impressive reviews.
Ortofon themselves seem to have gone all out on this model and they say that the tracking ability on this model is fantastic.
And it is this that means that your records will sound immersive, deep, and warm.
One area in particular that this phono cartridge shines is live albums.
So, if your vinyl collection is mainly live albums then this could be the phono cartridge for you.
As long as you are not scared of the price tag.
This particular phono cartridge may not be suited to the casual listener.
It may be one for the true audiophiles only.
But I think that this is one kind of phono cartridge that is aimed at people who want deep bass and high treble as part of their listening experience.
As well as true vocal clarity.
Which makes sense why live albums sound so stunning.
If you are serious about listening to your vinyl collection in the best possible way, then this phono cartridge is for you.
Denon DL-103R Moving Coil Cartridge
When I think of phono cartridges, I always think of Denon.
So, I was very happy to get my hands on this.
It’s one of the higher-end phono cartridges out there.
This is a case of you get what you pay for.
It’s asking price is just over $400 to start with.
And whilst that is still within our budget it still may be too high a starting point for many people.
And again, this is another phono cartridge that combines sound quality and looks.
It looks fantastic and very stylish.
But it also goes for an understated and classy look.
So, if your record player has the classic look and you want a phono cartridge that will fit right into the design then this could be the choice for you.
It looks great and has a high price tag.
Is that price backed up with great sound quality?
I am pleased to say that the answer is a resounding yes.
You may not even notice the exceptional quality at first listen.
This is due to how it has been designed.
It is well made and when you examine it you see that this is a moving coil phono cartridge.
When you look at the coils you can see how well and how tightly they have been wound together.
This allows for the cartridge to simply glide across your records producing a level of sound quality like you were listening to them again for the very first time.
Clean, crisp, and fresh.
This phono cartridge makes older vinyl, as well as newer harder, pressed vinyl records all sound fantastic.
Not only that but when I tested this out on my older turntable the sound quality was no less impressive.
It does the job on any turntable you use this with.
The only downside is that perhaps it may require a little bit more setup to work compared to other cartridges.
Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge
Now, this phono cartridge comes in a nice blue color.
That immediately caught my eye.
It’s available for half of our budget so you can get it for or around $250 if you shop around.
Immediately you are saving money with this cartridge and I like that.
This phono cartridge, based on its unique looks, was designed by Moller Jensen Design.
He’s well known in the world of music and immediately his influence is felt throughout this entire piece of hardware.
Did I already mention how great this phono cartridge looks?
So, if you want looks and fantastic sound quality then this phono cartridge also scores points here.
But we all know that looks are not everything.
So being able to put this through its paces for sound quality was a real treat for me.
My expectations for this phono cartridge were already high because of all the positive reviews surrounding this particular model.
If you read all the reviews about this phono cartridge you will constantly see praise for its deep bass and its great highs.
After listening to a few songs using this cartridge I have to agree that this deserves praise for both elements.
I tested it with 10 albums from a variety of genres and periods.
Including a fair few from the rocking 80s.
This immediately allowed me to compare listening to these albums with this new phono cartridge versus my old one.
For example, one album I listened to with my old phono cartridge was scratchy and had a lot of noise.
But with this new phono cartridge, the sound was as crisp and cool as iceberg lettuce.
I listened to that same album over and over with the new cartridge and each time I couldn’t help but be very impressed with the overall sound quality.
This phono cartridge is one of the best, if not the best, that you can get right now for under $500.
If I had to list some downers it would be that blue as color may not fit everyone’s turntable setup and also that if you are new to turntables then this phono cartridge could be a little too hard to install for beginners.
But if you can look beyond these flaws, which are minor at best, you’ll be getting one of the best phono cartridges for our price range right now.
In this article, we went over some of the best audio cartridges for turntables that you can buy for under $500.
Now the big question is which is these are truly deserving of your money.
When I tested these phono cartridges as part of this article, I easily listened to 40 – 50 albums more than once.
So, I think I am in a good position to pick the best one.
But did you think it would be that easy?
It isn’t easy to just pick one from this line-up of incredible phono cartridges.
I’m a massive fan of what I heard from Denon.
So, it’s between that and the Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge if I have to pick the top two to pick the winner.
Both of these provided superb sound quality.
They will also most likely provide many years of use as well.
But the main difference between the two is the gulf in price.
I like to think that I am something of an audiophile and that I know a thing or two on how to listen to vinyl properly.
But even with my keen ear, I did not notice that much of a difference in the sound quality between these two models when putting to the crunch.
So, it all comes down to the price difference between the two instead.
When it comes down to that then I have to say that the Ortofon – 2M Blue MM Phono Cartridge is, in my humble opinion, the winner of this list.
It’s the best phono cartridge that you can get for your turntable for under $500.
It sounds great, looks fantastic, and costs only a little over $200.
What’s not to love about this phono cartridge?
I’m hard-pressed to find much fault with it.
The additional upside to choosing this particular phono cartridge is that if $500 is the budget that you have set for yourself, and you go with this phono cartridge, it leaves you with around $300 that you can use to go out and treat yourself to more vinyl – how can you argue with that?
The answer is that you can’t.
This is why my choice offers you great sound quality and also saves you a ton of money in the process – happy listening!
Last update on 2021-02-26 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API