2013 TAS Editors' Choice Awards: Cartridges Under $500

Equipment report
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Cartridges
2013 TAS Editors' Choice Awards: Cartridges Under $500

Shure M97xE
$89
shure.com
An entry-ticket to the world of analog sound, Shure’s M97xE moving-magnet cartridge offers generally neutral tonal balance with slight hints of roll-off at the frequency extremes, unflappable tracking, and an overall presentation that is unfailingly smooth. A great starter cartridge.

Grado Prestige MC+ Mono
$90
gradolabs.com
Interested in dipping your toes into mono waters, but not in taking a financial bath? This is the cartridge for you. The Grado mono is an excellent tracker that fully shows the virtues of mono LPs—sledgehammer bass and excellent imaging. More expensive cartridges will flesh out the sound more and offer greater detail, but the Grado is a joy to listen to.

Ortofon 2M Red and Black
$99 and $699
ortofon.com
The swansong design of Ortofon’s former chief engineer Per Windfeld, the entry-level 2M Red uses an elliptical, the 2M Black a Shibata stylus. The Black’s greatest attribute is the way it parses the complexities of orchestral depth and dimension. In comparison, the 2M Red clocks in with a little drier sound, as if it’s making more of an effort in the upper treble. Still this is one sophisticated and musical cartridge—for the price of a nice dinner for two.

Grado Prestige Gold 1
$220
gradolabs.com
Grado’s Prestige Gold cartridge has its flaws—a lack of inner detail and audible grain chief among them—but its strengths are such that you can easily listen through them. These include a somewhat warm yet pleasant balance, a sweet if not hugely airy treble, and taut if not especially layered bass.

Audio-Technica AT440MLa/AT150MLX
$239/$485
audio-technica.com
The high-gain moving-magnet AT440MLa and its deluxe sibling, the AT150MLX (with a nude-mounted MicroLine stylus), brim with opulent timbres and resounding tunefulness. Both have a relaxed sound, a darker midrange, great weight, and a lower center of gravity in tonal terms. Compared to the finer moving coils they falter slightly trying to hold on to low-level detail and decay, while upper octaves are a little devoid of air. But while they can’t match the delicacy and speed of some mc’s they offer their own authenticity and rewards over the longer haul.

Grado Reference Platinum 1
$350
gradolabs.com
The Platinum 1 is the most affordable of Grado’s mid-tier Reference models, offering reduced coloration plus superior resolution and tracking. Though it could use more openness, detail, and high-frequency “air,” the Platinum can nearly equal the performance of $1k+ moving coils, making it a bargain at its price.

Sumiko Blue Point No. 2
$399
sumikoaudio.net
The second-generation version of the Bluepoint Oyster—long considered a go-to choice among affordable, high-output moving-coil cartridges— the No. 2 offers improved resolution, superior three-dimensionality, richer and more potent bass, and smoother, less aggressive highs. A huge step up from entry-level cartridges.

Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III
$499
sumikoaudio.net
The EVO III offers substantial improvements over the original Blue Point Special—a fundamental heartiness, terrific top-to-bottom consistency, and the ability to gracefully handle tracking challenges. This is one moving coil that will not bite you with excess edge or glare.

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