The Gruvy Awards Cartridges

Cartridges MM Under $500
Shure M97xE
This "V15xMR Junior" is among the best cartridge buys. It is usually discounted to under $80 and includes Shure's damper/brush. Tracks all day at 1.25 grams. Somewhat soft, but solid sound. Can be upgraded with Jico stylus to near V15xMR status.

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Audio Technica AT95SE
Audio Technica AT95SA
Grado Prestige Gold 1
Ortofon 2M Bronze

These four mocerately priced MM cartridges were reviewed as part of a cartridge survey in which readers could listen without knowing which was which and vote on their favorite. All had their fans and all represent good value. At $419 the Ortofon Bronze is the most expensive but also the best sounding.

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Ortofon Red
This $99 cartridge was covered as part of the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable review. It's included with the 'table. It also makes an excellent upgrade cartridge in a budget table.

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Soundsmith Otello
Soundsmith's line of moving iron cartridges covers the entire spectrum of low to high output and low to high compliance. There are so many models it can get confusing. The Otello is a $479 "entry level" version of the now discontinued SMMC4 cartridge. Unusual at this price point, these are hand built and tested. Moving iron cartridges have sufficient output for a MM phono preamp and with the design's low mass, these cartridges are excellent trackers too. The entire Soundsmith lineup produces tonal neutrality and transparency and that includes the entry level Otello. I reviewed in Stereophile a somewhat more expensive, now discontinued SMMC1 but the basic idea and sonics are similar

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Cartridges MM Over $500
Audio Technica 150ANV
Ortofon 2M Black
Nagoaka MP-300

These three were also included in the multi-cartridge survey that readers could hear and vote on. Not surprisingly they scored very high in the "blind" listening. Fitted with a Shibata stylus the Ortofon 2M Black was the tracing and detail retrieval champ but only if it's perfectly set up, particularly in terms of stylus rake angle. The Nagoaka features a boron cantilever, which is unusual for a $669 cartridge. Tracking at 1.3-1.8 gramps, the MP300 combines precision and a pleasing overall warmth. The $995 Audio Technica 150 ANV special edition was a strong vote getter with 23% of the overall voting. It produced the widest, airiest soundstage, excellent dynamics and its microdynamic expression was unique in my experience with MM cartridges. The standard production 440ML omits the sapphire cantilever so might not be quite as fast and articulate but at $299 it is definitely worth checking out if a grand is too grand for your budget.

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Goldring 1012GX
Not reviewed on analogplanet but auditioned some time ago, the $550 1012GX features a Gyger II stylus, which is among the best tracing, most detail digging styli available. It requires careful set-up especially in terms of stylus rake angle and needs a long break in before it stops sounding hard on top and bass shy on bottom. But give it time and there's a lot to like.
Soundsmith Aida
This $1799 moving iron cartridge is the SMMC1 I reviewed in Stereophile and put in Class A. It has relatively high compliance and somewhat lower output than many MM cartridges but it worked well with many reasonably priced MM phono preamps I tried. The relatively high compliance means you don't want to use it with an arm whose effective mass is greater than 11-12gm. I measured an astonishing 36dB of separation in the sample I reviewed (and built).''

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Rega Exact2
Again, no review on analogplanet.com but over the years I've heard this $595 cartridge many times in various Rega turntables I've reviewed. It features hand-wound coils and a "vital" fine line stylus that digs a great deal of information from the grooves. The one piece body of "Pocan" is harder than aluminum and passes instead of wasting the energy generated in the grooves. It combines a bit of shine on top with sweetness in the midrange to produce an exciting sound. A great "drop-in" cartridge for any of the moderately priced Rega turntables.
Cartridges MC Under $500
Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 (HO)
One of the least expensive ($399) moving coils I know of. Its high output (2.5mV) means it's MM phono stage compatible but will give you a taste of what moving coil cartridges are all about. It features an elliptical stylus and tracks between 1.6 and 2.0 grams. Lots of detail, power and punch. Better for rock than for classical.
Sumiko Blue Point EVO III (HO)
You get more than $100 worth of low level resolution and sonic sophistication compared to the Blue Point No. 2 from this "open generator" design. Back in 2005 in Stereophile I wrote "It proved to be "a model of tight clarity, rhythmic certainty, and excellent tracking," with "a reasonable amount of punch and an overall clean, bracing demeanor." That is still true today.

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Dynavector 10X5 (HO)
Dynavector's least expensive ($450) cartridge shares many sonic characteristics with the Blue Point EVO III. I've set up quite a few of these for friends and like the EVO III, the 10X5 produces fine imaging, powerful and punchy bass and a surprisingly rich tonal palette.
Denon 103R
With its conical stylus the $379 Denon 103R is far from the last word in detail retrieval and its relatively low output of .25mV means it requires a high quality moving coil phono section or use with a good step up transformer into a moving magnet stage. But the low output also means fewer coil turns, lower mass and response speed that makes up to some degree for the round stylus profile. This one has a strong cult following because it's relatively easy to set up and "sounds like music."
Cartridges MC $500 to $5000
Dynavector 20X2-H
More than a taste of the "high priced spread" from this refined, rich sounding $850 cartridge available in both high (2.8mv) and low (.3mV) output versions. Both work well in VPI's JMW Memorial tone arms.
Shelter 501 MkIII
A warm, romantic and smooth sounding moving coil cartridge that's had a price jump from around $800 to $1295 over the past decade but still has a strong following among those who like their sound warm and love that the 501 passes over noise and pressing defects other cartridges accentuate. .5mV output requires a MC phono preamp. The 501 Mk111 is well built and makes for enticing, extended listening.

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Lyra Kleos
Introduced in 2010 as a Helikon replacement, the Lyra $2995 Kleos remains in the Lyra line, still as smooth and detailed as it was when first introduced. It combines sonic richness and fast, detailed transient response, dramatic soundstaging and excellent transparency. Compared to the much more expensive Lyras, mostly what you're missing are the enormous dynamic contrasts and detail resolution best described as "insane".

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Transfiguration Phoenix
Once you get to this exalted price point ($4249) for a phono cartridge you have every right to expect spectacular sonics. The Phoenix unmistakably delivers them but the rest of your system had better be equipped to deal with its "detail in your face" presentation. That doesn't mean hard or etchy. It means that on great recordings of drums for instance, if the drummer means to hit those cymbals hard, you're going to get hit. There's nothing soft about the Phoenix's presentation unless the music and/or recording is that way. The Phoenix is among the more neutral sounding cartridges you're likely to encounter. As I wrote in the review: "The parameters that lets you know it is a premium cartridge are its macro dynamic range, its sense of 'direct coupling' to the grooves and its low bass authority and 'punch' as well as its staging solidity."

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COMMENTS
Daniel Emerson's picture

This is the only Gruvy-winner I actually own (sounds great, too!), and I would be interested in Mikey's opinion of the 3-point Rega mounting. Is it "good enough" or does using the traditional 2 bolts and doing a really meticulous set-up make a big enough difference for it to be worth the effort?

I enjoy the 3-bolt mounted sound of this cartridge on my modified NAD 533 and the lack of need for neurotic checking and re-checking. This is especially the case for those of us who are nervous about fiddling with delicate things like cartridge setup. But every now and then, I do wonder...

gbougard's picture

Hi
I havent found a way to PM you, so please excuse this comment.
I run a small label called TABOU1 and would like to send you our productions.
can you email me your mailing address
thanks

Michael Fremer's picture

Rega's 3 Bolt mount uses what I believe ends up being the Stephenson alignment. While it is commonly considered to be one that minimizes distortion at the inner groove area for classical music crescendos, in fact it is more complicated than that but I prefer Löfgren "A" generally. "B" produces lower distortion over the central portion of the record but produces higher distortion closer to the inner and outer groove area. 

 This article will give you more than you want to know about this subject!

http://tinyurl.com/3smhkjo

Michael Fremer's picture
to Fremer@analogplanet.com
Daniel Emerson's picture

Not being particularly dextrous with delicate things (took me ages to set the weight after installing the Origin Live counterweight/stub upgrade), I think I'll leave it as it is, as it does sound good.

I suppose was really looking for reassurance that Rega's solution is at least one version of the right setup.

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coaster92's picture

D. Emerson, Rega and others (Technics) do use something close to Stevenson alignment. Rega (or Roy Gandy) says all the alignment theories are compromises and opted for the one which deals best with "IGD" (inner groove distortion). Aside from alignment, Rega considers the mechanical interface of the cartridge and arm to be of utmost importance- I've done both 2 and 3 fixing points on the Exact (with 2 bolts I used Baerwald alignment) and for me its 3 bolts hands down. The sonic difference of giving up the third bolt is greater than the change in alignment. There is a very precise quality with percussive instruments and more rhythmic grip and snap to the music with 3 bolts, and the vinyl plays slightly quieter too. The Exact pulls off the trick of having some drive and excitement, while at the same time being a nicely musical cartridge. Really anyone with a Rega table should at least try one. Its only shortfall is it might not be for "Soundstage" listeners. The stage is good but others like Ortofon and Goldring are better there. Read the Stereo Times review of the Exact. He covers the differences of bolts also.

Daniel Emerson's picture

It means peace of mind, too, which also adds to the listening enjoyment.

pbnaudio's picture

Thanks so much for the "Gruvy" for our little Liberty B2B-1  Greatly apprectiated !

 

 

Peter Noerbaek

PBN Audio

Paul Boudreau's picture

Thanks much for the roundup.  Minor quibble:  The Nitty Gritty 2.0 is the oak-clad manual machine while the 2.5 is the semi-manual you described.

http://www.needledoctor.com/Nitty-Gritty-Model-1-5-Semi-Manual-Record-Cl...

jazz and cocktails's picture

thoughts on the combo of a Traveler w/ Otello?

Michael Fremer's picture

The cartridge is available in both high and medium compliance. I think you'd want medium compliance but I'm sure Soundsmith will know which works best. It's a very good cartridge. The Ortofon 2M Bronze would be the competition at about $50 less but I've not done a comparison.

jazz and cocktails's picture

to a Carmen vs 2m Black vs Dynavector 20, all on the traveler?

TheThing72's picture

Any thoughts on the Ortofon Red 2m vs. the Grado Red? I have a Music Hall MMF 2.2 that I am looking to swap out the stock Tracker cartridge. I have been getting great results from it for about the past year with fairly heavy use. But, it is getting time to either replace the stylus or get something different. My local shop is recommending the Grado Red.. but I have not had much experience with either carts. In the past I have used Shure M97's and AT95E's.. and am looking for something a bit better. Will the Grado have issues with the MH motor?? Any advise would be a great help.

Rudy's picture

I think this is the first list I've read in a dozen or two years that includes equipment I actually own!  Yes, it's been that long since I've seriously upgraded anything.  And I tend to hang on, so what I got this year will likely be around for a decade or two.

Cartridges--2M Black vs. 20X2-H: how is the 20X2-H as a tracker?  Would the Dynavector 17D3 be preferable in that respect?  (I already realize it has more of a "romantic" sound to it, and I'm totally OK with that.)  I want to change things up a bit and might go with an MC cart.

Michael Fremer's picture

I haven't directly compared but the 2M Black's Shibata stylus is probably a slighty better tracer than the microridge found in the Dynavector but really it is splitting hairs. Haven't heard a 17D3 in a while so can't really say. But if you really want to "shake things up" with a MC, I'd get the low output 20X2 and add a step-up transformer if need be...

Rudy's picture

A late reply...

I ended up going to the 17D3, partly due to the microscopic cantilever having such a low moving mass. That did the trick, along with the MicroRidge stylus. (Anyone know if this is the same MicroRidge diamond stylus the V15VMR/V15VxMR used? Seems as though it should be a trademarked name.)

To say it tracks circles around the 2M Black is an understatement--my ancient Grado F3E+ tracked about the same as the 2M, and only cost me $55 circa 1980. The 17D3 is still maybe a small notch below the V15VMR (which I wore out my last stylus for) in trackability, but it goes right through vinyl passages that the 2M Black couldn't even cope with. (And if you recall my handful of emails, I had to do a lot of fussing with the 2M Black just to correct its alignment and sloppy build quality.) This was also the first cartridge to play back the Nat King Cole "Just One Of Those Things" LP (the S&P reissue) without Nat "lithping" throughout (and I've heard more than a few complaints about this particular LP). Also, the Dynavector seems to be meticulously built--it feels like you're handling a precision device. The 2M just feels like plastic imported junk in comparison (not to mention having a very dangerous stylus guard which broke the second time I used it).

I can now hear why MCs edge out most other cartridge types: the music just seems to "pop" out of the soundstage...maybe more holographic, I'm thinking? I notice a little more detail as well (not the treble end, but the way it picks little things out of the mix I hadn't heard before). It reminded me of last winter when I finally got the crappy Pioneer DV45A out of my system and put a new Oppo 105 in its place--I have these moments where I have to put down what I am doing since the music grabs my attention that much.

BogdanR's picture

Have you tried one on your V15VMR before plunging over $1200 on the DV?
Just curious...

Leo Quinonez's picture

It is not necessary to have Trademark.

jazz and cocktails's picture

I pulled the trigger on a Traveler/Carmen combo, should be here next week.

2channelguy's picture

Based on the Gruvy award I just ordered the ifi iPhono to go with my Traveler/Grado Sonata 1.  Should be here next week.

Michael Fremer's picture

Later today (Friday) I will post files of four MM phono preamps (3 also have MC capabilities that will be covered in the near future). You will be able to compare the four, priced from $99 to over $500. One is the iPhono but of course you will be listening "blind". 

mschlack's picture

I have the one with the big red blinking light in the middle. Having recently upped my digital game with the Auralic Vega, I now find my VPI Scout with Benz Wood SM a little behind my digital experience. Was wondering if you have any thoughts on what would be a reasonable step up. The rest of my chain is ARC LS 26/Simaudio Moon 5.3/B&W 70s. Also, are you going to review the new Phonomena?

Dr. Frankenheimer's picture

Time for me to consider a new cartridge, but not a whole new rig. So the cartridge will have to ride along in an old(ish) Origin-Live modded Rega. Which means, no fine adjustments of SRA and no azimuth adjustments. What's a decent cartridge that isn't too fussy about that sort of thing?

adidino's picture

Curious why the JC3+ is not on the Gruvies list but is on the Stereophile A Recommended Components? Vice-versa for the Lehmann Black SEII. Not on Stereophile RC but made the Gruvies list.

What's up with that Mike? :)

Dorian Workman's picture

Or was this just a one-time thing?

Shirly Coomer's picture

Can I order this in Canada?

Casandra Waldrup's picture

Call us when he will come.

kevemaher's picture

The performance in the London ffrr LP of Gershwin is better in every way than the Fiedler performance that Analog Productions has remastered. I have the SACD from a previous remastering and the original issued LP but not the Analog Productions remaster. I cannot comment on the technical merits of the AP issue. However the other two I have are severely limited by the awful interpretations by Fiedler and the quirky piano playing of Earl Wild. My ffrr release from somewhere post 1972, but pre 1980, conducted by Lorin Maazel with Ivan Davis on the piano is dynamic and powerful with wonderful hall acoustics. It is impeccably performed, especially by Ivan Davis. The actual LP itself has a huge soundstage, warm mellow sound, wonderful bass dynamics and is extremely quiet. My copy, bought soon after original release, was mastered by Harry Fisher. Both sides are from the first master lacquer. Side one was from the second metal master, first stamper. The second side is from the fifth metal master, fifth stamper. I wish this performance could be remastered although I can't imagine a better vinyl could be created than the one I have.

Some performances recorded by RCA in their "Living Stereo" series are not of the highest quality. The technical merits of the new AP release may be many and wonderful, but, in the instance of the Fiedler Gershwin, cannot correct for an almost unlistenable performance. Anyone have a similar experience?