When a vinyl enthusiast gets the question “what’s the most important component on your turntable setup?”, you can bet that the phono cartridge will be high up on their list.
The choice of phono cartridge has a monumental impact on the audio experience produced by any turntable system. How could it not with a role such as relaying the electro-mechanical signals from the groves of a vinyl record to the player?
As such, if you’re looking to enjoy a satisfying listening experience from your turntable, you need to make an informed decision regarding the phono cartridge you’ll install in your system.
The thing is, phono cartridges can be pretty pricey. Shopping for a decent one while on a tight budget isn’t a simple task — but this is where I come in!
In today’s article, I’ll help you find the best phono cartridge under $100 by reviewing the top 5 options available on the market within that price range and sharing a handy buying guide. Let’s jump in!
How I Choose Phono Cartridges
To make sure that the products I’ve included in my list of the top phono cartridges under $100 are the best possible options, the first step I took in the mission was to search dozens of pages on the web to find all the reliable phono cartridges that fall within price range regardless of their popularity.
After that, I started eliminating options based on users’ reviews and ratings across various platforms.
Once I was left with a selection of the top-performing cartridges in this category, I began testing out each one to determine how they compare in sound quality, ease of installation, and compatibility with different turntables.
To guarantee that the results are as accurate as possible, I opted to eliminate most of the variables in equipment types and conditions.
Also, I resorted to a wide range of audio samples while testing the cartridges to highlight different sound characteristics such as bass and treble. I did this to give each cartridge a fair chance in the race against its competitors.
Finally, after carefully reviewing the results of all the phono cartridges, I’ve put together today’s list to only include the ones that delivered a better performance than the rest.
Top 5 Phono Cartridges Under $100
My research for the best phono cartridges that cost no more than $100 has led me to candidates in the section below. Here, I’ll walk you through what each candidate has to offer, so you can choose the right one for your audiophile needs.
1. Ortofon 2M Red Moving Magnet Cartridge
The 2M Red is the most successful entry-level phono cartridge manufactured by the Danish-owned company; Ortofon.
The 2M Red is a budget-friendly unit that serves as an all-purpose powerhouse. It produces a dynamic, open audio profile backed up by a 5.5 mV output.
The sound has plenty of warmth and brightness to improve your playback performance to an almost professional status.
Using a balanced combination of functionality and design, the Ortofon 2M Red is engineered to give the listener a high level of accuracy when it comes to sound reproduction with special emphasis on improved resolution.
The Ortofon 2M Red features a diamond-tipped stylus that you won’t come across in any other cartridge within today’s price range. Not only does this add to the unit’s durability, but it also reduces interfering resonance more effectively.
Speaking of durability, this phono cartridge can last up to 2,000 hours of playing according to the manufacturer. You’ll only pick up on audible changes after the first 1,000 hours, which translates into a lot of value for your money.
The 2M Red works beautifully with a wide range of music genres, but I particularly like how it sounds when playing classical masterpieces.
I also want to talk about the upgradability of Ortofon’s 2M Red. Its engine has the same body as the popular and more advanced 2M Blue, allowing you to buy the 2M Blue stylus alone without the whole cartridge and save money once you decide it’s time to step up your vinyl game.
Between the quality of its sound to that of its construction, it’s safe to say that it’s hard to believe it costs less than $100.
What We Like
- Offers incredible value for money with adynamic and warm sound
- Has superior durability with up to 2,000 hours of playing time
- Easy to install and upgrade
What We Don’t Like
- You may need to use a higher tracking force than the recommended 1.8 grams
2. GRADO Prestige Black3 Phono Cartridge
Headquartered in the United States, Grado is a highly reputable and popular manufacturer of phono cartridges and audio equipment. It has an impressive history of product innovation and engineering; it even gets credit for coming up with the design of the moving coil cartridge!
Grado’s cartridges are known for their reliable quality and performance. Among its various lines, the Prestige range offers the most affordable models with the Black 3 phono cartridge being one of the company’s best-sellers thanks to its surprisingly high sensitivity and clear, detailed audio output given the low price point.
If you pick up any of the 6 models belonging to the Prestige range and look closely at its build, you’ll notice it stays very similar across different models. What changes is the sound quality and cost; the latter goes up as the former improves.
The construction of the Black 3 consists of a fixed magnet and coil accompanied by a lightweight soft-iron component positioned at the end of the cantilever between it and the stylus.
The motion of this piece results in variations in magnetic field distribution, delivering a high level of sensitivity that became a staple of Grado cartridges. This is also the reason why the Black 3 is compatible with most turntables.
Must read: Top phono cartridges under $200
Although the Grado Black 3 falls behind the Blue 3 and Gold 3 when it comes to performance, it’s great for vinyl enthusiasts on a budget. It’s equipped with the latest improvements from Grado -such as the Twin magnet system- to provide a better sound.
The Black 3 has a tracking force range of 1 to 2 grams, which makes it possible to pair with a wide array of tonearms, even the basic ones. It also features a standard 2-hole mounting mechanism to fit any p-mount headshell.
I believe the outer housing dampening system to be one of the most impressive aspects of the Black 3. It’s responsible for the pleasant warmness and satisfying lushness of the sound.
If you appreciate cartridges that boost the vintage vibes of a record, then you’ll love the Grado Black 3. While listening, you’ll find that the climaxes stay interference-free, the high frequencies are stable, and the midrange is nicely detailed.
I also like how easily you can replace the stylus on it with any other stylus from the Prestige range, which means you get to upgrade and save money by not buying the entire cartridge. The stylus even comes with a plastic cover for protection when not in use.
Setting up the Black 3, however, can be a hassle because there’s no threaded body that lets you screw bolts into the cartridge. Instead, you need to use nuts for fastening.
What We Like
- The outer housing dampening supports warm lushness
- High level of sensitivity
- The stylus is simple to replace
What We Don’t Like
- Installation isn’t very smooth sailing
3. Gemini CN-15 DJ Turntable Cartridge
The Gemini CN-15 is a very wallet-friendly phono cartridge that offers decent sound quality for beginners who don’t want to spend a lot of money to get into the hobby. I’ve also noticed that many buyers use it to resurrect old turntables or to play records just a few times a year.
For all these purposes, I believe the Gemini CN-15 is perfect. Its audio output shows excellent balance and good depth with only the treble wavering a bit.
Its design has a squared outline and consists of a front section that rests at a right angle to provide easy alignment with the line of the protractor.
This helps make the installation process easier so you can enjoy your records in no time. The plug-and-play construction is suitable for inexperienced vinyl lovers and compatible with most headshells out there.
One thing you should keep in mind though is that the Gemini CN-15 doesn’t come with mounting screws and bolts, so you’ll need to purchase those separately. Alternatively, if you own an old phono cartridge, keep the screws after you remove it.
Gemini has been in the industry since 1974, and the long experience really shows even in the company’s low-cost phono cartridges.
While the CN-15 may not offer the most appealing look, its sound quality is overall satisfying and hard to find in other candidates that spare more than half of today’s $100 budget.
Surprisingly, the Gemini CN-15 is fitted with an impressive elliptical diamond polished needle. Not only is it able to withstand many years of use, but it also delivers strong tracking power.
What We Like
- The high and low frequencies are well-balanced
- Setup is easy with impressive durability
- Very low price tag
What We Don’t Like
- The package doesn’t include mounting screws and bolts
4. Rega Carbon MM Phono Cartridge
Next up is the Rega Carbon MM phono cartridge. It doesn’t take more than a glance for anyone to notice how this unit looks almost identical to the previous Gemini CN-15 except for the color and logo.
It has the same squared outline and a right-angled front section to ensure easy alignment with the line of the protractor.
The simple plug-and-play design helps simplify the installation process so you can enjoy your records faster even if you’re a beginner. The construction is also compatible with most headshells on the market.
The black and white Rega cartridge upholds an impressively high level of performance despite its low price. It features a carbon cantilever to boost durability and offers a 2.5 mV output at 1kHz with an RP1-compatible 1/2-inch mount.
As for sound quality, the Rega Carbon is one of the best budget options you can come across. It’s well-balanced in highs and lows (the latter may overpower sometimes) and delivers clear trebles with remarkable bass.
What We Like
- Accurate sound reproduction
- Smooth bass
- Great for electronic and rock music
What We Don’t Like
- The lower frequencies are somewhat overpowering
5. LP Gear The Vessel A3SE Phono Cartridge
Last but not least, The Vessel A3SE by LP Gear is a great quality phono cartridge that offers a decent audiophile experience without breaking the $100 mark.
It has many positive reviews from professionals in the industry, to the point that it was named the 2017 Product of the Year by Sound Advice, a popular radio program on CBC Radio.
The performance of the A3SE is truly impressive and often comes across as high-end, allowing vinyl enthusiasts with modest budgets to enjoy world-class playback quality.
It’s a terrific choice for reviving old turntables as well as upgrading stock cartridges featured on entry-level turntables. In either case, you notice a significant improvement in the clarity and details with pleasant warmth and lively dynamics.
The Vessel A3SE has an output of 3.0 mV with an impressive tracking force of 2.0 grams and a frequency range of 20 to 25,000 Hz. Additionally, it’s fitted with a special aluminum cantilever to elevate your listening time.
Users also read: Best turntable cartridges under $300
The Vessel A3SE cartridge package includes mounting screws and nuts for convenient installation. It’s also easily upgradeable to higher levels by switching to an R3SM or a B3SS stylus.
What We Like
- Award-winning performance
- Great projection of details
- Plenty of warmth and dynamics
What We Don’t Like
- The highs may be a bit muted
Which Phono Cartridge Under $100 Should You Opt for?
Choosing a reliable phono cartridge with a budget limit of $100 surely isn’t a simple job.
While you’re not spending so much that a wrong decision is devastating, it could be all you can afford and that’s reason enough for you to get the best possible audio experience. At least this is the case in my book!
So, if you want an affordable phono cartridge that’ll provide you with the most impressive sound quality and durability for the price point, you should go for the Ortofon 2M Red Moving Magnet Cartridge.
It’s my top recommendation in this category as it offers a distinctly warm, lively sound. The 2M Red also has better audio reproduction precision and tracking performance along with deeper bass and enhanced dynamics.
The second-best thing after the 2M Red -in my opinion- is the GRADO Prestige Black3 Phono Cartridge. It does a great job of delivering a lush and delicate sound and boosting the vintage vibes!
Alternatively, if you’re searching for the least expensive phono cartridge that can still give a decent performance, you may want to try the Gemini CN-15 DJ Turntable Cartridge.
What to Consider Before Buying a Phono Cartridge for Your Turntable
When shopping for a phono cartridge under $100, it can be tricky to choose the ideal phono cartridge for your audio needs. To understand what exactly you’re buying, keep the following aspects in mind:
The stylus is the needle part that touches the vinyl record to pick up the embedded musical information. As such, it needs to possess high levels of sensitivity to be as accurate as possible.
One factor that heavily impacts accuracy is the type or shape of the stylus.
The most common types of styluses available at a budget-friendly price are conical and elliptical. Of the two, I always recommend the elliptical shape for better sound quality.
Construction of the Stylus
The construction design of the stylus also has a significant effect on its sensitivity and accuracy.
A nude stylus is built from whole diamonds whereas a bonded stylus is made using diamond bonded to a metal shank in the final stages of the finish.
Bonded styluses are more affordable but heavier than nude ones. As such, bonded styluses are less sensitive and accurate. Not to mention, they’re less durable.
However, at the price range of under $100, it’s quite impossible to find a cartridge with a nude stylus.
The two most common mounting systems you’ll find in budget-friendly cartridges are:
- The 1/2-inch or standard — uses two vertical screws that are 1/2 an inch apart to secure the cartridge to the tonearm, along with 4 posts that connect to the tonearm leads.
- The P-mount system — uses 4 small pins and attaches directly to a compatible tonearm without needing a headshell.
Most cantilevers on budget-marketed cartridges are made out of aluminum since it’s fairly durable and lightweight. It’s not as impressive as boron or copper, but it’s the best option given the price.
Finally, you should consider the upgradability of the cartridge in case you decide to step up the quality and performance of your turntable system later on.
You don’t have to buy a new cartridge to upgrade, but this depends on the brand and the model of the phono cartridge you want to upgrade from and to.
Some manufacturers offer cartridge lines with interchangeable styluses so you can swap the lower quality stylus with the higher one without having to purchase a whole cartridge.
For example, Ortofon’s 2M Red stylus is interchangeable with 2M Blue’s stylus whereas the 2M Bronze and 2M Black are interchangeable. Also, all 6 phono cartridges included in Grado’s Prestige range can trade styluses.
Best Phono Cartridge Under $100: FAQs
Are Phono Cartridges One-Size-Fits-All?
No, not all turntable phono cartridges have the same installation process nor are they all compatible with the same headshells or tonearms.
That said, many phono cartridges feature Standard and P-Mount mechanisms, which makes them easy to fit on most turntables on the market.
How Long Does A Phono Cartridge Last?
The longevity of a phono cartridge differs according to multiple factors such as the construction quality of the cartridge’s body, the durability of the stylus, and the frequency of use.
If we consider the most average conditions, then a phono cartridge can provide about 400 to 600 hours of playtime without any audible change. For casual users, this is about 3 to 5 years.
But more and more manufacturers nowadays are moving towards incorporating more premium materials in their build, effectively extending the lifespan of their cartridges to last for up to 1,000 hours before audible changes can be detected.
Some models can even last for double that time!
As such, you should carefully check the durability rating for the particular cartridge you’re thinking about buying. Keep in mind that proper care can also boost the durability of your phono cartridge.
Can I Make A Phono Cartridge Last Longer?
Yes, you can boost the durability of your phono cartridge and extend its lifespan by providing proper care.
To maintain your cartridge in good condition, you should clean it often. Schedule a weekly session to remove dust from the stylus using the small brush that usually comes with the cartridge.
Make sure that your strokes are gentle and focus on the tip of the stylus to prevent the buildup of dust which would wear it down quickly.
Do Phono Cartridges Need Breaking In?
A break-in period is necessary for audiophiles as it helps them determine whether or not they can keep listening to music using a certain phono cartridge.
The length of this period varies from one person to another and is especially important if they already owned a cartridge and are trying a new one.
The amount of time it takes you to pick up on a noticeable difference between the sound quality of various cartridges isn’t a staple.
What we can say, however, is that if you’re not happy with how your cartridge sounds within 50 to 100 hours of playing, it’s probably never going to sit right with your audio needs.