Zu moded Denon DL-103
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I've also heard great things about the Hana MC Shibata (the low output one seems like the preferred version) from at least the 2 audio joints around here (Goodwin's and Natural Sound). In fact, I don't recall any other new cart getting so much positive attention…came out of nowhere seemingly, so it's either real good or real profitable for the sellers or maybe both. I may have to get one.
Here's my .02: Like you, I like to keep my hifi habit in check, so keep my cartridges under a grand. I've used a Dynavector 10x5 HO, a Nagaoka MP500, Clearaudio Virtuoso MM, Ortofon 2M Black, Audio Technica AT09, Sumiko BP Special, Grado Sonata Platinum Reference, Sumiko LO Blackbird, and of course, a Shure V15 IV. I listen to rock, acoustic rock, jazz and blues through three systems. Here are some impressions.
If your records are old and worn, nothing tracks like the Shure, and stylus replacements are easy -- and it sounds better-than-okay through my Zu Omens (my kids use this system to play their records). I found the Dynavector to be the liveliest of the bunch and fun to listen to, especially with blues and rock. But since my speakers are on the lively side, I found the Dyna to be a bit fatiguing after a while. It was hard for me to appreciate and real difference between the Ortofon and the Nagaoka through my Vandy 3A Sigs, but the Ortofon really shined (shone?) through my Audio Physic Classic 30s (on a modded Rega RP6) That seems to be a great synergy. My Sumiko Blackbird has been a great all-rounder too. It came as part of a package with a Pro-ject Evolution 10.2 Superpack. It's a joy to listen to, especially on Jazz and live acoustic music. The Nagaoka is my backup to any of these when they need a stylus replaced, and I would be just as happy if it were my only cartridge. The others were all okay -- not bad, but not better than anything I'm using now.
If I had to pick one cartridge for its ease of alignment, use, and listen-ability, though, I'd have to go with the Ortofon 2M Black. It just does everything well, without calling too much attention to any part of the music, and doesn't favor any type of music.
My next foray will be to score either a Shelter 501, or a Soundsmith Zephyr or Carmen, as both seem to be available on the "lightly used" market for under a grand. Good Luck!