Analogue Synergy....Which is the best Cartridge?

I'm getting back slowly into vinyl with the hopes of upgrading my Linn Axis/Basic Plus tonearm in the next couple years. I recently acquired the PS Audio GCPH phono preamp for my system because I thought it offered the most flexibility in terms of upgrading into a wide variety of cartridges. I'm currently using the Linn K9 cartridge.

I want to upgrade my cartridge next and am looking at the following:
Sumiko Blackbird
Shelter 501
Benz Micro Glider
Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood
Dynavector Karat

I've not personally heard any of these cartridges (only read the reviews) but I'm leaning towards the Shelter 501 primarily because it seems to offer the most bang for your buck.

Given my current Linn Basic Plus arm, which cartridge would allow me the best match for my current system. My upgrade path will likely include the VPI Scout with Signature 9 arm in the future.

Can any audiophiles out there with knowledge about cartridge output, tonearm mass, and phono preamps suggest a good match for me? My associated electronics include Aesthetix Calypso, YBA Alpha 2 amplifier, and mentioned earlier, the PS Audio GCPH phono preamp.

Another question, some cartridges have lo, medium and high outputs to match with a wide variety of phono stages. Are the lower output cartridges supposed to sound better?

I would appreciate your input!
Thank you!
personally I would buy a denon 103R if your tonearm is suitable - I believe it is - any fellow gon's please chime in.

I have the GCPH and denon 103R and they sound wonderful together. the denon is more musical and enjoyable than my clearaudio concerto. the denon plays and sounds way above its low $ price point.
Why do people keep recommending a cartridge with a *round* diamond tip? Next to a ceramic cartridge it will cause the heaviest record wear!

When I was usimg a Basik Plus arm, a Shure V15VxMR matched very nicely. It sounded good too.
The Denon 103R is the best value out there and a good solid cartridge.
For a bit more money, I would go with the ZYX line before the Shelter group.
Agree with Cello. Every Zyx at a comparable Shelter price point is a clear mismatch; the Zyx wins hands down.

The Denon 103R OTOH may be the single best "value" in phono cartridges today. IMO, in the right tonearm, it embarrasses the Shelter 501 and Sumiko Blackbird.
Two more recommending a round diamond tip! Shame shame...
Thank you for your recommendations. To be honest, I've never heard of the brand zyx (shows you how new I am back into the vinyl scene). I checked out the for sale items on audiogon and the prices of their cartridges are over 3x the prices of the ones models I indicated in my original post. So, unfortunately, it's unlikely I'm going to be getting a zyx anytime soon.

There has been a great deal written about the Denon 103R, and every article I've read about the Denon states that it needs the right tonearm. I have no idea what the characteristics of my Linn Basic Plus are..low mass, high mass, what kind of bearing, etc? That's why I posted on here to see if anyone knew. I do plan on upgrading my turntable probably in the next couple years, but I don't want to pick up a cartridge that is a total mismatch for what I currently have.

Audiofeil does have a good point as well. When I was a teenager reading about cartridges and stylii, I was told that Conical or round tipped stylii are not good for the record (elliptical was the way to go!). I suppose I cannot necessarily believe everything I read though....


You've made some good decisions and are asking good questions.

First, my compliments on the thinking that lead you to the PS Audio phono stage. I haven't heard the GCPH, but having the foresight to acquire gain and loading flexibility to accommodate a wide array of cartridges was very wise.

Second, your Basik Plus is a low mass tonearm. It was intended for cartridges like the K9 and the Shure V15 types, most of which are MM's. MM cartridges tend to be light and highly compliant, and such cartridges prefer a low mass arms. If you're going to move up to an MC, it should also be light and of medium to high compliance. This eliminates the Denon 103 or any Shelter, for instance. I'll let you research the characteristics of the other carts on your list. Teach a man to fish... :-)

However, as one would expect in an arm intended for MM cartrides, your Basik Plus is a fairly entry level arm - as is the table it's mounted on. (That's why you're planning on moving up to a Scout.) IME it would be a step in the wrong direction to invest in an expensive cartridge for this rig. Some system upgrades can be done in any order, but this is not one of them. Putting a highly resolving cartridge (like a ZYX for example) on a less capable arm and/or table is usually a serious error. The cartridge reveals problems with the arm or table instead of revealing subtleties in the music.

Unless your current cartridge is worn out or damaged, my advice is to upgrade your table and arm first. You'll probably be surprised at how much better that cartridge sounds on a better rig like the Scout. In addition, you then need only concern yourself with choosing a cartridge to match one rig, the new one, rather than choosing a cartridge that will work on two.


P.S. I thoroughly agree with the ZYX recommendations above, but not now. They are excellent cartridges. They are available both above AND below your price point. But buying one now would would put the cart before the horse.

P.P.S. Assuming your phono stage has enough clean gain, the low output version of an MC will *usually* sound better than a higher output version of the same cartrdige. Higher outputs within a model line are *usually* achieved by increasing the number of coils. Since those coils are all attached to the cantilever, the moving mass and inertia of the cantilever is increased. This necessarily makes it slower to respond to rapid groove transients. Lower output models have better dynamics and retrieve lower levels of detail - as a rule.
"Second, your Basik Plus is a low mass tonearm"

Doug, I'm not sure I agree with this.

To Calgarian...

Is the arm the Basik LVX+? The LVX has an effective mass of 12.5 grams, according to the data on Vinyl Engine and Cartidgedb. The LVX+ has (as I understand it) a fixed headshell in contrast, so I would expect it's mass to be on the order of 11.5 grams or so. This puts the range of catridge masses at about 8-12 grams (with mounting hardware), and compliance from about 10-19, to put the combination with the LVX+ at an acceptable resonance point. (You could go with a much lighter or heavier cart but that would skew the needed compliance into a very narrow range.)

So strictly from a matching POV all the carts you have listed should work (including the 103R mentioned by Downunder). The GCPH has a maximum gain of 60, so you may want to reconsider the Karat very carefully. It has a very low output (.23mV or .2mV depending on the model) and depending on the total gain of your system the GCPH may not be able to drive it high enough.

I'm not sure how the Copland and YBA sound together, but I do have the 103R and can agree with Downunder and Cello. It plays well past its price point. It s non-fatiguing without being "dull" in any way, and as musical as all get out. It is not the most transparent cart ever, and it loses to more advanced stylii in dragging the last little bit of detail out of the groove. But it is just a great sounding cart.

Now, having said all this I will agree with Doug in that, if you're going to upgrade anyway you should probably do it before getting a new cart (assuming the K9 is still usable).
The round and eliptical diamond tips on them Denons are a cost cutting measure to sell at particular price points. The customer records' life span is shortened because of this (and in no short measure with a round). I mean, you even have an 'audio boutique' owner recommending such a stylus in this very thread!

When I was in high school my Shure V15 III cartridge had a hyper-elliptical tip. As I got more informed I went on to better ( both sonically and vinyl wear retardant) stylus profiles, like Shibata, Stereohedron and Fritz Geiger. You just got to be more exact at installing it. I recently found a box with my beloved Audio Technica AT-15S and it's going to get a NOS Super Shibata tip. My modded Stanton Groovemaster's next tip will be a Super Stereohedron (similar to the SS ). My only moving coil is an Ortofon X5 and it has a Fritz Geiger tip, which mimics the shape of a mastering cutterhead. Almost thirty years after my first Technics turntable those very first records still sound clean & crisp.

Your tonearm's mass tends toward the low side--don't know the effective weight but the Shure's will definitely work, so will the Audio Technica. I don't know if the Stanton 681EEE will work, being a medium compliance cartridge. This would be my first entry level choice to get the TT working and start *playing* records. I suggest you talk to Kevin of KAB electroacoustics. He's a very knowledgable, honest dealer who will not mislead you into buying something like the Denons. Although he sells low output movig coils he'll also tell you not to throw away your moving magnet cartridges. There's a reason for that...

Almost thirty years later I have another Technics TT, but this one's on steroids--a KAB modded Technics 1200 that will give any $5K TT a run for its money. I did mention--records are meant to be *played*.

Don't be conned into believing you need to change your TT in a hurry. I know of this guy who was a repair tech at a Linn dealer while studying electrical engineering. He still has his Linn Basik ( with some 'modifications' ) and a modified Sony receiver plus some B&W mini monitors in an acoustically engineered room. Word is the local high end dealers can't believe the sound!!! You grab a beefy, surplus DC power supply from eBay and install it outboard in that Linn unit and call me in the morning, dude. Don't believe me? This is what Van Alstine recently posted in his AudioCircle forum:

Just because I am allowing this thread to run on here does not imply that I sanction any of these goofy grossly overpriced turntable designs. I don't.

Me - I am running a 25 year old HK T30 belt drive turntable and arm with the main bearing running in Moble One synthetic oil, the arm bearings in 1000 centistroke liquid silicon, a Tri-Pad record mad, and with my custom made external 12V DC power supply to eliminate all AC hum fields from the unit and provide excellent speed stability. It is quiet, stable, and works great with a Longhorn Grado. I use it for phono preamp design, and if you have heard one of my current phono preamp sections, you would not throw rocks at the turntable. The whole setup cost about $150 years ago.

Frank Van Alstine

There's one guy here (Sedond) who's got an Oracle/Origin Live RB250 with a surplus Hewlett Packard lab grade power supply (about $1K new). I've heard the deck. Also in this forum, Alex Yakovlev is an EE and has a Technics 1200 rigged with an outboard industrial grade power supply. Like in school, connect the dots and use the crayons on your coloring book...

With psychic power and primal intensity,
This one's for Doug Deacon: Them low output moving coils owe quite a lot of their performance to the MASSIVE bodies that absorb resonances. A Vinyl Asylum inmate from Belgium has just received one of my non-resonant, Caribbean Moca wood blocks. The man makes his own low output moving coil cartridge bodies and will report back after Christmas. The moderator of the vinyl circle in AudioCricle was also sent a complimentary block to make DIY versions of the audiophile-priced 'isolator' and hand them free of charge to the guys. Too bad you passed on my offer.

Stay tuned...
Thank you everyone for your overwhelming responses!

Dougdeacon: I'm pleased you concur with my choice of phono preamp. Originally, I was going to go with a fairly simple phono preamp like the Project, Rega, Creek, Bellari, or Grado units, but opted to increase my budget (for fear of catching the vinyl upgrade bug!) and get a phono preamp that would accomodate most cartridges and also have XLR output to my Aesthetix Calypso.

I'm curious what ZYX cartridges you'd recommend at the price point (or below) of those models I've listed.

I've had mixed input from audiogon members as to the level of performance of my Linn Axis. Some seem to think that it's a fairly decent table that would compete at the level of a VPI Scout...where others think that the Axis is an entry level table. What's surprising is that I paid around $1200 Cdn for the table over 15 years ago...and the VPI Scout costs only $1650 US today..and that's including one of their model 9 tonearms (I like the upgradeability of the Scout as well!).

My K9 is in very good condition still. I've babied my equipment from day one and should I decide to sell my Axis/Basik Plus/K9 combo, I should be able to get decent resale for it.

Thank you for your response. I'll certainly consider upgrading my table first before the cartridge. I'd be very interested to hear how the K9 sounds on the VPI Scout.

By the way, is there a website with Turntable/tonearm/cartridge basics 101? It looks like I need to do more research!

To Tonyptony: My tonearm is simply the "Linn Basik Plus". I think this tonearm was the latest release of the LVX and LVX+ tonearms before they updated their entire entry tonearm lineup with the Akito arm. My tonearm does not have a removeable headshell.

Out of all the cartridges I've listed in my original thread, my first choice was probably the Shelter (simply because of the great reviews I've read about it's amazingly smooth midrange response). As you and Doug have both agreed, I'll probably now upgrade the table/tonearm first before taking the final plunge on the cartridge.

My "system" is not updated and I no longer own the Copland CVA 306 six channel preamp (it is an AMAZING preamp though!). I have since returned to a two channel preamp with the Aesthetix Calypso. I still have the YBA amplifier.

I'll save up a bit more for the turntable/tonearm. In the meantime, my turntable with the K9 is up and running with my PS audio GCPH. I can describe the sound as being smooth, but it lacks detail in the treble and the bass is a bit round and overly soft. If I were to compare the sound to my Ayre C-5xe Universal player, my digital source would definitely be the winner. It's not a fair comparison though.

I was thinking that the cartridge was the leakest link in my vinyl rig, which was my reason for initiating this thread. I may have to pick your brains again after I upgrade my turntable!

Thanks again for all your responses!
Actually animal you're way off again. I used conical and elliptical stylii for many years beginning in the late 1950's through the 1970's. All of those records play marvelously today and show no "shortened life span" despite hundreds (and some thousands) of plays as you improperly imply. Your records should sound this good but you'll never know given your current arrangement. These albums have no noise, no pops, no clicks. Why? Because they were always kept clean and played with quality and properly aligned equipment. The shape of the stylus regarding record wear is basically immaterial so long as proper precautions and/or implementations are taken.

The Denon is a great cartridge. It will outplay many of the line contact cartridges all day long and into the night. There is much more to a cartridge than stylus shape. You really need to be more careful about disseminating such info; the unaware might actually believe you.
Moving from your Basik to a Scout is a lateral move. That's why I wrote about Mr. Linn technician, Van Alstine & others who've installed outboard power supplies.

I can describe the sound as being smooth, but it lacks detail in the treble and the bass is a bit round and overly soft. If I were to compare the sound to my Ayre C-5xe Universal player, my digital source would definitely be the winner.

Lack of detail in the treble is due to the cartridge, the softness in the bass mostly due to stylus drag effects. It does not really matter you have a very good transport/player--all CDs/SACDs have *perfect* pitch and your ears will notice that even if you listen to a cheap player bought at a department store. CD bass is deep and tight; to rival this a TT would need excellent speed/rotational stability and you will not get that with a Scout either. Far from it.

The KAB website has a LOT of information on vinyl playback. Though mostly geared to 78 RPM record collectors it is nonetheless up to date. Remember, a fool and his money are soon parted.

Pressure equals force over surface area. I did not make that up, Audiofeil. It's simple physics. I just referred to record & stylus wear, not cartridge design & quality control parameters. DJ cartridges have spherical tips, too and DJ pressings will last a rather long time of use and abuse. There are reasons for that.

Your records should sound this good but you'll never know given your current arrangement.

You don't know my "current arrangement" and you're no psychic. No, I'm not into the audio snob market like you do (tell this guy you're an outrageously expensive audio *boutique* dealer, please) but I have $30,000 sound & spent way less than a third of that. The power delivery/noise control part of the rig has a list value of $7K alone. That's the kind of juice I feed my components.

I know a joker when I see him--like the Cartridge Man (you sell his products, don't you?). Hell, it really impresses the *unaware* with this 'critical' tracking force of 1.58g +/- 0.05g. What you and him don't say is how someone will calibrate a weight scale to that precision in a home environment. I mean, calibration is a VERY periodic activity and readings in the 0.01g range must be done with no air movement, like any other analytical scale. Would you also want to bang around such a delicate instrument via UPS for each calibration? Get real.

Psychicanimal, I'm not a dealer, and I have no dog in this hunt. I own one cart with a VdH Type 1 stylus, an A-T with a Micro Linear, and the 103R. I go back far enough in record playing (about 30 years) to have had a few others. At least for me, I've found that the best way to insure minimal wear on my disks - regardless of which cart I am using - is to make sure the TT, arm, and cart are set up as well as possible and to treat my records with cleaning and preservation solutions. I'm hoping we can all agree with these basic requirements.

I have no microscopic analysis to prove it, but my records still seem to be in very fine shape. A friend who has copies of the same records (some 20 or so years old) sometimes comes over and brings his; in many cases there is a clear difference in the way his sounds (more noise, etc). He does not take as much care of his TT regimen as I do.

BTW, the pressure on the small surface area of a microridge or line contact type stylus will be on the order of 4-5 times that of a larger elliptical or spherical stylus tip. While I agree that a more modern tip is better suited to produce less wear, it is moreso because the shape is better suited to tracing the groove. When all's said and done, though, IMHO you have to really go out of your way to induce significant record wear on a private collection.

Take a look at this, and in particular the last major paragraph on this page.
Thanks, Tony. Very good artricle--especially explaining saliva is used as a cleaning solvent!!!

This is from the link you provided:

Various refinements on the elliptical stylus principle have been developed, and are well explained and illustrated in this link to the Needle Express website FAQ page. The objective of all the design types is to increase the area of contact between the stylus and the wall of the groove in a vertical direction.

The high cost of these styli is a consequence of the careful grinding and polishing required to achieve the required profile, and the very exacting task of mounting the stylus in the cantilever so that the narrow axis of the ellipse is perpendicular to the line if the groove. This cost is offset somewhat by the reduced rate of wear on both stylus and records.

Thorsten, the European audio reviewer, states that he has a TT with two tonearms: one of them has a cartridge with a radial stylus because a lot of records were mastered with Scully lathes that electronically modified the musical signal to cancel the *distortions* caused by playing a record with a spherical stylus. If such is the case, then playing those recordings with a spherical stylus is the way to go and one more reason to prefer digital. That's why I have a belt drive transport reengineered by Dan Wright--to counteract the hassles of vinyl.

Danny Boy's my home boy, Audiofeil. Helped personally guiding me (along with Dusty Vawter, Kevin Barrett and Robert Ridge Street) and performing surgery on speakers and electronic x-over so that I would have the sound I now have.

Perhaps I'm wasting my money having Kevin @ KAB solder a Super Stereohedron stylus on this NOS Stanton Trackmaster I cartridge I got in eBay for $54.95. It already came with a radial stylus...

I'm in no hunt, Tony, but I'm against making people feel that a lot of money (or 'critical' conditions) are necessary in order to achieve sonic bliss--and if you don't you're a loser. That's why I used the outboard power supply examples. If Calgaryman does that he's going to have real trouble finding another belt drive that's worth the big money leap. I mean, look at Van Alstine-his gear is great sounding, well made, reliable and very seldom seen on the used market. My TT is better than his but he does make a real valid point: his TT is good enough.

Are you interested in trying one of them non resonant, Moca wood cartridge isolators that are soon to be passed around? I had a Moca board made for Sean's rack (amigo deal for my cable chef >>> free) and his comment was that Moca is about as perfect of a material as it can be. No Voodoo here--just good ol' Mother Nature at work. Stay tuned to AudioCircle.

Sounds like a real nice bedroom system.

I mean, look at Van Alstine-his gear is great sounding, well made, reliable and very seldom seen on the used market.

You're talking to someone who owns a FetValve 550EXR, and won't replace it for anything at 2-3 times its price, even if I wanted to spend the money.

I'm in no hunt, Tony, but I'm against making people feel that a lot of money (or 'critical' conditions) are necessary in order to achieve sonic bliss

I may be misunderstanding you, but I think you're sort of making the point for me, and others who believe a relatively inexpensive LOMC like the 103R is good. It is a great cart for the money; many believe it is a real contender against many of the best carts up to the $1K range. If it is used in a properly set up TT and the records are well cared for, record wear will be essentially a non-issue, as my previous link implied.

As a footnote to all these observations on record wear, I have to say that of the many thousands of records which I have examined, purchased and played over the years, only a very few were unlistenable on account of record wear, and these were from the earliest days of vinyl when the manufacturers advised collectors to play them with a pickup "of not more than 8 grams" (see previous page). All other rejected discs were unplayable due to accumulated crud in the grooves and physical abuse to the record surface. I have many records which are the best part of fifty years old, and as smooth and quiet as the day they were pressed.
Tony, I heard the FET/Valve @ the Chicago Audio Society a few years ago. Sean was there. I really liked its sonic presentation, clarity, dynamics & musicality. I recommended it to my brother in law. I still prefer my Marantz Ma-5 Esotec class A monoblocks, though.

As for the Denon 103-R, I would not recommend it (even if it was retipped every 500 hours). It's not cheap to properly do low output MC amplification and in most cases unnecesary and a bad compromise in the *punch* department. I get the midrange of a $1.5K moving coil and the punch & great trackability of a moving magnet with my modded DJ cartridge! The $54.95 Trackmaster I project is designed to take HF response where it should be. My NOS unit has half the coil windings of modern DJ cartridges (375 Ohm) and more extended HF response. Even with my power delivery/noise control rig I would have to really think it over before making the low output MC leap. Another issue is that the Denon was designed for the massive tonearms of the late 50's/early 1960's. New high mass tonearms tend to be very expensive nowadays, unless one gets an old Lenco or Garrard (EMT, too but not inexpensive).

There' been an unreasonable craze about starting vinyl rigs with low output moving coils. A lot of manufacturers have yielded to this pressure and made their units selectable for low output MCs when in fact they're not really designed for handling them. I still hold the massive cartridge bodies play a big part in the sound. That's one reason why I'm doing the Moca wood cartridge isolator experiment. You signing up?

A Linn Basik with a beefy external surplus power supply and a nice MM like the Stanton 681EEE would be outstanding. Installing a tonearm fluid damper and an Ortofon X5 high output MC would be a wake up call! If you search in the Vinyl Asylum you'll see that the X5 has been preferred by serious audiophiles over many other cartridges (after extended listening sessions). The AudioCircle moderator came to the same conclusion. The X5 is crystalline and airy without artificially bloating the soundstage. I got mine for $125 including shipping from Juki the Hong Kong pirate. Got to get the goodies at discount prices!!!

This is for the Audiofeil: VenHaus hand picks his Beta testers. Yours truly is one of them.

With psychic power and primal intensity,
OK...assuming I end up purchasing the VPI Scout with the signature 9 arm, would the ZYX Bloom be a better choice of cartridge vs the Shelter 501? The Shelter is a bit more expensive than the ZYX Bloom. I've not heard many cartridges, but a refined, seductive midrange is one of the most important characteristics I'm looking for. From what I've read about the Shelter, this is where it excels. How would the ZYX R50 Bloom compare?....or would I have to move up to the ZYX R100H or R100 Yatra/Fuji to get the performance of the Shelter 501. Any comments would be appreciated.

The JMW-9 is a downgrade from your current Linn Basic Plus. If you decide on VPI, mount your Linn or upgrade to something else. The Shelter or Zyx will love you for it.
I have the Scout and though I can't say this is the best cartridge it sure is the most hardy- a 25 year old Fidelity Research FR1 mk3f,still ticking after a twenty year sleep.It bests the Grado Platinum I had been using.