Best Budget Phono Cartridge?

After upgrading my system for CDs and SACDs recently, I pulled my old turntable out of storage to see how it would stack up. It sounded pretty sick, and my best guess is that an old (very old) Stanton 681EEE is the culprit. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on this experiment, but if I can find a decent cartridge in the $100-250 range it would be fun to see how my old vinyl compares. I’m looking at the following new or NOS cartridges:

Audio Technica AT7V MM or AT-F2 MC

Denon DL 103 MC or DL 110 MC;

Grado Prestige Gold1

Sumiko Pearl MM  

Ortofon 2M Blue MM  

Shure M97xE

 Would any of you like to weigh in on this list, or add a favorite of your own? I’ll be inputing to a Parasound New Classic 2100 preamp.

E1872213 a51d 4d9f be44 72898bf430e5cheeg
With this Parasound 2100 you will not be able to properly play LOW output MC cartridges. So, High output MC’s and MM’s will work fine. This means No to the Denon DL103 and Yes to the 2M blue. If it were me, I would go with a Ortofon 2M red $100 best bang for the buck!

 (I am assuming your using a typical S shaped tonearm with removable head shell)

Matt M
Good catch, Matt -- thanks!  I'll scratch the DL 103 off my list, as well as the AT-F2.  Among the others are there any opinions on sound quality?
Grado all the way! I still have my vintage Grado G1 as a backup to my MC's! Because Grado's are MI types they are immune to capacitive loading! So can be used with any cable length!
+1 Matt M. You could start with the red and latter upgrade by buying 2Mblue stylus which fits the red body. May need the extra money to get the TT up to speed.  

Grado cartridges are also very good. There is a new prestige series out. 
Try Shure M97xe with the vivid stylus from LP gear .
I also would include ADS Type III and type IV cartridges. 
As @mattmiller  and @mesch recommended, I used an Ortofon 2M Red which was included in my Pro-Ject Carbon Debut Esprit SB bundle. After a year I "upgraded" the cartridge by replacing the 2M Red stylus with a 2M Blue stylus. There was a noticeable performance improvement IMHO. However the price of the upgraded Blue stylus was more that the cost of the original 2M Red Cartridge.
How can anyone make a recommendation without knowing the mass of the tonearm in question? Or was the model of turntable mentioned and I just missed it?
 I don’t know the mass of the tonearm, but the turntable is an old Aiwa AP-B21 unit, with the following specs:

Platter: aluminium alloy die cast

Drive system: belt drive, auto return

Motor: 4-pole synchronous

Speeds: 33 and 45rpm

Wow and flutter: 0.05%

Rumble: 65dB

Tonearm: J-shaped static balance type

Effective length: 220mm

Cartridge weight range: 4 to 9g

Arm lifter: oil damped

Overhang: 15mm

Shell weight: 7g

Cartridge: VM dual magnet type

Dimensions: 440 x 135 x 355mm

Weight: 5.9kg
@mesch and @reubent —  thanks for the Red/Blue suggestions – I like the idea of having two needles, as some of my vinyl is pretty ratty, and I would hate to ruin the better needle with it. 
It looks like I should add the AT 440MLb to the list of possibilities... any comments?

From the looks of it a medium to low mass arm. I would suggest a Nagaoka 110 as a fantastic cartridge. Another approach, since the 681 is such a fine performer, is to get a new stylus for it from JICO.

Would suggest that, since you are unable to adjust vertical tracking angle, elliptical or conical stylii will be better than line contact stylii which you may not be able to align correctly, which would put the 440 out, although AT makes nice cartridges and you might try one with an elliptical stylus, whatever the current version is that is comparable to the 120E.

Thanks viridian -- I had heard that replacement styluses for the 681 were not worth it, as the body doesn't age well; have you heard otherwise?

Regarding the VTA, you are right that the turntable doesn't have an adjustment, but I thought that could be done either at the cartridge head or platten.  Is that a bad idea?

Also, thanks for the Nagaoka 110 suggestion; I'll look into it.

Most of the stuff that you read on the net is total crap - particularly the stuff that I write. But there are lots of threads about the eee and I don’t see any that have issues with body ageing (though I have this problem with my body), a recent one:

But no, I have not owned one since they were new, which probably goes a long way to explaining my body ageing thing. So I can’t speak to ageing in this specific cartridge, though I do have a couple of very old 500s and two Pickering XV15s that seem fine as well. 

Aligning a cartridge without VTA provided by the arm is easy if you are looking for negative VTA, raising the front of the arm up. You can do this with thin cardboard circles under the mat, or a thicker mat, or a million other ways.

But if you need positive VTA, if the back of the arm needs to go upward you are now going to be canting the cartridge by putting something between the headshell and the front top of the cartridge. This method also causes most of the cartridge body not to be in contact with the headshell giving up some of the damping qualities inherent in an intimate contact. The other possibility would be finding a thinner mat, if that would create enough of a change to get you to the correct height, and not change the damping of the platter itself a significant amount.

Neither method is particularly amenable to very fine adjustment of VTA though, however, as you point out, it is more than possible given enough time and patience. I have done it many times, but can’t really recommend it.

What a great thread on Stanton 681 replacements -- thanks viridian!  One of my concerns (in addition to that body ageing thing, with which I totally relate), was that the JICO replacement stylus is $167, and I didn't see any point in spending that much $ to resuscitate a cartridge body that may not be in such good shape.   But if the author of the thread is right, it sounds like the Pfanstiehl 4822-DEE-P is a decent replacement stylus, at only $29 -- that's a no-brainer!  At worst, I can use it as a backup set of "rock skis", for my rutted records that would otherwise tear up good needles.  Thanks, too, for the advice on rough VTR adjustment; if the Phanstiehl doesn't work out, I may yet need to try it.  Or maybe just get a better arm...
VTA adjustment -- I think I was confusing my phono with my VCR...

... if you are looking for negative VTA, raising the front of the arm up ...

There's no such thing as "negative VTA." You're confusing VTA with the relative angle of the pickup arm - those are two different things. Proper VTA is typically within the 15 to 20 degree range.

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cheeg 01-11-2018 2:36am
... the Pfanstiehl 4822-DEE-P is a decent replacement stylus, at only $29 -- that's a no-brainer! At worst, I can use it as a backup set of "rock skis", for my rutted records that would otherwise tear up good needles.
Provided your records are clean, there's really no reason to be concerned that a worn record will damage your stylus. It's the dirt that can damage it, not the groove -  although I am assuming here that these are discs that haven't been trod over with football cleats.
Thanks to the moderators for deleting the hateful post above. It's difficult to believe that matters such as VTA could invoke such nastiness. To clarify, there is no such thing as a "negative VTA." Claiming that there is reflects an ignorance of the geometry of phono cartridge alignment. Here is a link to a graphic that clearly illustrates VTA and SRA and shows how they are related - but very, very different - angles.

Understanding these angles is key to achieving proper phono cartridge setup. However, it is critical to also achieve proper overhang and tangency in phono cartridge setup. That is why I always recommend using a mirrored gauge such as the Mint or WallyTractor, which align the actual stylus/cantilever assembly, and don't rely on the cartridge body or anything else to get those parameters correct.
Post removed 
 Sounds like I missed an interesting post- @viridian and @cleeds obviously disagree on how to refer to VTA, so I will read up, and draw my own conclusions. Nevertheless, thank you both for trying to educate a newbie. 
Post removed 
Just to clarify, I have no issue with disagreements on matters of phono alignment and welcome the discussion. So, contrary to cleeds wanting to paint my ire as a reaction to these differences, he knows that is not correct.
The post that was deleted by the moderators was ugly - truly vile. That's why they deleted it. If you object, you can share your thoughts with the moderators.

You correctly note that the link you provided refers to "negative VTA." The link is simply mistaken, and I've sent an email to the audio dealer asking them to correct it. We'll see if they do.

Humans can communicate because we use words with shared definitions. When we lose that, we lose out ability to communicate altogether.

The question seems to  remain: What is VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle)

Here's an accurate definition, courtesy of PS Audio: "... vertical tracking angle is the angle the cantilever makes with the surface of the record. Typically in the range from 10 to 30 degrees for cartridges, this should be matched to the VTA of the cutter head cutting stylus’s pivot angle as it cuts the record ..."

Here's another accurate definition, courtesy of tnt-audio: " VTA is represented as the angle the cantilever makes with the surface of the record, generally around 20-30 degrees. This is the widely accepted definition of VTA ..."

Here's yet another good definition, courtesy of hi-fiworld: " You can roughly visualise it as the angle a stylus cantilever makes with a disc's surface, although to be more precise it is the angle between a line drawn from the stylus pivot to the stylus point of contact with a disc and the disc's surface, denoted by A in the diagram ..."

Do you know where the "V-15" designation comes from in some phono cartridges, such as Pickering and Shure?  "The vertical tracking angle is 15 degrees, thus the 'V15' name." Surely we can all trust Shure to know what VTA is!

This link on Analog Planet contains the definitive article on VTA and SRA, published by Jon Risch and Bruce Maier. It explored SRA in away that had never been thoroughly considered previously. It's from Audio magazine. (That's the US version of the magazine. A briefer version of this was published elsewhere around the same time, perhaps Popular Electronics. But the Audio version is the best reference.)

Roy Gandy has a particular perspective on VTA. It's interesting.

Viridian, you are free to call me pedantic for setting the record straight on VTA. But the fact remains: There's really no such thing as "negative VTA." It's either physically impossible, or it relies on a mistaken definition of VTA. Choose the one that makes you most comfortable.

I agree with you, my post was uncalled for, as was yours referring to me as “ignorant” in another thread, which predates my post.

We simply will agree to disagree on the VTA issue as well as the need to alert the mods to offensive posts. I’m sure that the OP can sort this out to his satisfaction.
We simply will agree to disagree on the VTA issue ...
That means you also disagree with Shure, with John Risch, with Roy Gandy, with Paul McGowan ... ??? Wow!
Wow indeed! I believe that you are disagreeing With Galen on this one.

I don’t think that any of these folks are infallable. Mr. Gandy suggests that record cleaning is unnecessary as the stylus will simply push the dirt out of the way. I am not comfortable with that but YMMV.

And please, I have no issue with you quoting me, but kindly quote my entire sentence as IMHO a partial quote can change the emphasis. Thank you.

I believe that you are disagreeing With Galen on this one.
It's not me so much disagreeing with Galen , or whoever wrote that for Galen. It's Shure, John Risch, Roy Gandy, Paul McGowan and so many others. I've emailed Galen for a correction, and he's already responded by saying he "will address the issues" in his article over the next few days. I'm inclined to take him at his word - he enjoys an excellent reputation in this industry, which I'm guessing is why you put so much faith in his site.

... Gandy suggests that record cleaning is unnecessary as the stylus will simply push the dirt out of the way. I am not comfortable with that but YMMV.
No, I absolutely agree with you on that. I think it's a nutty claim, frankly.

Cheeg, how did you do? Did you end up with a conical, elliptical or line contact stylus and did you need to set it up with negative or positive VTA? Best.
@cheeg - in case you have not yet decided on a cartridge - here’s a vote for the Denon103 - why?

Right of the bat - this is a very good cartridge, i.e. as long as it is compatible with your arm

Next - there are quite a few versions available
  1. Zu has a version mounted in their aluminum head-shell
  2. Soundsmith can pprovide a few tweaks from nuding to wooden head-shells
  3. you can buy a number of third party wooden head-shells and mount a nuded 103 into them yourself if you have the courage and abilities :-)
  4. or simply eopoxy a brass shim to provide more stability (see link)

So my point is - the 103 can grow with you and your system

I have a standard 103 and one with a Soundsmith modified cantilever/stylus - both fitted with the brass shim. For the same money I do not believe there is a significantly better cartridge than the 103.

It has been a workhorse of broadcasting for decades and with the tweaks can compete with cartridges many times its price.

It also responds very nicely to a good arm - I have an Audiomods Classic arm that brings out the very best this cartridge is able to provide.

That’s my vote - Steve
@viridian -- thanks for following up!  After you and cleeds got into it, I decided to bow out and let tempers cool; sounds like the two of managed to find some common ground. 

Soooo... it's been an interesting jaunt; I ordered the 440MLB, despite your (legitimate) concerns about VTA, since it's been discontinued and they may not be around much longer.  I also ordered a Pfanstiehl 4822-DEE-P stylus for my Stanton cartridge, assuming that would be the backup for my 440 on chewed-up records. 

I mounted the 440 last weekend, and have been fiddling with it ever since.  It sounds good, but not great; I probably still don't have the ideal geometry, but it's pretty close, and the sound is not quite there.  Mids are very nice, but the cymbals don't quite come alive, and the bass is a tad weak.  I've tried different VTFs, from 1.25 to 2.0, and played with the VTA (currently it's slightly "positive", as Galen would say (head lower than tail)*, but it varies from neutral to positive with different record thicknesses). I've positioned the cartridge in the head with a mirrored alignment gauge, and listened to different records to be sure it's not just bad vinyl.  I've tried different anti-skate settings, from zero to the VTF settings, but I suspect the anti-skating dial is pretty inaccurate.  What I've concluded, over the past week, is that I'm wasting my time trying to get the cartridge to sound good on this TT; it's old, noisy, and the arm is probably not that good, even if I have the cartridge perfectly adjusted.  I'm not ready to buy a new TT (or even a good used one), so I will live with my Stanton/Pfanstiehl combo until I can get a TT that's worth a better cartridge.

Thanks for your interest and for all the good advice; I did learn something from the interchange on VTA definitions, so the whole thing was a pretty positive experience for me.

Happy listening! 

* cleeds, please don't react; I know that's not the real meaning of the VTA, but it's a convenient metaphor, and besides, I don't have accurate enough equipment to measure the real VTA, or the SRA, for that matter). 
@williewonka -- thanks for your post on the Denon 103 -- it does sound like a strong contender in the budget cartridge category.  I initially decided against it because one of the Agon replies said my Parasound 2100 would not provide enough output from its phono stage to work well with the 103's 0.3mV output.  But if I get inspired, I might look into how much it takes to set one up a decent SUT...
PS to @viridian: I meant to ask you earlier in this thread when you brought it up -- how does the tone arm mass enter into the setup equation?  Could you provide some rules of thumb for different tone arm masses, or send a link to a relevant article? Thanks again.
@czarivey -- I can't find anything by Googling "ADS Type III and type IV cartridges" -- are you talking about Shure cartridges? If not, please send me a link to ADS cartridges, as all I've come up with is advertisements ("ads") for cartridges!
Cheeg, mazel tov, congrats you found a beautiful cartridge. You should enjoy it very much. It may be that, more than anything the cartridge may need a couple of hundred hours to completely break in. Be patient.

Also, double check this, but I think that body can take one of the AT elliptical or conical stylii, which might be a short-term solution. Perhaps someone who is more conversant with the AT cartridges will chime in here, or you could do a bit of Googleing. 

Yes, you will need to adjust VTA, or SRA, if you prefer the modern convention. No machines are needed as, since you will use it for playing music, you can tune it by ear. Start with the tonearm exactly parallel to the LP. You can determine this by holding an index card behind the tonearm. The lines will help you to determine if it is parallel. Then try raising the rear of the arm a hair, or canting the front of the cartridge up in the head shell if that’s easier. Then try down. Listen carefully for the greatest dynamic range and for the surface noise of the record shifting to a different plane than the fabric of the music.

Also be sure that the cartridge is not listing to the left, or right, when viewed head on. You should be able to hear this as well.

So, to answer your question. The moving part of the cantilever/tonearm system can be modeled as a weight on top of a spring. The weight being the effective mass of the tonearm, and the spring being the compliance of the cartridge suspension. If the weight and spring are at some target resonance and you would like to maintain this resonance, as you increase the stiffness of the spring - what we call decreasing the compliance of the cartridge - you must increase the mass on top of the spring as well - what we call increasing the effective mass of the arm.

If you know the effective mass of the arm, which you don’t except to say that, by observation, we will conclude that it is low mass, and you know the compliance of the cartridge, you can calculate the primary resonance of the moving system.

A better way to do it is by observation using the Hi Fi News record, which will excite the tonearm/cartridge at resonance. But, IMHO, as long as you don’t have a really great mismatch such as using a very low compliance cartridge like a Denon 103 on a very low effective mass arm, you should be pretty good to go. If the turntable is excited by warps and footfalls primary resonance problems may be something to look into.

The reason that primary resonance is given so much emphasis is, IMHO, that it is easily measured. But, again IMHO, the secondary arm resonances, which you can hear if you tap the arm with a pencil, are bell-like resonances that, unlike the primary resonance, fall into the audible range and will have a much greater effect on the final sound. They don’t get much traction as they are very hard to measure. But they have a great contribution to what we describe as the sound of the arm.

@viridian -- thanks for your opinions, as always.  I have a few follow up questions:
- I'm tempted to return the AT440, since a) the sound is not blowing me away, and b) it will probably be a year before I'm ready to buy a new TT.  Your post makes it sound like I should just stay with it until it's broken in, and hope that I like it better then; wouldn't I be better off returning it, and getting an equivalent or better cart with my new TT?
- Regarding the tone arm mass, I'm trying to get some simple "rules of thumb" to guide my next purchase.  Your post made it sound like higher mass is generally better than low -- is that right, or does it vary with the arm/cartridge combination?  I've also heard that the traditional "S" shaped arm is now out of favor; do you agree, and if so, do you know why it's not as good as a straight one?  Is a single bend in an arm better than an S, or should I just look for a straight arm?  Inquiring minds want to know...
Thanks again,
No, I was not recommending anything just trying to say that a low mass arm should have a high compliance cartridge, medium mass arm, medium compliance cartridge and high mass arm, low compliance cartridge.

I already made my suggestion for the a cartridge for your rig, the Nagaoka MP-110. It is warmer, and richer than the AT 440, and cheaper as well, and will allow you to enjoy your LPs today instead of waiting, but these are simply matters of taste. If it is a matter of validation, this crazy ass audio type should give it to you:

I also recommended a replacement stylus for the Stanton and find this a viable alternative as well.

I think if you find the AT 440ML too bright then you should cut and run. It tends to be very direct and up front. I think that is certainly exacerbated by not having minute control over......SRA and azimuth, as I said earlier. None of my recommendations, or concerns, have changed. 

S-shaped arms can be very good and have the advantage of having removable head shells. They trade some rigidity for having the removable head shells. A few S shaped arms had integral headshells, but they are not common.

IMHO they are not something to be avoided at moderate price points. L shaped and C shaped arms are fine also as well as straight arms with offset headshells. You can make a good front wheel drive car as well as a good rear wheel drive car. Execution is everything. If the bearings are loose, or if they bind, you are done before you even get going.

IMHO, you should look for the best turntable that you can afford and then deal with the arm. At the lower price points a used Technics Sl1200, or a Rega Planar 3 or better Rega are good choices. They both have medium mass arms that can accommodate a range of fine cartridges and upgrades are available for each so that they can grow with you, to a point. Both are classics and have been in production for a long time for good reasons.

There are certainly other options. When vinyl went out of fashion only the strong survived so the tables that are for sale now are, for the most part, good ones. It’s really just a matter of taste. I am sure that many here can give you good advice on turntable selection as well.
 -- thanks again for your response; I had forgotten about your recommendation of the MP110, and will probably try that if the Stanton replacement stylus doesn't sound good.  The reviewer at the link you sent was certainly very enthusiastic about it, and UNenthusiastic about the 440MLb - I thought unfairly so.  It made me wonder if he has any interest in pushing Nagaoka sales.  
You mentioned a used Sl1200 as a good bet for a moderately priced turntable -- do you have any thoughts on the Sl1200 "look alikes", such as the AT1240 or Pioneer PLX-500, which can be had new for less $ than the used Technics?
Sorry I it's ADC type III, IV cartridges. They're sleepers and can be purchased for very cheap something like this one --
Thanks @czarivey -- I hadn't heard much about them.  I'll check them out.
Update for anyone still interested: the Stanton/Pfanstiehl combination is very disappointing.  My best guess is that the rubber in the cartridge has hardened, but it's possible the stylus is just not that good.  Either way, I think I'll wait until I can afford a decent new (or used) TT/cartridge, so I'm going to give up on this experiment for a while.  Thanks to all of you for your help; it's been a good learning experience!
If its Pfanstiehl you can be sure its no good .
@schubert — Is your comment based on personal experience or rumor? I bought the Pfanstiel l based on the comments at the following forum, which were generally favorable:

MUCH personal  experience , I used to sell them .
@schubert -- that got a good laugh at my end!  I'm inclined to take your word over the opinions in that post.  It sounds like you think the problem might be with the needle, not the cartridge -- do you have any suggestions?  Is it worth trying to get a refund, or should I just write it off?  I don't want to spend $100 on a JICO and then find that the problem was with the cartridge all along; is there a better alternative, or should I just give up on the Stanton and buy a new cartridge?
Spending a hundred bucks and then finding you were wrong is about
 a  lunch for an Audiophile , this is an expensive hobby .

As you seem to still be sane buy a Nagaoka 110 , good on any type of music and very high-quality , They make many other brands stuff in the first place .
@schubert — sounds like good advice. @viridian recommended that one too, and it’s looking like the only logical choice.   If I were truly sane, I probably wouldn’t have started down this rabbit hole, but as long as I’m here, I may as well try to find the best sound that fits in my budget. Thanks for your help!
@viridian and @schubert  -- I just wanted to follow up on your posts, as I've now had a chance to try several variations of equipment, and ended up with something I like.  When we last left off, I had tried the Pfanstiehl replacement stylus for my Stanton 681 cartridge in the AIWA TT, and was very disappointed, so I ordered a Nagaoka 110.  But before it arrived, I saw a Technics SL-D2 locally on Craigslist for $150, and decided it was worth that much to be sure my TT wasn't the problem.  Long story short, it was in excellent condition, so I grabbed it; the sound of my records improved 1000% immediately, using only the AT-95 cartridge that came with it!  When the Nagaoka arrived I replaced the AT-95 with that, and have not changed since.  Marvelous cartridge for the money!  Thanks for the Nagaoka recommendation; I haven't tried different VTAs, since there is no arm height adjustment on the SL-D2, but I really don't need to; the sound is very good right now, so I've decided to stop worrying about the setup and just start enjoying the music.  I went to a Vandersteen dealer yesterday and listened to some absurdly expensive TT/stylus combinations with the Vandy 2, Treo and 7, and came away thinking I'm pretty happy with what I've got!  I'm sure I'll upgrade at some point, but for now I'm a happy camper.  Thanks again for your help!
Mazel tov, cheeg, enjoy!