What type of sound do you like? warm, musical, analytical, extended top end, bloomy, ...?
I have a PT6 (with an upgraded cable) on an Aries clone into an Audio Innovations tubed stage . I recently upgraded from a Grado Platinum to a Dynavector 20X-H. The difference was significant, in some ways, but alike in enough others that I don't feel like I've lost that Grado midrange warmth that is so pleasing to the ear. The gains are better extension at the top ens with a much smoother presentation and finer detail all-round. Still musical though. The bass is not as prominent as the Grado but definitely tighter and still very natural.
Don't know what kind of music you listen to.
Don't know what kind of sound you prefer.
However, JUST looking at price here are some favourites:-
Shelter 501 Mk2
Benz Micro L2
Clearaudio Sigma Wood
Dynavector Karat 17DMk2
After trying several different cartridges with my VPI HW-19 Mk4 / Rega RB-900 (now RB-1000), I eventually chose the Grado Reference ($1200, 4.5 mV output). I have been extremely pleased with it. It is very quick (close to the best moving coils), has excellent tonal balance from top to bottom, conveys a nearly holographic soundstage on well-recorded LP's, and is extremely musical.
If reviews/ratings from the high-end audio mags provide a useful comparison for you, be aware that TAS lists the Grado Reference as one of its "recommended cartridges", and selected it as an "Editor's Best Buy" in the Oct-Nov 2003 issue of the magazine. The one "downside" to Grado cartridges is their susceptibility to hum induced by the turntable motor. I have not found this to be a problem with my VPI HW-19 Mk4.
TAS also recommends the following cartridges in your general price range:
1. Dynavector Karat 17D Mk2 ($750)
2. Ortofon Kontrapunkt B ($900)
3. Sumiko Celebration ($1500)
When I contacted VPI about a year ago regarding a cartridge recommendation for my VPI Aries the Dynavector Karat 17D Mk2 was at the top of their list for under $1000.
Note, the Dynavector Karat is a very low voltage cartridge. Make sure your phono stage has adequate step up otherwise you will have no volume.
My taste in music has been asked, and fortunately (or maybe not), I listen to just about everything. So for me, the cartridge with the best balance is what I'm after. I don't want a cartridge that performs exquisitely in one area and fails miserably in another. Rather, I'd like something well rounded rather than over the top or vivid per se.
It sounds like you want a cartridge that's easy to listen to over the long haul, understated rather than overstated. There's two that come to mind that are both off your projected budget by a bit: the Sumiko Celebration at $1500 and the Shure V15MRx5 at $300.
Don't scoff at the Shure: if you check TAS reviewer systems, many, if not most, use the Shure on their reference 'tables, regardless of price. I've compared it to many, and whenever I put it on as opposed to the rest of my cartridge collection, I simply spend hours listening to all of my records, and leave it set up for months. Cartridges that excel in certain areas tend to make you play only those records which are very well recorded, restricting your collection. Curiosity drives me to the rest of my cartridges, MCs and MMs, to see what I'm missing. And while the Shure is not the most detailed in the world (don't take this to mean it isn't, though), those instruments it captures, it captures perfectly so you think "Ah, so that's what it is!" This cartridge has incredible bass, is tonally accurate, and gets the rhythm right, so you just don't care, it sounds "right".
The Sumiko probably ups the ante. Otherwise, the Grado is very smooth, quite detailed, while being dynamic and never harsh (I own one of these as well), and excels in the midrange, but is still quite good at the frequency extremes. On the right 'table and system (unfortunately not mine: make sure you have an excellent MM phono stage), it is musically astonishing, makes the hairs stand up on your body, a very rare experience. Sumiko has their heart in the right place - music at a good price - it would be interesting to see how the Blackbird stacks up. All the other cartridges mentioned here sound good as well, and I will likely buy a Dynavector 17D MkII soon, to add to my collection. An embarrassment of riches, but I include the Shure because price isn't always an indicator of quality, and it may in fact be the best in the world at not interfering, and making everything sound equally good. Technicolour is fun, but gets tiring in the long haul (which is why I keep my Shure). If you go for the Blackbird, post a review/discussion!
My choice would be Allaerts MC1B. Jan Allaerts only makes 70 cartridges a year. MC1B is one of his lower models, much better than the base MC1 Eco. Waiting list is about 6 months. I've got mine now - fantastic. Better than my old Dynavector Karat Ruby, Decca Gold (Original Garrott Brothers).
Hard to find one to listen to though. I don't know who distributes Jan's cartridges in the USA.
I wonder how the Blackbird stacks up against the Glider M2 I currently use, because its price point and graphics (plus the 'nude' design, although the original Blue Point had that first) indicate to me that it's clearly intended to compete head-on in the marketplace. BTW, the Glider is certainly worthy of consideration - in no way hyped, but robustly full-bodied and 'liquid' with sufficient 'air' and 'depth', if not necessarily quite all the startling dynamics or imaging available in some (older) designs I've heard that might not be as tonally and harmonically truthful as the B-M. But I had to buy mine without benefit of being able to audition it against the current comparable leading contenders - sadly, too often the case with everything phono.
BTW, I have always found it odd (though unfortunately not atypically so) that Stereophile persists in rating this cart as 'Class C' in 'Recommended Components', despite Fremer's review of the updated Mk.2 version clearly stating it was superior to the original in every way and fully competitive at its price (in fact he hardly seemed to find fault with it), which is somewhat higher than other carts they've since classed as 'B' and even 'A'. As an owner and a subscriber, I don't know whether I ought to be glad or mad that their perniciously pervasive 'grade creep' seems not to be retroactive...
If memory serves, I think Stereophile was embarrased by the flack surrounding their original review of that cartrdige, which was a rave by a reviewer later accused of having insufficent experience with cartridges to know what he was talking about. They've been bending over backwards with the Glider ever since.
Look into VDH lines. retip is $500 fixed price for any cartridge from VDH. If you get one used, it is still held its resell value pretty well.
I doubt they could really be 'embarrassed' by almost anything, but in any case certainly no one could level the same accusation about Fremer.
The dead giveaway is that they're still awarding the Glider a 'star' for perennial inclusion and a '$$$' for outstanding value, just one of the plethora of internal contradictions 'RC' has come to embody over time...
I second the recommendation of the J. Allaerts MC1B. However, the pricetag of $2300 is more than double your budget. I've been listening to one for the last two months. It clearly outperforms the cartridges that I've had. (Denon 103, 103D, Shelter 501,901) I'm even inclined to say that this will be my last cartridge. I'm done searching.
It's true that there is a long waiting period. The US distributor is Audioadvancements.
I just got a Lyra Argo from Bob at Elusive Disc to replace my ageing Linn Asaka in an LP12/Ekos. Speakers are LS3/5a. Sounds absolutely wonderful on most music (don't have anything to compare it to, other than the Asaka). Tracking is not as good as the Asaka (but neither is the $3000 Linn Akiva). The Argo mistracks on level 3 up on all bands of Audio Obstacle Course Era III (the Asaka tracked everything except level 5 of the bass drum test).