importance of phono cartridge

Is a cartridge more important to total system sonics than a turntable/tonearm, will a $1600 TT/tonearm with a high end cartridge sound better than a $5000 TT/tonearm with a average cartridge
Yes and yes, IMO. On the other hand, I feel it's more cost effective to put the money into a good/great TT. You can always upgrade the cartridge when you're able, plus there are many moderately priced cartridges that will give you 80% of the performance of the most expensive ones, expecially when installed in a better TT/tonearm.
A good cartridge will sound better in a very good tonearm than a very good cartridge in a good tonearm.
AT the risk of sounding like I'm talking down to you, I have to say: nothing in the system will replace what a lesser quality cartridge did not retrieve from the LP. The closer a piece of gear is to the source the more it will affect the sound since the rest of the system magnifies what took place earlier, while adding it's own signature.

Start at the source and work your way to the speakers. This will result in the most satisfying musical experience.
I totally agree with Nrchy!

1. cartirdge
2. arm
3. phono stage
4. phono cable
5. turntable

in that order!
As to your question. Let's assume that your price points do indeed translate to 3 times better performance from the arm and table. Also I'll make the assumption that we use the same middle of the road cartridge on both arm/table combos. In my experience the better table/arm will still sound better than the lesser table. It is very possible to get peak performance from a $500 cartridge on the better table/arm. It is often not possible to get peak performance from a $2000 cartridge on a lesser table/arm.

I'm guessing that you are trying to justify a cartridge purchase. The most anyone can do with the question you have asked is to give generalizations. If this is indeed what your about you could get much better responses if you ask about specific component combinations you may be considering.
Plz make a note that
1. a good or an excellent cartridge will only be good(excellent) if it matches tonearm.
2. a bad TT can only turn things worse for a good cartridge. in this case stay with cheap one.

If you're looking at the deck >$1k, than I think cartridge will make the most difference just like Nrchy described. Moreover you can also equate the cartridge influence on the system performance to a speaker due to the relatively same electro-magnetic principal of transfering an energy. I.e. freequency curves are very unlinear just like in speaker.
I agree with Nsgarch, Stanhifi and DanEd.

If we assume appropriate equipment matching, then IMO and IME a $5K TT/arm with a $1600 cartridge will nearly always outplay a $1600 TT/arm with a $5K cartridge.

I'd even state that putting a $5K cartridge on a $1600 TT/arm would be a mis-use of resources. You won't hear what that cartridge is capable of, but you will hear all the problems and shortfalls of the table and arm. I've put $300 cartridges on my $9K rig and been amazed. I've put $2-4K cartridges on my $1K second rig and been horrified.

Nrchy's source-first theory is correct, but in analog the table IS the source. The table provides the environment in which the record and the tonearm both function. The arm provides the environment in which the cartridge functions. It's like building a house, and the table is the foundation. The best roof in the world ain't worth crap if the foundation is rotten.

I strongly disagree that an expensive phono stage should come before a good table, arm and cartridge. If you look at my system you will see it is at present heavily front end loaded. In list price terms:
- table: $5,000
- arm: $3,900
- cartridge: $7,500
- stepup trannies + phono section of preamp: approx. $1,000

I do not maintain this mix is optimal. In fact our next major upgrade will be a reference caliber preamp/phono stage. However, I do maintain that the order of our upgrades was optimal. I have demoed reference caliber phono sections/preamps in my system. None of them made as big an improvement as my latest TT upgrade, which cost me only $2K.

I've also exchanged visits with many fellow audio nuts. Most have invested heavily in their electronics, a bit less on their cartridge and much less on their table and arm. IME this mix was misguided.

Both they and I agree that my system easily outplays theirs when spinning vinyl. More than one such visitor has expressed astonishment at our sound quality, despite our admittedly modest phono/preamp. It is not a reference caliber unit, but when fed a reference caliber signal it does very little harm. Systems that send a mediocre signal into a reference caliber preamp produce only reference caliber mediocrity.

If you, like most of us, must upgrade in stages for budgetary reasons, the best order for superior sound reproduction at each stage is normally: table, arm, cartridge, phono. For the sake of practicality, choose a good table that can accomodate different arms. Then you can upgrade arms without changing tables. Choose an arm that can accommodate many cartridges, for the same reason.
I put a no name MM cheap cartridge on a SOTA Cosmos/SME V combo and was blown away.Likewise a Shure M97eX on an SME 3/Goldmund Studio.Amazing sound-and previously I was used to putting Koetsus on cheap TTs.
Regardless of price, here is my 2 cents on TT setup:
A good TT/Tone arm combo is critial.
A good cartridge will reveal even more.
A good phono cable will give you max signal transfer and shielding.
A good phono section and step up combo will be even more astonishing and gives you a better transparency.
A good ground will reduce most of the hum.
A good TT is stand will improve the stability and balance of the playback.
A good TT/cartridge setup man will make sure that everything sounds right.

Everything else would be plug and play : )

There would be a big improvement moving from $1600 TT/tonearm setup to $5000 TT/tonearm setup.
An audiophile entry level table like VPI scout with RB300 tonearm is no match for a Basis 200, Nottingham space dec, SOTA Cosmos, Gyrodec SE, VPI HW19-IV with JMW-12, SME 309, V or Graham 2.2 T setup.

As far as cartridge goes, matching is always critical. A $7500 clear audio or Koetsu cartridge doesn't promise you the best you can do. Know what each cartidge can do for you first before commit to the big investiment.

Phono cables do make differences. Try them all if you can and pick the most suitable for your setup.

Phono stages and step up devices are tricky. The only way to find out is either with fat wallet or go with reference phono stages and move on from there.

Grounding and TT stands also play some role here. Make sure the stand is all leveled. Material choice, weight load stress, stand height, and placement of the stand is just as important. Vibration isolation is critical here.

Last but not least: If you can, get someone who is extremely knowledge to guide you and examine and go over your setup.

Now you can sit back enjoy the music and get up to change the records.
Doug Deacon nailed it. Need to offer no more.
Doug: "reference caliber mediocrity.' Truly poetic; I don't think even Oscar Wilde could have said it better!
Just to clairfy, I did not mean to indicate that a disproportionate ammount of money spent on any single item is a good idea.

Doug is correct when he says that the TT/arm/cartridge need to be viewed as a whole. At least I think that's what he said! None of the parts can opperate seperately, but they are individuals. My proportions are similar to Dougs:
TT Sota Cosmos= $5450
Arm TriPlanar- $3900
Cartridge Zyx Airy 3x- $3000 (?) not exactly sure of price. Dougs cartridge is better!
cable to phono stage- Purist Venustus $1700
Phono - Pass Labs XOno $4200

If the table is not stable and speed control varies a great arm or cartridge will not overcome these issues. If the arm resonates or is a lesser match for the cart or table the two others can not make up for these problems.

The only real world solution is to buy the best of each that you can afford to buy. Keep in mind that a TT or arm will not wear out as quickly as a cartridge, so if you're planning to build a system around the cartridge, know what you want, but buy it last.

Turntables and arms last indefinately, cartridges maybe 1000 hours +/- depending on quality...
Great post, Dougdeacon! Very little that I can add; but to further strengthen the point, let's look at the issue of wow or speed stability. One of the biggest strengths of superior turntables is their very good, in some cases almost (and I stress almost) perfect, speed stability; conversely, one of the main problems with lesser quality turtables is their less than adequate speed stability. We tend to think of wow as obvious fluctuations in pitch, but as with most things in audio, by the time the problem becomes obvious, you can rest assured that it's been there to a lesser, but probably no less important degree. Very, very subtle speed instability affects soundstaging, image stability, bass tightness and depth, and pacing. In fact, while I am no engineer, and others might have a more technically rooted explanation, to my ears, the reason that CD playback is often sited a having superior bass performance than vinyl, is that it has absolutely perfect speed stability; the one musicality related area where CD has it all over vinyl. Anyway, the point is that no matter how good or expensive the cartridge is, it can not negate the ill effects of speed instability.
What kind of TT did Oscar Wilde have, Nsgarch?
Good examples. Here are two more:
Teres 265/TriPlanar VII/ADC XLM Mk II ($175 in its day): sublime
H-K/Rabco ST-8/Shelter 901 or ZYX Airy: ridiculous

Oscar Wilde might not have said it better, but he would have said it shorter!
His gems are short, but some of his plays, poems, and stories were long... winded.
Thanks guys, Here is what I have done
Just bought a ZYX AIRY 3Xs
Have a VPI Scout on top of a GINGKO CLOUD 11
Through VHA pulsar cables to Audio Research PH5(phono pre)
through VHA pulsar cables to a First Sound Presence MK11
through ZCABLE live ref cables to Mark Levinson 336
through CATCABLE silver speaker cables to OHM 300MK11
NEW cartridge to arrive tomorrow looks like my next upgrade may have to be a better TT/ARM
Congrats on the ZYX although you'll need to upgrade the JMW-9. It is an entry level arm at best and will not come close to bringing out all the Airy 3 has to offer.
Congratulations on your Airy3, great decision.
A Tri-Planar7 would be a great choice of arms to match up with the Airy3.
Teres makes some incredibly beautiful sounding/looking tables at great value prices. We know that Airy3, Tri-Planar and Teres tables sound great together.

Do let us know how your new cartridge sounds. I don't know anyone else using an Airy 3 on that rig. You are pioneering for us all.

BTW, what cartridge(s) were you using on the Scout before?

Your PH5's gain is marginal for a .24mv cartridge, so you may not hear all the dynamic punch an Airy 3 has to offer. OTOH, the silver coil ZYX's tend to sound a bit heftier (and warmer) than the copper ones. Hopefully that will help.

I'd try both the 200 and 100 ohm impedance settings on the PH5. Once the cartridge is broken in I'd expect 100 ohms will probably sound best, but of course your ears must be the judge.

Check out my Airy review and the one at for lots of setup and break-in tips and other trivia.

To offer another perspective - introducing a reference quality or near reference quality component tends, in my experience, to yield one of two types of effects. Either it will expose up or downstream weaknesses in other gear, or it will let you hear virtues in your system that previously you may have missed. Once your system gets to a certain level of audio happiness I've find the latter is more often the case.

Imo given an approximate level of comparable quality across your system to start with, the components that are more likely to offer orders of magnitude improvement to the system overall (not simply old vs. new component) can be grouped as follows: group 1: TT, phonostage/linestage, and speakers; group 2: tonearm, amplifier, cartridge; group 3: everything else. Of course there are no hard and fast rules and YMMV - this is just my experience, and assumes whatever is the upgrade it is somewhat synergistic with the whole.

A reference quality component is one around which you can build a system, is likely to be less transient (you'll have it for a while), and helps you gauge the value and influence of changing other system components. Imo, one can build a system around any of the components in group 1. And, again, imo, the TT is *a* great place to start, but it is not inherently *the* best or only place to start. Swapping out a preamp/phonostage for a substantially better one can have just as dramatic - and sometimes greater - overall effect as swapping out a TT for a substantially better one. Again - this assumes that your system is relatively well balanced to start with. Cheers! Tim
I must thank every one for the wealth of knowledge and willingness to share and educate newbies like myself. Just got back into vinyl and look forward everyday to reading the posts in this forum. Life has not been the same I must say. Vinyl spinning has become a daily habit.

I have a VPI Scoutmaster with a Benz Ace M with VPI TT cables on a gingko cloud 11, VPI SDS and Acoustech PH1P phono stage on a gingko cloud 10, all sitting on a Target wall shelf. Phonostage has about a 45 ft run to a Lexicon MC12B V4 and amp is a Sherbourn and speakers are Mirage Frx-9s with Velodyne F-1200R and HGS-15 subs. Listen to music 80% and HT 20%.

Would like suggestions on how to get the best out of my system. To my ears, sounds great but also know I probably have weak points.

I am considering the new VPI Signature JMW-9 arm and maybe an excellent cartridge to go with it. Any suggestions will be most helpful.

Would like to know what would be perfect cartridge for the scoutmaster. Have no intentions of changing TT's so I am stuck with the JMW-9's it seems.

I apologize for the long winded post. Thank you everyone in advance.
>> Have no intentions of changing TT's so I am stuck with the JMW-9's it seems.<<

Reconsider changing the table/arm. This is your weak link and offers you the biggest opportunity to improve your system. Valhalla wire (yuk) and the other "Signature" tweaks do not change the fact that this is an average, at best, tonearm. You will never hear what better cartridges have to offer in this arm.
It's your money.
My list

1.Turntable + setup
2.Arm + arm/turntable compatibility + setup
3.Stand + setup
5.Cartridge + cartridge/arm/phonostage compatibility + setup

Dynavector Karat,Linn Klyde or VdH MC1 are all the real high-end system needs if pp.1-4,amplification,speakers,cables and acoustics are up to the task.
I am currently using a dynavector 20xl high output, the new Airy 3x is silver with silver base also High output .48mv will attempt to keep people posted as it breaks in. Also allways interested in table and arm advice. thanks again
Great post, great insights. Thanks.

If you got the HO Airy 3 then I retract my statement about the PH5's gain. It should be perfect.
Don't sugar coat it. Tell him how you really feel.
DEAR FRIENDS: What is more important in a car? : the engine?, the battery?, the wheels?, the keys? , gasoline?, engine oil?, etc.....

All these car items are important for a good car performance, with out any of them the car does not works.

All those car items are necessary but the engine is truly the " heart " of any car.

In the audio analog stage the TT, phono cartridge, phonopreamp, tonearm, cables, set-up, etc.. are really important.
But for example: with out cables there will be no sound. This means that the cables are the most important analog audio item?. Of course not.

My point is that the " heart " of the audio analog stage is where its generate the signal: phono cartridge ( the source ).
Yes, if we have a better TT we could have a better sound reproduction, but this statement is true either for the cables or for the cartridge it self and this is not the point.
Now, I agree with Marakanetz that cartridge has to be well matched with a tonearm: critical subject.

But there is other analog item that is extreme critical for the quality sound reproduction and that is at the same importance level than the cartridge, this is the: phonopreamp.
This phonopreamp has, at least, three critical targets: first, mimic ( exactly ) the RIAA eq., as a fact an inverse one. Any small deviation from the RIAA eq. do a degradation to the signal that comes from the cartrdige.
Second, must have enough " gain " to put the low level cartridge signal at an " amplifier level " for the reproduction.
Third: that " gain " has to be with out noise.

All of us know that the quality sound reproduction in our system depends of the weak link in the audio chain.
With the phonopreamp that subject is truly a critical issue.

How can we know ( like Tim told us ) how good is our analog rig ( cartridge/tonearm/TT ) if our phonopreamp does not have the desired resolution? how can we know what's wrong with our cartridge/tonearm combo or with our TT if the phonopreamp is far from its targets?
The phonopreamp is not only an " audio analog item ", it is, too, a tool that help us to reach a better quality sound reproduction and to make changes for those " looking for improvements " issues.

For example: how can Doug really appreciate all the cartridge " glory " with a phonopreamp that ( like he say ) it is not at the same level quality that his analog rig?.

Doug, btw I can build one for you. Interested?

So: cartridge and phonopreamp.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Raul says cartridge and phonopreamp

The bells sounds the begining of round 2...................

I'm curious about your thoughts on the original question. Which do you think would sound better:

a) a $5K cartridge on a $1,600 rig (TT + arm) or,
b) a $5K rig with a $1,600 cartridge?

If these were your only choices, which would you choose and why?

P.S. Thanks for the phono stage ideas. You'll recall I said we've demoed several that outperform ours. They just don't outperform by as much as a TT, arm or cartridge upgrade.

I have a very good idea how much more phono stage performance is available, and it isn't as much as we got from upgrading those other components. That's why we did them first of course. Our new custom power amp was also a bigger sonic improvement than a new phono or line stage. Once step at a time, and one might as well get the most for one's money at each step.

Thanks also for the offer to build us one. I'd enjoy hearing it of course, but I assume it doesn't use tubes, right? To date, no solid state device of any kind that we've heard has been satisfying to our ears and tastes. You are especially bothered by frequency response variations. We are especially bothered by the damage transistors do to smooth waveforms. YMMV as they say.
Well another factor to consider is the quality of turntable setup.I noticed that when everything is set up just exactly correct with my Wally Tracker alignment mirror the sound just improves so so much on the front end.But with that said the largest and biggest sound improvement in my system is when I upgraded my cartridge from a Grado Silver phono Cartridge $150.00 list to a Grado Ref. Cartridge $1,200.00 list.I also upgraded from my standard tonearm cable that came with my Morch Arm too the Kimber Kable Silver AG Tonearm Cable and did notice improvement but not to the degree of the cartridge upgrade.
My table is a VPI MK3 with Morch UP-4 Arm with internal silver wire installed.I'm very happy within this price range of the results I obtained,But I did hear a Goldmund Reference Table many years ago and this table was something to die for .The sound quality was so realistic in sonic presentattion that it was simply breathtaking.So maybe a Table is where the buck stops,But I'm happy with the results I've obtained in my setup,and if my ears like what I
hear then that is what matters the most to me IMO.
reading this thread makes me believe that the STAND is the most important part of analog playback! Surely if everything said here regarding the turntable as being the platform that supports the arm/cart to do their job, then the stand must be even MORE crucial...
yeah, judy is an anti jmw-9 person
Dear Doug: +++++ " If these were your only choices, which would you choose and why?
" +++++

My experience and common sense tell me:....., Come on !!!!

+++++ " I have a very good idea how much more phono stage performance is available..... " " To date, no solid state device of any kind that we've heard has been satisfying ... " +++++

I think that you have to hear the phonopreamps from FM Acoustics, Boulder or CTC . When you do it then you really " have a very good idea .. ", not before. You can't imagine that performance level. Nothing come close.

+++++ " You are especially bothered by frequency response variations. " +++++

Yes and No. No because I'm bothered about the music quality reproduction and that means ( between other issues ): accuracy.
Yes, because the music generator/perception are variations on the frecuency response.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Dear Alun: Right on target !!!!!!

Regards and enjoy the music.
>>yeah, judy is an anti jmw-9 person<<

You betcha'I am. The Scout and Scoutmaster are very nice tables but the JMW-9 arm is awful.
Alun, I would agree that the stand is very important. Especially considering non-suspended tables. However, there are very well designed suspended tables that don't much care what they sit on, within reason.

I think this discussion has morphed abit from the original question which is being answered in rather general and broad responses about synergy. If we start talking more specifically about components and combinations then I expect that many posters here would change their answers. Just an observation that we have broadened the scope of what started this thread.
Good point Dan! I for one find it's REALLY important as my table is non suspension.
I may need to reevaluate my previous post.I have on loan from Albert the Purest Audio Dominous IC.I did not have the provision of connecting this up to my table,but ran from preamp to amp and made a quantumn leap in sound quality improvement that is staggering.Bass slam,coerence of sound,dead silence, midband reproduction to die for,and a naturalness to all notes played off my LP.
The tonearm cable may be the secret too a fully charged up front end after all.
Of course a product review of this cable I will write up after I continue to listen to this mid boggeling Dominous Cable during the next 2 weeks.
Doublebass, I have an all-Purist (Venustas) system from the tonearm cable to the power cord, and I must say, it's the shit, man! But my FIRST Purist cable was the ($1800) tonearm cable (I was using a vdH Frog at the time, w/ a vdH Silver Hybrid TA cable) and I felt it was a respectable setup. Well FAGEDDABOUDIT! When I put in that Purist TA cable, I thought somebody snuck in a Colibri on me when I wasn't looking............
Doublebass, I did the same thing several years ago. AP loaned me a 2.5m pair of Dominus IC. WOW!!! Till I heard that cable I never would have believed the difference one short length of cable could make. I got a lot of flack for my review, but I stand by my findings.

Thanks again AP.

I have had an all Purist system for some time now. Until recently there was a pair of Museaus included, but I just ordered Opis from Porterhouse audio. He said he'd throw in a box of steaks, so how could I pass???
Well a big thanks to Albert I SEE THE LIGHT NOW.I'll need to take the all Purist Audio cable route as my money will permit me too.
I should have borrowed some top of the line speaker cables while I was at it from Alberts closet as well.I know I will have serious withdrawl's when I return the cable,But IRS owes me next year so maybe I can take the plunge then.
Having Dominous as a phono cable must do so much to a turntable that I just could not even imagine.
I'm checking into having Purist build a cable for my Cosmos. The motor is DC, so I want to have the imbilical cord running between the power supply and the TT upgraded from stock.

A couple of people have mentioned that upgrading that cord really helped. So far I have yet to be disappointed by Purist cables, but they won't add back what the cartridge didn't get from the LP.
Nrchy, you are quite right; "won't add back what the cartridge didn't get from the LP"

However, with regard to the original post, I do believe in giving any cartridge the opportunity to 'be all that it can be,' which brings us back to the TT and TA as the place to put the lion's share of one's available resources first, and upgrading cartridge, cables, phono preamp, as money permits.
Once again, Raul does not directly answer the straightforward question posed to him.
Dear Larry: How can any one state precisely an answer to a " wide open " question?

+++++ " will a $1600 TT/tonearm with a high end cartridge sound better than a $5000 TT/tonearm with a average cartridge ? " +++++

Example of an answer, YES: Technics SP10 MK2 with a Moerch DP6 ( second hand ) and a XV-1 Dynavector cartridge. This combination can beat a high price TT/tonearm with a cheap cartridge.

But all these tell us nothing at all, but that to have a good quality sound reproduction we need to have a good sinergy ( match ) between each one of the links in the very complex audio system chain.
The name of the game is: SINERGY .

Regards and enjoy the music.
The direct answer to a direct question for me is that the more expensive TT/Tonearm with cheaper cartridge is going to be the better bet 9 times ot of 10. Not least because the cartridge has such a finite life, very finite if you have an accident. A turntable tonearm is an investment with a very long life. My view is that a new cartridge choice can be used for variety, to change the tonal balance, so I use 2 cartridges. My vinyl system:
Origin Live Resolution/Illustrious
Ortofon Kontrapunkt B or Koetsu rosewood Signature
Clearaudio Reference Phonostage
The basics are always the same, the vinyl playback system is a unit. Those who say that you lose information at source without a reference grade cartridge, ignore the fact, not conjecture, that the data will never get off the grooves if the cartridge is'nt held in a commensurate arm, on a well set up, isolated(Mana wall shelf), level, TT.
As Raul says, the name of the game is SINERGY, though we spell it SYNERGY in the UK. The perils of a common language
Dear David: Sorry about " sinergy ". But the english is not my native language.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Boy,am I sorry that my home computer got a virus 3 weeks ago.I'm relying on my business computers,now.Unfortunately I'm missing out on timely responses to threads like this one.I'm missing weeked interactions,which is my loss,and certainly nobody elses.

Just a few points:How long is the little Doug/Cello vs Raul "steel cage match" going to last?Though I do love a little extra flavor to the usual "straight laced" threads,and I must admit to really loving(platonically)you guys,maybe we can keep a scorecard on these interactions with the winner getting some kind of freebie LP's or something!I'm not completely innocent,here,as I more than occassionally plant little "ticklers" myself.

Nrchy,the advice given regarding putting the cable money where it will do the most good is correct.As to the umbilical issue.Remember that it is NOT a signal carrier.All you need is a good,but not overpriced,cable here,which is built better(almost anything is)than the stock one.The Purist cable,from arm to Phonostage is supposed to be the best that the hobby has to offer,though I don't have it,and wish I did.You may think about putting a bit less into the umbilical,as Purist will charge premium bucks,for it,and maybe consider the Venustas IC.As I understand it,the Dominus is very heavy,and although probably the finest available,will probably cost as much as the COSMOS did.

BTW--Any advice given by Nsgarsh,is usually very accurate!The guy is not obsessed,and knows his S--T!

Well time for me to go out and practice my serves!!BEST TO ALL!!
Dear Sirspeedy: Do you already receive my e-mails? If not here it is mine:

I appreciate that you sen me a test e-mail with " regards ", for I can contact with you.

Regards and enjoy the music.