Review: Stanton 500E MkII Cartridge
Lately, I’ve been on a search for a great budget cartridge. When I say budget, I mean great sound for the price of a few pizzas—and not that gourmet brick oven stuff, either. I’m talkin’ $50 or less (street price, of course, as some cartridges are discounted more than 50% off list price).
It’s not that I’m poor. It’s just that I’ve become acutely aware of the law of diminishing returns as it concerns audio components. Besides, with summer on the way, I’d rather spend my money on vacations, road trips and, well, some of those gourmet brick oven pizzas with basil and Parmagiano Reggiano and extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top.
So…is it possible to get better-than-CD sound with a low-priced cartridge? The Grado Black ($40 list, $35 at most places) proved that it absolutely is. So did my all-too-brief experience with the elegant Ortofon OM10 ($90 retail, but as low as $50 if you do some shopping around). There are others, too: the entry-level Audio-Technica models, Sumikos, Shures…the list goes on. It’s great news that the average Joe can still enjoy his records without looting the kids’ college fund for a Koetsu.
Rest assured: there are some stinkers out there in this price range. The Goldring Elan, for example, lists for $70 and sells for very near that price. I think that’s an absurd asking price for a poor-tracking conical stylus and stiff suspension that result in a tonally correct but veiled, ‘canned’ presentation. (Note that I heard the Elan the way most people do: on the Music Hall MMF-2.1, not on one of my reference ‘tables.)
The Stanton 500 MkII is widely ignored by audiophiles, and I started wondering why. It’s certainly not a prestige cartridge, selling for a paltry $35 at Needle Doctor (list price is $49). My Stanton 880S was, at one time, right up there with the Shure V15. They still sell it today, in an 881-badged version with each cartridge individually calibrated at the factory. Could the apple fall far from the tree?
As it turns out, the apple fell only about a foot and a half from the tree. The 500 MkII is a compliant, easy-to-use cartridge that tracks well, negotiates slight warps with aplomb and does all the technical stuff well (as confirmed by the Hi-Fi News Test Record and my ears). It’s also lively but warm, offering deep bass but also surprisingly detailed treble response. It has a plump midbass, but that seems to be more the doing of my Thorens TD115.
Setup was easy in the TP70 armwand. The Stanton has a square-sided plastic stylus unit, making it easy to line up against the lines on a protractor. I first roughed-in the alignment by positioning the stylus where the armwand’s manual says it should be in relation to the headhell. It was damn close. A few minor side-to-side adjustments, and I had perfect alignment (well, close as I can get without Wally Tools for the Thorens) in less than 30 minutes. For me, that’s record time. I set the tracking force at the recommended maximum of 2g, and using the Hi-Fi News Test Record, worked my way down to 1.8 grams. (Mistracking began at 1.7g, and became downright nasty by 1.6g. If you don’t have a test record, I strongly suggest you err on the safe side and track the Stanton at a full 2g.)
It should be noted that my comparisons of the 500 MkII to other cartridges are based on listening on different turntables over the course of three years. I heard the Grado Black, Grado Green and Audio-Technica 440ML on my Rega P2 and Denon DP-47F, and the Goldring Elan on a Music Hall MMF-2.1. Admittedly, there’s a lot of variance there as far as the platforms and tonearms are concerned. And the spring-suspended TD115 I’m using now definitely has a ‘lushness’ that the non-suspended Rega and Music Hall ‘tables don’t exhibit.
Disclosures aside, I found that the Grado Black and Green are great performers with regard to frequency response and accuracy, but they sounded somewhat lifeless in comparison to the 500 MkII. The Audio-Technica 440ML—my pick for best cartridge below $100 and definitely the best value under $200—is smoother and more detailed than the 500 MkII, and a much better tracker, too. But the 500 MkII, though rougher, is more fun on most recordings. You already know how I feel about the overpriced Goldring Elan, so you can probably imagine how I think it stacks up against the Stanton.
If anything, the Stanton 500 MkII reminds me of the Benz Micro MC20E2. Though the Benz is much more expensive ($175 everywhere I looked), both are a rock and roll cartridges through and through. That doesn’t mean the Stanton is only good with rock music. What I mean is that the 500 MkII brings the party no matter what it’s playing—rock, folk, classical, jazz. It has an energy you won’t often hear on cartridges in this price range.
The CBS Mastersound half-speed pressing of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (HC7328), for example, always sounded somewhat recessed to me. The Stanton manages to draw out some extra electricity compared with my Rega P2/Denon DL-160 combo. It also manages to draw out some extra detail. Unfortunately, it does so because the music is more densely packed with the Stanton. The Denon DL-160 is more spacious, and some instruments are simply ‘farther away’ with that cartridge. Of course, the Denon is $180.
The Stanton preserves the delicacy of piano keys on “Entremont Plays Chopin: The Favorite Polonaises” (Columbia; MS7328), but again, there’s an energy that really gets those toes tapping. There’s also a reasonable sense of ambience.
I found that, on numerous recordings, the Stanton performed better than could be expected for its price. Its shortcomings are exactly as you’d suspect: some compression during complicated passages, a little tracking error when groove topography gets challenging, a general graininess you won’t find on more expensive cartridges, etc. But the Stanton is involving enough that you’ll listen past these faults. They rarely get in the music’s way.
I don’t want to go into too much additional detail. After all, for $35, you don’t have a lot to lose by trying the Stanton with a moderately priced table. It may not be a great match with certain tables, but a vintage table like my excellent Thorens TD115 brings out the best in it. My guess is that a Dual would also match well with the Stanton, if that’s more your bag. However, if your system is already on the edgy side, you might want to avoid the Stanton entirely and opt an Ortofon OM-series cartridge or an Audio-Technica 440ML instead.
Summing up, the Stanton 500 MkII is a lively, fun cartridge with full-bodied bass and very good treble response. It works well with all genres, providing you don’t favor a laid-back sound. It tracks well, sounds great and mounts easily. As a bonus, the stylus unit slides in and out easily with so little force, you can change it using only your thumb and index finger without disturbing the cartridge geometry. That’s great news for people who hate alignment chores or like to change their stylus often to help protect their records (or switch back and forth from a 78rpm stylus). All in all, highly recommended.
Denon DRA-395 stereo receiver with MM phono section
Rega P2 turntable (with P3 glass platter and None-Felt mat)
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Thorens TD115 turntable
Stanton 500 MkII cartridge
Pioneer DV-563A universal disc player
Philips CDR-785 CD Recorder
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Radio Shack MegaCable 16-gauge speaker wire (bi-wired)
Various Kimber, Audioquest and MonsterCable interconnects
MonsterPower HTS2500 Power Center
AudioQuest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine
Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 studio monitor headphones
Grado 15’ headphone extension cable
Benz Micro MC20E2
Ortofon OM10 Super