Turntable versus tonearm versus cartridge: which is MOST important?


Before someone chimes in with the obvious "everything is important" retort, what I'm really wondering about is the relative significance of each.

So, which would sound better:

A state of the art $10K cartridge on a $500 table/arm or a good $500 cartridge on a $10K table/arm?

Assume good enough amplification to maximize either set up.

My hunch is cartridge is most critical, but not sure to what extent.

Thanks.


bobbydd
I'm in the camp that the cartridge and the tonearm be at or near the same level. Tip either one too far and it's not a good match. On the other hand the table should be as good as you can afford. 
Many of us have had the experience where a medium or a budget priced cartridge sounds excellent on a very expensive turntable with a high-quality tonearm. I am among those who have had this experience. Therefore I would say the tonearm and turntable are most important. Which is really to say that you can’t get the most out of an expensive cartridge using a cheap tonearm and turntable. I guess I am more comfortable with that way of putting it.
I have heard and believe an excellent table/plinth is the building block for a good turntable.

Effectively the cartridge's job is to measure vibrations so the better the table and the tonearm the easier the job is for the cartridge to get the information.

Some people like car analogies - race tires and good seat and harness keep the driver in position enable a great driver to get more out of a car.  If the driver's not skilled then the impact of race tires and properly seating position don't really have an impact.


Right. The comparisons have already been done. I’ve heard it myself, a couple times now. Moving the same Benz Ruby from a Graham arm to Origin Live Conqueror was a vastly bigger improvement than moving from the Glider to the Ruby. Have also moved the same arm/cartridge from one table to the next. Another huge difference.

What you need to keep in mind is any cartridge however good or expensive it may be, all it can do is wiggle back and forth and up and down. All that happens is the really good expensive ones let you hear more of the tiniest details as it wiggles around. But the cartridge itself, no matter how good, has no way of knowing what wiggles are signal coming from the groove and what wiggles are vibrations coming from the turntable and arm. It dutifully sends it all right along to the phono stage, the obscuring noise just as much as the music signal. 

Turntable and arm on the other hand, when they are the very best they produce vanishingly small detail-smearing vibrations. Because of this even a very inexpensive cartridge will play back so much more of what is in the groove you can hardly believe it. Whereas if you take a really expensive cartridge and mount it on a cheap arm so much of what you are hearing is noise from the arm and table you will wonder why you spent all that money in the first place. What a waste. It is even entirely possible you get to such a resolving cartridge and phono stage as to let you hear all the individual faults of the arm and table!

In other words your hunch is a bad one. The truth is closer to the opposite. Put your money into table and arm. Then cartridge.
a good $500 cartridge on a $10K table/arm?
I would start from there
A state of the art $10K cartridge on a $500 table/arm or a good $500 cartridge on a $10K table/arm?

Now that I think about it, I actually have everything here to make almost this exact comparison: Origin Live Sovereign turntable with Origin Live Enterprise arm is very close to $10k. Koetsu Black Goldline is not a $10k cartridge but is a pretty darn good cartridge all the same.   

My vintage Technics SL1700 is also very close to your hypothetical $500 turntable. On it is a Stanton 681EEE which is quite a bit less than $500.   

So not exactly what you said, but pretty darn close. In this case it is no contest. I am not about to move the Koetsu to the Technics, not unless you get off your hypothetical you know what and make the trip here. But if you do and if we do I will bet you your next paycheck against mine you agree the table and arm make the biggest difference. 

And I hope you have a lot of OT on your next one because I sure have a lot of OT on mine!
Yeah. What they said.

I remember a demo I sat in on back in the 80s. Linn LP12 with a K9 (cheap MM AT cartridge) on an Ittok beat a Karma (MC) on a cheap Basik arm.
So, which would sound better:

A state of the art $10K cartridge on a $500 table/arm or a good $500 cartridge on a $10K table/arm?

It’s a weird question, you’re trying to put together something very cheap and something very expensive.

Ask yourself who can afford a $10k cartridge and why ? A person who wishes to buy a $10k cartridge for a $500 turntable must be sick!

Now forget about retail prices, because on the secondhand market you will find something expensive for cheap (used), the price drop can be 50% (sometimes even more). If you will stay away from some popular brands like restored Garrard (for example) you can actually find some very nice turntables for a reasonable price (Denon DP-80 Direct Drive for example), same for vintage tonearms in perfect condition.

If we already have a very expensive turntable (new or vintage) with a nice tonearm (new or vintage) we can always find NEW or VINTAGE cartridges for that arm. A good vintage high-end cartridge (NOS sample) can put your overpriced new ultra high-end to the dust forever, this is where the price difference can be shockingly big, but a price/performance ratio is not that big at all ! It will break your concept, because your NEW $10k LOMC is overpriced while a $1k VINTAGE is underrated and not supported by manufacturers ads anymore (can be totally unknown to most of the audiophiles today).

A question like this makes no sense at all, because these numbers do not mean anything, except for a situation where you are standing in the audio shop in front of the new components and for some reason pretend that a new $500 turntable that look like a toy for your children is better with a $10k cartridge (or vise versa).

In the real world you can buy amazing turntables for under $3k and amazing high-end cartridges under $3k estimate (you can do it even for a half price:). But well matched components (tonearm/cartridge) are better.



@Bobbydd - either would be a strange approach to analogue reproduction because you will not be getting the best out of either the arm or the cartridge in either approach

You do need a good arm and a cartridge that is best suited to that arm
As an example...
  • My Audiomods arm cost $1000 and is an exceptional performer and
  • I have a Soundsmith modified Denon DL 103 with a ruby cantilever and their best stylus at around $500.
  • PLUS I added some additional mass to achieve a closer match of the compliance of the arm and cartridge.
The resulting sound is very pleasing

So as with anything in this hobby - a more educated approach can achieve much more than simply throwing cash at one particular piece of hardware

But it does not stop there - I researched
  • a sub platter of the right design
  • a platter of the right design
  • a plinth of the right design
  • vibration isolation
  • etc...

You just need to do some analysis before buying anything - especially with turntables, because the wrong choice can lead you down some very expensive rabbit holes.

My TT/cartridge combo is one of the most researched pieces of equipment in my system and it paid huge dividends in sound quality and enjoyment

Hope that Helps - Steve

According to Peter Ledermann of Sound-Smith, the cartridge does more heavy lifting than either tonearm or turntable

Recently I replaced an Infinity Black Widow version 2 Tonearm with a used sme v. Simply to get the table up and rolling, a Pickering XV-15 with a $35 stylus was installed on the SME. After tweaks, removing the brush and adjusting the damper thingy, wow! This cartridge has been on 3 or 4 tables of mine by now. The improvement provided from the tonearm upgrade is staggering. I am in no hurry to replace this cartridge. Which seems odd due to the fact that 2 different Soundsmith cartridges are waiting in the wings. Point being, I was a tonearm denier. Now, a tonearm believer. 
@bobbydd I understand what you are asking. But in making your point you used hyperbole and made the comparison impractical. @miilercarbon addressed this. But for SQ purposes and practical purposes, you are not going to put an expensive cart on a cheap turntable and you are not going to put a cheap cart on an expensive turntable. So the answer is there needs to be a balance. The cart needs to do the turntable justice and vice versa. 
+1 chakster! I do the same with vintage TTs, arms and cartridges! 
So, which would sound better:

  1. A state of the art $10K cartridge on a $500 table/arm
  2. or a good $500 cartridge on a $10K table/arm?

I would probably go #2, or a $750-$1250 cartridge on a $5k table/arm.- Noting that the cartridge is somewhat of a consumable item.

So in the obligatory car analogy scenario:
  • The cartridge is like the tyres.
  • The arm like like the alignment and suspension all in one.

You want the table to run smoothly, and the arm to track well.After that, then one wants the cartridge to be compliant with the arm.
If funds are limited spending a big chunk on a consumable like a cartridge is downright foolish. 
The cartridge.

No matter how you improve your tonearm and/or turntable, if you have a crap cartridge, you will NEVER get good sound, whereas the other way round, your chances are much better.

IMO to deduct from price about quality is difficult especially in audio. So comparison only on price is even more difficult.
Although I haven't heard very cheap cartridge which plays very good on any system. If there is problems to discriminate good MC or moving iron from AT-VM95E - there a problem with a system but it doesn't mean that it's a problem with a price of  AT-VM95E

Up to some point the platform, that is the turntable and arm, are the most important because if the basic foundation is not solid then the cartridge can't perform well.  That should be obvious.  But once that critical point is reached, then the relative importance of the pieces would shift it seems to me.  We could argue about exactly where the change over occurs forever, but in principle it should be possible to agree on this basic formula. 
This one is easy. The $500 cartridge on the better turntable. It is easy to make an expensive cartridge sound terrible, much worse than a $500 cartridge working at it's best.
It is also easier and usually much less expensive to upgrade cartridges down the line than turntables. Even the best cartridges will wear out. The best turntables will not.
Post removed 
though I realize not everyone here will agree, and most do agree that "everything matters", I strongly believe that the areas of analogue reproduction involving the conversions of mechanical to electrical information, and vice versa, are the likeliest areas to create changes in  perceived sound, ie, tonearm/cartridge/turntable, and speakers/room...my experience also dictates what Millercarbon says above, you want the cartridge to get everything from the groove but nothing from the outside world, so a good cartridge w a great arm and table usually surpasses a great cartridge with a lesser table and arm....

This makes more sense:

Take the $500 for the cartridge/turntable and order a nice bottle of wine.

Then take the $10k and buy a $4k turntable, a $4k tonearm and a $2k cartridge.

I didn't say it was the right answer...just that it made more sense.



sandthemall, if sense had anything to do with this none of us would be here.
You can attempt to disregard the "everything matters" argument but it doesn't make it less pertinent, and trying to use price as the only criteria
may not be the best way forward when asking "which is more important" (which is not too far removed from "which is better") question, is probably not the question to ask in the first place.  You see experienced and knowledgeable people above give council while trying to work around the inevitable truth that every piece or interactions between pieces in the signal path is a potential bottleneck.  I just watched a video with VPI's Harry and Matt Weisfeld, and they both had remarked about how good a $50 Audio-Technica cartridge (they didn't say which one, so I would say it's the AT95E) sounded on their $20k HW-40 table; to be clear, they didn't advise that and recommended higher quality carts, but the point was made that the associated equipment allowed a modest cartridge to shine regardless of the price, because everything else stayed out of the way.
$500 can get you a nice cartridge, it does not have to be something unworthy of a nice table.  You can then upgrade the cartridge in time.  It is far harder to upgrade the table or arm, unless both are purchased at the same time. 

When looking for that nice table, look for models that put an emphasis on the arm.  It is getting harder to find decent arms these days (a major OEM maker for a number of brands--Jelco--went out of business).  The arm will become quite important when you do upgrade the cartridge; many of the better cartridges are lower in compliance (stiffer suspension) which means they have a tendency to feed back more energy into the arm which has to be stiff enough to handle this energy and the bearings musst also be stiff enough not to rattle while being low enough in friction for their movement to be unrestricted.  
OP's question is purposely obtuse, as kingbarbuda points out.  Any real buyer would really ask "How do I apportion my $10.5K bundle to get the best sounding set?".  In that case there are environmental considerations to consider in the choice of turntable and tonearm, but clearly most of the budget goes there.  Nobody should buy such an expensive cart on that budget.  
@ mijostyn
Excellent point! 
@millercarbon. “Put your money into table and arm. Then cartridge.

+1

I really had to think about this. I have owned only four or five turntables and twice as many cartridges.  But MC is right… every one of my “wow, that is incredible” moments have been the turntable / arm changes (I don’t buy arms separately), never a cartridge change. 
I might point out that 3-4 of us delivered the same opinion as MC, prior to MC's post.  Anyway, it's a comfort to know we are mostly in agreement.
Perhaps it is not as extreme as this hypothetical, but, I know someone who bought a $5,000 cartridge to temporarily use on the cheapest Pro-ject table.  I helped another friend with the installation, which included milling a heavier counterweight to use than the one supplied by Pro-ject.  The installation involved using a Feickert protractor, and a very good digital scale (I own equipment for setting azimuth electronically, but, we thought this is overkill for this installation). The combination sounded good, except for some noticeable inner groove distortion.  The distortion was probably from the arm being barely able to handle the vibrational energy from the cartridge.  When the cartridge was installed in its permanent home, an EMT turntable/arm, there were no issues with inner groove distortion.
In my humble experience (40 years) your hunch would be incorrect. A proper turntable and tonearm (more expensive) will allow you to extract the most performance from a $500.00 phono cartridge. You will then have a platform (turntable/tonearm) that will reveal further improvements in phono cartridge performance down the road.

Summed up or put another way; buy the very best turntable and tonearm you can afford FIRST.
This can be stated simply and is easily and repeatably demonstrated. The ability of the arm to track the cartridge correctly is far more important than which cartridge you have. Put another way, if the arm can't track the cartridge you won't be able to fix it with the most expensive or 'best' tracking cartridge made.

atmasphere 

Well said. 
I would suggest to you that in an analog audio system the most crucial is where the translations occur. The cartridge translates the record groove into an electrical signal and the speaker translates the electrical signal into the wiggling air molecules that we hear as sound. But just as the performance of the speaker depends on the interaction with the listening room, so does the performance of the cartridge depend on the interaction with tonearm and turntable. They are the 'environments' in which the transducers need to operate, so in a sense the turntable/tonearm is the cartridge's room.
If these environments are not capable of eliminating the most intrusive audible  interferences (noisy bearings and motor instability with tonearm/turntable platform, standing waves and other acoustic anomalies in a room, etc.) these transducers will never reach their full potential.

So a high quality turntable/tonearm platform that largely eliminates these intrusions is where you should start, but in today's niche market this usually costs big money. But if you're prepared to look back in time you will discover that most of these problems were already dealt with pretty succesfully in the 20th century, when analog playback was still the dominant music playback source. No need to spend 10k, as $1500 for a solid 80's turntable and another $1500 for a really good vintage tonearm will provide you with the largely non intrusive platform that is required to take full benefit of the best cartridges. This is when tonearm/cartridge synergy will start to make sense and you will discover that certain combinations will sing beyond your wildest expectations, to a certain extend even regardless of the cartridge cost. This is where the fun really begins.

However, be aware that such a quality platform will not magically make a budget cartridge sound like a top level one. I know there are people who believe a Denon DL103 is all they need, but you know what they say about polishing a turd.....

$10K cartridge and $500 turntable/arm is a total nonsense, but 10K turntable/arm and $500 cartridge is not too much of nonsense. I can imagine people using Denon D103r or AT150mlx (about $500 MC and MM cartridges) on their 10K turntable/arm. So, the latter approach makes much more sense.
Probably $10K turntable/arm and $50 cartridge is as much nonsense as the former.  
Having said that, IMHO, getting near perfect match of turntable, arm, cartridge, and plinth is extremely hard for novices (myself included) if purchased separately. If you are a DIY type of person, it will be fun to play around, but it will still take lots of time/money/effort to make it right.

in my opinion
most important tonearm more than the cart. especially the case for MC

TT is quite subjective... can works both way. also depending on the type of plinth. isolation. type of drive. so don't really have an opinion. 








I think we have safely established that the turntable/tonearm are more important than the cartridge for starters, a rare moment of almost total agreement. 
@mijostyn,
A rare moment of almost total agreement indeed. Especially considering the various vested interests at play. A few cartridge vendors may be heard mumbling at the back, but mostly everyone else is in accord.

I'd also add that the turntable is more important than the arm because it provides a resonance free platform for the arm/cartridge combination to do their work.

The turntable also needs accuracy of playback speed and hence pitch.
That's why rumble and wow and flutter measurements are held to be so important.
Anyway here's an opinion from someone who should know.



"Turntable differences are greater than any other item of Hi Fi equipment.


CD players sound different to one another, but not a lot in comparison to turntables.

-----

A better turntable will improve the clarity, dynamics and ability to follow every strand of the music plus other aspects too numerous to mention. Gone is blurred, woolly bass and general confusion in the sound."


"No matter how good your cartridge is, it’s been proved that it can never perform at anything like it’s true capability without a good tonearm.

In the same way, a relatively inexpensive cartridge worth £50 can outperform one that costs £1250 simply by being installed on a better arm."


These are the words of respected tonearm makers Origin Live - even if the price /performance ratio isn't always a linear one.

Something which Origin Live themselves demonstrated some while back.

https://www.originlive.com/


guns or butter, now where did I put that pesky 3rd variable……


Dear friends : The thread is interesting but the op question.

Analog rigs comes or are scaled/levels and I think that to have a better view on the analog rig links importance could be better to analize inside each one level/scaled scenario:

- entry level analog rig as Rega, Project or Technics where  the Rega/Project  TTs already comes with mounted cartridges.

The Rega/project units makes its job at its entry level status. We can't ask here for tigth speed stability ( well the Technics 1200 G is very good about. ) and non-resonat/vibrational plattforms and certainly not the SAT tonearm but even with those analog rigs with its own mounted tonearm every time the owner change the cartridge he can listen the improvement due to a better cartridge.

So in this level seems to me that cartridge makes the difference.

- what happens if we go up in the analog rig scale? where we have better TTs and better tonearms. Well seems to me that it's the cartridge the link that makes the difference every time we change it.

and I can follow up in the analog rig scale with almost similar results: cartridge really makes the difference, is the one with the higher posibilities to do it.

Higher differences with the cartridge changes that when we change similar price tonearm or TT.

Normally an audiophile or newcomers not own 4-5 TTs and 10 tonearms but you can be sure that own more than one cartridge.



For me try to analize any audio subject with out context  has no really meaning and could be useless.

I posted several times: other than the LP the source is the cartridge it's the transducer and the TT/tonearm are , like it or not, its slaves because both items ( TT/tonearm. ) where choosed for the cartridge can shows at its best and this happens too with the phono stage choice.

Is it important the TT and the tonearm? of course both are but with a way different roles down there.

From some time now we can't find out really bad TTs or bad tonearms. So changing a cartridge with better tracking abilities ( even inside same price levels. ) , everything the same, will shows better quality level in what we are listening.

No two transducers sound alike/the same but some TTs and in less way tonearms does it.

Regards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,
R.


A 100$ cart on a  10K  table is better than vice-versa !

Been there many times .
My own personal observation is that the table and arm are critical for getting the best out of any given cartridge.

I've tried my $300 grado platinum (original) on both my Denon DP-1250 with a Magnepan Unitrac 1 arm and my TNT 4 with ET 2.5 Tonearm, both thru a Herron MM input.  The Denon is a decent DD deck, and the Maggie arm is quite remarkable.  But there wasn't much of a contest here.  Soundstaging was better on the TNT, as was detail retrieval (even with the elliptical stylus), timbre, bass, highs, just about everything. Other than the bass, most of the differences were smaller, but when added up overall, the TNT fared much better.  I also tried the same experiment with a Supex SDX-1100r and an Audioquest B100, both moving coils going into the Herron MC input.  Even more of a difference favoring the TNT/ET2.5 combo.

I suspect that others may find differently depending on the arm/table combinations that they compare, but for me, a less expensive cartridge is much more satisfying on an expensive. well engineered table/arm combo than an expensive cartridge is on a more budget minded table/arm.  Expensive cartridges even more so.

An added benefit is that you will be able to hear deficiencies in the cartridge better on a better table, and that knowledge may help you in determining a future cartridge when the time comes.

It’s the most stupid point I have ever heard that a cartridge can’t perform without tonearm and therefore tonearm is more important.

Your turntable can’t work without electricity, so let’s say pure electricity is more important than everything else you plug in the power socket ?

You can’t even change a tonearm on most of the modern turntables! Those tonearms are good enough for your $200 cartridges. Look at the $150 Technics tonearm made a long time ago for $450 turntables like SL1210mk2, this tonearm is a worldwide standard and that was the most popular turntable in the world (they sold many millions of them worldwide)!


Tonearm problems solved long time ago for most of the people, this problem simply do not exist if you have a good entry level turntable, and if you have a phono stage, amp and speakers you’d better understand that ONLY cartridge with its stylus/cantilever/generator actually read the grooves. Change a cartridge (on a cheap tonearm) and you will change the whole sound, I’ll tell you more: change the stylus tip on your cartridge and you will change the whole sound.

Old SL1210 mkII is a very good example of entry level turntable that was $350 in the 90’s.

-Will you change a tonearm on that turntable or will you try a better cartridge first ?

In this situation a better tonearm will give you nothing if your cartridge is not good enough.

A better cartridge will make your system better without changing anything else! And if you will find a cartridge that you really like you can continue the upgrade path with much better results after tonearm swap or whatever in your analog chain.

@chakster, @rauliruegas, It appears the two of you are in agreement with each other. Together you probably have more cartridges than the rest of us combined. So I guess we will leave it at that. The two of you are on to something and the rest of us are hallucinatory. Gin and Tonic anyone?  
Tanqueray, please......
Put a Reed 3P arm on any of George Merrill's Gem Dandy polytables and mount the bargain cartridge of your choice and you can get utterly amazing sound. 
Another similar scenario is put any of the arms offered by Pure Fidelity (my choice would be the Acoustic Signature TA-2000) https://purefidelity.ca/turntables.html along with one of their tables and any reasonably good budget cartridge and again, amazing sound. 
For me, against all of my expectations years ago, it is tonearm first, table second, and cartridge last. 
When it comes to the drive system, speed control, motor noise isolation and Fremer's finger tap test are all aspects of vinyl playing that appeal to measurement nerds but in real life take a second chair to sound reliability/durability with decent but not all-out design principles. 
The turntable needs to be good, not stellar. The tonearm needs to be stellar. There a huge bargains in current cartridge offerings. 
Millercarbon said it all.
My addendum:The most economical route may be to keep on upgrading arm and table, while having a cheap(er) cartridge that can step up big way.Not all cartridges can step up when the table/arm combo is greatly elevated.I found the Audiotechnica ATF7 is such a hidden gem. Totally inexpensive LOMC cartridge, as cheap as LOMC can get. I got it as a backup cartridge to test play my second hand records. On the big table it plays in big cartridge league, and each improvement on arm / table / step up made it step up higher and higher. Athough, I have to add I never tried it on the Rega or other cheaper tables / arms, so don't know how it performs on a cheap table... but that's kind of out of the question as LOMC step up on the cheap is pretty bad. In the low price range MM is the way to go. A cheap MM cartridge that can play big time on big tables is the AT440MLa or MLb. (good luck finding MLa version! But sadly even the AT440MLb have become quite expensive now, while 20 years ago it was a cheap(ish) cartridge!) On a basic table (Rega P3, with Rega arm) for example the AT440MLb and the Grado Prestige sound quite in the same league - different presentation style, but similar performance. Put them on a big VPI-caliber table, and the AT440MLb skyrockets and the little Grado falls apart. The ATF7 is cheaper than the AT440MLb, yet on a big table it completely eclipses the AT440MLb. Yet, the AT440MLb has nothing to be ashamed of either, and its lifespan and durability is absolutely outstanding.