So if your old faithful cartridge is no longer made and you need a replacement, you're in lock-down and can't audition, on-line/magazine reviews are all overwhelmingly positive and comparative reviews between brands are limited to individual's opinions on an internet forum, how do you decide what model to buy?
Phono cartridges can have a wealth of data on design attributes (mass, compliance, output, etc) materials of construction and performance (frequency response, channel separation & balance, tracking ability), but they also vary enormously in price. If you want value for money and know enough about mass and compliance to match a cartridge to your tone arm, which manufacturers provide the best quality information to let you make an informed decision? To a certain extent this is a comparison of website quality as much as it is cartridge quality, but when that's the only tool you have you have to use it.
For the purposes of this exercise I have reviewed 283 phono cartridges advertised by 57 Australian retailers with an AUD price:
No overseas retailers or on-line market place stores.
Standard half inch mount hifi stereo cartridges only, no Mono, 78 rpm, DJ, P mount, PnP, SPU, strain gauge or optical types or superseded models.
Only one model counted where there are higher or lower output variants of the same model.
Specifications collated from manufacturer's web sites for current models only, in a few cases retailers web sites were needed to augment details.
Direct comparisons between manufacturer's data are fraught with potential for error, specifications are often based on differing standards (output, compliance) and many lack tolerances (frequency response). Data bases such as Vinyl Engine can help with this information, but the aim here is to compare different models from the same manufacturer to get a picture for each manufacturer of what benefits you get as you progress up the model chain. Better stylus types, cantilever materials, coil wire, magnet types etc. and improving performance specifications. It's basically a subjective assessment of objective data, should please everyone.
Prices are the cheapest advertised, a few low flyers were filtered when it was not clear if the model was superseded or not.
MM = Moving Magnet
MC = Moving Coil
MI = Moving Iron
VR = Variable Reluctance
8 MM $49 - $1799
11 MC $449 - $13859
Comprehensive specifications, most material details for MC's, less for MM. Improvement in design and performance commensurate with price, except for top MC Exclusives models. Most widely distributed brand in Australia.
12 MM $55 - $1199
8 MC $420 - $6999
Comprehensive material details and specifications, except for Tracking Ability and lack of Frequency Response tolerances. Improvement in design and performance mostly commensurate with price.
7 MM $119 -$695
5 MI $395 - $1320
4 MC $895 - $1800
Only manufacturer providing MM, MI & MC types. Performance specifications mostly the same within each product range, stylus type and cantilever material (where stated) presumably responsible for model differences and price premiums.
3 MM $59 - $539
4 MC $879 - $6295
Second most widely distributed brand in Australia but provide minimal information on performance specifications and attributes. If the maker won't quantify how good they think it is ...
7 MM $345 - $3495
9 MC $1495 - $23395
An exemplar of the law of diminishing returns, price ranges in each type cover an order of magnitude, but apart from MC body materials varying, the stylus & cantilever are mostly the same within each type. Balance & separation do progress slightly as price increases, presumably because they measure and grade the same MM design as different models.
6 MM $169 - $1099
7 MC $799 - $7999
Not a great deal of difference between adjacent models despite the price ranges. Performance improvement with price is pretty flat, the 11 most expensive models share 4 stylus types and 2 cantilever materials.
3 MM $195 - $650
6 MC $1250 - $13500
MM stylus types more expensive than rivals. MC models design materials and channel separation improves up the model range but other data lacking, otherwise the law of diminishing returns comes into play.
1 MM $325
4MC $1500 - $6300
Lower three model stylus types more expensive than rivals. No performance data.
14 MI $139 - $16999
The base three “Prestige” models are each graded to provide a tighter performance specification and more expensive model, but what is measured is not stated or quantified. “Timbre” and “Lineage” series cover a huge price range with seemingly the same stylus type and only two channel separation levels, other data lacking. Local distribution is restricted to a single retailer.
16 MI $699 - $14670
No cheap entry level model but the lower half of the range shows progression with materials and performance. At the upper end slight increases in channel separation come at great expense.
7 MM $189 -$1069
MM specialist manufacturer. Improvement in design and performance mostly commensurate with price. Not widely distributed.
6 MM $210 - $1725
MM specialist manufacturer and Australian based. Stylus types and cantilevers step up with price but little difference in performance specifications. Other construction material details lacking.
5 VR $1720 -$5280
Variable reluctance design, not a lot of design or performance data available at all, especially from the manufacturer.
3 MM $349 -$1295
Stylus type improves with price, no useful performance data.
2 MM $550 - $1695
1 MC $4295
MM stylus types more expensive than rivals. Performance data too patchy to compare.
Moving Coil Specialists
With a few exceptions most of the moving coil models in the table below are priced well above what most people would consider expensive for a phono cartridge. If you are seriously considering purchasing one you need to have a great HiFi system that can do it justice and either know exactly what you are doing or have a trusted advisor who does, or you just have a lot of money and want to make a vanity statement.
17 $3800 - $ 20400
No stylus information, no difference in performance where stated or not stated at all. At the upper end it's just a different type of stone body, internals are apparently the same for 8 models. You pay for mystique.
Van den Hul
11 $1749 - $11990
Many sub-variants available with differing body & coil materials, and output levels. Most models on their website have specifications “To follow”, so not a lot of information for a well established brand.
9 $579 - $6000
Lower models are price competitive with mainstream manufacturers. All but base model have the same stylus, little other design data and no performance specifications.
8 $1470 -$15830
Lower models are price competitive with mainstream manufacturers. All but base model have the same stylus and performance specifications are comprehensive, but they are all the same. No better frequency response, channel separation or balance for a ten fold price increase.
8 $750 - $2580
Modified Denon DL103 & DL103R models, graded on performance into four levels, so design is the same for all four within each model group. The top model is the most expensive conical/spherical stylus based cartridge on the local market.
7 $995 - $9995
Materials improve with price and there is some improvement in performance as well, although this flattens off for the top three models.
5 $1499 -$7300
Only the lowest model differs slightly in materials and performance. Top four models have the same stylus and other materials and the same performance specifications.
5 $2700 - $8300
Some progression of stylus type and cantilever materials with price but frequency responses all the same and no other performance data.
5 $2920 - $23150
Some improvements up the range but very much diminishing returns.
My Sonic Lab
5 $5850 - $16100
Entry level is high. Same stylus for all models and only minor construction material differences, no performance data.
4 $755 - $6200
Relatively new manufacturer with lower three models competitively priced, stylus type and performance commensurate with price.
4 $2600 -$15600
Little difference in top three models other than the alloy for the body, no difference in performance specifications but over $10,000 in the price.
4 $3094 - $6295
Not much difference in design other than body material, only the top model marginally betters the cheapest on performance specifications.
3 $389 - $549
Featuring a conical/spherical stylus on two models they at least have the virtue of being affordable for MC's. Virtually no design data, performance or other attributes information on the website.
3 $1500 - $5000
Stylus type, cantilever material and performance specifications improve with price.
3 $1795 - $3150
Same stylus type for all models, cantilever materials differ and slight improvement in performance with price.
3 $2800 - $5100
Cheapest model has a bonded stylus, no channel separation or balance data to assess performances.
2 $12300 - $16500
Body material differs, no performance data.
2 $12950 - $18050
Coil and body materials differ, no performance data.
Single models for various types are available in Australia from Acoustical Systems (MI & MC), Cambridge Audio (MC), Dual (MM), Jico (MM & MC), Linn (MM), Project (MM), Shelter (MM), Tech DAS (MC) & Thorens (MC). Obviously no intra manufacturer comparison is possible.