Question: I have an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable and want to upgrade the cartridge. I am considering an Audio-Technica AT440ML for $168 or one of two models from Nagaoka, the Nagaoka MP110 for $99 and the Nagaoka MP200 for $177. What would be your recommendation?
Answer: It depends on your personal preference. The Audio-Technica AT440ML has a MicroLine stylus (hence the ML designation) that is very good at getting fine detail out of the record grooves, leading to a very precise, detailed sound. The Nagaoka cartridges have a warm sound that is easy on the ears and very natural.
I have tested the MP110 at length and absolutely love it, and have found it to be a good match to the AT-LP120-USB.
That is an extremely good price on the MP200 as it usually sells for almost $300, so you may want to snap it up. I would max out at the MP200 and feel that even the MP110 will yield a very nice sonic improvement for only $100. Given the AT-LP120-USB is not a very expensive turntable, you would not want to put an expensive cartridge on it as at a certain point you are better off upgrading the turntable itself. More on that later.
Now we will discuss the practical matter of upgrading the cartridge. Your AT-LP120-USB came with a cartridge pre-installed and aligned on a removable headshell that plugs into the turntable's tonearm. Installing and aligning a cartridge is very precise work and, if it isn't done correctly, you may not experience an improvement at all, no matter how expensive of a cartridge you purchase.
I recommend you purchase the cartridge along with an extra headshell and have the retailer mount the cartridge for you before they ship it. Then you can just plug it into the tonearm, set the counterweight and be ready for perfect sound. You can also swap cartridges quickly and easily to compare their sound.
Of course, if it is pre-installed there is no chance you will damage the cartridge when you mount it. Working with the tiny wires and screws is fussy work and one small slip can mean disaster. Yours truly has one $450 moving coil cartridge to his list of confirmed kills, and I have installed a lot of cartridges in my day!
Two vendors I recommend sell both the Nagaoka and Audio-Technica cartridges as well as spare headshells. LP Gear at www.lpgear.com even sells the AT-LP120-USB with the MP110 pre-installed as a package upgrade. My experience with LP Gear has been excellent and I know from experience they will mount the cartridge for you at no charge if you buy the cartridge and headshell from them.
The other vendor is Needle Doctor at www.needledoctor.com. They have one of the largest selections of record players and accessories in the world, as well as an excellent website.
Since we discussed vinyl records this week, there is a product I have wanted to mention for a while but haven't had the opportunity. The new Pro-ject Debut Carbon is one of the nicest entry-level turntables I have ever seen. It takes Pro-ject's popular Debut III turntable and upgrades it with a carbon fiber tonearm and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. For $399, it is a standout value. See it at www.sumikoaudio.net.interact
Read product reviews by Don Lindich at soundadviceblog.com.