It is Christmas Day, and one thing that wasn't under my tree this morning was a phono cartridge. It would admittedly be hard for there to be a phono cartridge under my tree, because there is no tree. This year is one of those "Why bother? Bah humbug!" years. But I digress.
I had given serious thought to getting a cartridge as a "to me, from me" Christmas gift. Part of this, I suppose, was just to give myself something other than my usual box of nothing. Beyond that, though, a part of me keeps thinking it would be nice to have a new cartridge. A budget cartridge, of course. I am The Mobile Home Audiophile, after all, not The Stately European Castle Audiophile.
Indeed, I had a vision of going really budget: $50 or less. I have never had such a cheap cartridge. But I've been intrigued by forum talk about cheap cartridges that perform much, much better than they have any right to. For example, a lot of virtual ink has been spilled on forums praising the Audio-Technica AT95e.
Past that, a cheap cartridge has some practical value. You can play it for hours for less critical listening and not care about the stylus getting worn. You can use it on questionable records, too, without worry. The stylus gets destroyed, well, it's not as heartbreaking as it would be if a Koetsu were killed. And some cheap cartridges said to work well for playing severely worn records - some people keep a cheap conical stylus cartridge around just for that reason alone.
So I decided to get a cheap cartridge. Visions of fun budget cartridges danced in my head...until practical reality set in.
The main practical reality is that a lot of the budget choices are only available by mail order. Local dealers tend to limit the ranges - it's not possible to carry everything. Furthermore, some dealers wouldn't touch a $50 cartridge even with a 10 foot tonearm.
Furthermore, some of the more interesting cartridges that get discussed are mail order, period. LP Gear, for example, has some interesting cartridges based around the AT95e. They seem to use the AT95e body, but improved, custom styli. Nagaoka gets lots of praise, but appears to be only available by mail in the US. And so on.
Mail order is not necessarily a deal breaker. I prefer shopping locally. But I'm also a realist, and realize that there are times this isn't viable. A local dealer probably does not have the sales to support sourcing custom styli for cheap cartridges. A local dealer also probably doesn't have the resources to stock every available cartridge. It makes far more sense to have a selection that the dealer knows well, and that will work fine for most buyers.
But mail order brings two problems. First, one has to rely 100% on Internet talk for making a decision. Even with that talk, there is a real risk of not liking the cartridge. One can sell it, but let's face it: a used budget cartridge is about as salable as a used toothbrush. While I guess losing $50 isn't the end of the world, I am frugal and hate buying anything that disappoints.
Problem #2: I don't like installing cartridges. No, actually I hate it. How much I hate it depends on the cartridge design. I am not particularly good, and I don't have the top tools. I have only the Technics overhang gauge, and a paper protractor. This protractor is one of those where you align the cantilever (ideally) or cartridge body (less ideal, but easier) so it's parallel to the lines printed at Point A. Then, you move to Point B. And possibly keep going between Point A and Point B until either the cartridge is spot-on, or you ready to move yourself to Point C: the booby hatch.
It is very tempting to just have this hypothetical cartridge installed by someone else. My local dealer could do it, and do a better job than I could. Of course, there would be a service charge. And so suddenly the cheap cartridge isn't so cheap anymore. It might run, say, $100 between purchase and installation charges. This raises the question if it wouldn't be better to buy a more expensive cartridge locally that would include free installation.
Yes. It would appear the more expensive cartridge would be a better. And so...the dreams of that $50 or less cartridge fell faster than a BSR record changer tossed out a 5th story window.