Best investment; cartridge or line stage?

Alrighty fellow hifi aficionados, I tried to find a sub on this topic but failed. Here is my bang for the buck question: assuming money spent on either option will be within spitting distance of each other, where am I likely to get more bang for my buck? By investing in a new line stage or investing in a new cartridge. I am currently running a Sutherland TX vibe line stage with a rega aria cartridge on a rega p6 turntable. Appreciate your input! Current system is McIntosh MA252 integrated, rega p6 tt and Martin Logan Vantages.


Bang for Buck, being the most cost effective method is already in place as purchases are already made.

The cost of keeping it in use is the conundrum replace Cart' or refurbish Cart’ .

If one wants to change a device, with the intention of purchasing based on the the listening experience being the condition that matters more than just producing music. The cost to achieve a Sound that has the most attraction comes with a budget that is constrained by your own circumstances.


Great question. in general, the way I look at investing in analog: you must balance the quality of the turntable, tone arm, and cartridge with the phonostage. Typically after an upgrade my investment in tt + tone arm + cartrige = the investment in the phonostage. Your stuff looks fairly balanced at this point… maybe the cartrige look a bit light..

For much of my life the phonostage was holding back the performance of my tt. I had bought a stereophile best cheap $200 (1980) phonostage… and it sounded simply terrible. I quickly traded up and up to an AudioResearch PH 2… then upgraded over and over. It wasn’t until the PH8 that I felt it stopped getting in the way (at the time I had a VPI Aries / Van den Hull Frog $5K + $2.5K.. something like that). Now my table is around $20K and so is my phonostage. Very well matched.


I have known folks to put a $12K cartridge on a $6K tt with a $10K phonostage to great effect. Or a $12K cartridge on a $5K tt with a $3K phonostage and I was sure there was a huge amount of sound quality missing. Anyway, no hard answer, but from my experience, do not go cheap on the phonostage.


So, you are considering a new phonostage? Keeping what I said, I guess, I would do a very significant cartridge upgrade, with an eye to upgrade the phonostage at some future date.



Except the OP asked linestage vs cartridge, which seemed an odd dilemma.

Replace the Cartridge.

Existing cartridge is an Elliptical shape.

Stylus Shape

Select a cartridge with an advanced stylus shape: SAS; Shibata; Line Contact; Microline; ... (other variations) providing greater contact with the groove walls: better for fidelity, less stylus wear and less groove wear. Extra Cost: when advanced stylus shape’s longer life is considered, is not such a big difference.

Cantilever Material:

greater stiffness relates to better performance, and in my experience improved bass. Many cantilevers are aluminum, I prefer Boron. Harder materials, typically crystals, cost more than I want to spend. The Sapphire I own and past crystals, if you concentrate .... but they have not been obviously better. However the beryllium cantilever of the Shure V15Vxmr was the best bass I ever had, obvious to all. The Thorens TD124 TT was also instrumental for that.


ALL Imaging is Phantom, therefor always check to see two factors that help provide better Imaging: greater channel separation and tighter channel balance. Not just overall image width, more importantly the combination reveals the location of instruments and vocalists more precisely, everywhere, all with greater distinction.

I look for 30db separation combined with 0.5db balance.

Sound Characteristics:

Prefer, not Better. Aside from Imaging, the sound characteristics are subjective, people describe what they prefer, often calling it better, but ....... This is the hardest part when finally selecting.

Stylus Life:

Note: stylus life expectancy in this article is based on technical specifications from Jico: actual life is much longer, the life expectation differences based on stylus shape remain relative

Alignment Skills and Tools:

A few inexpensive tools, and acquired alignment skills are needed to mount any cartridge: new you install or eventual replacement of OEM pre-mounted cartridge. You, a friend, a shop: watch, learn, practice, it’s about being careful, not as difficult as many people think. Removable headshells are much easier to work with than installing cartridges on a fixed arm.


Mad Scientist Contact Enhancer can work wonders when all connections are treated. Cartridge is the likely better upgrade. Be sure to treat the ends


I think this is the wrong question!

The reason is simple: the tonearm's ability to properly track the cartridge far outweighs what cartridge you have. The better the arm is at this, the less differences you'll hear between cartridges assuming they are set up properly.

(FWIW Dept.: I use LPs I recorded as reference. This is a very useful tool which I recommend to anyone who wants to create a proper reference; being there when it was recorded is valuable for knowing what how its supposed to sound.)

Once you have that nailed down properly then I'd look into the phono section. A bit of a teaser tip: if the phono section has a 'cartridge loading' switch for LOMC cartridges, the designer is likely unaware that the 'cartridge loading' resistor is really for the benefit of the phono section rather than doing anything beneficial for the cartridge (it impairs its ability to track properly). There is a simple phenomena at play that you learn about in the first week of electronics at either the technical school level or college level. Something to think about...

@elliottbnewcombjr @ghdprentice thanks for gleaning my questions' true aim here. I've had a few discussions with dealers and cartridge was the overall suggestion. I like to check in with my people (aka audio heads) before I make these kind of decisions. Elliot I appreciate the link.

@tweak1 Another cartridge vote. Thanks for chiming in. And thanks for the reminder about enhancers, it's been a minute.

@atmasphere I like the advice. I have to admit that up to this point I have not dived into the details of turntables. (grammar sounds wrong). Replacing tonearms is at least two steps away from my comfort level today. May have to do the work on the topic later. 

OP, what is it about the sound of your current setup that you would like to improve? I find that a clear objective greatly streamlines the decision-making process.

Bear in mind that cartridges wear out. Everything else, not so much. Ralph is of course, correct: no cartridge will sound its best unless it is held at exactly the right angles. Only a very good tonearm can do this. And only a very good TT is quiet enough. And only a good phono stage is clean enough.

Cartridge last, IMO. YMMV

Phono stage  just go with a Denon DH-103 cartridge and get the wood body for it and you are all set.



The reason is simple: the tonearm's ability to properly track the cartridge far outweighs what cartridge you have. The better the arm is at this, the less differences you'll hear between cartridges assuming they are set up properly.

So absolutely true! Not only does a great tonearm allow for proper tracking, but a great tonearm has a sound of its own due to how it handles vibrations from the cartridge. There is not a tonearm on Earth that neutralizes all stylus induced vibration. Perhaps only 5-10% of the overall sound quality comes from the material and design choices but they still count. When I switched to Reed 3P tonearms the SQ change was revelatory. 

After the choice of tonearm, invest in the phono stage before cartridge. There are so many great sounding sub-$1500 cartridges. And as noted above, cartridges are subject to wear and to accidental damage. 

@elliottbnewcombjr you are correct the cartridge is an Rega Ania.

So another really great point a couple of you brought up. Cartridges do wear out, other investments not so much. I knew I would get some great input from this crew. Thanks so much!! Time to go dive deep on tone arms.

Glad to help. Since we are agreed that only a very good tonearm can hold a cartridge at the correct angles, it is essential for that tonearm to be adjustable in order to optimize the cartridge that you have (now or in the future).

In particular: vertical tracking angle of the stylus (VTA); rotating the cartridge parallel to the tonearm (azimuth); and of course, tracking force (VTF, which most tonearms do well). Azimuth adjustment is what really separates the best from the rest, IMO. I can hear adjustments down to about 3 minutes of arc on my air bearing table and arm.

My experiments show that about as important as azimuth adjustment is resonance control, or damping, as @fsonicsmith points out. You can spend big bucks on tonearms that don’t look like they’re damped very well, so beware of that. Reed has a nice comparison of tonearm materials on their site. And I can assure you, Panzerholz sounds GREAT, no matter what some of Reed’s panelists said.

An exciting time for you. Good luck!

That's what I was suspecting, Rega Ania. I think in this scenario it would be wiser to upgrade the cartridge. Sutherland, I think, is in higher league than Ania. 

Mmmm. OP wondered about cartridge or (not line but corrected) phono stage. And now he is looking for a new tonearm. Who shall take responsibility if the advice does not work? Maybe you are all correct, but if it were your cash on the line?

Let's not forget, a cartridge is not device specific, it can be moved at a future date.


P6 didn’t exactly ship with a poor quality arm….don’t create an unsellable franken TT by putting a FIIL in the blank brand X superarm….. 

also….for affordable phono stage including the solution for MC that Ralph is hinting at…. consider pairing a Hagerman Trumpet and Piccilo

If the Cart' has been used to the point it is suspected to be needing a replacement.

There is the option to have the Cart' sent to a Third Party Service, if a Boron Cantilever and particular styli is chosen, the Cart' will be sharing additional technologies selected for the Aphelion Cart' range.

Ok, I’m confused.

We have a phono stage, not a line stage which I’m guessing is the Sutherland TZ Vibe, not TX because I don’t think there is one, and I’m lost on the cartridge because as stated there is no Rega Aria cartridge, the Rega Aria is another phono stage. So, 2 phono stages, no line stage, and a misnamed cartridge that’s actually a phono stage.

I need an aspirin.

@milo0812 , you need to unabandon this thread and clarify a few things.

@thecarpathian i would suggest that and a stiff shot of something else…. anytime vinyl is involved….

@dogberry With my cash on the line, I did. In fact, since I couldn’t afford the best, I made it myself: turntable, tonearm, phono stage. Not the cartridges (Koetsu, Grado).

Don’t see why someone else shouldn’t benefit from my mistakes. Or from the wisdom of a legend in the field (atmosphere).

@terry9 ,

You made those tonearms??!

Extremely impressive. Do you have a background in materials engineering?

I wouldn’t have a clue where to start...

The Rega P6 has a very acceptable arm. I think you have to think of this differently. A phono stage is a long term investment and can easily last decades. Cartridges are expendable devices, they wear out. If your cartridges still has some life in it go for the phono stage. The Sutherland Locos are fine stages. When the cartridge wears out change it. 


Thank you for the kind words. Most courteous.

Made some parts, subcontracted others. Turntable and tonearm, all my designs, my fabrication, subcontract much of the woodwork. The latest wands are natural fibre composites, for which I make the cores and subcontract the epoxy work. Off-the-shelf whenever possible: e.g. New Way air bearings and shafting, Igus carriages. Battery power supply is more complex than it looks, my design, layout, and fabricating. Same with power supply for the main monoblocks. Other electronics, mainly my layouts, parts selection, fabricating, and a better man's amplification schematics.

Not engineering - math and science. Now retired and learning some of the stuff my more practical father could have taught me.

I also think the Rega Tonearm is 'good enough', until you move up to a far superior TT.

You will DEFINITELY hear an improvement, BETTER, with a new cartridge with an advanced stylus shape.

A different Phono Stage? I would love to hear the existing and new cartridges thru that Sutherland TZ Vibe Phono Stage, your system or mine.

If the Sutherland sounds great, why even think about changing it? Have you heard something elsewhere that makes you think it is not great? Unless a POC, phono stage differences  are about PREFERENCE, not better..

I highly recommend, after you break your new cartridge in, and saved some money, buy a Phono Stage with return privileges. It may prove how great your Sutherland is.

Don't forget, the Sutherland has adjustable gain settings. Medium/High/Low

Compared to other sources, streaming, CD: where is the Preamp's volume setting when playing Vinyl? If preamp volume is higher than the others, change Sutherland to higher gain. It preamp's volume is higher than the others, try lower gain.

@milo0812   Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water ...

Another county heard from. Everyone hears differently. I think that you should listen to other systems and other components as much as possible - but you already knew that. One last piece of advice - don't hurry! Good equipment will still be available in 6 months or a year.

@terry9 yes indeed, I'm not sure crossing the street in heavy traffic is wise 😱.

@elliottbnewcombjr So the interest in moving up the Sutherland line comes from a conversation I had with the owner (we both live in KC, go Chiefs) when I bought the TZ vibe. He said the difference in the TZ and the little loco was significant. Different tech. He advised I go straight to the little loco instead of buying then taking a hit on resale of the little loco, but my wallet did not support the thought at that time. Before I made that jump, I thought I better consider cartridge vs phono stage.


Those speakers are 92 db sensitivity, and the bass is self powered: thus not needing a lot of power.

You might someday consider going all tube, i.e. sell the McIntosh Hybrid.

Perhaps get a Stereo model that can also be used as Mono, so you can double your power in the future if you fall in love with some inefficient speakers (don’t even listen to inefficient speakers if you know what’s good for you).

And, the speakers are 4 ohm nominal, if you ever change to all tubes, look for an amp that doubles it’s power for 4 ohms.

@terry9 I am really looking forward to your first attempts at producing a cutting edge design Mycelium / Soya Resin Impregnated  Wand.

The world of Soya Resin is quite established, with the world of the 'Myc’ being the one that is fast closing in.

I have now found Speaker Cabinet/Enclosure produced from 'Myc', as well as  Acoustic Panels, the usage of this material is ’mushrooming’ 😁.

@elliottbnewcombjr "don’t even listen to inefficient speakers if you know what’s good for you"

I suspect that what you mean is, "Some are so good that you will fall in love," like ESL's or Magnepans. But some could take your words as dismissive. Perhaps you could clarify?

@pindac That’s going on the back burner for now, because I’m building an active crossover for some Magnepan DWM woofers and my isobaric sub.

This is an intriguing question, but I suspect that upgrading just the phono stage or just the cartridge will leave you wondering about how much improvement you will hear from upgrading both. It is also worth noting that the interconnects from your phono stage will also play a part. Based on my own journey, I suspect that the cartridge upgrade will produce an immediate benefit, but that a new phono stage should be the next move. Another idea is to try and demo a new phono stage in your system, as this will give you a sense of the change (and is obviously more practical than trying to "demo" a cartridge!) If you like the improvement, buy it, knowing that a new cartridge at a later date will only create further gains. 

@elliottbnewcombjr Elliot, buy the time he can afford the phono stage the cartridge will have worn out. Phono stages last a long time and the great ones are not cheap. The cartridge is usually less expensive than a great phono stage so it is quicker to save up for. Many of us have to push it financially to get into the better equipment. If money was not an issue he'd buy both now. 

@terry9 The Projects are still rolling out, your a real learner and doer👨‍🎓.

When wiring the Sub have a look at terminating directly onto the Voice Coil, this is the next method to become better known about and adopted for use with PC Triple C Wire on a Cabinet Speaker I have in use, I am informed it comes with little risk and am soon to be given advisories on the method.    


@elliottbnewcombjr "don’t even listen to inefficient speakers if you know what’s good for you"

I advise working very hard to find efficient speakers you love, they are out there. Don't even listen to inefficient ones.

That will keep the needed power down: less: cost/size/weight/heat and it will increase placement options of amps, especially integrated with a need to receive signal from a remote.

Importantly, low power needs allows a much easier way to try tubes.

More competition exists at lower power needs, thus more competitive prices, and more used choices.



1. don't even think about changing the Tonearm.

2. change the cartridge NOW

3. evaluate existing Phono Stage with new cartridge.

done for a while

4. After research, after advice, after saving money: TRY a 'new to me' Phono Stage, with RETURN Privileges.

Existing Phono Stage equals or beats it? (as I suspect it might). Send it back, Oh Happy Day, done, or save some more money, try another 'new to me' with option to return.

Of course the cartridge will wear out, but it will DEFINITELY sound BETTER immediately, thus the easiest and quickest way to improve the vinyl chain.

5. New TT. I strongly advise tonearm with removable headshell or option for a future second arm especially if into Jazz.


Thank you for clarifying, Elliot, but can't say that I agree with you on much of that.