Looking for a Warmer Sounding Phono Cartridge

I've grown tired of the sound of high end MC cartridges. Detail aplenty, but I've begun to detest to the screechinesssssss.

No, my system is not biased that way. I'd consider my system neutral. Components are listed below. The Koetsu RS sounds wonderful. The other cartridges in my rotation are the Hana ML and the Shelter 901 MK III. These are not described in the literature as very etched sounding nor very detail rich. They are mostly characterized as neutral.
My ears no longer tolerate the highs, anything above 3KHz I would estimate. My hearing disappears at about 8KHz. I don't have any hearing problems except for the loss of higher frequencies. I find also that I'm not as interested in "getting everything that's on the vinyl". Not anymore. I want warmth with quality. I listen to the "audiophile" recordings, to R&R LPs from the 70s and classical and opera from all eras. Some LPs are very good, some not so, but performance overrides the defects. I want to continue to enjoy all of them.

So I'm searching for a good quality warm sounding cartridge, MM, MI, MC or some other, doesn't matter.

I've been researching the field and have come up with these candidates:

- GradoTimber Master 3
- Shelter 501 Mk III
- Soundsmith Zephyr MK III

I was pretty sold on the 501. based mostly on the article by Michael Fremer, but a very helpful contact at Upscale Audio turned me onto the other two. His advice sounds very sound and seems to come from experience with all three.

I would like to keep the discussion limited to the above three and to cartridges less than $1500 USD, unless there's a really great one that I've missed.

Thanks for your help.

My stuff:

Koetsu RS, Hana ML, and Shelter 901, Musical Surroundings Nova II phono pre. Alternate pre is Paragon System E (tubes) and a DIY SUT with Cinemg 1254 trans, sometimes Apt Holman Preamp 1, Technics SL-1200G, Denon DP-57L, Levinson #38s preamp, Rane EQ and Crossover, Bryston 2.5B cubed amp, Revel M105 bookshelf speakers, and HSU 15" Sub.


I'd get a SoundSmith, the best you can afford. Made in USA and very reasonable retipping fees.

Doesn’t the koetsu already meet your requirements?  That is one of the least strident, yet still reasonably clear sound cartridge on the market.  There are some Ortofons that are also rich and not very bright sounding, like the Quintet Bronze (the higher-priced Black is brighter and more strident), and if you had a tonearm that can take an SPU headshell, the Ortofon SPU cartridges would also probably fill your requirement.  It has been quite a while since I heard a Grado, but their older cartridges were also quite mellow and lacking a harsh and bright top end.

Sorry you are having trouble. I have struggled with walking that thin line between detail and harshness up to twenty years ago and since have progressively improved my system by moving up to better components on the natural / musical side.

Over the last ten or fifteen years my system has been warm, natural and detailed. I have run out of so many demonstrations with my hands clasped over my ears it is not funny… high end systems. So, I completely understand your point of view.

My inclination would be to discuss your system. But you said you did not want that. I use a Koetsu Rosewood Signature, it is a wonderful natural sounding cartridge. Probably why you like your Koetsu. You can see my system under my userID. I’d really be interested in seeing yours. Looks like you started to create them an stopped.

I thought the mention of Koetsu RS by the OP was the Rosewood Signature.  It is hard to think of anything more like what he is asking for than that cartridge—a great sounding, warm, rich, and not at all strident or bright device.  If even more of that quality is needed, perhaps other components need to be examined, like the phono stage.

I just purchased  an open box Grado Hi out-put sonata and I love it! I too was tired of MC carts they are great on good recordings but not so on others. I used a AT760 MM cart till it developed a hum on the right side and ill be sending it back for repair or replacement . The Sonata can be picked up for around 400 to 450 as a demo or open box . My first MI Cart and I'm sold!


@ghdprentice  You can find the listing of my gear at the bottom of my OP. I forgot to include the arms. I have a Micro Seiki MA-505L on a separate pod aligned with the Technics SL-1200G, the stock arms on the Technics and the Denon and several others in the bullpen (3 MA-505 arms, and an Audiomods 6).

The Koetsu is truly wonderful. But it will not last forever. I need another good warm cartridge as backup and eventually main. I have three cartridges mounted, aligned and ready to play, all the time. I could surely use another warm one!

Check out any of the Air Tight cartridges lower than the PC-1 Supreme and you will get incredible warmth with a hint of roundness at the top. This is true for the PC-1s, PC-1 Coda, PC-1, PC-7 and PC-9. 

More affordable My Sonic Lab cartridges will be similar - Air Tight and MSL are made by the same engineer.

Audio Technica ART9-XI is another really good one, one of my favorites and its predecessor the ART9 gained a lot of love on this forum. Do a search for that one to see what people say. 

It's outside your price range, though not outside the Koetsu you mentioned, but you should consider the Benz LPS.  It is a wonderful, full bodied sound, without becoming flabby or losing detail.  Exquisit midrange.  It is a heavy cart and works best with a higher mass tonearm.

My more detailed cart is the Ortofon Verismo.  I don't think either is better or worse, just different in very musical ways.

Your brightness is do to the fact that your table and arm are not optimal. You have a ton of noise and tracking issues, Get an arm that can be properly set up and a TT that does not introduce noise and vibrations.

First thing I would do is lowering your VTA. It might just be enough increase in the low frequencies to soften up the top end. Worth a try since it costs nothing.

I have owned both a Soundsmith and the Charisma. The Charisma is a significantly warmer sounding. It is also very dynamic and quiet because of it's Gyger S stylus. 

The Soundsmith is more accurate and just as quiet but the OP wanted warm.

IF your hearing of highs is diminished, presumably by age, this problem should not occur, and I believe any different cartridge will not solve the problem.

I suspect it is a combination of cartridge alignment, and your specific sensitivity to specific frequencies.

For vinyl only, the final solution, after checking all arm/cartridge alignments will simply be using tone control to reduce the treble.

Do you personally have the inexpensive tools and skills to do all the alignments? starting with spindle/pivot/overhang distances; moving on to the two null points; then azimuth; then simple VTA (arm parallel when playing); tracking force; last anti-skate. (VTA need not be perfected, just the simple parallel arm method)

All correct, I expect the problem will be lessened. If not, simply cut the treble with tone control a speck or two when playing vinyl.

If you do not have the tools, skills, tell us where you live, I suspect many like me will come to your house and do the alignment for you. I'm in Plainfield, NJ, 07062. If you have a removable headshell, I could bring a couple of my cartridges to see if you hear any significant differences.

@kevemaher Stated,  "I find also that I'm not as interested in "getting everything that's on the vinyl". Not anymore. I want warmth with quality. "

I like this type of approach, there is nothing like cutting through the BS and Fantastical Ideas that can be commonly seen touted.

@kevemaher I have this approach myself, I like to experience music exactly as I like, if there is a frequency that is not represented in a way another can't settle with that is fine by myself.

My Speakers are suggested by many to have shortcomings at certain frequencies, I have been loyal the the Speakers for nearly 30 Years. Also interesting when at a Public HiFi event where there were 50 Exhibitors of their Systems and more than 500 Paying Audio Enthusiasts attended, my Room was given the Best in Show Merit. So much for those Speakers that are exposed to commonly seen discrediting.

My next preferred past time with Audio, is one where I like to experience other systems that are especially created, as a result of the the owner of the system being very sure footed about how they like their musical encounters to be created for themselves. 

I am to suggest something maybe already experienced by yourself or maybe not.

I have a 5mv Output LOMC, that I can use with a few different owned Phonostages and and a few owned SUT's. Additionally I have also been able to loan SUT's and  >Head Amp's to increase the configurations.

I know the differing configurations offer a variety of the perceptions of Richness that can be created.

A Audio Innovations 800 or 1000 model SUT, is the Richest Tone I have been able to create using the MM Input.

My Cinemag 1254 is my favourite SUT and is the SUT with least Rich Tone I have encountered using the MM Input, it is almost parity with a Head Amp design I use, which I will refer to as being leanest ancillary used on a MM Input. 

I have used the MC Input option, but I have not been able to Wed to this as a permanent method to use a LOMC.

I also use the 5mv Output LOMC directly into the MM Input, this as a method does mean the VC will be dialed clockwise more than usual to get the required listening levels. 

The 5mv Output directly into the MM Input also produces the Richest Tones I have heard in any replay in any system. 

I tell friends that immediately available is a variety of Cart's traits all to be found in one Cart'.  

Does the method get everything that is on vinyl?, does it really matter?

I suggest the Shelter is first selected to be tried through the MM Input as I believe it has a 5mv Output, I feel confident you will experience a substantial increase in the perception of a Rich Tone being produced.

I don't know how the 4mv Output Cart's will adapt to this method, but it is well worth a try.   

If you want warm, and enjoy Koetsu already, I assume you are looking for an alternative to Koetsu, rather than asking us to say "More Koetsu!"

I guess Benz Micro are renowned as warm MC cartridges. I'm biased towards MI cartridges, as their liveliness is a major win on a different axis to frequency response. Two people have mentioned the Nagaoka MP-500, which is price:worth winner. You can get better still in that way, and the more you spend on a Grado or a Soundsmith the more you can have. If londondecca.com ever make a new Reference cartridge I could say buy that, but it might not happen.

Or I could get cheap, and suggest different loadings to tame your existing MC cartridges.

@drvinyl01 Hi, could you elaborate on your post? In your opinion what exactly is wrong with my system?

I very carefully align my cartridge to the arm and table. I perform all the needed adjustments. I use an arc protractor that I created from an app on this website. I adjust azimuth electronically. I measure and set antiskate. I use the Ledermann technique. I measure FR, distortion, etc. I level the arm balance using a ruled clear arylic block. VTF is set using a digital scale placed in the plane of the LP. I do not alter VTA (perhaps I should).

I perform these adjustments to the best of my abilities. I am a "lab rat". At work, I am an optical engineer with an MS degree. I perform theoretical as well as lab duties equally well. Many optical adjustments are as fine or finer than the ones needed for cartridge installation and alignment.

I have the skills, the knowledge, the tools, and the patience to perform an exact alignment (usually. Lofgren A).

These are the reasons why I am a bit confused by your statements. If you could be more detailed, I will be able to follow and perform your suggestions.

Since I don't adjust VTA/SRA, I would like to have some guidelines for getting the adjustment right. The usual method is by ear. But what does one listen for? Gotta be more exact than "you'll know when you get there, the sound snaps into place".

Thanks for your comments. I would like to hear more about your ideas.

@baylinor I must be looking for the wrong things, as when I've fooled around with VTA, I wind up at parallel again. It may be that I can't discern the subtleties of this adjustment well enough to set it.

Please explain what you look for and what the new alignment will be compared to parallel.

@elliottbnewcombjr Thanks for your offer. I am in California, long way from you.

I do all the adjustments you've mentioned. I am obsessed with getting them set correctly.

I use a 31 band EQ (yeah, I know, evil stuff). I can drop the treble and bump up the lower mid. I want a cartridge that does that adjustment for me.

Perhaps I will never find that cartridge with the seemingly elusive qualities that I desire. I'm not ready to accept that yet.


My current carts are Lyra Kleos and Sumiko Starling. The Kleos recommends a parallel setting while the Starling recommends tail down. Obviously the raking angle of the stylus effects how to adjust  the VTA. But in general, tail down will increase the low frequencies and tame the high ones, while tail up will do the opposite. With tail down the Kleos loses to much liveliness, while parallel the Starling doesn't have enough body to the sound. At least these are my experiences in my house of stereo which is very revealing sound wise. Just try lowering your VTA a millimiter at a time and I would be shocked if eventually you do not hear what I am talking about. 

It is pretty clear what you are looking for--something that sounds like the Koetsu Rosewood Signature, but at a small fraction of the price of that very high end cartridge.  I like that cartridge a lot loo, but, I have not heard something comparable that was in your $1500 price range.  Grado wood body cartridges are warm sounding too, but, compared to the Koetsu, they sound murky and lacking in life.  Most of the other warmish cartridges seem to lack, to varying degrees, the lively and engaging quality of a Koetsu.  Perhaps something like an Ortofon Cadenza Red will come reasonably close, but, it still would not be the same.  I would get a cheaper back-up/substitute cartridge and save up for a re-tip by Koetsu when it finally wears out.  

Generally a Cart' set to have the Heel/Tail lower than the Parallel Line will be one that increases the Lower Frequencies presence.

It is a common suggested setting for the ranges of LOMC Ortofon Cart's, produced during the period of 2000 -2010.  

Warm? To me that means no to a rising high end.  
Shure V15 V with Jico SAS stylus.  Grace F9 Ruby.  Van denHul MC10.

Dear @kevemaher  :  " I want warmth with quality. "

Look warmth means no quality for a good phono cartridge, as a fact live MUSIC seated at nearfield position has quality with out warmth.

I think that you do not think you need a new   cartridge because there is not the problem instead my advise is to add to your system a good equalizer analog as Klark TekniK or digital.


That you like the Koetsu does not means is a " rigth " cartridge doing its job because it's not but that's what you like so try the equalizer.


Reards and enjoy the MUSIC NOT DISTORTIONS,


Hello, Baylinor is correct. This should increase the mids. If the sound becomes a little dull lower the VTF while keeping it within specs. Meaning if you have an Ortofon cart instead of using recommendation of 2.3g then use 2.1g. Just so you know when you lower your VTA your VTF raises. So adjust the VTF down to 2.2g then lower the VTA. It takes 4mm of VTA to change your SRA by 1 degree. It all makes a difference, even 1 mm. Most people know that you typically are only hearing the change in VTF. What you will gain is more warmth from getting better mids. If you like where the sound is heading but you run out of VTA then call JR at Wallyanalogtools.com or WAM Engineering. He can creat a shim that will set any of your carts to near protection for $500. I feel you have really great carts that are not setup properly. This can be corrected. Remember to start the VTF at the lowest recommended level when your VTA is lowered. You will get the detail back. If you hear sibilance then keep raising the VTF until it’s gone.  

Ok, you should try a protractor that has UNIDIN This was developed in 2010 using LP. Blocks don't work, and neither does VTA The changes you hear from the movement of the arm are attributed to variations in tracking force and pushing the arm in and out of alignment. This Technics table and arm combinations are not exactly great Get Analog Magic. 

It was mentioned already but based on the OP's goals my thoughts go immediately to a Benz.  The LP/LPS or Ebony series fit the bill and are frequently available here from Euro or Asian sellers for less than retail.  The LPS is outstanding, classic analog warmth but still loads of detail, not syrupy at all.  Above stated budget but maybe one of the down range models would fit.  


I’m surprised the Shelter 901 Mk III didn’t do what you want. Though I haven’t heard the 901 yet it looks like a Harmony motor in an aluminum body, and that same motor in the Accord (titanium shell) is truly wonderful IMO, and not too far off from Koetsu. You definitely won’t like the Harmony; its dry carbon fiber body leans things out and it’s more about "pursuit of detail".

Benz are a bit warm and full-bodied, but not as much as Koetsu. It’s still a relatively big difference. They also have a lot more treble energy. The Ortofon Cadenza Bronze and (even better) Kontrapunkt "c" are oddballs in their line which sound more Koetsu-like. Nothing else above or below them sounds remotely like Koetsu.

A Koestu with 1254 SUT is just going to be hard to match in the warm / lush department. The treble should not be fatiguing, even in otherwise bright systems. Not sure any other MC can do that. The suggestions for Grado are expected (I still haven’t heard one!). You might also consider the following:

  • Find a good re-tipper to keep your Koetsu running long-term. I’m considering contacting Joseph Long / needlestein if Koetsu doesn’t resume production.
  • Look at amp & preamp - this can have a HUGE impact on end product sound, and I’ve definitely noticed some carts synergize better with certain amps and/or speakers. When I’ve had brighter speaker & amp combinations, NOTHING other than a Koetsu would sound natural.


I’ll bet it’s not a cartridge issue. Have you tried other speakers other than the Revel bookshelf units, which appear to be a system weak point, even with a sub? And have considered possible room treatment issues?  If your room is too live/overly reflective that could be part of the problem. 

good luck!

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kevemaher's avatar

kevemaher OP

My concern is that you could spend a decent amount of money chasing something that does not exist.

"I use a 31 band EQ (yeah, I know, evil stuff). I can drop the treble and bump up the lower mid. I want a cartridge that does that adjustment for me."

My guess is that you have that Equalizer in a tape loop, so that you can use it or bypass it. I also bet if flat, you do not hear any degradation. Therefor you have given yourself a precisely advanced tone control, seems to be a darn good idea for you in this situation. That's Angelic, not Evil. IOW, good idea!!!!

Once you have the EQ adjusted, it sounds good on all LPs, correct? If so, DONE.


"Perhaps I will never find that cartridge with the seemingly elusive qualities that I desire. I'm not ready to accept that yet."

I might be wrong, my take: Elusive is a good word, I cannot imagine a designer of any audio device purposely  creating a product with a rise and dip as you describe. That would be considered a 'failure', and off to 'fix those problems' would occur. 

The differences between cartridges I hear are extension of range, which you do not want (except your equalizer can cut the extended highs); and tight center balance, a highly desirable feature; and wide channel separation which, combined with tight center balance improves Imaging.

For me, a stiffer cantilever produces extended bass, or bass of greater volume to match adjacent frequencies volumes. The problem, especially for you, is that stiffer cantilever material also maintains volumes at each end and extends highs, not so good for you.

My guess for you, as a category, is Elliptical on Aluminum Cantilever. My favorite is Shure M97xe. Possibly combined with a bit of adjustment of your Equalizer.


This seller is in CA, takes returns, perhaps have a discussion first, then try it.





Thanks everybody for your comments. I've learned via this thread that there are about as many opinions as there are posts.

I must think.

An easy way to "sample" lower VTA is to use a thicker mat or shim the mat currently used with an LP.

This will effectively lower the tail end of the cartridge which should offer a fuller/warmer sound.

If doing so shows merit, then adjust VTA the proper way by lowering the tonearm.

VTF will need to be reset when using a thicker or shimmed mat and as you already stated (think it was you) VTA is set by ear.



Your preamp is a nice one! Still have the original JAN 12AX7's inside? Do you run your SUT through the tubed MM stage of the preamp?

@dekay    Very good idea....I'm in the same boat as the OP and I'm going to try the Thicker Mat suggestion...Thanks.

@kevemaher , I have watched this conversation develop and I can see it might be of limited value to you. Feel free to call me to discuss. The first question I am going to ask you is what is your loading set at and what is the coil impedance of your cartridge. There may be at least three follow up questions from there.

For everyone else, I do not recommend changing SRA and VTA (Two VERY different things that are important for different reasons with different targeted ideal ranges) by increasing mat thickness as it changes a minimum of four variables that can impact the playback performance: SRA, VTA, tonearm pivot vector forces and record to support surface mechanical impedance. (Note that I am assuming you will adjust for VTF when changing arm height or record height otherwise you will also be changing damper compression vertically AND horizontally in addition to any changes to SRA & VTA due to the new VTF.) On some tonearms, height changes can also affect azimuth. If you make height changes at the tonearm pivot area instead of at the record, then you reduce your variables by one. Not a huge win, but a step in the right direction.

When attempting to make an improvement to performance, it is important to impact as few variables as possible so you can better understand and control the outcome. Without such control, you could - for example - change record height with a thicker mat and three parameters might improve but one might get much worse, giving you no obvious net improvements. Rather, if you were to do your best to limit the total variables impacted when you make such a change then you can assess for the changes in a more controlled fashion.

With that said, I think the likelihood of your issue being a mechanical one is no foregone conclusion. We can discuss when you call me. Phone on website. I’m not going to push my tools on you. I’m going to help you control the variables so you can get to the bottom of this. High frequency "screechinesssssss" is NOT a characteristic of moving coils that are properly setup and electro-mechanically damped.

Wow! A free offer to receive a very professional overview of a raised Cartridge concern.

This certainly surpasses my most recent act of kindness to a stranger. 

@kevemaher  : Obviously your Rane is not helping you to for your ears " problem " and gain/loading for the Hana/Shelter neither. The Rosewood is way different performer and that's one reason you like it because is not so " agressive " .

One source for your " ears "  problem ( because it's not a cartridge problems. ) could be that build material of your speaker tweeters that crossover around 2.5khz and could have some kind of ringing down there or maybe not because you said your room/system is neutral and you measured.

Now, if the Rosewood works for your " ears " then why to look for other cartridge when the other 2 that are not bad cartridges just does not works with your " ears ". 


Why to use more that one cartridge and if you want to use your other tonearms then Rosewood dowthere too.

Different tonearms and different tonearm internal wiring could help too with those 2 cartridges.


At the end reading here and there you are only " guessing " what only your ears can confirm, not guessing because your room/system is unique as each one of our room/systems and it's obvious and you learned in this thread when you posted:


"  that there are about as many opinions as there are posts. "



Post removed 

One source for your " ears "  problem ( because it's not a cartridge problems. ) could be that build material of your speaker tweeters that crossover around 2.5khz and could have some kind of ringing down there or maybe not because you said your room/system is neutral and you measured.

Great point by Raul. Certain cartridges and tweeters not getting along is DEFINITELY something I've noticed. Don't discount this. My big Tannoys with the pepperpot tweeter render a vivid, lush midrange but there is a cost to this with a certain roughness / hot spot somewhere in the treble region. Cartridges which don't mellow out in this region can be like icepicks to my ears lol. Other Tannoys with the tulip tweeter are a lot more well behaved in that region, and don't display this problem. 

Fremer is fun to read but I don’t use his recommendations at all. He gets a lot of stuff wrong and his somewhat of a meltdown on the Mofi One Steps and his twenty years late review on electrical service (like he discovered Xanadu) coming into the home and a whole bunch of other stuff. I’m downsizing my cartridge purchasing after years of spending thousands on them and when my Dynavector crashes and burns, will purchase a HANA S MC Low Output Phono Cartridge.  When I got turned on to this company I was really surprised how good it was.  750 bucks!  Less than just about every MC I've owned since the late eighties.

Kavemaher, have you been to an ENT specialist or an audiologist? Could it be that you have tinnitus?

I've found a solution to my dislike of screechy highs. And it was right in my cartridge drawer!

I installed my very old Grace F9 body with a Soundsmith RS-9E stylus assembly (plugs in). The stylus assembly  is constructed of an Alimunum Cantilever and a nude elliptical diamond stylus. Installation was on my Denon DP-57L table.

 I've forgotten how difficult MC alignment can be and how easy this MM cartridge was to align. Separation, azimuth, anti-skate, VTA, and VTF adjustments were straightforward and simple.

The sound is very beautiful and smooth. I love the midrange. Bass is surprisingly full and has detail. The FR curve shows gradually diminishing  lows by about 5dB from 100Hz down to 20Hz and a very small rise above 10KHz of about 2 dB. Separation is about 27dB. I set the VTF to 1.25g (the old Grace recommendation was 1.2g). SS doesn't spec the compliance, but if it is true to the Grace F99E it is high compliance. The stylus is almost brand new. No screeching.

This issue is settled for me...for now.

Any of the classic MM cartridges will be high compliance.  I have a Grace Ruby with an SS OCL stylus on the correct sapphire cantilever.  It's a marvelous cartridge.  But I am not aware that the required degree of alignment accuracy for a happy outcome is dependent upon cartridge type (MM vs MI vs MC).  Probably the elliptical stylus shape is more tolerant of small errors in alignment than are modern stylus shapes, if indeed that has anything to do with this story.  I am what I call an "alignment nihilist".

@lewm I've found that the setting of the Anti-Skate is more difficult for MC cartridges. Separation must be nailed exactly for best performance. It is more difficult to find arm/headshell combinations that will produce resonance in the sweet zone. MC cartridges are also more delicate (mechanically, not audibly).

And most sound too shrill for me, whenever I set the VTA, VTF. This is clearly a personal preference.

Most MC cartridges exhibit electro-mechanical resonance at very high frequencies, well above the range of human hearing, depending upon load and etc.  But many do exhibit a slight 1-2db rise in FR at the very top of the audio spectrum.  Anyway, it is sufficient to say that you are sensitive to something about MC cartridges that manifests in the upper frequencies, without nailing down exactly what that is. Which is why I mentioned tinnitus. For me, I find many of them to be "thin" sounding in parts of the spectrum especially on piano and some voices.  I am guessing that this is due to very subtle mistracking, because sometimes I  can "cure" a particular cartridge by increasing VTF ever so slightly. But it's just a guess.

Since you don't have to buy another cartridge you could now replace your phono stage with a tube one. Besides, you will be using vintage cartridge, and vintage means tube electronics.