Q I have an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB turntable and want to upgrade the cartridge. I'm considering an Audio-Technica AT440ML for $168 or one of two models from Nagaoka, the MP110 for $99 and the MP200 for $177. What would you recommend?
A It depends on your preference.
The Audio-Technica AT440ML has a MicroLine stylus that excels at getting fine detail out of the record grooves, leading to a precise, detailed sound. The Nagaoka cartridges have a warm sound that is easy on the ears and natural.
I've tested the MP110 at length and absolutely love it, and have found it to be a good match with the AT-LP120-USB. That's a great price on the MP200, because it usually sells for about $300. I would max out at the MP200 and feel that even the MP110 will yield a nice sonic improvement for only $100.
Given that the AT-LP120-USB is not an expensive turntable, you wouldn't want to put an expensive cartridge on it. At a certain point, you're better off just upgrading the turntable. More on that later.
As far as actually upgrading the cartridge, your AT-LP120-USB came with one pre-installed and aligned on a removable headshell that plugs into the turntable's tonearm. Installing and aligning a cartridge is precise work. If it isn't done correctly, you might not experience any improvement.
I recommend that you buy the cartridge with an extra headshell and have the retailer mount the cartridge for you. Then you can just plug it into the tonearm, set the counterweight and be ready for perfect sound. You also can swap cartridges quickly and easily to compare their sound.
If it's pre-installed, there's no chance you'll damage the cartridge when you mount it. Working with the tiny wires and screws is fussy work, and one small slip can mean disaster.
Two vendors I recommend sell the Nagaoka and Audio-Technica cartridges, as well as spare headshells. LP Gear (www.lpgear.com) even sells the AT-LP120-USB with the MP110 preinstalled as a package upgrade. My experience with LP Gear has been excellent. It will mount the cartridge for you at no charge if you buy the cartridge and headshell from it. The other vendor is Twin Cities-based Needle Doctor (www.needledoctor.com). It has one of the largest selections of record players and accessories in the world, as well as an excellent website.
Since we're discussing vinyl records this week, there's a product I've 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've 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.