Many of the best cartridges ever made hail from the golden era of analog, so yes, the right carts are definitely worth chasing down.
To recap, there are two main types of cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil. The best cartridges tend to be moving coil designs and these are usually more expensive and better sounding. There are some great moving magnet designs too, but these are generally less worth a hard chase if you know what I mean.
Cartridges wear out, so you need a way of establishing their current state of wear. That way you’ll know whether you’ve found a good deal or not. We inspect cartridges and an inspection and deep clean is often a great starting point.
If it is a moving magnet cartridge, can you still get a new stylus? Many stylus types haven’t been available for years. Old styli can be retipped, but this is less common with magnets.
Retipping starts at around $300 and goes up from there. Moving magnet cartridges are often worth less than this, so the availability of styli has always been a critical factor with moving magnet cartridges.
It’s a little different with moving coil cartridges. These must be retipped to rejuvenate them, they don’t have removable styli. Most MC carts are worth more than $300, new or vintage though, so the retipping becomes much more viable, especially when you consider that some moving coil cartridges cost as much as a car.
Cartridge suspensions also age and the rubber elements can harden. When this happens, that stylus (MM) or cartridge (MC) is finished. At that point, current manufacturers can rebuild the cartridge, with a new suspension, cantilever and stylus, for around 75% of the new replacement cartridge cost.
Value & Chasability
Because of their less disposable nature and greater purchase price, MC carts tend to be better made and it’s less common for their suspensions to harden with age, making vintage coils generally more viable prospects and well worth hunting down.
Not only that, but better MC designs tend to feature line contact, Microline or Shibata-type gems that last much longer. Putting all this together, MC carts are likelier to have life left in them. They are more worth re-tipping when they wear out. They last longer when they are retipped.
As an example, I own and use moving coil cartridges from the 1980s that work perfectly and sound amazing. Vintage cartridges came from the golden era of cartridge design and manufacture, so it’s worth considering that some of the very best cartridges of all time are those really good ones from the ’70s and ’80s.