Are second-hand cartridges worth buying?

They most definitely are, but we need to qualify this by considering which types of second-hand cartridges are worth chasing down.

A recap, there are two main types of cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil. The better cartridges tend to be moving coil designs and these were usually more expensive and better sounding. There are some great moving magnet designs worth hunting down as well, but generally, these are 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 to know whether you’ve found a good deal or not. I inspect cartridges and an inspection and clean is often a good starting point.

If the cartridge is a moving magnet design, can you get a new stylus? Old styli can be retipped, but this is less common with magnets. Retipping prices start at around $300, and moving magnet cartridges are often worth much less than this, even vintage ones, so the availability of styli has always been a critical factor with moving magnet cartridges. Cartridge suspensions also age and the rubber elements can harden. When this happens, that stylus is finished.

It’s a little different with moving coil cartridges. These must be retipped to rejuvenate them, there are no removable styli. Most MC carts are worth more than $300, new or vintage though, so the retipping becomes much more viable, especially when we consider that some moving coil cartridges cost as much as a car. Because of their less disposable nature and greater purchase price, they tend to be better made and it’s less common for their suspensions to harden with age, making vintage MC carts generally more viable prospects.

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.