Phono Cartridge Review: The Venerable Nagaoka MP-110

The Nagaoka MP-110 is a current phono cartridge offering from longtime Japanese stylus manufacturers, Nagaoka, and has become tremendously popular in recent years for providing an appetizing, warm and pleasant sound quality at a reasonable price point.

HISTORY

So what do we know about Nagaoka? Not much, I’m afraid, but enough to know that they possess decades of experience producing phono cartridges and styli. Their earliest beginnings appear to trace to the production of generic stylus replacements for other brands, before beginning to manufacture their own cartridges. The general technology and philosophy behind phono cartridges have remained startingly unchanged over the years, and the Nagaoka MP-110 has its roots in an earlier model, the Nagaoka MP-11. The MP-11 was a popular budget cartridge in the 1980s, and today’s model is virtually identical. If you pick up an old used turntable that happens to be outfitted with an old MP-11 cartridge, you can simply purchase a new MP-110 stylus for the old cartridge body. It will fit and the cartridge generators are identical, so that can be a budget strategy to obtaining the same performance.

Compared to their competitors, Nagaoka places more financial value on the cartridge body, rather than exclusively on the stylus portion. The Nagaoka MP-110 sells for $131 currently on Amazon, but the genuine replacement stylus sells for just under half of that. Comparatively, the Ortofon Red sells for $99 – but Ortofon places the bulk of the value on the stylus rather than the cartridge body, selling the replacement stylus for $87. Because of the reasonable cost of Nagaoka replacement styli (with one major caveat we’ll later address), it’s worth keeping an eye out for the older MP-11 cartridge body that is compatible with today’s MP-110 stylus.

PRICING

The cost of the Nagaoka MP-110 has started to rise, and fairly substantially recently. It’s traditionally been compared to the aforementioned Ortofon Red, Grado Black, Audio Technia AT95E, Sumiko Pearl and Goldring Elektra, as affordable options to a high fidelity level of sound quality. Having said that, the current prices do rank it as more expensive than all of the above. Even Nagaoka’s current entry level offering, the MP-100, selling on Amazon for $120, is still more expensive than all of the above. Nagaoka prices have not skyrocketed on quite the level of the Denon 103, once considered an affordable sub-$200 option that now sells for over twice that amount, but prices have climbed steadily enough that it may be appropriate to also compare it with the next tier of offerings from the competition (Ortofon Blue, Audio Technica AT95ML, Sumiko Rainier etc).

SPECS & PERFORMANCE

Specs and performance, a funny phenomenon. According to specifications, the Nagaoka MP-110 looks to be… perfectly average, certainly nothing substandard, but very much middle of the road with nothing jumping out tremendously. It offers a channel separation of 23dB, the Sumiko Pearl exceeds 30dB; the Nagaoka frequency response extends to 20,000kHz, the Grado Black to a whopping 55,000kHz. And then it seems to get worse, with the Nagaoka offering a .4 diameter bonded diamond stylus tip, the most basic elliptical tip size anyone produces. All of the previously mentioned modern options offer at least the finer .3 diameter sizes, with the Sumiko Pearl featuring .2 and AT95 including an upgraded stylus tip at each price tier, including a nude stylus at their $120 price. Not only is the Nagaoka the most expensive option, but according to the specifications, it’s the least inspiring by a fairly considerable margin.

But then there’s performance, and that’s where the Nagaoka excels. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and measurements of specifications – but who cares if a Grado Black can reach 55,000kHz if humans can only hear to 20,000kHz? The Nagaoka MP-110 may not dazzle on paper, but it’s hard to argue with its audible performance. Bass is very prominent but tight, never overly boomy, and the mids are where this cartridge really shines, effectively capturing the rich tones of vocals, guitar and keys. Compared to some other cartridges, detail, absolute clarity and soundstage arguably take a very minor backseat to overall ‘feel’, with acoustic instruments sounding particularly natural, allowing this cartridge to thrive with classic rock, jazz and folk music.

With the thicker .4 diameter elliptical profile, the Nagaoka is reminiscent of an old classic favorite with a similar profile and sound, the Shure M75 with N75EC stylus. The Shure requires a higher tracking force and features a higher output, leading to a slightly more explosive sound, but the general sonic signature is very similar between the two, resembling some form of audio comfort food. When people romantically ramble on about the indescribable warmth of vinyl, the Nagaoka MP-110 comes to mind as a prime example – the audio equivalent of old school light bulbs glowing yellow rather than bright white incandescent LEDs.

The Nagaoka MP-110 appearing to outpunch its specifications with sound quality also touches on a much-neglected aspect of styli production quality- the final polish of the diamond. Nagaoka touts the MP-110 as ‘superfine polished’, which means… well, who knows. We don’t discuss the polishing step much for styli, so for us not directly involved in their production or retipping, it’s hard to measure the potential value. But I have experienced what I presume are cheaper and lower quality diamonds on generic aftermarket styli, visibly darker and less carefully polished… and they sounded terrible, giving at least some credence to the potential idea that diamond polish matters. Denon moving coil styli are considered to have a very high quality polish that contributes to sound quality, and given that the Nagaoka seems to outperform the typical expectations for a .4 diameter stylus, it seems at least possible that their approach to the polishing step is a factor.

The Nagaoka stylus profile is also likely to be exceptionally kind to your records in terms of wear. While finer elliptical stylus profiles are considered a step more advanced for the extra level of detail they can reveal, research suggests that sharp elliptical actually has the most potential to cause wear on your record collection, particularly if tracking above 1.5g. This is a matter of some debate, to be sure, and while I do think fears of record wear are generally exaggerated, there’s no question that the fatter profile of the Nagaoka, especially tracked at the entirely reasonable tracking force range of 1.5g-2g, eases that concern.

FINAL THOUGHTS

If there is one knock against the Nagaoka MP-110, it’s that Nagaoka recommends a stylus replacement at 150-200 hours, an absurdly short stylus life by any measure. Ortofon advertises a 1,000 hour stylus life with Audio Technica suggesting 600-1,000+ depending on the particular stylus profile. Generally, 300 hours is the recommendation only for base level spherical styli, with elliptical profiles typically lasting at least double. Styli do gradually degrade over time, likely before we can audibly detect a difference, so perhaps the Nagaoka is overly conservative to discourage purchasers from hearing a slightly compromised product. Or the stylus simply doesn’t offer the durability of the competition. Or, most likely perhaps, a combination of the two. The stylus also initially played with a touch more surface noise than I would expect from a thicker elliptical profile, but this improved to more normal levels once the stylus broke in. It does track very effecrively, with barely a trace of sibilence or distortion only on the most difficult records, the boxy cartridge body assists with proper alignment, and the medium compliance makes it a healthy match for the vast majority of tonearms.

At its current retail price (nearly double the Audio Technica 95E), I’m not sure whether it’s still fair to consider the Nagaoka MP-110 among the entry level of budget cartridges. It is possible to find it more affordably, and if you can track one down including a new stylus for under $100, I heartily recommend it without reservation. As the retail price moves closer to $150, it becomes a bit less of steal, especially if the stylus life is indeed so much shorter than the competition. Having said that, I don’t think there’s a new cartridge out there for under $150 that handedly beats the Nagaoka on the all-important sound quality front, which is further evidenced by this simple fact – of the aforementioned modern day cartridges, the Nagaoka MP-110 is the one that I keep returning to the most.

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