Nagaoka MP-500 Cartridge

hfncommendedThe flagship of Nagaoka's 'Moving Permalloy' range can trace its lineage back to ADC's 10E pick-up from 1964. Has this top-of-the-range cartridge stood the test of time?

For many audiophiles the transition from using a moving-magnet (MM) cartridge in a 'starter' system to a moving-coil (MC) by way of upgrade is something of a rite of passage. However, as Japanese cartridge specialist, Nagaoka, is keen to remind us, other options are available. The debate goes something like this: given that some superb MCs can be had from around £300 and up, one might ask who is going to buy an MM that costs nearly double this, such as the Nagaoka MP-500. This flagship pick-up retails for £799 or £899 in MP-500H guise, the latter pre-mounted into a rather swish Nagaoka-branded headshell.

The fact is, though, MCs are not for everyone. You may need to change your tonearm to better match the lower compliance of a new MC while also investing in a phono preamp offering the increased gain and loading options required to tease out the best performance. Then there's the fear of an MC's non-replaceable stylus; while some premium MM styli can be expensive, at least they are readily available and easy to swap. When your favourite MC dies, it will invariably need a re-tip, or to be traded-in for a new model. All considered, a high-end MM starts to make good sense!

Riding High
Nagaoka is off to a head start. It's a well-known name thanks to its MP series launching in 1979 and rising to fame in the West in the '80s with the MP-10, latterly evolving into today's MP-100. The brand also benefits from strong support in the UK, courtesy of Sound Design Distribution, and having weathered the digital (CD) storm of the '90s. During vinyl's fallow years Nagaoka restructured its business to focus more generally on the 'microfabrication of difficult-to-cut materials' but the resurgence in vinyl has proved a boon – also for Ortofon and a few others – and it is once again riding high with accelerated cartridge and stylus production at its manufacturing base in Tokyo.


The MP-500’s replacement stylus fits snugly onto the alloy body and is bolted securely into position. The fibre-reinforced plastic carrier adds further robustness

The MP-500 is instantly familiar to hi-fi fans 'of an age', for while the body shape is decades old the flagship itself was introduced in the late-2000s [HFN Feb '11] as the head of a five-strong range. This brings us right up to date and, given that other venerable MM cartridges, including the Ortofon 2M series, are reaching a similar age with no signs of becoming any less popular, we felt we'd be remiss in not discovering if the MP-500 still has what it takes.

Although I am colloquially referring to the cartridge as a 'Moving-Magnet', it is actually a Moving-Iron design. Nagaoka calls it 'Moving Permalloy', as its chosen ferromagnetic material is a nickel/iron alloy. Moving-Iron technology is relatively uncommon, with only Grado and the modern offerings of Soundsmith, which in turn are based on Bang & Olufsen's MMC designs of the 1980s, springing to mind.

Straight Talking
The MP-500 consists of a machined aluminium body with an overall mass of 7.8g and some lovely straight sides, which make fitting and alignment less of a headache than some cartridges with more curvaceous designs. Internally, the magnet is a samarium cobalt type and the sleeve/pole shoe on which the stylus pivots is made from a plastic material reinforced with carbon fibre.

The removable stylus assembly hosts a boron cantilever terminated in a Line Contact nude diamond. While this is not especially unusual, the fact that the detachable stylus is secured to the main body of the cartridge using a small hex bolt is not common practice. Indeed, the only other cartridge I can recall that has utilised this fixing method is the Linn K18. From the standpoint of mechanical integrity, bolting the cartridge to the headshell, and the stylus assembly to the cartridge body, makes a lot of sense.

Nagaoka’s clamshell box has been a staple of the MP series for decades

The MP-500's neat flip-top supply box houses it in a small white plastic case with a clear dome lid, which was always a traditional Nagaoka hallmark. Also provided is a selection of fixing hardware, a screwdriver, and a hex wrench for undoing the stylus when removal is required. A stylus guard is fitted and this is easy to fit and holds securely.

Installation of the cartridge is a breeze thanks to its chunky and square shape. For auditioning, I fitted it to the SME 309 tonearms on both an SME Model 12 Mk2 turntable, and my own Michell Gyro SE. In setup terms the MP-500 is very forgiving, suiting a standard 47kohm MM phono input and with fine adjustments of tracking force over the recommended range seemingly having little effect on the sound. That said, I did find that lifting the arm a little higher at the rear helped realise some improvement in top-end 'brilliance'.

sqnote Smooth Grooves
Listening to the MP-500, it's clear that its place in the turntable world is still very relevant. Many modern cartridges, MCs especially, have rising HF responses that some listeners find a little over the top or even fatiguing over a period. If this sounds like you, then Nagaoka's MP-500 may be the answer to your prayers – it is a proper smoothie, with a captivating sense of musical ease.

Nagaoka Trading Ltd
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Supplied by: Sound Design Distribution Ltd, Cardiff
0800 0096213