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How to Choose the Best Turntable Cartridge

by RabbitHoleMusic
How to Choose the Best Turntable Cartridge
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One of the most important considerations when buying a record player is how to choose the best turntable cartridge. A cartridge consists of two main parts: the stylus and the body. The stylus is the needle that converts music into electrical signals that can be amplified, while the body houses a magnet that shapes those signals to reproduce sound from vinyl records. The right cartridge can make the difference between the best sound and a less-than-perfect experience. In this article, we will cover the basic structure of a turntable cartridge and provide tips on how to pick the perfect phono cartridge for your turntable.

One of the most important considerations when buying a turntable is to choose the right cartridge. A cartridge consists of two main parts: the stylus and the body. The stylus is the needle that converts music into electrical signals that can be amplified, while the body houses a magnet that shapes those signals to reproduce sound from vinyl records. The right cartridge can make the difference between the best sound and a less-than-perfect experience. In this article, we will cover the basic structure of a turntable cartridge and provide tips on how to pick the perfect phono cartridge for your turntable.

What exactly is a phono cartridge?

Record groove information is translated into an electrical signal that may be amplified to make music with the use of a cartridge. Cartridges come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. As an example, we’ll look at how a moving magnet cartridge (also known as an MM-type cartridge) works (many of the principles remain the same for moving coil cartridges).

Vinyl overrunning your room? See our Top Vinyl Record Storage Cabinet Solutions

It is only the diamond stylus tip that comes into direct touch with the vinyl. The cantilever vibrates as the stylus follows the path of the grooves on the recording. A stylus and a magnet are attached to one end of a stiff tube called a cantilever. As a result of this rubber suspension, the cantilever can swivel and trace the grooves with precision.

The stylus tip sends vibrations to the magnet via a cantilever. The magnet’s magnetic field changes as it vibrates. Due to Lenz’s Law, a little voltage in the coils corresponds to the magnet’s movement as the magnetic field changes. The phono preamp (RIAA equalization) is then used to turn the electrical signal into sound before it reaches the amplifier and speakers.

What to Look for in a Cartridge

Stylus shape: The way the stylus makes contact with the groove in the record is influenced by its shape. The stylus’ ability to track modulations in the groove improves with decreasing stylus contact radius. Conical and elliptical styli are the most prevalent shapes. This permits elliptical styli to trace grooves more precisely and retrieve more musical information than conical styli, which have a larger contact radius (especially high frequencies). We will go into more details later in the article in the section Different Stylus Shapes.

Load Impedance: Even engineers have a hard time deciphering this finicky requirement. The standard in the industry is 47k ohms. For this spec, there’s no better or worse figure, but other specialist cartridges may indicate a different impedance also known as cartridge loading, and you’ll need an additional preamp with variable loading (like the one depicted below) to get the best out of those types of cartridges

In order to boost the output of various cartridges, an adjustable external preamp like the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 can be used.

Pro-Ject Tube Box S2 Phono Preamplifier

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Trackability: Using a modulated record groove as an example, this specification indicates how well the stylus can track the groove. The maximum amplitude that a stylus can trace before distorting the signal is assessed in terms of trackability. Many factors affect trackability, including the form of the stylus, cartridge alignment, and tonearm compatibility, to name a few. Micrometers (m) are commonly used to measure trackability, and the greater the number, the better.

Cantilever: The cantilever must be as stiff and light as feasible in order to successfully transfer vibrational energy from the stylus tip to the magnet (or other producing source). Material, size, and structure of the cantilever all have an impact on how well a cartridge reproduces audio frequencies. Aluminum alloy is the most commonly used material in cantilevers, but carbon, boron, and some copper alloys are also frequently utilized.

Want to keep your vinyl in pristine shape, see How to Store Vinyl Records to Protect Your Collection

Coil type: Moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) are the two most common types of generators (MC). There are a lot of MM cartridges in use. Preamplifiers with an MC setting are required for MC cartridges, which have a lower output. In general, MC cartridges cost more. 

The Hana MC Moving-Coil is one of my favorites for a moving-coil cartridge coming in a bit over $1,000.

Hana MC Moving-Coil Stereo Cartridge with Nude Microline Tip

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Frequency Response: The cartridge’s frequency response is a metric measuring how well it can reproduce a wide variety of tones. No frequency is over- or under-emphasized thanks to this “flatness” of reaction. Higher end cartridges stretch lower and higher in frequency so that more detail may be heard. Frequency Response starts from a baseline of 20-20,000 Hz

Stereo Separation: Higher decibel numbers indicate better separation between instruments on the left and right of the original recording microphone’s microphone’s mic. Note this is not needed on Mono Record Cartridges.

Tracking Grams: In most cases, this may be found towards the back of the tonearm, and it will likely have numbers engraved on it. Turning the counterweight to a given number alters the tonearm’s weight. Using grams as a unit of measurement, the stylus will weigh 2 grams if the counterweight is set to 2. To ensure you have the weight set to the desired setting, use a scale such as the one below.

Riverstone Audio Record-Level Turntable Stylus Tracking Force Gauge/Scale

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Budget: Turntable cartridge brands offer thousands of designs and styli options for your turntable. Decide on a budget first. Setting a budget and sticking to it is essential in many other purchase circumstances, such as creating a home sound system while according to a budget. The price of a turntable cartridge can range from $25 to $15,000!

Looking for a great sounding cartridge on a budget, see our Ortofon 2M Bronze Review

If you’re not sure how much to spend, look at the rest of your equipment and see how much it costs in comparison. For example, if your turntable is a basic model, you may not want to spend more than $100 on an update. You’ll want to spend extra money on a quality cartridge or stylus if you have a higher-end device. However, don’t forget about the rest of your home audio system. Upgrade the speakers or amplifier first to get the most bang for your buck in terms of sound quality. However, if you already own high-quality equipment, it makes more sense to invest more money on a turntable cartridge or stylus repair. 

Mounting Type: The four back terminals of a P-mount cartridge plug into the tonearm’s aft end. A single screw secures the cartridge to the tonearm. At the back of a half-inch cartridge, there are four terminals, but the pins are much larger and link to four separate wires on the tonearm.

We will cover the two most common mounting types in the section below, P-mount (plug-in) and Half-inch mount (1/2”).

What Are Different Cartridge Mounting Types

 The four back terminals of a P-mount cartridge plug into the tonearm’s aft end. A single screw secures the cartridge to the tonearm. The Grado Prestige Black (shown below)is a great performing budget P-Mount cartridges.

GRADO Prestige Black Phono Cartridge w/Stylus

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

At the back of a half-inch cartridge, there are four terminals, but the pins are much larger and link to four separate wires on the tonearm. It is held in place by two screws, which are located about a half-inch apart. Below is a great all around mid level half-inch cartridge, the Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III

Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III High Output Moving Coil Phono Cartridge

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

Types of Stylus Construction

Generally speaking, there are two sorts of stylus. A bonded stylus (such as the Sumiko Oyster) is utilized in entry-level cartridges because it is more cost-effective. A diamond chip is affixed to a steel shank at the needle’s base. This increases the cartridge’s weight, making it unsuitable for high-performance applications.

Sumiko - Oyster MM Cartridge

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

Diamond is linked to a steel shank with a bonded stylus on the left. The diamond-only stylus on the right is a naked stylus.

With a nude stylus, you can enhance your listening experience by attaching a diamond-shaped cantilever directly to the stylus. Even though it’s more expensive, it’s a better method of transmitting the kinetic energy that generates the signal. An affordable option is the Ortofon 2m blue.

Ortofon 2M Blue Moving Magnet Cartridge

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

Different Stylus Shapes

Observe the stylus of a vintage victrola and you’ll find it’s really large and blunt. Using a contemporary cartridge, the stylus is designed in such a way that it interacts better with the record grooves. The higher the fidelity, the more shaping has been done. There are 3 different types of stylus shapes you should know when looking for a phono cartridge.

Conical Stylus

The most popular stylus shape is a conical one, which is simple and affordable to make. If you’re looking for anything that can read most of the information contained in a record groove, this is a good option. A spherical stylus may also be referred to as such. For more info on different stylus types, see this pdf from Ortofon.

Elliptical Stylus

There are two different types of bi-radial styli, which have circular designs and can cover a wider area of the record’s surface. In other words, it’s more exact than a conical stylus. The frequency response, distortion, and phase response are all improved with an elliptical stylus. A great budget friendly cartridge that uses an elliptical stylus is the Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML shown below.

Audio-Technica AT-VM95ML/H Turntable Headshell/Cartridge Combo Kit Red

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

Line Contact Stylus

High-frequency responsiveness and minimal abrasion are both improved with the line contact stylus’s design. If your records are already worn, a line contact stylus’s strength can also be its weakness, as it can enhance surface noise. Norio Shibata, a JVC engineer, developed this design in 1972, hence you’ll see it identified as a Shibata stylus on some cartridges, such as the Audio-Technica VM760SLC.

High-end cartridges employ a MicroLineTM stylus design that resembles the cutting head used to make record pressings in a factory. Due to its ability to access data other styli cannot, it generates extremely accurate and detailed sound. One of our favorite is the Ortofon 2M Black or for even more detail but a higher price check out the moving coil version, the MC Quintet Black.

Ortofon 2M Black Moving Magnet Cartridge

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

As audiophiles are always searching for the ultimate listening experience, engineers have come up with a number of ingenious but less common design variants that we won’t go into in this article. When comparing cartridges, the information above should help you grasp some basic differences.

Pairing Your Cartridge to Your System

With a turntable, system-building can be even more critical because there are so many components to match.

Many turntable manufacturers want to add a touch of “analogue warmth” to their products in order to emphasize the fact that you’re actually listening to vinyl, rather than a digitally reproduced sound.

While this is perfectly acceptable, it does require some extra attention to the rest of your system; too much emphasis on lower-mid frequencies, for example, might all add up to generate a muddy, unintentionally messy sound. Transparency elsewhere in the system is critical if you want to hear exactly what your deck is saying. In a way, it’s like a relationship, in which the opposites can actually compliment each other.

The easiest method to determine whether a turntable will work with your system is to try it out with the equipment you intend to use it with. To be sure of how a record player will sound when you get it home, you need to bring your entire system to a dealer (or have them source it for you). Your dealer may also have some helpful suggestions that you hadn’t considered.

In addition, consider the level of your existing system. A $2,500 cartridge will not be much benefit to a sub-$500 system.

Pairing Your Cartridge to Your Vinyl Collection

I always consider my vinyl collection when choosing a new cartridge and exactly what I am looking to accomplish. For example, if your collection is mostly mint, audiophile recordings a cartridge with a Shibata stylus may be the perfect choice to suck out every last detail of the recording. On the other hand, if your collection is mostly made up of VG grade records, a Shibata stylus may be a nightmare as it will enhance any imperfections and surface noise.

Monk's Dream

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

I am lucky enough to run a record player in few different locations. I like to use a moving coil line contact stylus on my main deck for my pristine vinyl and run an elliptical stylus on a separate deck for some of my lesser quality vinyls.

 When to Replace a Cartridge or Stylus

When a turntable stylus begins to show symptoms of wear, it’s time to replace it. Any time you hear sibilance, static or blurring, you need to replace your stylus since it’s showing signs of wear and tear that you haven’t noticed before.

A dirty record’s noises can indicate that you need a new stylus, thus you should only test the audio quality on a clean and in good condition LP.

Record Doctor – Vacuum Cleaning Vinyl Record Washer

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Observe your turntable for physical evidence that it requires a new stylus. Replacement of the stylus is necessary when it skips or bouncing. In order to determine if the stylus needle head has become hardened owing to the accumulation of dust, grease, and friction under the lens of a powerful microscope, it is recommended that you look at it very closely. If any of these signs are present, it’s time to invest in a new pen.

Vinyl records can be irreversibly damaged by using a worn-out stylus.

Cartridges for turntables are less common, although they do need to be replaced. They’re built to last, but they won’t last indefinitely. When your wiper blade inserts stop removing rain even with new blades, you know it’s time for a new windshield wiper assembly. The parts may be unstable, noisy, or both. Cartridges for turntables operate on the same principles. In most cases, simply replacing the stylus is enough to give your recordings a new lease on life. You may need to replace the complete cartridge if you bought a used turntable and don’t know how well it was cared for or if you want to improve the sound quality of your turntable.

Music Hall H1 Carbon Fiber Vinyl Record Cleaning Brush with Anti-Static Fibers

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as of May 21, 2022 2:07 am

If the cartridge does not include a removable stylus, chances are you do not have piece of serious audio equipment. This would necessitate a complete overhaul of the unit in question. However, even the cheapest turntable models allow customers to update the cartridge and stylus, so be sure to check first.

 Tips for Installation and Care

The condition of your stylus will be preserved if you keep your vinyl records and stylus tip free of dust and fingerprints.

Gently press the record with the stylus. Dropping it can damage the needle as well as the record.

Given their short lifespans (ranging from 200 to 1,000 hours, depending on model), it’s a good idea to replace Styli as needed.

It’s a good idea to budget for a new turntable cartridge at some point in the future because they don’t last forever.

Keeping a record of how many hours the turntable has been used will assist identify when the cartridge or stylus needs to be replaced. Even though it may seem boring at first, it will save you a great deal of time and effort in the long run.

When purchasing an old turntable, always change the cartridge or stylus. Never use a needle that is too old or unfamiliar to damage your vinyl records.

Conclusion for How to Pick the Best Turntable Cartridge

The right cartridge can make the difference between the best sound and a less-than-perfect experience. In this article, we covered the basic structure of a turntable cartridge (cartridge body and stylus) and provided tips on how to pick the perfect phono cartridge for your turntable. Stay tuned as we will do a separate feature on stereo cartridges vs mono cartridges. If you have any questions, please let us know in the comments below.

FAQ

What is the ideal tracking force on a turntable?

An adequate counterweight range is usually provided by your turntable’s manufacturer for the cartridge you’ve purchased. Set the tracking force to the middle of the range and follow any special counterweight instructions. The typical range is between one and three grams.

Why Change a Turntable Cartridge or Stylus?

It is the stylus, or needle, of the turntable cartridge that wears down the most after years of use. If you have a top-of-the-line turntable, you’ll eventually need to repair these parts to keep it performing at its best. As your vinyl record collection grows, changing the stylus on a regular basis can help protect it from scratches and damage caused by needles that have been played out past their recommended lifespan. It’s also possible to upgrade your turntable’s cartridge, even if it’s in good working order. There are a lot of options, but understanding the fundamentals of turntables helps narrow the field.

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