A turntable cartridge is a device that contains the stylus and transducer, which together convert vibrations from a vinyl record into electrical signals. It is an important component of any vinyl playback system, as it plays a key role in delivering high-quality sound reproduction.
In this article, we’ll explain the basics of how a turntable cartridge works and why it is so important for vinyl playback. We’ll also discuss the different types of cartridges available, as well as some tips on how to choose the right one for your setup.
Finally, we’ll look at some of the most popular turntable cartridges currently available on the market.
Types of Turntable Cartridges
A. Moving Magnet (MM) Cartridges
Moving magnet (MM) cartridges are the most common type of cartridge used in record players today. They use a tiny permanent magnet mounted to a cantilever that moves in response to vibrations from the record grooves.
As it moves, it induces an electrical current through two coils, creating an audio signal that can be amplified by the stereo system. MM cartridges are relatively easy to set up and provide good sound quality at a reasonable price point.
B. Moving Coil (MC) Cartridges
Moving coil (MC) cartridges use a much smaller, lighter cantilever with an even tinier moving coil of wire instead of a magnet.
As the coil moves, it induces an electrical current through two fixed coils, creating a stronger audio signal than MM cartridges can generate.
This type of cartridge is more expensive and requires more precise setup, but they provide superior sound quality and are highly sought after by audiophiles.
C. Ceramic Cartridges
Ceramic cartridges use a stylus made of ceramic or sapphire that is mounted to a cantilever. As the stylus moves in response to vibrations from the record grooves, it creates a small electrical current.
This type of cartridge produces decent quality sound but is not as good as MM and MC cartridges. Ceramic cartridges are usually found in entry-level turntables and are very affordable.
Components and Functions of a Turntable Cartridge
The stylus is the small diamond-tipped needle that rests on the record’s grooves, picking up vibrations and translating them into an electrical signal.
The shape and size of a stylus can vary depending on the cartridge type and desired sound quality, with some being more suitable for scratch DJs whereas others are designed to produce a warm, audiophile-grade sound.
The cantilever is the metal arm that holds and supports the stylus in place as it moves over the record’s grooves.
Different types of cartridges use different materials for their cantilevers, such as aluminum or boron, and their flexibility and stiffness can have a direct impact on sound quality.
C. Magnets and Coils
Depending on the type of cartridge, there may be one or two sets of magnets and coils in the device.
In moving magnet (MM) cartridges, a single permanent magnet is mounted to the cantilever which then moves in response to record vibrations, inducing an electrical current through two coils.
In moving coil (MC) cartridges, a small coil of wire replaces the magnet, creating a stronger audio signal as it moves between two fixed coils.
D. Cartridge Body
The cartridge body is the outer housing that holds all other components together and connects them to the tonearm.
The body of a cartridge is typically made of plastic or metal, with higher-end models usually having a machined aluminum or brass housing for improved rigidity and sound quality.
Factors to consider when choosing a turntable cartridge
A. Compatibility with Turntable
When buying a cartridge for your turntable, be sure to check that it is compatible with the tonearm and mount type of your record player.
Many cartridges are only compatible with specific types of mounting systems, so make sure you have the right one before committing to a purchase.
The price of a cartridge can range widely depending on the type, quality, and features.
Moving magnet (MM) cartridges are usually the most affordable option, while moving coil (MC) cartridges are more expensive but offer superior sound quality.
Decide how much you’re willing to spend before shopping for a cartidge so you don’t go over your budget.
C. Sound Quality
The sound quality of a cartridge is largely determined by its stylus, cantilever, and body materials as well as the type (MM or MC).
Higher-end cartridges are usually made with stiffer and more precise components that produce better sound, while entry-level models may sacrifice sound quality for affordability.
Listen to different cartridges and compare their output before making a purchase.
D. Durability and Replaceability of Components
Cartridge components are prone to wear and tear over time, so it’s important to look for those with durable construction designed to maximize longevity.
Additionally, consider the availability of replacement parts and the ease with which you can install them should something break or wear out.
Most brands offer parts for their cartridges, but some may be easier to source than others.
Basic Care and Maintenance
A. Cleaning the Stylus
Dust, debris, and even fingerprints can cause damage to your cartridge’s stylus, so it’s important to clean it regularly.
The ideal way to do this is with a specialized carbon fiber or rubber brush for record players; simply run the brush along the stylus before and after each playback.
B. Proper Tracking Force and Alignment
Setting the tracking force (the amount of downward pressure applied to the stylus) too high or low can cause premature wear on your cartridge’s components, so it should be adjusted according to manufacturer specifications.
Additionally, make sure the tonearm is properly aligned with the record groove using a specialized protractor tool.
C. When to Replace the Stylus
Depending on its quality and how often it’s used, you may need to replace your stylus anywhere from every 100 to 1000 hours of playback.
Signs that it’s time for a replacement include poor sound quality, skipping grooves, and an excessive buildup of dust or debris. If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s best to replace your stylus as soon as possible.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Is it better to choose a Moving Magnet or Moving Coil cartridge?
Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) cartridges both offer different sound qualities, so it depends on your preference which one you choose. MM cartridges are typically more affordable and easier to install, while MC cartridges offer better sound quality due to their improved components.
Can I upgrade my turntable cartridge or should I purchase a new turntable altogether?
You can upgrade your cartridge by replacing its stylus, cantilever, and body components; however, if you want to upgrade your turntable entirely you may need to purchase a new one.
How often should I replace the stylus?
Depending on its quality and the frequency of use, you should replace your stylus anywhere from every 100 to 1000 hours of playback. Signs that it’s time for a replacement include poor sound quality, skipping grooves, and an excessive buildup of dust or debris.
How do I know if my cartridge is properly aligned?
You can use a specialized protractor tool to check the alignment between your tonearm and record groove. Generally, you should aim for ideal settings as specified by the cartridge manufacturer.
What is the difference between a cartridge and a stylus, and can I replace them separately?
A cartridge is made up of several components, including the stylus, cantilever, and body. The stylus is the needle that sits at the end of the cartridge and is responsible for picking up sound from the record grooves; it can be replaced separately from the other components.
The right turntable cartridge can make a big difference to your listening experience, so it’s important to do your research and find one that suits your needs and preferences. With proper care and maintenance, you can ensure your cartridge will last for years to come.
Whether you’re making the switch from digital music or just want to upgrade your current setup, you can’t go wrong with investing in a quality turntable cartridge.