Phono Cartridge: What To Know About Turntable Cartridges
Record players are easy to use. However, if you want to become an expert at getting the best sound out of your turntable, it will require a little bit of mechanical know-how.
There are a lot of moving parts on a record player, but each one serves a specific purpose. Knowing how these parts work can help create the best sound setup for your records.
This blog post will talk about the moving part that actually creates the sound–the turntable cartridge. We’ll help you understand what it is, what it’s made of, and how it impacts the sound of your vinyl records so you can get the best out of your turntable.
What Is a Turntable Cartridge?
Turntable cartridges, also called magnetic cartridges, moving coil cartridges, or phono cartridges, are electro-mechanical devices that turn the grooves in a record into musical signals. They’re attached to the tonearm, the mechanical arm that raises and lowers over your record.
Turntable cartridges are small, usually only a couple of inches long at most. They can be made of a variety of materials. The key components that you’ll find in every phono cartridge are a small magnet, a diamond-tipped needle, and wire coils.
The rest of the materials in a turntable cartridge depend on the user’s preference and budget. Inexpensive cartridges are made of plastic or particle wood. High-end cartridges are made of different types of hardwood and can even contain semi-precious materials like jade or marble.
What Do Turntable Cartridges Do?
A turntable cartridge hangs over the record at a precise angle so that the needle sits in the grooves of your record while it spins. As the needle runs over the groove, it picks up the texture variations and turns them into vibrations.
Those vibrations are transmitted through the cartridge into wires that run down the tonearm and into the preamp or amplifier. The amplifier increases the sound signals before they go to the speakers, which is where the sweet sounds of your favorite record come from.
In more technical terms, turntable cartridges are a type of transducer that turns mechanical motion into an electrical signal that produces sound.
No matter how you describe how a turntable cartridge works, they’re sensitive to vibrations. For this reason, it’s important to set your record player up in a good spot and set up your angles carefully. If you’re not sure how to do that, we have a handy guide here.
Is Turntable Cartridge Quality Important?
The quality of your phono cartridge is very important, especially if you want to get serious about your vinyl sound system. The better your cartridge, the better the transmissions of your sounds. It’s important to get the best quality cartridge you can and make sure it’s set up well.
Additionally, the type of music you listen to can make a big difference in the type of cartridge you select. Some cartridges are built specifically to maximize the sound of certain genres of music.
For example, cartridges that are popular with hip-hop DJs and aficionados have needles built for scratching. In contrast, cartridges for long classical symphonies have a wider stylus that minimizes wear on the record.
What Are the Types of Turntable Cartridge?
There are two types of turntable cartridges, defined by how they function mechanically. A moving magnet cartridge has coils that stay still while the magnet moves. As you’d expect, a moving coil cartridge does the opposite–the coils move while the magnet stays still.
Moving coil cartridges are much lighter because the mechanism that moves coils is much lighter than the one that moves magnets. Moving coil cartridges operate with more precision because of this lightness and, as a result, are usually more expensive.
Turntable cartridges also have different models based on the way they are built. Some turntable cartridges have a headshell, a protective cover that attaches to the record player’s tonearm. The headshell screws onto the tonearm with two screws a half an inch apart, which is where half-inch cartridges get their name.
There are also P-mount cartridges that clip onto the tonearm or attach another way. They have no screws and no headshell, so they’re easier to install.
However, like most record player parts, an easier install rarely means that the sound quality is better. Most listeners who want a better sound spring for more expensive, more difficult parts.
What Are the Parts of a Turntable Cartridge?
A turntable cartridge is one of the more complex parts of a record player, mostly because it’s made up of a lot of smaller parts. Here’s a quick list so that you know your way around.
- The headshell is a protective cage a few inches long that attaches to the tonearm with a pair of screws half an inch apart.
- The coils are wire coils set in the back of the cartridge. They pick up vibrations from the magnet and transmit them into the wires that travel down the tonearm to the amplifier and speakers. Each set of coils is a separate audio output, so for a stereo sound, you need a cartridge with double coils.
- The magnet transmits the vibrations from the record grooves to the wires. In a moving magnet cartridge, the magnet bounces at the end of the cantilever. In a moving coil cartridge, the coils move to meet the magnet instead.
- The cantilever is a light, stiff rod that holds the stylus at one end and the magnet at the other. The cantilever absorbs the excess motion and vibration from the record player, so it is made from a stiff light material, usually aluminum, carbon, or boron
- The stylus is a tiny needle that makes contact with the surface of the record, tracking the variations in the grooves. It then sends that signal up through the cantilever, into the magnet, then on to the coils and speakers.
- There are a lot of variations in stylii. While most of them are tipped with tiny chips of diamond, some of them have tips made of other precious stones like emerald or sapphire.
- The size of the stylus is also important. Narrower styluses are better at picking up small variations in record grooves, which produces a better, more nuanced sound. Styli can be conical or elliptical — each has its own benefits and drawbacks.
What Do You Need To Know About Turntable Cartridges?
Turntable cartridges are a small part of a record player, but they have a big impact. The type of cartridge you choose can change the sound of your records or improve it. While all of the moving parts may seem daunting, knowing what the specs mean can help you make the best choice to get the best out of your record collection.
To find some records that match your newfound technical knowledge, check out the Sound of Vinyl shop.