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Turntable Cartridges: What Are They, and Which One Should I Use

Understanding The Key Components Of Your Turntable

If you love listening to records, you have probably found yourself wondering about the inner workings of your turntable from time to time. As you put a record on to enjoy, you might look at your turntable and marvel at its intricacies and the ingenious technology that allows you to listen to and appreciate vinyl.

Whether you are just getting started with collecting records or are a longtime audiophile with hundreds of vinyls lining your shelves, it is worth taking the time to learn about how your turntable works. Your turntable is the centerpiece of your record-playing setup, and understanding how it plays records can give you a greater appreciation for the vinyl collecting and listening experience.

No matter what your experience level is with record collecting and listening to vinyl, you can definitely enrich your listening experience by taking a deep dive into the inner workings of your turntable. When you first start exploring the mechanics that make your record player work, it is easy to be overwhelmed. There is a lot to learn, but the more that you learn about the components in your record player, the more you can personalize and improve your listening experience.

This post serves as a guide to the key parts in your record player. We’ll specifically be focusing on your turntable’s cartridge – what it is, how it works, and how to tell whether you have a good one. The cartridge is one the most important parts of your turntable. A good one can maximize the enjoyability of your record-listening experience. However, a subpar turntable cartridge can take a major toll on the quality of sound produced by your turntable. 

When you want to get the most out of your record player and get the best possible sound quality, a good cartridge can make a big difference. Whether you are familiar with turntable parts or just getting started with your record collecting journey, keep reading. You’ll get some valuable information about how to get the best sound out of your records. 

Not all record players are created equal, and neither are all turntable cartridges. Knowing the quality of your gear and how it works can make your record collecting journey much more enjoyable, and can take your setup to the next level.

How Your Turntable Makes Sound 

The modern record player is the grandchild of a piece of early sound recording and playback technology called the phonograph. The phonograph was invented by none other than Thomas Edison. Edison designed the phonograph to physically inscribe recorded sound to foil-coated cylinders using a hand-powered mechanism. A phonograph user would record sound by turning a crank to rotate the cylinder. The phonograph’s needle would then etch sound waves into the cylinder as a receiver picked up sound. 

Unlike the modern turntable, the phonograph was designed for both recording sound and playing it back. After the phonograph was used to record sound, it could also be used to play back the sound waves inscribed in one of the phonograph’s foil-coated cylinders.

The phonograph was later made obsolete by Emile Berliner’s invention of the gramophone. Berliner’s gramophone came about a decade after Edison’s phonograph, with Berliner refining Edison’s initial design and making it more suitable for in-home use. The gramophone was much closer to the modern record player than the phonograph. Instead of using cylinders to record and play sound, the gramophone relied on hard discs for playing sound and was not used to make recordings. 

Building on the groundwork laid by the phonograph and gramophone, the turntable plays sound by reading the grooves etched into a vinyl record and converting them into an electrical signal. This signal can then be amplified using a built-in speaker or external amplification system. 

The Needle 

Like the gramophone and phonograph before it, your turntable uses a needle to read the recordings that have been etched into a vinyl record. Your record player’s needle is made from a piece of unrefined diamond. This material is hard enough to pick up vibrations from a spinning record and transfer them to the cartridge, which converts the vibrations into electrical signals to produce sound.

The Cartridge

The vibrations picked up by your record player’s needle from a spinning vinyl need to be converted into electrical signals in order for a record to produce audible sound. This is where your turntable’s cartridge comes in. 

The cartridge on your record player is directly attached to the needle, also known as the stylus. The stylus sits inside the cartridge, held up by a rubber suspension. The suspension allows the stylus to pick up vibrations from a record. Without the rubber suspension, the stylus would not be able to move up and down and accurately read the grooves of a spinning record.

Inside the cartridge is a tiny magnet. This magnet creates a current that then passes to your amplification system. The signal generated by the magnetic field in your cartridge is too quiet to hear, making it necessary for your record-playing setup to include some form of amplification, whether it be built-in or external. 

Amplification 

Some turntables include built-in amplification in the form of an internal preamp and speakers. These turntables are typically more recently made, built and priced for entry-level record listening. The sound quality from a built-in preamp and speaker is usually inferior to what you would get from an external sound system. If you are planning on going all-in with your turntable and audio setup, it is always a good choice to invest in external speakers.

Some turntables have a built-in preamp, but do not include internal speakers. This means your turntable still needs external speakers to produce sound, but not an external preamp. Other turntables have no built-in preamp, making it necessary to add an external one to your record-playing setup. In addition, some external speakers have built-in preamps – these are called active speakers. 

Given the numerous different possible ways to get sound from your turntable, it’s important to determine what equipment you need to complete your setup. If your turntable includes a built-in preamp and speakers, it can stand alone without any extra equipment and produce sound, although it may not give you the highest-quality listening experience. If your turntable includes a built-in preamp, it can be paired with passive speakers. 

If it has no preamp, you will either need to pair your record player with active speakers or passive speakers and an external preamp. Each of these configurations has different pros and cons, and many audiophiles swear by each of them. Most serious record collectors do, however, opt for a setup that includes external speakers, whether they be passive or active.

Which Cartridge Should You Use For Your Turntable? 

There are few different specifications to consider when you are trying to get the best possible cartridge for your turntable. The quality of your cartridge can affect your listening experience in the same way the quality of your speakers and preamp can make or break the way a record sounds on your turntable. This makes finding and using a great cartridge well worth the investment.

Your turntable’s stylus, the needle that reads the grooves in a record, is attached to the cartridge. There are two shapes of styli that are the most commonly found in turntable cartridges – conical and elliptical. A conical stylus can read the grooves in a record more precisely. The more precise your needle is, the better sound quality you will get. This means a cartridge with a conical stylus is the best possible option for your turntable.

One of the best cartridges on the market is the Audio-Technica AT91B. This cartridge is equipped with a conical stylus, making it a cut above many others and increasing its capability to accurately read the grooves in a record. Conical styli like the one on the AT91B have a narrower radius, meaning they cover a smaller amount of the surface of a record at a time. A narrower radius means a more accurate replication of the sound waves etched into a record, leading to better sound quality.

The AT91B includes a cantilever made of aluminum. The cantilever is the mechanism that attaches the stylus to the rest of the cartridge. Aluminum is an exceptionally light metal, making it the perfect choice for a cantilever material. A cantilever needs to be made of a lightweight metal so that it can transfer the vibrations picked up by the stylus to the magnet in the cartridge, which then converts them into sound waves.

Investing in a high-quality cartridge like the AT91B is one of the simplest and most practical ways to give your turntable a level-up. When you want to get the best sound quality possible out of your turntable, a good cartridge is a must. Your listening experience can also be improved by investing in high-quality speakers, a preamp and, of course, a well-made turntable.


Sources:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/jpms.12247

https://www.techradar.com/news/the-history-of-the-turntable-how-vinyl-survived-the-cd-ipod-and-spotify

https://www.londonsoundacademy.com/blog/how-does-vinyl-work

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