Turntable Cartridges: Everything You Should Know About Them
When it comes to the sound quality that you get from your record player, every part of your audio setup can make a difference. The preamp you use, your monitors, the placement of your tonearm, and even the tiniest parts of your record player can all dramatically affect how your records sound – for better or for worse.
In this post, we’ll be talking about one of those tiny components of your turntable, arguably the one that has the most significant impact on your listening experience. Today, we’re talking about the cartridge.
What Is a Turntable Cartridge?
Your turntable’s cartridge is a small but intricate piece of technology that serves multiple purposes. Here’s everything your cartridge does as a record spins on your turntable.
The Cartridge Houses the Stylus (Needle)
Your record player’s stylus is a tiny piece of an unrefined diamond, and it’s the only part of the turntable that comes into direct contact with the upward-facing side of an album as it spins. The stylus, often referred to as the needle, rides in the grooves of a record, picking up vibrations at frequencies that, when amplified, make an audible piece of recorded music.
The Cartridge Stabilizes the Stylus
Without a high-quality cartridge, your turntable’s stylus is likely to produce unreliable, distorted, noisy sound. That’s because the cartridge provides the stylus with stability as it rides in the grooves of a record. The stylus is held up within the cartridge by a rubber suspension mechanism, which makes it flexible but stops it from wobbling.
The more your stylus wobbles as it reads the data etched into the surface of a record, the more noise will get into your signal and lower your sound quality. This noise is produced as the stylus wobbles, and it’s the equivalent of the loud hum your car makes when you hit the rumble strip on the highway. A smooth ride for the stylus always means a better listening experience.
The Cartridge Creates an Electrical Signal
The vibrations that are picked up by the stylus are practically inaudible without help from your cartridge. The cartridge takes those vibrations and sends them to your preamp with the help of a magnet. This magnet is part of a mechanism that generates an electrical current, which can then be amplified after traveling up your turntable’s tonearm.
What’s in a Turntable Cartridge?
A typical turntable cartridge is made up of five key components. They are:
Are All Turntable Cartridges Basically the Same?
It’s easy to wonder if all of the talk about this tiny piece of turntable equipment exaggerates how important your cartridge is. However, don’t let the humble size of your cartridge fool you – it really does have a giant impact on sound quality. Not all cartridges are the same, and you definitely won’t regret investing in a good one if you’re after high-quality sound.
Low-Quality Cartridges Will Get You Bad Sound
In most cases, entry-level turntables come equipped with subpar cartridges that aren’t good for your records in the long run. These cartridges tend to have styli that can’t pick up the full range of audio frequencies, which is a big issue when you’re aiming for superior sound quality.
Some Cartridges Differ in Stylus Shape
There are two standard shapes for the styli in turntable cartridges, and one tends to offer better sound than the other. Conical styli have a more rounded shape, which means there’s a larger surface area coming into contact with a record at any given time. A wider surface area means you might not get as precise of a representation of the albums you’re listening to, but the difference can be hard to discern.
One example of a cartridge with conical styli is the Audio-Technica AT91B. This cartridge comes on the majority of Audio-Technica’s entry-level turntables by default, and it’s an excellent choice for beginners. However, if your budget is bigger, we recommend picking a cartridge with an elliptical stylus.
Elliptical styli come into contact with a smaller amount of surface area at a time, which means they’re picking up a more precise range of frequencies as a record spins. However, these styli tend to be more expensive, with their price range being somewhat prohibitive for record collectors who are on a tight budget.
The Cantilever Matters, Too
The cantilever is the component in the cartridge that transfers vibrations from the stylus to the magnet and coil, generating an electrical current. This piece of the cartridge should be made from lightweight materials like aluminum or copper. Aluminum alloy is the industry standard for cantilevers, but cartridges with these cantilevers tend to be more expensive.
What Other Turntable Parts Affect Sound Quality?
When you’re trying to build your dream audio setup, there are plenty of other moving parts to consider besides your cartridge. All of the following components in your hi-fi rig can have a major impact on sound quality, and they’re worth investing in if you have a flexible budget.
The preamp is the component in your signal chain that takes the signal picked up by the cartridge and makes it audible. Without a preamp, you wouldn’t be able to hear the sound generated by a spinning record, even if your turntable was hooked up to a pair of passive speakers.
A preamp can be in one of three places in your audio setup: built into your turntable, rigged up externally between your turntable and your speakers, or built into a pair of active speakers.
There isn’t any inherently superior place for your cartridge to be set up – it’s up to you to decide which configuration you like best. However, some audiophiles swear by using an external preamp – one that isn’t built into the record player or speakers – to add to the modular nature of an audio setup.
Turntable speakers can significantly impact the sound quality that you get from your records, and there are plenty of ways that you can get the best possible sound from yours. Some of the best ways to optimize your speakers are:
The way your tonearm is configured can also profoundly affect the sound quality that you get from your favorite albums. If you’re not sure how to balance a tonearm, you can refer to our quick and simple guide, which you’ll find right here.
Your turntable cartridge can have a major impact on how good your records sound – but so can plenty of other components in your audio setup. If your goal is to get the best possible sound quality, it might mean investing in some new gear. However, there’s nothing wrong with starting small and upgrading later. What matters most is that you’re enjoying the record-collecting journey and loving the way your albums sound.
To learn more about turntables and their fascinating parts, make sure to visit The Sound of Vinyl blog.