A turntable cartridge, aka phono cartridge, is one of the more fascinating elements in the equation of hi-fi analog reproduction via a record player. In principle, one can liken it to a microphone.

Both respond to airborne sound waves and convert them to a delicate, low-level electrical signal that can then be preamplified into something usable (or listenable!). As we know from tapping on the turntable plinth or even by strolling across the room while a record is playing, the cartridge responds to vibration and resonance.

To perpetuate the analogy to a microphone, the signal generated by a cartridge is something similar – it requires special handling (a dedicated preamp) before being sent off to the amplifier.

Turntable Cartridges vs Phono Cartridges

As with previous discussions, let’s begin by clearing the air regarding terminology. ‘Phono cartridge’ is the most widely used term in our industry, but folks refer to them also like the following: phonograph cartridge, turntable cartridge, phono pick-up, stereo cartridge, and more.

This terminology refers to the piece that is mounted to the tonearm headshell, most often secured by two screws and attached to four wires exiting the playing-end of the tonearm). Here’s where it’s easy to get tripped up; the stylus is not the same thing as the cartridge, rather, it’s an essential part of the cartridge.

Technically speaking, ‘stylus’ refers only to the actual diamond that tracks the record grooves. Practically speaking, folks refer to the stylus assembly as just the stylus.

In the case of replaceable styli, the stylus assembly is the actual diamond stylus (or stylus tip), the cantilever (the metal rod that carries the diamond), the magnet at the other end of the cantilever, as well as the housing for all of this that allows you to slide or snap the stylus assembly into a turntable cartridge. A magnet then interacts with coils to generate an electrical signal.

Casual listeners or folks new to the hobby often refer to the cartridge as the stylus and vice versa. This isn’t inherently wrong though perhaps incomplete. In this hobby, we use the most descriptive terms we can muster, and this varies from listener to listener. However, it is an important point of clarification if you’re shopping for a replacement stylus or a new cartridge.

Types of Turntable Cartridges

Next, let’s cover what sort of cartridges you may stumble into on the market. At the top of the list, you’ll find things that perhaps are a bit more obscure. Toward the bottom, we’ll get to the meat & potatoes of what’s most relevant to us as hi-fi enthusiasts.

types of turntable cartridges

Ceramic cartridges

Ceramic cartridges are either vintage pick-ups typically found on very old machines or new all-in-one tabletop players. This technology predates the current landscape of cartridges. There is no doubt that the newer technology is capable of ‘better’ sonic performance and is more forgiving on the vinyl record.


Single-screw mount

Single-screw mount cartridges are usually proprietary or vintage, these are not user-replaceable without expertise. It usually means a single screw enters through the top of the headshell and threads into the top of the cartridge.


P-Mount cartridge

These were immensely popular in the 80s due to their ease of use and are really only relevant today for folks who have a turntable from that era. ‘P’ stands for ‘plug,’ as in ‘plug-mount’ cartridge, and it connects directly to a p-mount-compatible tonearm. This eliminates the need for the user to bother with the cartridge setup. Alignment is not adjustable nor is the tracking force (usually).

There are no vertical screws nor wires to futz with (often there is a horizontal screw that enters through the side – it’s not needed but is used to lock p-mount cartridges to the arm more firmly). You simply plug the cartridge in and away you go. You may also stumble into a thing called a ‘standard-mount adapter.’ This is a jig into which you plug a p-mount cartridge that can then be mounted to a standard-mount headshell.


Mono cartridge

There is a subset of listeners out there who are mono devotees, thus this type of cartridge is still being made. The best variant on the market is a ‘true mono’ cartridge or one that’s designed specifically and wired internally for mono (one channel of musical information as opposed to stereo’s left + right channels). Albums recorded in mono benefit greatly from this type of turntable cartridge, and the listening experience is quite a different one but no less engaging. Re-releases in mono are also a popular thing these days. The other, more affordable, and common type of mono cartridge is one whose output pins are bridged for mono. This is a happy middle ground between true mono and using a stereo cartridge to play mono records, which is also common among folks who prevailingly listen in stereo but have a few mono records they like spin from time to time. Keep in mind 78 RPM records are mono, but are comprised of different materials and have different groove sizes thus requiring a 78 RPM replacement stylus made specifically for that purpose. Note that some turntables require a 78 RPM pulley. There are plenty of stereo cartridges on the market these days that offer a 78 stylus as an aftermarket add-on, so keep an eye out for those too.

DJ cartridge

This can mean several things, but this sort of cartridge usually offers high-than-usual output, a conical (spherical or ball-shaped) stylus, and a rugged cantilever assembly that can accommodate high tracking force values. The output delivers robust, immediate-seeming sonics meant to keep you thumping at the club. Higher levels of sheer volume are within reach. Due to its shape, a conical stylus allows for bi-directional motion in the groove, meaning it’s appropriate for DJs who want to scratch and/or back-cue. DJ cartridges most always either come in standard ½” mount (more on that shortly) or in what’s known as “Concorde” style, which is a cartridge and headshell integrated into one piece that can be plugged directly into a tonearm with what’s known as “bayonet” style compatibility (often these are S-shaped tonearms). There are certainly DJ cartridges that use an elliptical stylus and even some moving coils that are heralded among DJs. As always, there are exceptions to the basic principles – to each DJ their own!


Moving-iron cartridge

A less common design principle but functionally similar to moving magnet. Internally it uses magnetic alloys near a fixed magnet, the assembly of which interacts with electrical coils that generate the signal.


Standard-mount cartridge

By leaps and bounds, this is the most common mounting style among turntable cartridges. It involves two vertical screws spaced ½” apart from that either thread directly into ‘wings’ with threaded screw holes (optimal), or into nuts that you leverage from underneath the screw holes (a little trickier). Four wires exiting the playing-end of the tonearm are attached to standard-mount cartridges (red/green = right channel hot/ right channel ground, white/blue = left hot/left ground).  Most often a standard mount cartridge is mounted to a headshell that has slots that allow, nay, encourage you to move your cartridge and secure it to its optimal position in the tonearm’s arc. In part, this is subjective as several prevailing geometries are widely used, but each was established long ago by experts and is agreed upon as best for both sound quality as well as wear & tear to the stylus & record. A cartridge alignment protractor helps you to achieve these geometries. If a protractor did not come with your turntable, there are many available from entry-level to high-end.


Moving-magnet cartridge

This is a design principle and the nomenclature is quite literal. The magnet’s motion propels the electrical signal that’s sent down the armtube. The basic anatomy is this: stylus bonded to cantilever (playing end)  >  magnet attached to cantilever (opposite end, inside the cartridge)  >  magnet motion directed by the stylus in groove  >  magnetic field interacts with nearby fixed electrical coils  >  electrical signal passively generated by coil windings. A moving magnet cartridge almost always has a user-replaceable stylus – an advantage to the design principle.

Moving-coil cartridge

Again the nomenclature is literal. Here it’s the motion of the electrical coils that generate the signal. A similar walkthrough: stylus bonded to cantilever (playing end)  >  coils attached to cantilever (opposite end, inside the cartridge)  >  coil motion directed by the stylus in groove  >  coils interact with nearby fixed magnet  >  electrical signal passively generated by coil windings. For practical purposes, MC cartridges do not offer user-replaceable styli.


High-output moving coil cartridge

This sort of turntable cartridge delivers the flavor of an MC with the functionality of an MM. Their output is usually in the neighborhood or 2.5mV, meaning you can use them with most MM phono preamps (they’re also designed for an electrical load that mirrors MMs). For reference, MMs tend to output around 4mV (give or take) and load at 47k ohms as standard.


Low-output moving-coil cartridge

The usual choice for the discerning audiophile, low output MC cartridges deliver the lowest possible moving mass, which in turn yields the highest possible fidelity of the stylus in the groove. Such cartridges usually hover in the neighborhood of 0.5mV and require different electrical parameters on the phono preamp (gain & loading) than MMs. Sonically as well as on paper, MC cartridges are capable of the ‘best’ performance because the design yields the most direct & accurate translation of the stylus’ motion.

They tend to be most ‘convincing,’ conveying not only the music itself but the nuances around it – ‘air’ around instruments, approach & decay, textural subtleties, and so on. It’s about musical information, and an MC cartridge can bring it. Let it also be known that because this design has the highest threshold for performance, manufacturers tend to invest more in their materials. Using more pure and rigid metals, better magnets, and sleeker diamond profiles can facilitate high-end analog reproduction via better specification (frequency response, channel separation, internal impedance, etc.) which of course is part of what you end up hearing.

There’s So Much to Learn About Turntable Cartridges

We’ve only scratched the surface of some pretty big topics here. Stylus profiles, cartridge alignment, MM & MC design pros & cons – a few things we’ll be coming back to. In the meantime, we hope you’ve gathered some new and useful information today. Remember that priority #1 is your enjoyment.

Looking at Pro-Ject turntables, you’ll find some models outfitted with Sumiko phono cartridges while others have an Ortofon 2M Red. With copious testing, we’ve found that these cartridges and styli are most compatible with our tables.

Feel free to contact us for tips pairing your table with the perfect stylus!