Vinyl 101: The Ideal Turntable Cartridge

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!


parts of a record player debut carbon evo

Vinyl 101: Parts of a Record Player

In the beginning, there was the phonograph, then came the turntable, today there is the record player. The main difference among these terms is who happens to be uttering the words. ‘Phonograph’ is the oldest term for this analog instrument, dating back to the mid-1800s when the concept of a stylus responsive to vibration was first being explored. Back then, the parts of a record player were different.

On a victrola, a horn was fixed near a vibrating stylus that amplified the noise with simple acoustics - like a horn to your ear as a hearing aid. Remember that even today, putting your ear near a record while a stylus is tracking reveals that it’s transcribing what’s in the record groove acoustically (in addition to electrically).

‘Phonograph’ remained the mainstay until ‘turntable’ entered the picture. This was somewhere near the time when folks started building component systems as the industry learned that there was much more to explore in the way of sound quality. The nature of the audio system changed when the principle of amplification moved from acoustic to electrical.

Enter audio receivers (amplifiers & preamplifiers with tuners & built-in phono preamps), loudspeakers, audio signal-carrying RCA cables & speaker wire as well as a slew of options among phono cartridges and styli. Here we also entered the era of the vinyl ‘Microgroove’ record as the audio community had begun to move away from shellac-coated 78rpm discs – the beginning of the audiophile era as we know it. As it remains today, ‘turntable’ was a way to describe the record-playing portion of a Hi-Fi component system.

The latest and current generation of vinyl record enthusiasts understands the term ‘record player.’ Acknowledging that this dates yours truly, more than once I’ve been met with a blank stare in response to using the word ‘turntable,’ followed by the quiet inquiry, “…you mean record player?”  To this day, ‘phonograph,’ ‘turntable,’ and ‘record player’ are all active terms and we’re all speaking the same language (at least generally). No one’s right and no one’s wrong here. I say ‘turntable’ because that is the generation from whence I came.

I digress… we are, after all, here to discuss the basics of the modern turntable. I find it helpful to start from the ground up…

Parts of a Record Player: Isolation Feet

…so let’s begin with isolation feet. It’s hugely important to understand that the impact of vibration & resonance on your turntable goes well beyond the skipping of the stylus in the groove. As an example, when you play your music, your speakers resonate everywhere (including on the floor and up the walls!). The more effectively you can separate your turntable from any and all external low-frequency vibration & resonance, the better it will sound. The feet that support the turntable are therefore significant, particularly for folks who don’t want to bother with the likes of fancy audiophile racks, platforms, and so on.

A good isolation foot usually implements some sort of spring and/or damping material (such as TPE and various types of rubber). Such a foot is good at absorbing resonance coming up from under the turntable. Another tried & true foot is the classic conical one, known in the plural as spike feet. These minimize the contact surface between your record player and the surface on which it rests, disallowing a good amount of vibration & resonance to travel upward. There are many combinations of these designs as well as plenty more ‘sophisticated’ approaches out there. Try upping your isolation for better sound. You’ll hear it in varying degrees in your playback’s clarity, spatial awareness, and low-level detail.

Parts of a Record Player: Plinth

The feet support the plinth, otherwise referred to as the turntable base or platform. Mass & solidity are paramount here. A hollow hunk of plastic serving as a plinth will resonate internally, regardless of how well you isolate the turntable. A plinth that’s optimized to give you the best sound will typically be solid (not hollow or minimally hollow) and will be made of something resonance-absorbing, resonance-dispersing, or some combination of the two.

MDF and other off-shoots of wood are typically good and keep production costs low. As plinth isolation gets more involved, many turntable makers aim to disperse and/or eliminate unwanted resonance a) through uniquely shaped plinths and/or b) by eliminating as much of the plinth as possible. Many audiophile turntables on the market lack a conventional chassis for this reason. Where there is a plinth, keep in mind that resonance not inherently bad. Some materials and combinations of materials are used specifically because of the way they resonate (their resonant frequency). The idea, though, is that resonance is controlled and deliberate.

Parts of a Record Player: Drive System

Next, we move to what’s usually mounted to the plinth: the direct drive system. The conversation regarding belt vs. direct drive is a big one that we will save for another day, but suffice it to say that a direct drive turntable uses a motor that drives the turntable platter directly, i.e., the motor & platter are coupled. We will focus today on the belt-drive system, which is widely agreed to be capable of better sonic performance (again, there are no absolutes – there are damn good direct drives out there).

There are a couple of reasons the belt drive system is most common these days: a) in the consumer range, it keeps costs down and b) in the vinyl aficionado range, it de-couples the motor from the record platter. The belt (usually some sort of rubber) is what drives the platter, so motor noise and/or resonance are isolated from the record-playing surface, amounting to a lower noise floor which in turn makes musical information more available to your ears. Stand-alone motors that are entirely decoupled from the plinth are more effective still.

The quality of the power supply, motor, and motor mounting is also very important. Shortcuts in the development and production of these parts amount to noisier motors that vibrate more, and with lower speed tolerances. Your turntable cartridge, cantilever (the metal rod that houses the diamond), and stylus (some folks say ‘turntable needle’) are highly sensitive and will only amplify unwanted noise.

Parts of a Record Player: Platter

Now we move on to the platter – that which rotates atop the drive system. Principles here are similar to that of the plinth. High mass is a good thing (less prone to being affected) and selected materials should be anti-resonant. You’ll find plenty of low mass aluminum platters on the market. When you get a chance, remove a similar platter and give it a rap or two. You’ll hear it ringing, which is far less than ideal if sound quality is your priority. Steel is better because it’s less resonant and more massive, acrylic is acoustically dead.

More advanced platters use various coatings and/or ‘sandwich’ designs that combine materials to affect resonance. The sky is the limit.

Turntable Mats and Slipmats

The turntable mat is of course the last line of defense in terms of isolating your cartridge & stylus from external unwanted vibration & resonance. As with the above, everything under the sun has been at least tried as a record mat. Some mats are meant to couple the record to the platter (to simulate the resonance properties of the platter and/or record itself), or to de-couple (to add another resonance barrier). Since it's in direct contact with your records, which in turn makes contact with your stylus, the record mat can make audible differences in playback.

For the record (no pun intended… seriously), most stocks felt mats are OEM, and their main function is to protect your vinyl from the hard surface underneath. Their greatest value is in peace of mind. They do little in the way of promoting sound quality. Cork turntable mats or rubber slipmats do the most when it comes to dampening.

The Tonearm is Essential

Needless to say, as the carrier of the phono cartridge, the tonearm is instrumental in getting the most from your system. There should be no ‘play’ in the tonearm bearing, meaning basically that tube should not wobble in any direction. Here again, plastic is no good. It resonates and is not rigid. Rigidity in the tonearm structure allows your cartridge to do its best work, unimpeded by vibration & resonance that negatively color the sound. Aluminum & carbon fiber are commonly used materials that are light, rigid, and anti-resonant. Basic elements for pivoted tonearms (most common) are the headshell, armtube, bearing & counterweight.

The headshell (sometimes user-replaceable) is the end-portion of the tonearm to which you mount the cartridge. We recommend a carbon fiber headshell.

The armtube is the prevailing length of the tonearm, longer in curved tonearms. As a general rule, a longer tonearm allows for less ‘error’ in the tonearm’s arc across the disc, yielding cartridge alignment geometry that’s closer to optimal.

The bearing structure is at the pivot point. Its job is to provide secure and fluid lateral movement of the arm. The counterweight is used to balance the cartridge and at an optimal value so that the right amount of VTF (vertical tracking force) is applied to the stylus in the groove. The anti-skate mechanism can take one of several forms, but its task is to offset the inward-directed momentum of the tonearm so that the only force applied to the stylus is vertical force (so that the stylus retrieves information equally from each lateral groove wall).

Phono Cartridges AKA Record Player Needles

sumiko phono cartridge pro-ject turntable

The cartridge and stylus are a larger conversation that we will discuss down the road, but let’s briefly go over the basics. Put simply, the stylus (the actual diamond) is responsible for responding to the contours of the record grove. At the opposite end of the cantilever (a metal rod with diamond bonded to it) are magnets and coils that generate an electrical signal based on the motion of the stylus. This principle is known as electromotive force (energy created by motion).

The signal is passively sent to the cartridge output pins to which the tonearm lead wires are connected. The tonearm lead wires carry the signal through the arm, out the turntable jacks (usually RCA), and over to the phono preamp. Moving magnet & moving coil are the two main types of phono cartridge. If a cartridge has a replacement stylus that you can swap out yourself, you can usually infer it’s a moving magnet. If the stylus is not user-replaceable, it’s a moving coil in most cases.

Keep Dust Away With a Dust Cover

Last, atop the whole machine, you’ll usually find the dust cover (some record players don’t accommodate a proper cover). Its main utility is just as its name suggests; it’s a cover that protects your gear from dust. Of course, one should use it for its practical function and/or maybe aesthetics, but it’s best to remove it or to leave it open (if hinged) while listening. The dust cover is a known resonator – it creates a cavern over your turntable, like listening to your vinyl collection inside a cave.

Feeling Like an Expert?

We hope you’ve enjoyed our overview of record player parts & principles. Indeed your CD player or MP3 player might offer a bit more convenience, but we love the notion that listening to vinyl forces you to engage more with an album proper. Truly it’s a different listening experience entirely. Turntable parts can be a lot to consider, and as always, we advise you to engage with your collection to the extent that’s best for you as the listener. The main priority is that you’re having fun. Some folks will dive in deep and make a hobby of it (or even a profession!), others will spin records from their kitchen countertop while washing dishes. What matters is that it brings you joy.

 

Happy listening!


phono preamp

What is a Phono Preamp? Boosting Your Record Player

Before we get into what is a phono preamp doing for your listening experience, let's clear the murky waters regarding terminology.

"Phono preamp" tends to be the most commonly used term, but you may also have heard the terms phono stage (or phonostage), phono preamplifier, phono section, and/or phono equalizer (among others still!).

For practical purposes, it's important to understand that these terms refer to the same thing: a pre-amplification circuit that deals specifically in the delicate phono signal generated by a phono cartridge.

Therefore it can be said that any turntable - from the most affordable to the most expensive on the market - requires a phono preamp at some point between the tonearm output and any line-level input on the main amplification section of your sound system (this could be the receiver, integrated amp, line preamp - whatever it is that you play your music though!)

What Does a Preamp Do For Your Turntable?

The phono preamp has 2 main functions imperative to the proper handling of the phono signal:

A: The preamp amplifies the phono signal by applying gain (dB).

B: Your phono preamp can equalize the signal based on a standard most widely agreed upon for vinyl playback since the 1950s (the RIAA equalization curve).

Essentially it preps the signal for the amplification stage so that it can be handled similarly to other sources such as CD players, DACs, and streaming via your phone, tablet, or computer. Since the signal generated by a phono cartridge is extremely low-level, it requires a huge boost in gain to mirror that of other sources.

Due to the way records are cut and the phono signal's delicate nature, simply applying gain is not enough. Gain without equalization would amount to untethered sonics with great amounts of extraneous noise. So that more musical information can be captured on a given record side, records are cut such that low frequencies are reduced (reducing groove width), high frequencies are boosted.

The RIAA circuit thusly accommodates for these exaggerations and returns the signal to something listenable, re-emphasizing low frequencies and trimming back highs.

How to Boost Your Vinyl Experience With a Phono Preamp

tube box phono preamp

Investing in a high-quality phono preamp makes a more substantial difference than many listeners may realize.

You can own the world's best-sounding turntable and it would sound poor relative to what it's capable of without proper phono pre-amplification. To allow all the benefits of a good record player to pass through your audio system, a similarly good phono preamp is essential. A more 'audiophile' phono preamp will implement better componentry, whether a tube box or an integrated circuit phono box, optimizing the signal and minimizing noise.

Minimizing noise is paramount. Even subtle noise levels that may seem inaudible can swallow up the low-level detail and nuance that draws us to vinyl. It's not just the circuitry that contributes to optimal sonics. The quality of the power supply, the RCA jacks (sometimes XLR), and even the chassis can lend themselves to reducing noise and improving sound quality.

As an example, the duo of a preamp and power supply upgrade is becoming increasingly popular just because of the difference a better PSU can make. In short - and as is the case with most things analog - every little bit can have an effect, which is why you see such variance in price and design market-wide. Entry-level preamps tend to handle moving magnet cartridges only.

MM cartridges are the most typical cartridge types because, among other things, the design principle allows for a user-replaceable stylus. Mid-range & high-end phono preamps usually accommodate moving coil cartridges in addition to MM. It’s widely agreed that an MC cartridge is capable of better sound, though of course there are no absolutes in this hobby.

A good MM cartridge can certainly out-perform a mediocre MC. However, the main X factor is how you prefer your vinyl records to sound in your stereo system.

Do I Need A Phono Preamp?

Keep in mind that a phono preamp can be hidden. It doesn't always take the form of stand-alone audio component. The hi-fi integrated amplifier (aka receiver) of yore had a PHONO input.

What this means is that phono preamp circuit was implemented therein. An external preamp is never advisable in that scenario (you'd be double pre-amplifying and heavily overdriving), nor is it advisable with turntables that have them built in (unless that preamp can be disengaged). As the vinyl listening hobby continues to grow in popularity, you'll find that today’s audio equipment includes phono preamps in their designs (including powered speakers!).

There are a million things to consider if you’re a critical listener, especially one who prefers vinyl.

Again, it’s often taken for granted just how significant a difference the best phono preamps can make. If you haven’t done so yet, do yourself a favor and explore this as an option for your next upgrade. There’s a good chance it’ll compel you to pull your old records from your bookshelf and enjoy your vinyl collection like you haven’t previously.

 

As always, we wish you happy listening!


Pro-Ject’s 6Perspex SB: Rolling Stones Magazine

Pro-Ject’s 6Perspex SB Get's Featured in Rolling Stones Best Audiophile Turntables for Your Home System

"By applying principles of physics — like magnetism — and accounting for technical issues such as standing wave reflection, Pro-Ject’s 6Perspex SB can allow you to hear even the finest details of your record collection."

Read More: Here

Learn More: Here