There are few worse feelings than coming home to play a vinyl record only to realize your machine’s not up to snuff. Even the most high-quality record players can sound subpar if key parts aren’t in top shape. So if you’re looking to get the best sound quality out of your record player, then it’s crucial to learn the ins and outs of turntable cartridge types, in order to find the best fit for you. But first, it’s helpful to get a refresher on what exactly a cartridge does and why it’s such a central part of the record player.
Turntable cartridges (also known as phono cartridges or colloquially as a pickup) are mounted onto the end of the tonearm of your record player. The cartridge includes the stylus (needle) that lowers onto the vinyl to read the record’s modulations and play your favorite sounds. When the stylus tip senses the grooves of a record, that information is transmitted into an electrical current that then can be amplified out through your speakers. The cartridge body (often made of plastic) houses this process of translating sound, and the cantilever is the long thin rod the stylus hangs from that can be controlled internally by an internal suspension system.
When it comes to turntable cartridge types, one of the biggest determining factors is how the magnetic field moves to pick up sound. There are two basic types of magnetic turntable cartridges: moving magnet cartridges (also known as MM cartridges) and moving coil cartridges (MC cartridges). People are drawn to either for vastly different reasons, it all comes down to their home system, budget range, and what kind of listening experience they consider ideal.
Moving Magnet Cartridge
A moving magnet turntable cartridge has a small magnet in the stylus. The magnet sits between two sets of coils to generate stereo output. While the stylus moves along the grooves of the record, the magnetic field creates a small electrical current in the coils. Moving magnet turntable cartridges are often more light and easy on records because they don’t need as much tracking force, in layman’s terms this means they need less downward pressure from the needle so it’s easier to avoid record wear.
These turntable cartridge types often have a removable stylus that is easier to replace, so if you’re looking to switch out your conical stylus for a diamond stylus (or vice versa), it’s much easier to make that transition without doling out cash for a new cartridge. Another pro is that moving magnet cartridges have a high output and usually don’t require a phono preamp as MC cartridges do. This means they’re also compatible with the phono input on most stereo components. However, some argue that the high inductance can negatively compromise the flatness of frequency response, which is to say, the convenience can sometimes mean less nuanced sound quality.
Moving Coil Cartridge
Moving Coil cartridges also transmit music through a magnet and coil, but in this case the coils move when the stylus is reading a record, instead of the magnet. Since the coils are lighter than a magnet, the process of transferring the movement into an electrical signal is more fluid, which means the frequency response, tracking, and overall sound quality are often more precise and high-quality. A pro is that you can often find MC cartridges on high-end turntables, however, the con is that they’re more expensive.
Because of the lightness of the coils, MC cartridges also produce less signal, so they require a step-up transformer in order to get that sweet sound blasting through your amplifier. The stylus is often harder to replace in a moving coil cartridge, so you have to ship it back to the factory if you want to get it fixed which can result in more costs. So when it comes to upfront convenience and costs, MC cartridges can be a tough sell, but if sound quality is your biggest priority, MC cartridges often take the cake.
While the debate between MC cartridges and MM cartridges could rage on indefinitely, it’s important to note the other factors that help decide which stereo cartridge is right for you: the stylus shape, and the cartridge mount.
When it comes to mounting, there are two mounts on these many turntable cartridge types: the P-mount cartridges and the standard half-inch cartridge mount.
P-mount cartridges have four terminals at the back that plug directly into the end of the tonearm. The cartridge is then fully secured on the tonearm with a screw.
Standard Half-inch Cartridges
Standard half-inch cartridge mounts have four prongs in the back for connecting to the headshell, as well as two screws on the very top. The headshell wires can be affixed directly to the cartridge, and voila, you’re golden.
When it comes to mounting preferences, it’s all about the machine you already have, and which mounting system feels easiest for making replacements and keeping the cantilever steady.
Now, we move onto the fun part of the cartridge, the needle that dances with the grooves of a vinyl and makes our most intense listening experiences possible: the stylus. There are a handful of common stylus shapes, all with their own strengths and weaknesses that can alter your listening experience.
Conical stylus tips are the most affordable and common because they’re the easiest to manufacture. They have a spherical tip that touches the center of the record groove walls. The conical stylus tips work well with entry-level or moderately priced record players (and also some older turntables dedicated to playing 78 rpm records that have wider grooves). However, their simplicity also means they pick up less detailed information and create heavier tracking on the record grooves which can cause quicker record wear. But, they’re also easier to replace.
Elliptical stylus tips are smaller in diameter with a polished tip, which means they pick up lots of sonic information and create less pressure on the records. However, they tend to cost more money than the conical stylus.
Fine-line stylus tips feature a highly polished diamond tip with an even sharper shape than many elliptical styli, and are often used on high-end record players. They’re able to pick up a lot of audio without causing too much wear on your vinyl, but they tend to run higher on the price point.
The Shibata stylus tip design (which often falls under the same category as fine-line) was first developed to be used for quadraphonic sound systems and is specifically good at picking up high frequencies while causing very little pressure on the vinyl records themselves. Unsurprisingly given the performance, they also tend to rack up a high bill, so it’s really about where your wallet can stretch and if it fits with your priorities.
The Microline Stylus
The Microline stylus is a computer-designed tip modeled after the shape of a cutting stylus used to create original master discs. The precision of this design can create top notch hi-fi performance and a great playback experience, while extending the life of both your records and stylus. However, the Microline stylus is difficult to manufacture, which means it’s harder to track down and costs a hefty buck. It also must be aligned correctly at the end of the cantilever in order to truly make your phonograph sing.
Choosing Turntable Cartridge Types Depends on Your Listening Style
Given the vast nuances of the stylus shapes and the cartridges themselves, there is truly no one-size-fits-all when it comes to choosing a pickup. It’s all about figuring out which shape and design give you the best analog listening experience for your lifestyle and budget. If you’re a hi-fi loving audiophile with money to spend, choosing a pricier MC cartridge with a Shibata, fine-line or Microline stylus might be the way to go. You’ll get a long shelf-life out of the stylus, which makes the fact that they’re harder to remove or replace on an MC cartridge far less of an issue.
But if you like the spherical style stylus for playing 78 rpm records, DJing a set with some scratching and back-spinning, or the general convenience of wider availability and options, an MM cartridge might be a great fit, since you can update and replace your styli much easier without replacing the entire cartridge. Plus, you can access the cartridge and stylus replacements far easier with a wider range of affordable choices.
Of course, there are many different turntable cartridge types, and the turntable, amp, adapter, and overall listening set-up you have will massively inform what matters most. If you’re someone who prizes flexibility, and a cartridge with a high output that connects to most systems, your choices are going to look different from someone who prefers a precise system that is harder to manufacture. At the end of the day, there are valid arguments for the most die-hard MC cartridge fan and the most intense MM cartridge devotee. It’s just a matter of which record playing experience you find yourself drawn towards, and the machine and record collection you’re already taking care of.