All about Phono Cartridges

At the heart of any turntable system is the phono cartridge. The stylus (needle) attached to the phono cartridge must follow the V-shaped groove on a record as accurately as possible to produce the best possible sound. The rapid back and forth motion of stylus in the groove creates vibrations. These vibrations are then converted into an electrical signal by the phono cartridge. These electrical signals are then amplified and processed by your amplifier and are ultimately heard through your speakers. This is similar process to that of a microphone which turns the vibrations of a voice into an electrical signal.

Since the late 1960s nearly all phono cartridges are of the magnetic type, which – due to superior sound quality – replaced its predecessor, the ceramic cartridge. Ceramic cartridge based turntables are still present in most vintage console units (furniture based stereos), portable record players, and any low cost record players of the day, and are still found in inexpensive record playing systems made today by companies like Crosley.

There are two types of magnetic cartridges in today’s market; most are called “moving magnet,” while the less common and more expensive types are called “moving coil.” To understand the difference, one needs to look inside the phono cartridge itself. You will find copper coils (tiny round loops of copper wire) with a magnet inside the coil. The magnet and the stylus are both attached on opposite ends of a pipe (called the cantilever) so as the stylus moves back and forth in the groove, the magnet moves on the other end inside the coil. You may recall from science class that a magnet moving within a coil creates an electrical current. That’s your music! All that’s left is to amplify it.

So as you probably already figured out, when a phono cartridge has a “moving magnet” cartridge, the magnet is moving within the coil. “Moving coil” cartridges have the coil moving around a stationary magnet. So what’s the difference between the two types? It gets down to the accuracy of the stylus being able to follow the record groove. Moving coils can be made so that the moving portion of the cartridge is lighter than that within a moving magnet cartridge. When the moving portion is lighter it is more nimble and agile and can follow the very fast motions back and forth within the record groove more accurately. So they sound better! Alas, moving coil cartridges cost a lot more than moving magnet cartridges. Not only that, but you need a special phono preamp, because moving coil cartridges provide much less output than a moving magnet cartridge and need additional amplification beyond what is found in most phono preamps.

Moving magnet cartridges cost from $30 on up. Moving coil cartridges generally start around $300, plus you need to spend another $150 or more on a special moving coil phono preamp, so there is a big cost difference. How much better do moving coil cartridges sound, and should you consider getting one? It only makes sense if you have a really good turntable that is very quiet and very accurate in its operation (see our articles about turntables). One point of note: Some companies that make moving coil cartridges sell what they call a “high output” moving coil cartridge, one whose output level is similar to a moving magnet cartridge so that you don’t need to buy the high output phono preamp. They do this by adding more loops of copper wire to the coils, which will in turn generate a higher output. But of course this increases its weight to about the same weight as a moving magnet cartridge, so you end up no better off, in my opinion. But these high output moving coil cartridges do sell!

Moving coil, moving magnet, and ceramic cartridges are all electrically different from one another and are not interchangeable without other considerations. This is because in most cases amplifiers are designed to work with only one type of phono cartridge. Only on high priced, high quality systems will you find switch setting for both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. This is a great feature to look for if you ever have hopes to upgrade your sound system. Also, I occasionally see amplifiers that were made in the late 1960s that supported both ceramic cartridges and moving magnet cartridges via two separate phono inputs.

Another consideration when buying a cartridge (and stylus that comes with it) is the shape of the stylus itself. The names for these shapes include conical, spherical, elliptical, line contact, nude, Shibata, and others. It all has to do with how the stylus tip actually fits the record groove. The basic stylus is the conical (aka spherical) and basically has a round contact patch. As you move up the cost spectrum for stylus, the shape of the stylus is further refined and optimized for better sound reproduction. Many of these refinements improve the high frequency reproduction while also reducing record wear. So if your record collection consists of mint condition, audiophile quality records, and your turntable is also a high end machine, you should give consideration to investing in an expensive stylus that can extract the sound quality contained on your records. But conversely, if your record collection is a more typical mix of records in both condition and quality, a cheaper cartridge (and stylus) can actually perform better. I often recommend a very sturdy (cheap) cartridge for customers who are playing older, scratched-up records because you can put more tonearm pressure onto the record with a cheap cartridge, so it sounds better and doesn’t skip! The benefit of the extra tracking force will yield better playback than spending lots of money on a high-end cartridge that is very delicate and is expecting nearly perfect vinyl.

Turntables and styli can vary in quality ranging from a toy to a high precision instrument. The maximum quality of the sound reproduction that your turntable can provide is determined by its phono cartridge. The rest of the turntable can only take away sound quality by adding unwanted noise. High quality turntables reduce sound quality by the least amount. This is because they contribute very little noise due to having very quiet and accurate motors, main bearings, tonearms, etc. Remember that a phono cartridge essentially behaves like a microphone, and it picks up sounds from any source within the turntable or in the room, both good and bad.

Keep in mind: Regardless of the type of phono cartridge you have on your turntable, your system requires a phono preamp somewhere in the circuit. Any amplifier that has a “PHONO” input has a phono preamp built into it. Some newer turntables have them built into the turntable. If a phono preamp is not in your amp or turntable then you need a separate, external phono preamp. These are available from about $30.00 up to thousands of dollars. The turntable plugs into the phono preamp which in turn plugs into any input on your amplifier.

Magnetic cartridges are simple to replace because most have been standardized in how they mount to the turntable headshell. “Universal mount” and “P-mount” are the most common, although there are some cartridges that do not adhere to these standard sizes. They tend to be much more expensive and difficult to find. Conversely, ceramic cartridges had no standards and there are literally thousands of varieties. So if you have a vintage based system you must obtain the exact make and model cartridge as a replacement. Although they are not that hard to find and are not that expensive, they are difficult to properly identify as many look identical. Expert assistance is usually a good idea. Sound Exchange has that expertise if and when you need it.

Vinyl records offer the potential for exquisite sound reproduction that can far exceed that of CD, but can do so only if all the pieces are present: high quality records, high quality turntable, and a high quality cartridge (and stylus).

2 comments on “All about Phono Cartridges

  1. Greg Castille on

    I just bought a Tech Play ODC21MKI-SL full auto belt drive turn table.I have a headshell w/stylus and cartridge that has no name brand.I’m getting a funny scratchy sound coming from the record that is highly noticeable when singing is occuring.I looked at the tip of the stylus and it’s not broken.All the wires in the headshell are tight.Is it possible that this new stylus and cartridge are bad?I’m thinking about changing the Stylus and cartridge out to a new Audio Technica magnet phono cartridge AT95E.

    Reply
    • Ron on

      Yes, it is certainly possible that the cartridge or headshell are defective, but it could also be other things. Bring it by the Tampa store when I am there (weekday afternoons, most days) and we can play around with it.

      Reply

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The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience

  • History

    Intro To The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience

    Welcome to the Sound Exchange reference guide about vinyl records. On these pages we will explore any and all topics that are relevant to the enjoyment of vinyl records. Read more...

    The Emergence of Long Play (1948)

    The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience began with the emergence of the 10” and 12”, 33 1/3 rpm, Long Play, Micro-Groove, Vinyl Record in 1948, and its smaller sibling, the 7” 45 rpm record. Read more..

    Modern Long Play Records

    The modern long play, micro-groove record brought to the market had a tremendous impact on artistic creativity. Read more..

    The Modern Vinyl Record (1960s)

    It has a relatively long playing time and does so while reproducing sound in what is called high fidelity. Read more..

    The Classic Vinyl Listening Experience Timeline

    Let’s put all of this information in the form of a timeline. Read more..
  • Analog Vs. Digital

    Which is better, CDs or Vinyl Records?

    This question can be reduced to studying their differences. Read more..

    How Sound is Created and Heard

    This discussion begins with the creation of sound itself. Everything in nature that creates a sound creates an analog sound, which also happens to be the only kind of sound that we can hear. Read more..

    Analog to Digital Conversion

    The digital process begins at the point where the electrical impulses generated by the microphone are encoded onto a recording device. Read more..

    Playback Pros and Cons

    An analog recording doesn’t attempt to describe the sound as it simply records its input continuously, so it doesn’t have the sample size and sampling rate issues that digital has. Read more..

    What about CDs?

    First you must remember that the specification for CDs was developed way back in 1979. Read more..

    My Thoughts on Digital Vs. Analog Sound

    The vinyl record is my preferred media for active listening to recordings made in the 1950s and into the 1980s. Read more..
  • Stereo Recordings

    Stereo Recordings

    Any discussion about music and sound reproduction will eventually make reference to how it is presented to the listener. Read more..

    Stereophonic Recordings (1960s)

    Regarding stereo recordings, when stereo first came out it was a brand new world and exactly how to represent a recording in a stereo format was very subjective. Read more..

    Mono Vs. Stereo Recordings

    Beginning with the comparison of Mono and Stereo recordings, it was typical that both mono and stereo records were made from the late 1950s until around 1970 when they ceased production of mono records. Read more..

    Quadraphonic Recordings

    Finally let me touch upon quadraphonic recordings as they appeared on vinyl records. Read more..
  • Turntables

    The Record Player

    “For the record,” a record player is generally thought of as a turntable with a built-in amplifier and speaker(s). Portable units are typically record players. Read more..

    Anatomy of a Turntable

    The turntable has several basic components including the plinth (base), the revolving platter, the tone arm, the cartridge and stylus, and the mechanical and electronic components to make it all work. Read more..

    Reducing Unwanted Noise

    Isolating the noise generated from the turntable’s motor from the platter is essential. Read more..

    Choosing a Quality Turntable

    So how do you know how good a turntable really is regardless of cost? Read more..

    Turntable Belt Replacement

    Occasionally, belt drive turntables require turntable belt replacement. Read more...

    All about Phono Cartridges

    At the heart of any turntable system is the phono cartridge. Read more...
  • Other Stereo Equipment

    Classic Stereo Equipment

    Stereo equipment is one more significant variable that can greatly affect the Classic Vinyl Listening Experience. Read more..

    Phono Preamps: Amplification and Equalization

    When the discussion turns to the phono preamps (short for pre-amplifier) we are really getting down into minute details of the record groove in order to understand its role and its importance. Read more..

    Purchasing Quality Preamps

    Like all components of a stereo system there are significant variations in quality in the preamps, which has significant effects on the quality of the playback of your records. Read more..
  • Vinyl Records

    On First Pressings

    Typically, a first pressing is defined as what the actual record album looked like when it first came off the manufacturing line. Read more..

    Grading the Condition of Records

    At Sound Exchange we use visual grading (as opposed to play grading) for our records. We do not grade jackets, only the vinyl itself. Read more..

  • Taking Care Of Your Records

    Record Storage

    Always store your records in a cool, dry, dark environment in an upright position (never flat) that is high off the ground, and that provides some airflow around them. Read more..

    Tips for Handling Records

    Always handle your records by the label and the outer edge and never ever touch the record grooves except when performing a deep cleaning. Read more..

    That’s Not a Scratch on Your Vinyl – It’s Dirt!

    Dirt and static electricity may cause good records to sound “scratchy”. A proper cleaning will remove dirt and static electricity from the vinyl. Read more..

    How Often Should Records Be Cleaned?

    Record cleaning, like most any other type of cleaning, is a matter of degree. Read more..

    Record Cleaning Solution

    Wet cleaning of vinyl records is the best way if not the only way to really get them clean and to get them free of static electricity. Read more..

    How to Clean a Record

    Use plenty of solution and really get the record wet while being very, very careful to keep the solution off of the record label, as it will cause the paper label to “rise” or stain the label, etc, and it will never look like new again. Read more..

    Salvaging Vinyl

    An old trick of “last resort” is to actually play a record while wet. Read more..