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Phono cartridge guide

How to choose the right one for your turntable

W

hat's a turntable cartridge, you may ask? It's a humble but hardworking part of your record player. Specifically, it's the part at the end of your turntable's tonearm that contains the stylus — which most of us casually refer to as a "needle" or "pickup" — that reads the record's grooves and produces sound.

Illustration of a moving magnet cartridge parts

A look inside a moving magnet phono cartridge. Movement of the stylus in a record groove causes the magnets to move between the pole pieces of the coils, inducing a voltage that can be amplified.

The groove of a record is read by a stylus, which is attached to a cantilever as seen above. As the cantilever moves up and down in response to the groove, it moves either a wire coil, or a magnet.

In a moving magnet cartridge the magnets are attached to the cantilever, and move inside a stationary coil of wire, and that induces a voltage which must be amplified to reproduce the music recorded on a vinyl disc.

In a moving coil cartridge, a lightweight wire coil is attached to the cantilever, and the magnets remain stationary. This design reduces overall mass, and lets the cantilever move more easily, which reveals more detail. The tradeoff has traditionally been lower output voltage, which means this design requires a specialized (and likely more expensive) preamp to sound its best.

The initial signal produced by the cartridge is very precise, but also very weak. That's why your turntable needs to feed into a phono preamplifier to get to a level your system can work with to make music come out of your speakers. The phono preamp can be built into the 'table, built into a receiver, or housed in a separate component.

McIntosh MP100 Phono preamplifier for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges with USB output

Many audiophiles choose a high-end preamp like the McIntosh MP100, which lets a user make detailed adjustments to match the cartridge they've chosen.

An outboard preamp does add a piece of gear to your cabinet, but if you're using a top-notch cartridge of either design, this level of detailed control helps you get the most out of your investment. 

How to choose a cartridge

When you buy a turntable, it will usually ship with a pre-installed cartridge. If the stylus gets damaged, or you get the audiophile bug and want to hear more detail from your recordings, the cartridge can be upgraded. This video offers some handy tips and tricks for replacing a cartridge.

Replacing a cartridge takes a little planning and a steady hand, but if you have the DIY spirit, we'll show you what to look for when you select a new cartridge. 

Stylus construction

There are two common types of stylus. The more cost-effective option, which is used in entry-level cartridges, is a bonded stylus (example: Sumiko Oyster). A steel shank forms the base of the needle, with a diamond chip attached to it. This adds mass to the cartridge, so it's not ideal for high performance.

Stylus shank construction : Bonded or Nude

The bonded stylus on the left is a chip of diamond attached to a steel shank. The nude stylus on the right is made entirely of diamond.

Your listening experience can be improved if you opt for a nude stylus, where a shaped diamond is attached directly to the cantilever. It costs a bit more, but it's a superior way to transfer the kinetic energy that creates the signal. The Audio-Technica VM530EN is a budget-friendly example.

Stylus shape

If you've ever seen an old Victrola, you'll notice the stylus looks more or less like a nail — it's fairly large and blunt. The stylus inside a modern cartridge is shaped to better interact with the grooves in a record. The more shaping is done, the higher the fidelity you can expect.

Stylus shapes

A conical stylus is the most common shape, because it's easy and inexpensive to produce. It's slightly rounded at the end, so it can read most of the information contained in a record groove, but may miss some of the more nuanced details. You may also see it called a spherical stylus.

An elliptical stylus is a step-up from conical, due to the sharper angle of its tip. It can read a groove more accurately, so it offers more detail and less distortion. The Audio-Technica VM520EB offers a value-priced upgrade to an elliptical stylus, which helps make it one of our top sellers.

A line contact stylus is shaped to optimize high-frequency response and minimize abrasion. Its strength can be its weakness as well — if your records are already worn, a line contact stylus can amplify surface noise. This design was pioneered by JVC engineer Norio Shibata in 1972, so you'll see it listed as a Shibata stylus on some cartridges, like the Audio-Technica VM760SLC.

Several high-end cartridges use a MicroLine™ stylus design, which closely mimics the shape of the cutting head used to create record pressings at the factory. As a result, it reads information other styli simply can't, which produces very detailed, accurate sound.

Now, audiophiles are always chasing perfection, and engineers have come up with some very inventive, but less common design variations that we won't go into here. But the information above should help you understand some basic differences when you're comparing one cartridge to another.

Sumiko Blue Point No.2 Moving-coil phono cartridge

The Sumiko Blue Point No.2 moving coil phono cartridge has less moving mass, which allows the stylus to track record grooves more accurately.

Using a headshell

You may notice that some turntables have the factory-installed cartridge attached to a lightweight headshell that can be removed by loosening a nut on the tonearm. Vinyl enthusiasts who like to change cartridges often will buy multiple headshells with different cartridges for easy, convenient swapping. If your record collection contains some 78s, some mono recordings, and some standard recordings, for instance, multiple headshells can be a real time-saver. 

A Headshell on the Music Hall USB1

We sell some universal headshells for mounting your own cartridges, and some cartridges pre-mounted on headshells as well.

Important specs

For a novice, reading cartridge specs can feel like you've stumbled into an advanced physics class. Let's demystify some of the common specs you'll see when shopping for a new cartridge.

frequency response: starts from a baseline of 20-20,000 Hz, with higher-end cartridges extending lower and higher to allow more detail to come through. 

stereo separation: a higher number (measured in decibels or dB) means more definition between the instruments on the left and right side of the original recording microphone. If you're a purist with a few mono records, the Audio-Technica VM610MONO cartridge is purpose-built for listening to them in their original form.

load impedance: This is a tweaky spec that even engineers have trouble explaining. Suffice to say that industry standard is 47k ohms. There's no better or worse number for this spec, but some specialized cartridges may show a different impedance — also called cartridge loading — and you'll need an external preamp with variable loading (like the one pictured below) to get the best out of those types. 

Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 Vacuum tube phono preamplifier for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges

An adjustable preamp like the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 can help you amplify the output from a variety of cartridges.

tracking grams: the manufacturer's recommendation for where to set the turntable's counterweight. One of our experts explains how to dial in tracking force in this video.

A note about 78 rpm records

Modern 78 rpm records are pressed with standard-width "microgroove" technology, so they can be played with just about any cartridge. Collectors who own older original pressings will need to use a specialized needle like the Audio-Technica VM670SP. Its needle is 3 mil* in diameter, whereas a standard stylus is typically less than 1 mil.

*mil=1/1000th of an inch


78 rpm record

Need a little help choosing?

You may want some one-on-one guidance while shopping for home stereo gear. And if that's the case, you're in luck.

One of our expert Advisors can talk to you about what gear you have, and help you zero in on the right cartridge for your setup. They're knowledgeable, friendly, and they love music as much as you do. Call, email, or chat with us today.

And don't hesitate to call us if you hit a snag during the install process. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

  • Carl Beal from Newbury, MA 01951

    Posted on 11/5/2020

    Hi Eric. I have a Technics Direct Drive Automatic SL-D500 turntable. Cartridge - Audio Technica AT 132 EP. I am looking for a replacement cartridge. I did not see this model on your list of cartridges. My turntable is quite old but it works fine just needs a new needle. Could you recommend a cartridge that would work with my SL-D500. Thank you, Carl Beal

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 11/6/2020

    Carl - You're right, I don't see anything that exactly matches the AT 132, so I'll get as close as possible. The Audio-Technica VM760SLC best matches the frequency response and stereo separation specs I'm seeing for the older cartridge. If you're looking for similar performance at a lower price point, I recommend the VM740ML. Hope that helps!
  • Carl Beal from Newbury, MA 01951

    Posted on 11/5/2020

    Hi Eric. I have a Technics Direct Drive Automatic SL-D500 turntable. Cartridge - Audio Technica AT 132 EP. I am looking for a replacement cartridge. I did not see this model on your list of cartridges. My turntable is quite old but it works fine just needs a new needle. Could you recommend a cartridge that would work with my SL-D500. Thank you, Carl Beal

  • Carl Beal from Newbury, MA 01951

    Posted on 11/5/2020

    Hi Eric. I have a Technics Direct Drive Automatic SL-D500 turntable. Cartridge - Audio Technica AT 132 EP. I am looking for a replacement cartridge. I did not see this model on your list of cartridges. My turntable is quite old but it works fine just needs a new needle. Could you recommend a cartridge that would work with my SL-D500. Thank you, Carl Beal

  • Carl Beal from Newbury, MA 01951

    Posted on 11/5/2020

    Hi, I have a Technics Direct Drive Automatic SL-D500 turntable. Cartridge - Audio Technica AT 132 EP. I am looking for a replacement cartridge. I did not see this model on your list of cartridges. My turntable is quite old but it works fine just needs a new needle. Could you recommend a cartridge that would work with my SL-D500. Thank you, Carl Beal

  • James from Orange Park

    Posted on 10/10/2020

    Eric, I am using two Denon DJ VL12 Prime turntables and a Denon AVR 2307CI surround receiver (temp). On my turntable I have an MM44-7, and I am planning to purchase two new cartridges and headshell. Before purchasing, what do you recommend for use with DJing, scratches and cutting, and mixing beats. Low end, mid, and high-end. I am about to switch to Serato live DJ and use the data vinyls that come with it. But for the time being, I am still using record vinyls. Thanks for all and any input on this.

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 10/12/2020

    James - I'll be honest, I'm more familiar with how these cartridges perform for listening rather than performing as a DJ. I've done some research, and recommendations from DJ sites are all over the map. It honestly sounds like the cartridge you have is pretty nice, so if you have some other criteria you're using to determine what kind of performance you want out of the cartridge, let us know and maybe we can help narrow your choices down.
  • Bob from Greensboro, NC

    Posted on 9/23/2020

    One of the most important considerations in replacing a cartridge is the compliance specification. A lightweight tonearm needs a medium-to-high compliance cartridge, and vice versa, or you can get some pretty lousy results, even to the point of uncontrolled shaking of the tonearm. You also need to make sure your tonearm is compatible with the weight of the cartridge. Some tonearms (e.g., Pro-ject) only accommodate a fairly narrow range of cartridge weights without changing out the counterweight - not cheap, if you can even find a replacement.

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 9/24/2020

    Bob - All very good information. We may, at some point, make another article or video that tackles only this subject, because it's really an expert-level process. Thanks for the comment!
  • Steve from Stephens City Va

    Posted on 3/14/2020

    Good primer for beginners and refresher for some of us getting back into phonographs. Nice job Phillip

  • BRUCE W EDWARDS from CARMI

    Posted on 2/9/2020

    whatistherightcartrightforapioneertruetablemodelpl660

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 2/10/2020

    Bruce - From what I can determine via research, the turntable shipped with the Pioneer PC-295T cartridge. Without getting a good look at the 'table's manual, I'd be reluctant to recommend a replacement, but there should be a number of possibilities. If you still have the manual, give us a call and we can help you track down a good match.
  • Dan Levine from Dallas

    Posted on 7/18/2019

    Impedance, according to the Scholastic Science Dictionary, is the resistance in an alternating current circuit. Love children's dictionaries. Doesn't seem so hard to explain. Dan

  • Dan Levine from Dallas

    Posted on 7/18/2019

    Impedance, according to the Scholastic Science Dictionary, is the resistance in an alternating current circuit. Love children's dictionaries. Doesn't seem so hard to explain. Dan