A Buying Guide for Cartridges and Styluses

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A Buying Guide for Cartridges and Styluses

Without styluses and cartridges, a record placed on a turntable cannot be heard, which speaks to their importance. A turntable, also referred to as a record player or a gramophone, is a device used to play grooved vinyl discs that were so popular during most of the 20th century. There are turntables that are sold with cartridges and styluses already installed, but most of the time they are sold separately. In fact, it is probably better to buy a new one.

Cartridges and styluses for a turntable can be acquired in any music shop, both online and offline. Many people consult sites, like eBay, to take advantage of the increased variety of the selections available on such sites. However, the numerous sources for these products do not mean that a buyer should open their chequebooks for the very first one they see. To get the stylus and cartridge that is most appropriate for certain types of record players, the buyer needs to know how to choose between types of styluses or types of cartridges, the options that are available for different styles, and how the cartridge and stylus work together to produce the best sound.

Difference Between a Cartridge and a Stylus

Understanding the differences in meaning assists a buyer when acquiring exactly the item that he or she wants. Many people interchange the words needle, stylus, and cartridge because many cartridges come with their own styluses, making it somewhat confusing when a person wants one or the other.

Part

Description

Needle

For practical purposes, same as the stylus

For those wanting to differentiate, it is the stylus and stylus holder that attaches to the cartridge

Stylus

For practical purposes, same as the needle

To differentiate, it refers to the diamond tip that has contact with the record disc

Can be used interchangeably with term “needle”

Should be replaced regularly depending on recommended length of use

Cartridge

A rectangular piece where the stylus or needle is attached

May or may not be included with a turntable purchase

Connects to the headshell with colour-coded wires and screws

May or may not be purchased with needles and styluses

Headshell

Generally comes with the turntable when purchased

Plugs or fits into the tonearm before the cartridge

May include weights

Can be removable, which facilitates easier cartridge installation

Generally, these parts cost less when purchased separately, but note that different turntable brands use specific phonograph headshells, cartridges, and even styluses. There are cartridges that take only specific styluses, and headshells that take only specific kinds of cartridges. Some companies only use their own produced parts for their record players. Some styluses have to be replaced every 100 hours of use, others of higher quality may be replaced after 500 hours or so.

Stylus Types

The stylus is often called “the needle” of the record player, and is usually made out of industrial-grade diamonds. The stylus can be made entirely out of diamond or just tipped with it. The diamond stylus material contributes mostly to the durability of the stylus, the quality of the sound produced is another thing, which involves the shape or construction of the stylus, itself. The sound produced by a record player depends on the quality of the stylus.

Spherical Stylus

Also called the conical stylus, it is one of the easiest for manufacturers to produce, which leads to it being the most common of styluses. Sound quality depends on how much of the stylus comes into contact with the walls of the grooves on the record disc. Many spherical styluses produce lower-quality sound than other styluses. Still, if a buyer’s only agenda is listening to music rather than dissecting it, spherical styluses do well enough. Most DJs use spherical styluses because, aside from their inexpensiveness, they do not cover as much surface area, and therefore, there is less damage to the record disc caused by all the scratching a DJ may do.

Elliptical Stylus

The grooves on a record disc are cut in a triangular shape, with bumps and oscillations that when touched by a stylus, cause vibrations that produce sound. The more surface area a stylus covers, the better the sound. The elliptical stylus is more triangular, follows the groove more accurately, and therefore, produces a sound more superior to the the conical stylus. It is sometimes called a bi-radial stylus.

Shibata Stylus

The Shibata stylus is the inspiration for a range of stylus shapes that have greater contact areas, in the vertical sense, than either the spherical or elliptical styluses. Bi-elliptical, quadrahedral, hyperbolic, or fine line styluses are all based on the basic Shibata style. The advantages of this stylus are more precise sounds and less wear on record discs even though they make contact with greater surface areas.

All About Cartridges

There are a number of options to consider when buying a phono cartridge. Different types of cartridges may be compatible with different record players, and so on. Understanding the options that are available leads to more informed decisions.

Cartridge Types

The cartridge is where the sound of the record player is developed. There are thousands of cartridge styles and designs that are available to a buyer, but basically, there are three major types of cartridge.

Moving Magnet (MM) Cartridge

The MM cartridge has a small magnet within, which causes a current in the coils between which it is suspended, when the stylus moves. They are simpler in design than other styles.

Moving Iron (MI) Cartridge

Replace the magnet in the MM cartridge with a small piece of iron, and it is the basic design for the MI cartridge. The iron, or iron alloy, is lighter than the magnet, reducing the force that the stylus exerts on the disc and boosts the accuracy of sound production.

Moving Coil (MC) Cartridge

Unlike the MM and MI cartridges, the electricity conducting coils of the MC cartridge sandwich the arm of the stylus and are close to the cartridge magnet. The coils on an MC are significantly finer and smaller than the other two, resulting in extremely low voltage outputs, which in turn, causes the MC cartridge to be more sensitive to noise and vibrations.

Pros and Cons of Different Cartridge Types

Different cartridges, aside from having different designs, have their own advantages and disadvantages when used in different turntables and situations.

Type of Cartridge

Advantages

Disadvantages

Moving Magnet (MM)

Less expensive than MC

Simpler usage

Believed to cause more wear on the record discs

Lower quality than MC

Moving Iron (MI)

Less pressure on the disc when compared to MM

Some claim that iron conducts better sound than magnets

Lower quality than MC

Moving Coil (MC)

Design needs less pressure than MM and MI to elicit better sound

More sensitive

Needs a front-end amplifier

More costly than MM or MI

Whether a buyer prefers one or the other depends on the use to which they are subjecting a turntable or the type of turntable. Turntable and cartridges ought to be of comparable quality; this means not pairing a cartridge that is inexpensive with a tonearm or headshell that is expensive. Note that MC cartridges are better at the higher-end prices, so an audiophile is better served with MI cartridges or MMs rather than budget MCs.

Cartridge Mounts

There are three types of cartridge mounts: the half-inch mount, the P-mount and the universal mount. All cartridge mounts have four terminals that connect to the tonearm or headshell. The P-mount simply plugs into the end of the tonearm before secured with a screw. Half-inch mounts are also called standard mounts, and they have four pins attached to wires. The cartridge is secured with two screws a half-inch apart. The A-T universal mount is basically a P-mount with a half-inch adapter bracket that gives it the ability to be used on both standard and P-mount tonearms.

Buying Cartridges and Styluses on eBay

Music shops and musical instrument shops are sure to have most of what a music aficionado needs for a turntable, although shopping online is also one of the more productive ways of looking for items that are more difficult to find. eBay is one of the more popular online retailers that music lovers use because of the variety of products and the ease of navigation. Simply go to any eBay page and type the turntable parts that you want into the search bar. A general search term should result in more options, which is a good idea if you are looking for rare items. A more specific search term narrows down your choices more efficiently than a general search. Of course, there is the option to use the site tools to order the list of results or produce more relevant result lists. Styluses and cartridges can be expensive, so make sure that the sellers you are considering have excellent reputations.

Conclusion

Remember that the sound quality depends more on the cartridge and stylus and preamp than the turntable itself, so even a cheap turntable with well chosen and good-quality cartridge and stylus combinations sounds significantly better than more expensive turntables. The cheapest styluses are conical, the more durable ones are excellent choices for any DJ’s purposes. The music lover on a budget wants to buy elliptical styluses because of their better sound. More expensive styluses and cartridges are more efficient, but make sure that they are compatible. There are many combinations of stylus, cartridge, preamp, and turntable that depend on how the buyer uses the record player. It is a good thing to learn a little about cartridges and styluses before making a purchase, in order to get the best possible items for a turntable. It is possible to acquire these items in local music shops and online retailers. When talking of cartridges and styluses, it is better to buy new than used.

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