Cartridges: Where Vinyl Comes to Life

Cartridges: Where Vinyl Comes to Life

A lot of those new to the world of turntables often mistake a stylus for a cartridge and vice versa, but in reality they are two seperate components which in turn make up the 'phono cartridge'. The phono cartridge is what is responsible for not only 'reading' the information on your record, but also converting that information into an electrical signal that is later amplified and heard through your speakers! Cartridges and styli are one of the most important elements that make up your turntable and in reality is the place where the magic of analogue sound begins. Therefore your cartridge is one of many individual components which can be upgraded to produce a much better sound out of your hifi system! 


How do they actually work?

To put it simply, a phono cartridge is a transducer; it converts mechanical energy into an electrical signal! Vinyl records are cut using an electrical signal that is fed into a cutter head, which then converts those electrical signals into mechanical vibrations through the cutters stylus, which in turn creates the grooves in a record! When a vinyl is cut the grooves are cut in a V shape, which is important when it comes to stylus tips (more on that in a sec).

A  phono cartridge then in simple turns does that opposite! The stylus tip 'reads' the information cut into the groove of a record, and then converts that to an electrical signal, which in turn is amplified to your speakers and just like magic music is heard ! 

So why are some cartridges more expensive than others?

The world of phono cartridge design is as much of an art as an exact science. With variations on designs used as well as materials producing differing sound outputs! From the shape of the stylus tip, to the actual cartridge construction, all these things can have a dramatic effect on the sound quality of your HiFi system!

Remember how we mentioned that grooves are cut with a V shape, different stylus tip shapes affect how much information your stylus can read from your vinyl! For example a spherical shaped stylus can't get deep into the grooves of the record and may miss some information, whilst a Microline/Shibata shaped tip gets deep into the grooves, reading as much information as possible! 

Cartridges also come in 2 main styles: the common Moving Magnet type and the pricier Moving Cartridge design.  Without going into great detail, moving magnet cartridges are known to produce lush, mellow sound. Their high voltage output makes them compatible with most phono stage/preamplifiers, almost all offer replacement styli, and they come in a variety of makes and models. It's for this reason moving magnet cartridges, or MM cartridges, offer the best value for money at an entry-level range. If you’re only just dipping your toe into the pool of analogue music, an MM cartridge offers great value without needing to splash out. 
In opposition to the MM design is the moving coil cartridge. MC cartridges are known to have better tracking –– important for two reasons: less chance the tip will lose contact with the record, therefore the signal, and less chance it'll damage your records. On top of tracking, moving coil cartridges tend to display better tonality, transparency, and imaging. Generally speaking, they're the ultimate choice of cartridge for mid to high end turntables, offering the kind of warmth and dynamism people generally associate with vinyl records. But, when it comes to MC cartridges it's important to bear in mind the Law of Diminishing Returns. This means there's no point putting a $700-$800 cartridge on a $500 turntable; the table won't stack up. And most MC cartridges begin around this price. 

So how do you digest all this and chose the right cartridge?

Great sound from the equipment you own comes from upgrading components to just within the threshold of the Law of Diminishing Returns. In terms of cartridges, it means one that'll squeeze the best possible sound from your turntable without (a) spending too much, and (b) inhibiting the range this cartridge has to offer. 

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