Do Turntable Cartridges Make a Difference?

The turntable cartridge is where the rubber hits the road. Or, more accurately, where the needle hits the vinyl. Here are 7 quick tips on turntable cartridges

Each element of a phono system is a problem waiting to happen. Another — and equally sobering — way to think about it is that the worst performing element in a HiFi system dictates how good the audio will sound.

That’s not comforting. What it tells shoppers, however, is that the common sense approach is to pay an equal amount of attention to each element of the system. Spending a bundle on a high end turntable, for instance, doesn’t make sense if the speakers have limited range.

Image: VectorStock

Folks who have no interest issues in the details of turntable cartridges, speakers, amps or other elements should consider an integrated system. Of course. Many of these generate superlative audio. These platforms have no compatibility issues and the quality of each element presumably is more or less equal.

There is a huge and growing group of folks who like phono gadgetry almost as much as the music. They enjoy upgrading their system over time. They mostly understand that it is folly to overlook turntable cartridges, the device that is the interface between the vinyl and the electronics.

In short, the answer to the question posed in the headline is a definite “yes.” This physically small and non-glamorous phono cartridge performs an exquisitely nuanced task.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m grouping the turntable cartridge and the needle (often referred to as the stylus) together, though they really are discreet elements. It’s possible to lump both of these with tonearms and, even more broadly, with the turntable. It’s fine to do this, but folks should aware—and those interested in high fidelity should break the system into their component parts.

Here are seven things to think about when thinking about the stylus and cartridge. Some relate to new purchases, some to both new and replacement purchases and one to ongoing maintenance.

Turntable Cartridges: Things to Think About

– Unless you want truly spectacular sound — and are willing to pay for it — go with moving magnet cartridges. Moving coil cartridges are high end require other changes.
– Use standard mount cartridges.
– Clean your records and the stylus regularly.
– Consider attaching a brush to the tone arm to clear out the record grooves ahead of the stylus. Extracting debris from the grooves is important, of course, but care should be taken because the brush adds weight and changes the center of gravity. This impacts the cartridge’s balance and tracking.
– Be aware of conical stylus and elliptical stylus designs.
– Buy a diamond stylus unless you really are trying save money. Sapphire stylus are considered entry level models.
– Make sure a replacement stylus is compatible with the cartridge.

The Daily Music Break will follow this up with a more detailed article. Check out this article on another vital element, stereo amplifiers.

Our New Things: Links to Music Sites and Info on Analog Tech and Vinyl

TDMB has focused on music and musicians. We will continue to do that, of course. We're also expanding our coverage to include vinyl and analog equipment.

More specifically, we'll look at this huge and interesting world from the perspective of music lovers who want a better experience, not committed non-audiophiles.

Check out is some of what we've written so far:

-- Assessing the Value of Vinyl Records: An Overview

-- 7 Quick Tips on Optimizing Your Turntable Cartridge

-- Why Vinyl Records Continue to Thrive

-- Finding the Best Amplifier

-- Finding the Best Phono Preamp

-- What Speakers Do I Need for My Turntable?

Check out more articles on analog equipment and vinyl.

The site also is home to The Internet Music Mapping Project, an effort to list and describe as many music-related sites as possible.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.


The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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