To many audiophiles, vinyl records are the only way to listen to music. Being 100% analog, there’s no tone loss due to compressing the music files.
That’s why vinyl offers such a superior sound quality, much like being at a live performance. This, along with various other reasons, makes turntables a worthy investment for vinyl fans.
Yet, sometimes people wonder about various parts and features of the turntable. One common question is: can I put any cartridge on my turntable?
The quick answer is no. Cartridges aren’t one-size-fits-all, so you have to know a bit of detailed info about your turntable before getting the right cartridge.
So, if you’re interested in finding out more about turntable cartridges and the exceptional sounds of vinyl, scroll down.
Are Turntable Cartridges Universal?
No, turntable cartridges, or phono cartridges as they’re sometimes referred to, aren’t universal. In other words, each turntable has a specific cartridge model.
One reason is that different turntable manufacturers make different design features on their products. As a result, it makes it difficult for all cartridges to be compatible with all turntables.
The other reason is that cartridge manufacturers make two main types. Each type has a different way of fitting onto the turntable to achieve the best sounds possible.
Two Types of Cartridge Mounts
Turntables work by dragging a needle with a small diamond tip across the surface of a vinyl record. Then, the cartridge steps in to convert this movement into exquisite analog sound.
Yet, it’s not enough to enjoy the sounds coming from your turntable. You also have to understand its feature specs. So, to determine which cartridge is suitable, you have to know which type of mount best fits onto the turntable.
There are two types of cartridge mounts, or carts as they’re often referred to by vinyl collectors: Half-inch and P-mount.
Here’s a brief rundown of each one so you can decide which makes for a better addition to your turntable.
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Half-Inch Cartridge Mounts
Half-inch cartridges are those that come with two holes at the top. The holes on the cartridges are spaced precisely half an inch apart, hence their name.
The primary purpose of these holes is to place screws that help attach them to the headshell at the end of the turntable tonearm. In fact, having a headshell is one way to determine the type of cartridge that best fits your turntable.
This type of cartridge is popping up on almost all new turntable models found on the market. Many manufacturers, such as Audio-Technica, U-Turn, or Fluance, choose to add them to their turntables because they allow for more versatility of their products.
Despite offering a good deal of adaptability, half-inch cartridges need a bit of patience and dexterity when fitting them on the tonearm.
For example, if you’re not careful, you can easily lose those tiny screws that attach the cartridge to the headshell. They can also be a challenge to install because of their small size.
Another obstacle is the three cables running from the cartridge to the headshell. These wires are thin and can easily snap in two if you’re not careful.
So, you have to be extra diligent when removing the old cartridge, as well as when fitting in the new one.
The last thing you have to watch out for when installing this type of cartridge is making sure it’s aligned. For best performance, many audiophiles recommend you use a protractor to line up the cartridge with the tonearm.
Once the cartridge is finally in place, it’s time to balance the tonearm by turning the counterweight located on the opposite end of the arm. Try to fix it so the arm doesn’t move up or down when you let go.
This will also help you adjust the weight of the cartridge. Having a weight that’s too high or low will cause the stylus, aka the needle, to jump and possibly damage the record or the arm itself.
After that, you have to set the anti-skating control to zero. By doing this, you’ll toggle the feature that counteracts the tendency of the arm to slide inward toward the center of the turntable.
It may be time-consuming, but going through this step-by-step process is the best way to ensure you get to hear high-quality sound while reducing vinyl wear.
P-Mount Cartridge Mounts
The first thing you’ll notice about P-mount cartridges is that they have no holes on the top. So, there’s no need for those tiny screws at the top or even a headshell.
To install this type of cartridge, all you have to do is simply slide it into the tonearm. Then, instead of two screws on top, there’s only one screw in the back of the cartridge to help fasten it to the tonearm and secure it in place.
P-mount cartridges are more popular with the more seasoned audiophiles who just don’t want to be bothered with the fuss and hassle that goes into installing a new half-inch cartridge.
You can still follow the same follow-up steps as above, like balancing the arm and adjusting the anti-skating feature every time you replace a P-mount cartridge. However, they’re not as necessary as when putting in a Half-inch cartridge, where there are more variables to worry about.
How to Pick the Right Cartridge for Your Turntable
The quickest way to determine which cartridge is the right one for your turntable is to check whether or not there’s a headshell.
First, look at the turntable’s tonearm. If you find an oddly shaped, black-colored piece with slots, you’ve located the headshell.
This basically holds the half-inch cartridge in place on the turntable’s tonearm. The slots on this piece are for screwing the screws found on the top of the cartridge.
Keep in mind that some tonearms won’t have removable headshells. Rather, they’ll be part of the actual tonearm itself.
So, if you find a headshell, then you can be certain that your turntable is compatible with half-inch cartridges.
If not, then you know that your turntable is compatible with a P-mount cartridge, and you don’t have to go through the hassle of carefully setting in screws or connecting wires.
Understanding How a Cartridge Works
For a cartridge to effectively pick up sound, it has to have a magnet and wire coils within its plastic casing. Together, these two components are essential to ensure that the physical movement of the turntable transforms into an electrical current.
This begins with the stylus that glides over the grooves on the record to the cartridge before it’s finally fed into the system.
Every cartridge type can be either a Moving Magnet (MM) or a Moving Coil (MC). Let’s go into more detail about how each one works to produce sound.
Moving Magnet Cartridge
An MM cartridge is the more common of the two. It consists of a tiny magnet in the stylus. It’s positioned between two sets of coils that act as a stereo output.
As the stylus moves over the record, the magnet picks up the vibrations. This causes it to generate a small electrical current in the coils. It’s through this electromagnetism that sound is produced.
This type of cartridge is considered to be gentler on the records. One reason is that they require less downward pressure, or tracking force, from the needle.
Another advantage to using MM cartridges is that they’re less expensive and easier to install. However, they tend to generate more energy. Some argue that this high inductance can affect the frequency response, resulting in less-than-optimal sound quality.
Moving Coil Cartridge
Moving Coil cartridges also generate sound via electromagnetism. However, in MCs, it’s the coils that are attached to the stylus and vibrate along with the movement while the magnets remain in place.
Most experts agree that this type of cartridge is capable of delivering better frequency response and overall performance. This is because the coils are made of very fine, lightweight wire.
Because they’re lighter than the magnets, they offer a more fluid transference of the physical movement into an electrical signal. So, you get superior tracking and high-fidelity sound quality.
Another upside is that they use less voltage than the MM cartridge.
However, the main drawback of an MC cartridge is that it’s noticeably more expensive than its MM counterpart.
Another disadvantage of using MC cartridges is that they tend to produce less signal, which means there may be some unwanted hum and noise. That’s why some audiophiles rely on a step-up transformer to reduce that hissing sound in the background.
Finally, the stylus in Moving Coil turntable cartridges is difficult to replace. Thus, users simply throw out the entire cartridge whenever the needle breaks or becomes worn out, which many consider unnecessary expenses.
When to Replace Your Cartridge
Cartridges need replacing every once in a while to help preserve the integrity of your records. A broken needle or damaged cartridge can scratch or scrape the vinyl.
Even if your turntable is still in working condition, a nice upgrade can help maintain the player’s performance and sound quality.
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Here are a few signs you need to put in a new phono cartridge:
- Static or crackling noise
- Tonearm becomes wobbly