The reason many of us invest in a turntable is to enjoy excellent acoustics. These devices usually have a warm tone to them and clear sound.
However, a few months of use later, you start to notice that the audio is a little sharp. With a bit more inspection, it’s clear that the cartridge is wearing down.
So, you hop online to find a replacement, but the results leave you speechless. After a quick search, you’ll ask, why are turntable cartridges so expensive?
Turntable cartridges can range between a few hundred to a couple of thousand dollars. This is usually because of the construction materials for the component. The brand name of the part will also play a significant role.
Let’s take a look at what makes the component so pricey and if it’s worth the investment.
The cartridge is a part of a turntable that attaches to the tonearm. This component is responsible for reading the grooves on vinyl records to play music.
It uses coils and magnets to turn mechanical signals into electrical ones. Then, these waves travel through cables to an amplifier to create sound.
Overall, the process sounds like a simple one, but there’s a lot more to it. That’s why manufacturers produce each section of the cartridge with specific features.
To understand pricing, it’s a good idea to look at an object’s components.
Typically, there are six main parts to cartridges:
If you take a close look at your cartridge, you’ll notice a tiny, needle-like projection. We call this part of the device the stylus.
This is arguably the most important part of the cartridge. The small tip allows the gadget to squeeze in between the grooves on vinyl records.
Since that process involves friction, it makes sense that the stylus needs to be durable.
Now, there are only a few materials that can handle constant traction and perform well. These include diamonds and other precious stones, like sapphires.
As you can imagine, these incredibly tough minerals don’t come cheap. Depending on the source of these materials, the cost of the diamonds will slightly change.
Other than the actual price of the stones, shaping them can also be quite expensive.
On top of that, the amount of gems used will play a part. Some people choose to create the stylus out of pure stones.
However, others opt for mineral dust and combine it with other affordable materials.
That means that stylus prices vary greatly. They can even change between two models of the device from the same brand.
Aside from the stylus, the other visible part of the internal mechanism is the cantilever. It’s a rigid structure that supports the stylus and looks like a floating rod shooting out of the cartridge.
This component’s only function is to transfer the movement of the stylus to the rest of the device.
The cantilever will vibrate with the stylus and carry the signal to the coil or magnet.
Usually, this part consists of some type of metallic alloy. Some manufacturers use aluminum since it’s lightweight and affordable.
However, for durability, others prefer steel.
To keep the weight of the component down, the rods tend to be hollow. This will slightly decrease the price of the part.
Yet, we also have to take into account the extrusion of the metal and shaping. In addition, some cantilevers go through heat treatment to improve their durability.
All these processes will come at a cost and mark up the value of the cartridge.
3. Rubber Suspension
As you travel along the cantilever into the inside of the cartridge, you’ll find the suspension.
Since the stylus moves around constantly, it’ll need a rotational axis to keep it in place. That’s where the rubber suspension comes into play.
It sits in a stationary position, anchors the cantilever, and acts as a pivoting point.
We use rubber for the construction to ensure the component doesn’t vibrate or create noise. Fortunately, this piece isn’t all that expensive.
Even when we use heat-treated rubber, the cost is nowhere near the stylus or the cantilever.
The cantilever has a stylus on one end and a magnet on the other. Both structures rely on the rod to function and for support.
As the stylus moves up and down, so will the magnet. This will create magnetic field fluctuations. We can then use these changes to produce electricity.
Traditionally, people make magnets out of iron, nickel, or cobalt. However, on their own, these metals aren’t durable enough to handle constant motion.
Instead, we rely on alloys to create strong, permanent magnets. Depending on what materials a company decides on, the price of this component can vary.
To produce electricity, the magnet will rely on Lenz’s law and a few wires.
We twist the cables into coils and place them close to the magnets without letting them touch. As the magnetic field changes, the coils generate a small electrical voltage.
Then, through transformations, we can amplify and turn this signal into an audible one.
Most of the time, these wires are inexpensive. They can run you a few bucks, depending on the length. However, that’s not always the case.
Some metals are more expensive and cost more to bend into coils.
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6. Casing and Wiring
Other than the internal structure, the external one will also affect the price of the device. We use a hard casing to ensure all the cartridge’s parts stay where they should be.
This will cover and support the coil, magnet, suspension, and a section of the cantilever.
To get such durable housing, we need a material that’s both lightweight and durable. The casing should be able to handle scrapes and general wear and tear.
For this reason, many manufacturers choose plastic for the part, which can be a little pricey. On top of that, there are wires running along the casing to move signals outside the cartridge.
These will cost around the same amount as the coils.
Other than the components, there are other factors that play a major role in cartridge prices:
1. Mechanism and Size
As we discussed, the device contains many moving parts that work together harmoniously. They form an elaborate system to ensure the cartridge functions well.
Building this mechanism is a feat on its own. Still, that’s not the most impressive aspect of the device.
To fit inside a turntable, the cartridge needs to be quite small. So, having to shrink the mechanism makes the entire process more complex.
Companies have to source better materials and use more manpower to turn them into parts.
That means, as a rule of thumb, the smaller a cartridge is, the more expensive it will be.
While we’re on the topic of the mechanism, we should talk about how brands produce cartridges.
To create incredibly delicate sections, many manufacturers rely on manual labor. That means someone has to hand-make every single component.
For this process, companies will need highly trained workers with plenty of experience. Plus, the size of the workforce will limit the number of units produced.
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As you can imagine, this inflates the cost of production.
3. Stylus Shape
When it comes to the stylus, the construction materials aren’t the only aspect that decides the price.
The shape of the component can also have an impact on the overall cost. It’ll affect the performance of the device, production time, and value.
To clarify this, let’s look at some of the available stylus shapes:
This type has a completely rounded top. Luckily, it’s easy to produce, which means it’ll be marginally more affordable.
However, the circular top may have a hard time fitting into tiny grooves and curves. For that reason, this tip is usually the least accurate and doesn’t provide the best audio quality.
This stylus has an oval-shaped tip, which gives the device a smaller cross-section. Producing this component is more expensive than the spherical, but they’re in the same range.
Because of the elliptical tip, the gadget is able to get into all the grooves of a vinyl record.
The benefit of that is that you get better sound quality. However, this will increase the friction between the stylus and the record.
In turn, that will reduce the lifespan of the component, so you may have to replace it often.
Instead of having a single-shape cross-section, this stylus has multiple. The tip looks like a few geometric shapes stuck together.
That allows the stylus to go through all the nooks and crannies on a record. This will significantly improve your listening experience and audio quality. Additionally, it will also cause less friction to your vinyl and keep it alive longer.
Yet, producing this component isn’t a walk in the park. The cut-outs and different edges all require specific dimensions.
For that reason, micro-edge styluses are generally the most expensive variety.
Still, the irregular shape reduces the friction, so you may not need to replace it as often as the others.