Cartridges and Turntables: Everything You Need to Know

  • By: Andrew
  • Date: May 19, 2022

The capability of their cartridges defines the ultimate performance of all record-playing systems. Therefore, clarity of the peaks of the music, tonal balance, stereo separation, and freedom of distortion and noise is affected by the quality of your cartridge. The quality of the cartridge also affects the life of your records. So after thorough research, we created the following article on everything you need to know about cartridges and turntables.

The turntable cartridge is the crucial part of the turntable situated at the end of the turntable’s tonearm that supports the stylus. The stylus is the pickup or needle that reads the grooves of the record and produces music.

The turntable cartridge is the hardest working part of the record player that sits on the vinyl record’s grooves. The cartridge is responsible for reading the undulations on the groove’s wall and converting it into a signal that the amplifier can pick.

So in this article, we’ll give you cartridge and turntable information. We’ll also show you how they work.

Table of Contents

Turntable And Cartridge Information

The turntable is a part of the record player that supports the vinyl records. The turntable is responsible for rotating the vinyl with its needle on the record’s grooves and producing sound. Turntables revolve at a speed of 78, 45, 33 1/3, and 16 2/3.

Most recorders have a gearing system that allows you to pick the right pace for your record. (source)

The record player has many parts that work together to guarantee you a high-quality output. The platter is responsible for holding the record in place while being spun by the motor. But the most crucial part of the turntable that’s responsible for sound production is the cartridge.

What Is A Cartridge?

Cartridge, styli, needle, call it whatever you like, but every turntable comes with a unique device that sits on the records’ grooves and reads its undulations. The signal produced by the cartridge travels through the arm to the amplifier.

And then, the amplifier boosts and equalizes the signal to a level that a second amplifier can pick before being transported to the speakers. (source)

The cartridge is the most hardworking part of a turntable responsible for converting mechanical movements to electric signals. It is a transducer that does the opposite of loudspeakers which convert the signal to vibrations. (source) So, depending on the type of cartridge your turntable has, you have to set it up correctly to minimize record damages.

Types Of Cartridges

Generally, the ancient ceramic and crystal pickups in high-end systems got replaced by magnetic cartridges (moving coil or moving magnet). And that is because the magnetic cartridges lower record wear by applying lighter pressure on the grooves and improved playback fidelity. Magnetic cartridges are known for using less tracking force and reducing the likelihood of the grooves getting damaged. Magnetic cartridges also have lower voltage outputs than ceramic and crystal pickups. (source)

Moving Iron (Mi) And Moving Magnet (Mm) Cartridges

The moving iron and magnet cartridges function the same way, and the only difference between the two is that one has a magnet attached to the cantilever while the other has a piece of iron.

The stylus of the moving magnet cartridges has a small magnet between two coils that create an electromagnetic generator. When the stylus reads the undulations on the record, the magnet vibrates, which induces a current in the coils. (source)

Since the magnet is tiny and isn’t attached to a generator like ceramic cartridges, it has a unique stylus that requires less tracking force and faithfully follows the grooves.

The moving iron cartridges have a moving iron attached to the cantilever and a hug magnet over its coils to provide the needed magnetic flux. (source)

Moving Coil Cartridge (MC)

This cartridge comes with a tiny electromagnetic generator, but with the coils and magnet reversed. Instead of attaching the magnet to the cantilever, the coil is attached to it and moves in a permanent magnetic field.

The coil is made using fine wires, and since the windings connected to the armature are tiny, the voltage produced is also small. (source)

The signal produced by this cartridge is a few hundred microvolts. So, noise can easily swamp it out. Therefore, instead of a preamplifier, most turntables with these cartridges use a step-up transformer.

Luckily, some high output MC cartridges produce the same output as the MM cartridges. MC cartridges are tiny instruments that are generally costly but preferred by audiophiles. (source)

Moving Micro-Cross (MMC) Cartridges

The MMC is a variation of the MI cartridge that was patented and invented by Bang & Olufsen. In this cartridge, the coils and magnets are stationary while its micro-cross moves with its stylus. The MMC design allows for channel separation since the movements of these channels appear on a separate axis. (source)

What Is The Difference Between The Moving Coil And Moving Magnet Cartridges?

Generally, MC design is quite common among high-end turntables, while most low-end turntables come with MM cartridges. The debate over which design produces better sound is entirely subjective and heated.

  • The MC cartridge offers low impedance and inductance, which means that the capacitance’s effect is negligible. On the other hand, the MM cartridge provides high impedance and inductance.
  • The MC cartridges sport low-moving masses. But even high-quality MM designs offer lower moving masses than MC designs. (source)

Parts Of A Cartridge

Most cartridges have a unique design that features many components, with the most common ones being:

  • Stylus: the stylus is the tip of the needle that rides on the grooves of the vinyl records. The stylus comes built from either a polished diamond or unique industrial gemstones.
  • Cantilever: you may think that the only work of the cantilever is a stylus holder, but it does more than just support the needle. The cantilever carries the vibrations from the stylus to the coil and magnets. Some models of MM cartridges have a detachable design, which means that you can detach the stylus when replacing it instead of changing the cartridge. (source)
  • Magnets: each cartridge comes with a magnet. The magnets are the most crucial part of the cartridge that induces the voltage in the coil after the cantilever moves.
  • Coil: the coil is a tightly wrapped wire column that usually situates in the cartridge. The coil helps the cartridge generate more than enough electrical signals to make a sound.

How Does The Cartridge Work?

The work of the cartridge is turning the movement of the stylus into a signal with the magnet attached to the cantilever. Every time the needle moves, the cantilever carries the tiny magnet, which induces a voltage in the coil. The coil is connected to the pins situated on the rear parts of the cartridge.

Since each cartridge has two coils, the four pins are negative and positive connections of the channels (this is how the MM cartridges function). (source)

On the other hand, the magnets of the MC design are always static. It provides a lighter moving mass, which means that the coils, cantilever, and stylus can start and stop quickly. But you need thinner wires and high precision when making MC cartridges. It is why they are way more expensive than the MM cartridges. (source)

Unfortunately, the power or size of the signal is relatively low; therefore, the turntable needs an amplifier to help boost the voltage to a level that the regular amplifier can handle. The MC cartridges produce even lower voltage, so the phono stage must be quieter than MM cartridges. How efficient a cartridge will depend on:

  • The materials used to make the cantilever
  • The shape of the stylus
  • Arrangement of the coil or magnet in the cartridge
  • The material used to make the body of the cartridge

Remember, the Japanese manufacturers make the body of the cartridges using jade or hardwood, while some MC have nobody.

The lady of an outer body helps lower the weight of the cartridge, but it does expose the delicate parts of the cartridge. (source)

In an ideal situation, all the vibrations the stylus gets from the groove of the record player should be transformed to sound by the cartridge. But this system is constantly battling unwanted sounds from the furniture and the air; therefore, you must place the turntable away from furniture and speakers. The best place for setting the turntable is on a wall shelf at the end of the room, but make sure it’s as far from the speakers as possible. (source)

Setting Up The Cartridge

If you plan to reduce vinyl wear and listen to a lot of music, you should set up the cartridge correctly. But one thing is clear; the stylus will not always be in line with the grooves on the vinyl.

And that is because the tonearms are usually attached to a fixed point; therefore, the cartridge will have to describe the arc as it traverses the vinyl.

Therefore, the set-up of the cartridge should be a balance of compromises. You have to optimize the position and angle of the stylus for a considerable part of the record’s surface as humanly possible. To get the correct position, you need an alignment protractor to help you position the cartridge correctly.

Set Up An Appropriate Downforce

Too much force can result in high wear of the stylus and vinyl; therefore, it’s crucial to set the correct downforce. You can find the proper downforce in the cartridge manual or online. And if the arms have some calibration markings, you can balance the arm so that it floats with the tip of the stylus near the vinyl’s surface.

You can do this by simply adjusting the counterweight and dialing into the required downforce. (source)

If the arm of your turntable doesn’t have this feature, you need a downforce gauge like Shure SFG-2. And then adjust the exact position of its counterweight until you get the proper downforce.

With the correct downforce, your turntable will produce high-quality sound, and your records will last longer. The old technique of putting a coin on the turntable’s headshell to prevent it from jumping is not a great idea. (Art Zuckerman 1980) (source)

You can read more about putting a coin on the turntable’s headshell in this article that I wrote: Putting A Penny On A Record Player Finally Explained!

After setting the downforce, you can look for a protractor and fine-tune the angle and position of the stylus and cartridge.

Unfortunately, the fancier the cartridge, the more demanding it will be to set up. A good thing about MM cartridges is that they come with a spherical stylus that is easy to align. The high-end MC cartridges come with a line-contact stylus that you must align correctly for the best results. (source)

If the tonearm allows it, then you can even adjust the VTA (vertical tracing angle). The VTA is the angle of the styli in the grooves, as seen from the side.

Remember, the vertical tracking angle is correct if the tonearm is parallel to the record’s surface when the stylus is in its track. If it is not, then you should lower or raise the arm for better results. (source)

Factors To Consider When Choosing The Correct Cartridge For Your Turntable

When you purchase a turntable, it always comes with a pre-installed stock cartridge. Unfortunately, the stylus tends to get damaged with time, so you may have to replace the entire cartridge at some point.

Or, if you love music and want to listen to more details from your vinyl record, then you may have to upgrade its cartridge. It means getting an even better cartridge. (source)

After all, most folks purchase low-end record players and then upgrade them with time. They replace the stylus, platter, tonearm, and even the belt to improve the output quality.

The gradual process of upgrading and customizing a turntable helps them get the right tone. So the first and most common replacement done by audiophiles is cartridge replacement.

The correct cartridge can help keep your records safe and make them last longer while producing high-quality sounds.

So getting a better cartridge can make a huge difference. And with vinyl becoming hard to replace, you must select the correct cartridge for your turntable.

Unfortunately, most entry-level turntables have a non-removable stylus, so instead of just replacing the stylus, you may have to purchase a new cartridge. High-end turntables come with detachable needles that can you can easily replace when damaged. So here are a few factors to consider when buying the best turntable cartridge:

Stylus Construction And Shape

The stylus is the most crucial part of the cartridge that rides on the grooves of the vinyl records. Therefore, it plays a pivotal role in how great the cartridge replicates the sound from your record.

And due to the access, it has on the surface of the vinyl, it does play a vital role in the wear and tear of the records. Therefore, the shape of the stylus matters a lot, and if you want to listen to high-end audio, you should be ready to spend more. (source)

Before getting into the different types of styles, we must consider shank construction. The stylus that is usually attached to the cantilever is either tipped diamond or nude diamond.

A nude diamond stylus is made from diamond and glued to the cantilevers.

On the other hand, the tipped diamond stylus is just that-the tip of the stylus is the only part made from the diamond; the rest is just metal. (source)

The nude diamond stylus is the premium option that tracks more accurately and has a low mass. The different types of the stylus are:


The most common kind of stylus that is cheaper is the conical or spherical stylus. The spherical stylus resembles a tip of a ball-point pen. And thanks to their radius, this stylus traces less of the small groove modulations that produce high frequencies.

The debate on whether it creates more wear is still debatable, with some claiming it produces less wear.

Others claim that it produces the most wear since the contact region is restricted to 2 points. (source)


The second most common types of stylus are the bi-radial or elliptical stylus. This stylus makes contact across a considerable part of the grooves thanks to their dual radii. It guarantees improved phase response, improved frequency response, precise tracking, and lower distortion.

Unfortunately, the Elliptical stylus wears out faster; plus, you’ll have to pay attention to the tonearm and cartridge alignment. (source)

Micro-Ridge Stylus

Micro-ridge also referred to as a Microline stylus, is the most advanced style available. Its computer-designed tip allows the stylus to offer better high-frequency performance with a longer stylus and record life. Micro-ridge stylus is quite costly and hard to produce. (source)

Hyper Elliptical Stylus

The hyper elliptical stylus also referred to as stereohedron, fine line, or Shibata is an advanced elliptical stylus.

This improved version of the elliptical stylus has a unique design that offers more significant contact with the grooves. Hyperellipticptic stylus can offer improved tracking, lower record wear, and longer tip when appropriately aligned.

Audiophiles are always looking for perfection, and this has forced engineers to become inventive.

So if you want to listen to quality music, then you should be ready to upgrade the diamond-tipped stylus that comes with your low-end turntable with a cartridge with a nude stylus.

The nude styles can be costly, but it’s the best option for transferring the kinetic energy needed to create the signals. (source)

Do I Need A Headshell?

You might have noticed that some turntables come with a factory-installed cartridge attached to a light headshell. You can uninstall these headshells by loosening the screws on the tonearms.

Therefore, if you are a vinyl lover who likes replacing their cartridges, you will have to purchase multiple headshells for convenient and easy swapping for your different cartridges. (source)

Therefore, if your collection includes standard recordings, mono-recordings, and some 78s, you need multiple headshells.

Mounting System

Confirm if your turntable has a p-mount or a standard mounting system. It will help you pick the correct cartridge that will match your turntable. Luckily, most turntables come with standard cartridges.

These cartridges can be mounted on the underside of the tonearm and then secured with vertical screws.

On the other hand, the P-mount cartridge inserts into the end of the tonearms and typically get secured using one horizontal screw.

Your Vinyl Records

Most modern 78rpm records get pressed using standard-width micro-groove technology. Therefore, you can play them using any cartridge, but if you have the older original records, you’ll need to get a specialized needle such as Audio-Technica VM670SP. The standard needle has a diameter of less than one mil, while the correct stylus for playing the old records should have a diameter of approximately three mil* (mil* is equal to 0.001inch). (source)

Other Specs To Consider

For beginners, reading the specs on the cartridges can be quite challenging. Understanding some of the specs on the cartridge can feel like going back to your high school physics classes.

So here are some of the most crucial specs to consider when buying a cartridge:

  • Frequency response: this is the measure of the range of sounds the cartridge can produce uniformly. It starts from a baseline of between 20 and 20,000Hz, with high-end cartridges going higher or lower. (source)
  • Channel separation: this is the ability to deliver the right signal to the proper channels of the cartridge when there is no signal on the right and vice versa. Channel separation is measured in dB, and the lower the number, the lower the separation and vice versa. Separation is crucial when dealing with higher frequencies. (source)
  • Channel balance: this is the measure of excellent basic design and production quality. Technically either side of the cartridge must have equal loudness when the recorded levels are present.
  • Output level: you must match the output levels of your electronics with that of the cartridge. Remember, a lower level can result in too much noise, and a higher level can over-drive your preamplifier into distortion. (source)

How to Replace a Cartridge

Replacing a cartridge is a simple procedure that anyone can do; all you need are some simple tools. But first, make sure you know exactly where the cartridge is located. To replace the cartridge, you should do the following:

  1. Open the dust cover of your turntable and look for where the headshell is situated.
  2. Since the needle can be pretty dangerous, the next step is detaching the stylus if it’s possible. But don’t pull it out aggressively, as it can break the cartridge in the process. It might be the best time also to replace the stylus if the current one is damaged.
  3. Release the headshell from its tonearm by turning the nut holding it in place towards you.
  4. Remove all the screws attaching the cartridge to the tonearm using a screwdriver and uninstall it.
  5. Finally, unplug the wires connecting the cartridge to the turntable from its pins.
  6. Install the new cartridge, but first, make sure you plug the pins correctly into the tonearm. You can match the colors of the pins with the wires.
  7. Screw the cartridge back to its original place and return it to the headshell.
  8. Finally, you can install the new stylus, and you’re good to go. But if your turntable’s stylus is not detachable, you can skip this step. Or you can replace it with a cartridge that has a detachable needle. (source)


How Do I Know If I Can Replace The Cartridge On My Machine?

If you are not sure, then you should look at the end of the tonearm (the end that you lift when placing the needle on the vinyl). If you see some screws connecting the cartridge to the arm, then it can be replaced. But if you don’t, then you can only replace the stylus.

When Should I Replace The Stylus?

Most producers recommend that you should replace the stylus after about 1,000hours of playing time. So if you listen to music for an average of an hour every day, then you can replace it after about three years.

How Long Does It Take To Break In A New Stylus?

Generally, the break-in time of most styluses is 14 days, but this will depend on how often you use it. But after two weeks, the bearing, which is ordinarily stiff when new, will be ready to deliver high-quality sounds.


In terms of output quality, no sound player can rival a record player. A record player uses an analog signal, and it gives you a great experience that is almost tangible. But for you to enjoy memorable songs, you have to be ready to get the suitable turntable and make sure it’s properly serviced. You can even upgrade some parts for better performance and increase the life of your records.