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Phono cartridge guide

How to choose the right one for your turntable

W

hat's a turntable cartridge, you may ask? It's a humble but hardworking part of your record player. Specifically, it's the part at the end of your turntable's tonearm that contains the stylus — which most of us casually refer to as a "needle" or "pickup" — that reads the record's grooves and produces sound.

Illustration of a moving magnet cartridge parts

A look inside a moving magnet phono cartridge. Movement of the stylus in a record groove causes the magnets to move between the pole pieces of the coils, inducing a voltage that can be amplified.

The groove of a record is read by a stylus, which is attached to a cantilever as seen above. As the cantilever moves up and down in response to the groove, it moves either a wire coil, or a magnet.

In a moving magnet cartridge the magnets are attached to the cantilever, and move inside a stationary coil of wire, and that induces a voltage which must be amplified to reproduce the music recorded on a vinyl disc.

In a moving coil cartridge, a lightweight wire coil is attached to the cantilever, and the magnets remain stationary. This design reduces overall mass, and lets the cantilever move more easily, which reveals more detail. The tradeoff has traditionally been lower output voltage, and there are some low-output moving coil cartridges — like the Goldring Ethos — that require an outboard phono preamp with selectable or variable cartridge loading in order to create exceptional sound.

The initial signal produced by the cartridge is very precise, but also very weak. That's why your turntable needs to feed into a phono preamplifier to get to a level your system can work with to make music come out of your speakers. The phono preamp can be built into the 'table, built into a receiver, or housed in a separate component. To learn more, read our phono preamp buying guide.

McIntosh MP100 Phono preamplifier for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges with USB output

Many audiophiles choose a high-end preamp like the McIntosh MP100, which lets a user make detailed adjustments to match the cartridge they've chosen.

An outboard preamp does add a piece of gear to your cabinet, but if you're using a top-notch cartridge of either design, this level of detailed control helps you get the most out of your investment.

How to choose a cartridge

When you buy a turntable, it will usually ship with a pre-installed cartridge. If the stylus gets damaged, or you get the audiophile bug and want to hear more detail from your recordings, the cartridge can be upgraded. This video offers some handy tips and tricks for replacing a cartridge.

Replacing a cartridge takes a little planning and a steady hand, but if you have the DIY spirit, we'll show you what to look for when you select a new cartridge.

Stylus construction

There are two common types of stylus. The more cost-effective option, which is used in entry-level cartridges, is a bonded stylus (example: Sumiko Oyster). A steel shank forms the base of the needle, with a diamond chip attached to it. This adds mass to the cartridge, so it's not ideal for high performance.

Stylus shank construction : Bonded or Nude

The bonded stylus on the left is a chip of diamond attached to a steel shank. The nude stylus on the right is made entirely of diamond.

Your listening experience can be improved if you opt for a nude stylus, where a shaped diamond is attached directly to the cantilever. It costs a bit more, but it's a superior way to transfer the kinetic energy that creates the signal. The Audio-Technica VM530EN is a budget-friendly example.

Stylus shape

If you've ever seen an old Victrola, you'll notice the stylus looks more or less like a nail — it's fairly large and blunt. The stylus inside a modern cartridge is shaped to better interact with the grooves in a record. The more shaping is done, the higher the fidelity you can expect.

Stylus shapes

A conical stylus is the most common shape, because it's easy and inexpensive to produce. It's slightly rounded at the end, so it can read most of the information contained in a record groove, but may miss some of the more nuanced details. You may also see it called a spherical stylus.

An elliptical stylus is a step-up from conical, due to the sharper angle of its tip. It can read a groove more accurately, so it offers more detail and less distortion. The Audio-Technica VM520EB offers a value-priced upgrade to an elliptical stylus, which helps make it one of our top sellers.

A line contact stylus is shaped to optimize high-frequency response and minimize abrasion. Its strength can be its weakness as well — if your records are already worn, a line contact stylus can amplify surface noise. This design was pioneered by JVC engineer Norio Shibata in 1972, so you'll see it listed as a Shibata stylus on some cartridges, like the Audio-Technica VM760SLC.

Several high-end cartridges use a MicroLine™ stylus design, which closely mimics the shape of the cutting head used to create record pressings at the factory. As a result, it reads information other styli simply can't, which produces very detailed, accurate sound.

Now, audiophiles are always chasing perfection, and engineers have come up with some very inventive, but less common design variations that we won't go into here. But the information above should help you understand some basic differences when you're comparing one cartridge to another.

Sumiko Blue Point No.2 Moving-coil phono cartridge

The Sumiko Blue Point No.2 moving coil phono cartridge has less moving mass, which allows the stylus to track record grooves more accurately.

Using a headshell

You may notice that some turntables have the factory-installed cartridge attached to a lightweight headshell that can be removed by loosening a nut on the tonearm. Vinyl enthusiasts who like to change cartridges often will buy multiple headshells with different cartridges for easy, convenient swapping. If your record collection contains some 78s, some mono recordings, and some standard recordings, for instance, multiple headshells can be a real time-saver.

A Headshell on the Music Hall USB1

We sell some universal headshells for mounting your own cartridges, and some cartridges pre-mounted on headshells as well.

Important specs

For a novice, reading cartridge specs can feel like you've stumbled into an advanced physics class. Let's demystify some of the common specs you'll see when shopping for a new cartridge.

frequency response: starts from a baseline of 20-20,000 Hz, with higher-end cartridges extending lower and higher to allow more detail to come through.

stereo separation: a higher number (measured in decibels or dB) means more definition between the instruments on the left and right side of the original recording microphone. If you're a purist with a few mono records, the Audio-Technica VM610MONO cartridge is purpose-built for listening to them in their original form.

load impedance: This is a tweaky spec that even engineers have trouble explaining. Suffice to say that industry standard is 47k ohms. There's no better or worse number for this spec, but some specialized cartridges may show a different impedance — also called cartridge loading — and you'll need an external preamp with variable loading (like the one pictured below) to get the best out of those types.

Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 Vacuum tube phono preamplifier for moving magnet and moving coil cartridges

An adjustable preamp like the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2 can help you amplify the output from a variety of cartridges.

tracking grams: the manufacturer's recommendation for where to set the turntable's counterweight. One of our experts explains how to dial in tracking force in this video.

We offer a couple of essential tools — the Pro-Ject Align it S cartridge alignment tool and the Pro-Ject Measure it E stylus force gauge — to help you install your cartridge properly, so it can track record grooves well, and reduce wear and tear on the stylus and your records.

A note about 78 rpm records

Modern 78 rpm records are pressed with standard-width "microgroove" technology, so they can be played with just about any cartridge. Collectors who own older original pressings will need to use a specialized needle like the Audio-Technica VM670SP. Its needle is 3 mil* in diameter, whereas a standard stylus is typically less than 1 mil.

*mil=1/1000th of an inch


78 rpm record

Need a little help choosing?

You may want some one-on-one guidance while shopping for home stereo gear. And if that's the case, you're in luck.

One of our expert Advisors can talk to you about what gear you have, and help you zero in on the right cartridge for your setup. They're knowledgeable, friendly, and they love music as much as you do. Contact us today.

And don't hesitate to call us if you hit a snag during the install process. Free lifetime tech support is included with every Crutchfield purchase.

  • Art

    Posted on 1/2/2024

    I have a Thorens TD 318 from 1987. Have never had any problems with it other than needing to replace the belt once. However, recently a problem occured in that the tonearm starts to drift outward and away from the platter as I drop the needle using the lowering contol switch or knob. No idea what could cause this (by the way this model has an auto lift feature when the side being played is complete). I don't think it is an anti-skating issue since trying to adjust that seems to have no impact on whether the tone arm drifts away or not. It still drifts no matter what setting is used. I took it to a shop but it will be at least 2 months before they get around to checking it out. They said it might be something inside the tone arm. Just curious as to how this could suddenly happen after never having a problem with it since 1987. Now I don't use the turntable that often but have started to use it more often recently. I miss being able to spin the vinyl now that it is gone from my music room!

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 1/3/2024

    Hi Art, thanks for your comment. I wish I could tell you exactly what's wrong with your Thorens TD 318. If you bought it at Crutchfield, get in touch to take advantage of our free lifetime tech support. Otherwise, I'm sure if you persevere, you'll find someone who can fix it. If you're interested in a high-quality new turntable with the same semi-automatic auto-lift at the end of the side, you might consider the Technics SL-1500C, which I think would be a worthy successor. Either way, I've asked one of our Advisors to get in touch with you to help you consider our range of choices.
  • Alan

    Posted on 8/30/2023

    I need to replace the cartridge for my Yamaha PT-500 turntable. The Audio-Technicas look good--any recommendations?

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 9/12/2023

    Hi Alan. We have some great cartridge choices. I've asked one of our Advisors to get in touch to help you choose the best one for your turntable.
  • Michael from Philadelphia

    Posted on 8/26/2023

    Very good information!

  • Kim Fabricius from Nyborg, Denmark

    Posted on 1/19/2023

    Super good article and even though I've had a record player for several years now, I learned new things and therefore I have to go out and buy a new pickup. Many thanks to all of you at Crutchfield for always great articles.

    Commenter image

    Eric A. from Crutchfield

    on 1/20/2023

    Kim - Thanks for dropping us a line. I'm so pleased the article helped!
  • Ken

    Posted on 12/8/2022

    I have a Technics SL-1900 direct drive from the mid-70's that sounds inferior compared to the Teac TN-180BT-A3 starter turntable I bought for my grandson, I'm guessing I need a new cartridge. Any suggestions?

    Commenter image

    Eric A. from Crutchfield

    on 12/9/2022

    Ken - I brushed up on the SL-1900 by reading some forum posts, and it does seem that they're loved by people who own them, but that several did replace the original cartridge. It looks like a pretty standard removable headshell, so you could try the Audio-Technicha AT-VM95C/H to see if it just needs something a bit newer. If you really want to take a leap forward, try the AT-VM95ML, which has an advanced microlinear stylus. Hope this helps!
  • Matthew DuBreuil from Marquette

    Posted on 12/6/2022

    I have a dual 601 with a cartridge D71EE Im wondering who made with the number I gave you

    Commenter image

    Eric A. from Crutchfield

    on 12/7/2022

    Matthew - It looks like the D71EE was made by a company called Stanton. Hope this helps!
  • Fred from Margate

    Posted on 6/8/2022

    I would like to raise the sound output level on my record player it's a pioneer pl 516. i found that i have to raise the volume quite a bit to listen at my desired level compared to the other inputs. i see some stylus options with a higher decibel level than the stock one will that help with the output?

    Commenter image

    Eric A. from Crutchfield

    on 6/9/2022

    Fred - I would expect volume issues to be solved by amplification, not necessarily the cartridge itself. That said, some do offer a slightly higher output voltage. I don't know if you're using a built-in phono preamp, but I'd look for an outboard phono preamp to give you more flexibility on boosting overall volume, especially if you get one with adjustable gain settings.
  • MORRIS P SPILLMAN from Mount Washington

    Posted on 1/29/2022

    There are also adjustments for VTA (vertical tracking angle), SRA (stylus rake angle) and azimuth angle. All important for the very best in cartridge performance. Maybe another video for a more in depth detailed setup.

  • Wesley Rayborn from Spring Branch

    Posted on 10/14/2021

    Hi, I currently own a Technics Quartz SL-1600MK2 turntable and am looking to purchase a new cartridge, (high performance). Do you have any recommendations?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 10/15/2021

    Wesly - I looked up the performance specs for that cartridge, and I'm seeing frequency response of 20-25,000 Hz in the manual I found online. So a good replacement would be the Audio-Technica AT-VM95SH. Hope that helps!
  • Garry l from Dennison Texas

    Posted on 9/26/2021

    Ha ha ha!!!! I wish, I was that young again

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