Phono Cartridges – How to pick’em?

A few posts ago, I suggested that I would do a post on Phono Cartridges. I suppose 2 questions must come to mind;

  1. Why on phono cartridges alone?
  2. Where did I pick up my information and is it valid.

To me, the phono cartridge is where it all begins. It is the mechanical movement of the “needle” that is converted to electrical energy by the cartridge. that offers up all of the information that was scribed on the disc. It is imperative that the needle or stylus tip is incredibly hard to withstand the 20 to 30 tons / sq in pressure applied to this component to keep it firmly in the grooves, that the cantilever (little metal stick that the stylus is fastened to) is again strong enough to withstand the pressure applied without bending, and supple enough that it properly responds to the tiniest vibration and finally the magnet structure in the cartridge body is strong enough to properly change the mechanical movement to electrical energy.  One of the greatest concerns is getting the job done without adding any resonances which as you know will cancel whatever mechanical information generated at the same frequency.

Do I possess the knowledge? After many years in the hi-fi industry (not to be confused with home theatre) you actually pick-up enormous amounts of information, much of it from magazines but mostly trial and error. When my career in hi-fi began, the mix of cartridges was mostly magnetic with abit of moving coil, in Canada, perhaps the most popular would have been either Shure, Empire, AKG,  Ortofon or ADC. In those days, we all experimented with materials like Duct-Seal to bond the cartridge to the headshell in order to eliminate resonance and strengthen the headshell as many headshells had holes in them to reduce weight – the negative is they would flex and bend. My journey through hi-fi was all about different types of cartridges, new developments in headshells, following new creations in the stylus and simply finding the combination of turntable and cartridge that sounded “the musical best to me”.  My career also spanned 5 or so years working with the distributor of Ortofon (Yes, I am indeed a dyed in the wool Ortofon Fan). I did  experiment with other cartridge brands such as ADC, Grado, Supex, Sumiko etc. but the main line was Ortofon.

I felt that one of my roles was to identify which combinations of cartridges and tonearms/turntables worked the best together.  How is that important – one of my friend’s once said that ” you can’t put tractor tires on a Ferrari!”  What did he mean by that?  Tractor tires and Ferraris are designed to work in specific situations.  Tractor tires work great in the field, respond to the specific needs of the request of the tractor. A Ferrari, well let’s just say that not only would major design modification be needed, but even if they were done, I expect the first corner would prove the combination to be useless.

There actually is a simple way to calculate the minimum amount of dollars that you should allocate to a cartridge purchase. If your turntable costs $250 to $300 allocate between 25-30% of the price of of the table as a minimum $70 to $100 for your cartridge. Oftentimes, I will go up to or over the actual amount that I paid for the table, it just depends on the capability of the arm.

What you should know:

  1. There are primarily 2 types of phono cartridges – MM or Moving Magnet and MC or Moving Coil
  2. There are basically 3 types of Stylii (actual tip of the cartridge that contacts with the vinyl)

A phono cartridge consists basically of 5 major components;

  1. Stylus which again is the tip that makes contact with the vinyl – usually diamond.
  2. Cantilever which is the little metal stick to which the diamond is adherred at one end and either a magnet, magnetic material or a tiny coil is attached inside the body of the cartridge at the other end of the cantilever.
  3. Suspension which is placed at the point where the cantilever enters the body of the cartridge
  4. The Magnet and it’s components which convert mechanical energy to electrical impulses
  5. The body of the cartridge which houses the assemblies necessary to convert mechanical energy to electrical impulses. 

It is important to note that all of these components are very tiny must must be powerful enough to withstand the incredibles forces placed on them by the tonearm.

The stylus must be made of an incredibly hard material – hence a diamond. The stylus can be “tipped” by adhereing a piece of diamond to a metal shank that is attached to the cantilever or the entire stylus can be diamond. A stylus made entirely of diamond is best. and oftentimes the diamond is grain oriented (running vertically top to bottom) which allows for better polish to the diamond and greater strength. In order to extract the maximum amount of musical information from the grooves with the minimum amount of wear, different shapes of contact points have been engineered (Spherical, Elliptical & Shibata).

The cantileveris made of an extremely strong but light materials, specially formed aluminum,AL (an extrememly rugged but light weight alloy), boron, ruby are all used in the effort to reduce mass but increase rigidity.

The suspension too is extremely important but rarely spoken about. In most cases it is a very strong but supple rubber like product. Issues from the past were that these could actually collapse based on changes in humidity as they could dry out.  The suspension is one reason to change your cartridge relatively frequently (4-5 years) to maintain proper rigidity.

The Magnetic assembly is in two basic formats – Moving Magnet (MM) in which a magnet is attached to the end of the cantilever housed inside the cartridge body. This magnet moves amongst 4 coils wherein the mechanical energy is converted to magnet impulses. There are different designs of these cartridges, primarily to reduce weight. A Moving Coil (MC) cartridge is almost the opposite design as a coil with very few windings is fixed on the business end of the cantilever (inside the cartridge body) and moves within for coils. The advantage here is a very light weight and incredibly responsive cantilever which equals more infomation and less wear. The negative of this design is the output or signal generated is much lower than a moving magnet, therefore an additional amplifier must be bused to boost the signal. Some companies do produce a “high output MC” which will produce a signal fairly close to a moving magnet.

The body of the cartridge had become quite a sophisticated creation. As previously mentioned – at least 10 times, the cartridge itself is under incredible duress. The body of the cartridge must be made to incredible tolerances in order to deal with vibrations from 5hz to 45khz,  the body is made of two primary pieces, the actual mounting platform that is used to attached the cartridge to the headshell and the protective body itself which houses the suspension for the cantilever as well as the complete magnet/coil assembly. The bonding agents needed must be absolutely incredible, I mean you can’t just use any old glue. The agent must not create any additional mass, and must hold the body and mount platform together in such a way that no resonance is introduced.

A simply incredible engineering achievement!

OK, what is best. Best is always tough to choose as anything that we purchase is a compromise, but here goes

  1. Best Stylus is a diamond, again usually grain oriented with the grain running to to bottom. Why, it is stronger and a better polish can be put on the diamond.
  2. Best Stylus Cut is one that offers the very best contact area on the groove. Why? as we have discussed unnecessary wear on the groove of the vinyl is the best. Firstly, it reduces the force exerted on the vinyl by spreading it over a larger area, secondly in doing so it also picks up more musical info. The stylus types are Spherical which contacts the vinyl at tiny circular points, Ellipticaland its’ derivatives as it contacts the vinyl in an oval shape offering much lower moving mass yet picks up much more information from the groove (More Music, less Wear!). Elliptical is available in differing cuts such as “Fine Line”. Finally the Shibata Stylus and its’ derivatives which offer huge gains in contact area which again is More Music – Less Wear! It is also usually found on higher end cartridges (usually $500. and up).
  3. Best Cantilever. Again we are looking at very low mass, incredible strength. These devices can be anything from special aluminum tubes to alloys, boron, even precious gems.
  4. Moving Magnet or Moving Coil. Personally for the last 20 years, I have used a Moving Coil. I have always liked the sweetness of it, but Moving Magnet has come along way.  As mentioned, a very good moving magnet in the $600.  range is now equipped with Exotic Stylii and cantilever, whereas in Moving Coil you will pay in excess of 750.00.

Now, we’re past the rather dry stuff, and talk about actually choosing a cartridge.  As you will see as you start on this journey there are incredible differences in proce and sound quality. As I had mentioned previously the key is finding a cartridge tonearm combination that works well together. Why? If the characteristics of the cartridge exceed those of your turntable, you have wasted your money. Remember -” Tractor Tires on a Ferrari!”

Initially, Once the turntable/tonearm combination is decided on, the first thing to do is ask what would you recommend as a fitting cartridge and why. One great rule of thumb is if you have chosen an automatic or semi automatic turntable the cartridge chosen must be one that will accept the overall arm mass and can deal with the intrusive mechanics of the semi 0r automatic features of the turntable.  You can use the method of 25-35 % as it can work well in this arena. I would like pick a cartridge between $100 & $200. This should give you a moving magnet that will work well on these turntable / tonearm combos. Likely a MM, Elliptical or even Nude Elliptical (a finer cut with better polish). Why not a Moving Coil?  Two things really, one is that most good sounding MC cartridges start about $ 100-$200 more and unless your amp has an MC phono stage you need to buy a MC Stage which usually starts in the $200 Range. If however you do have this stage – Check out the Ortofon Vivo Red and Blue. They start at about $280 – just above the MM and offer great sound – check the reviews!

If you purchase a manual turntable, it spins the record but you must be there to lift the arm, Most of these tables, particularly from the U.K. work extremely well. The secret is they use extremely well tempered bearings in the tonearm and the arm itself is generally very well constructed – No plastic arm or headshell – No Cheap bearings.  Pro-ject makes a fabulous little table for the entry audiophile that sells for $500. This table comes with a fabulous Ortofon 2M Red ($100.00 cartridge) but you should check it out with the Otrofon Blue or Bronze (up to $375. but now works from 20-29Khz)  or if you are wanting more, check out  the  Sumiko Blue Point Special ($449) This is a Moving Coil device but as it is High Output only a MM phono stage is needed. The arm on a  Pro-ject 1.3 Genie works beautifully, taking full advantage of the 35Khz range of this cartridge!

In many cases, a phono cartridge is included with turntables from $299-500. In most cases the included cartridge will be a Moving Magnet, likely spherical. For many people, this will work but if you want to experience “the wild side” throw a little caution to the wind and step up! Both you and your vinyl will be glad that you did

OK,  I’m finished finally except for one little thing – Unless you are comfortable around cartridges and turnatbles, can properly check the overhang, Tracking Force etc, have your dealer set it up. Yes it may cost a few bucks but if you damage the stylus – well that’s about 60-70% of the price of the entire cartridge.

Oops, one more. Ortofon makes the actual cutting heads used in the manufacture of vinyl albums. Kind of makes sense to use their product unless you want to spend jillions. If you venture to google and enter, they  have a recommended cartridge / turntable scale. Enter your turntable and the scale offers different models specific to your turntable.

OK, I’m done!