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Phono Cartridge/Stylus FAQs

What’s the difference between a stylus and a needle?

For practical purposes, nothing. Technically, the stylus is just the diamond tip that physically tracks in the record groove. However, folks use these terms interchangeably, so you can call us asking for a stylus or a needle, and we’ll know what you’re talking about.

What’s the difference between a stylus (or needle) and a cartridge?

The cartridge is the piece to which you attach the needle. Which stylus replacement you require hinges entirely upon which cartridge you already have.

Aren’t there all kinds of cartridges?

Yep, thousands upon thousands. Some look completely wacky, others appear very “normal.” Generally speaking, cartridges are either standard-mount or p-mount, moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC).

Ok, so what’s standard and p-mount?

Standard-mount cartridges are probably the most common style, and they’re capable of the best sonic performance (specifically MC cartridges, but we’ll get to that a little later). They are secured to the tonearm with two vertical screws spaced ½” apart, and four small lead wires coming from the tonearm are attached to posts on the back of the cartridge body. They require more tedious installation procedures, including alignment as well as tracking force and anti-skate adjustment.

P-mount cartridges have four slender pins at the back, and they plug directly into a tonearm that’s designed to accept them. No fidgeting is necessary. They’re designed to be quick and convenient. Though there are some great models out there, they usually don’t sound as good as a similarly priced standard-mount due to the fact that they don’t allow for adjustments and calibrating.

And what about MM and MC cartridges? What are they?

It’s really quite literal. MM (moving magnet) cartridges involve a magnet that’s attached to the cantilever (the tiny bar with the actual diamond adhered to it). As the diamond tracks, it moves in response to what’s in the groove, which causes the whole cantilever/magnet assembly to move with it. The “moving magnet” interacts magnetically with fixed coils inside the cartridge body, which in turn convert the magnetic signal into an electrical one. The signal is sent down the tonearm, out of turntable via RCA cables, and so on. Check it out:

MC (moving coil) cartridges operate in much the same way, except the coils are attached to and move with the cantilever. In the diagram above, just imagine the coils connected directly to the cantilever (instead of the magnet), and the magnet being fixed somewhere behind them.

MC cartridges do not have user-replaceable styli, the vast majority of MM cartridges do. MC cartridges can often be traded in for a discount toward a new one, due to the fact that their diamonds cannot be replaced.

What’s the best way to figure out which needle I need?

Contrary to popular belief, the model number of your turntable is not the most reliable way to determine the stylus that you need. Turntables were often packaged with varying cartridge models, and if you bought your table used, there’s no way of knowing if the original cartridge is still intact. The model of your turntable is a good place to start, but we’d rather you check the model of your cartridge. This information is usually stamped on cartridge body. Sometimes the model of the needle is even stamped on its housing, which simplifies things further. We can look up most any cartridge or needle model number and pin down what you need in a heartbeat. If none of this information is visible, email us a picture of your existing stylus and cartridge. We can usually eyeball it with 100% accuracy. If your stylus is not available, don’t fret, we can set you up with a new cartridge.

There are so many cartridges out there! How do I go about choosing one?

As I’m sure you’d guess, there are a lot of factors involved here. Consider your budget. What are you ok with spending? Think about the extent to which you value your record playback, the quality of your audio gear, and how much disposable income you may of may not have at the moment. If you have a turntable that retails for $100, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to be shopping in the $300 range for a cartridge. Conversely, if you spent $1500 on your turntable, you’ll want to do it justice, and a $50 cartridge will not really fit the bill.

Next, identify the mounting style of your current cartridge. Is it a standard-mount or p-mount? Your new cartridge will have to mount to the arm in the same fashion.

Now it’s time to start reading! Read about the cartridges in your price range. They vary in their strengths. One might be very good with detail and may be “faster,” more upfront sounding, while another may sound warm and welcoming but might not pull as much detail from the groove. It’s simply a matter of what you prefer in your own system. Our website discusses the sonic characters of most all the cartridges we carry. Our sales staff is also happy to chat with you about it, so feel free to email or call.

For audiophile-caliber turntables, there are also some more complicated things to keep in mind. You’ll want a cartridge that’s a decent match for you tonearm. For example, you don’t want to use an extremely light cartridge if your tonearm is high in mass. It’ll play fine and it might sound good, but you can count on it not sounding as good as it could, and this’ll speed up record damage. It’s like fishing for sunfish with a rod that’s design for catching marlins. As a general rule, pair low-mass cartridges with low-mass arms, medium with medium, high with high. The compliance of the cantilever is another factor. Usually a tonearm will call for a cartridge with mass and compliance within a certain range. Give us a call and we’ll let you know what’s what, if you don’t already know.

You mentioned record damage. My records are precious. How do I prevent this?

As mentioned above, make sure your cartridge is a decent match for your tonearm. The arm should be able to control the cartridge, and mating them based on mass is a reliable way of ascertaining this. Also make sure your cartridge is set up properly. If the stylus is tracking awkwardly in the groove, it’ll be grinding on the groove in funny ways. It might be shouldering one side of the groove or the other, and it’ll wear down the delicate groove in a corresponding manner. This leads to unwanted distortion, decreased longevity of the stylus, and a record that doesn’t sound like it’s supposed to. We’ve got plenty of alignment tools, so shop around on our website.

Keep your records and stylus clean too! Both will last longer, plus you want the stylus to transcribe what’s in the groove, not the dust bunnies that have accumulated.

Last, remember that every time you play a record, you are in essence damaging it. On a micro level, the diamond melts the groove as it passes through. The groove will wear down whether you like it or not, so just enjoy your records and do what you can to slow the deterioration.