All About Phono Cartridges

What do you really know about your phono cartridge? Just enough? If you’d like to know more, read on.

I make records. Really, I cut music into lacquer disks that get made in to vinyl pressings. It’s a very cool job. One thing that I noticed over and over during my career is the more detail you look for the more details you will find. The more you know, you find out that you know even less than you thought you did.

Turns out that it is quite comfy to understand “just enough” about most things. For instance, do you really want to know how long your eggs sat on the blacktop waiting to be taken inside the supermarket? Do you really really want to know all the details about how your car was put together? For most of us the answer is: I know all that I need to know; I don’t get sick eating groceries and my car doesn’t drive it’s self off the road.

Ok, fair enough. What do you really know about your turntable and the playback thingy called the cartridge? What would change if you knew more about it? Would your enjoyment of vinyl increase or decrease?

What I want to do is introduce you to some of the terminology and some of my observations about phono cartridges. Then I’ll suggest that you use your ears to help you decide what to do with that knowledge.

phono-cartridgeFirst, a mind shattering tidbit: Cartridges wear out over time and not just with prolonged use. There are all manner of glues, resilient plastics, and other polymers inside a typical phono cartridge. None of these things are inherently (or completely) stable over time. They change their characteristics. Wooh, that’s a biggie.

You mean that my cartridge today doesn’t sound the same as it did a few years ago ? Yes, the not so minute details of the playback characteristics change over time. If you play your phono regularly, though, you may bnot notice this effect until you replace your cartridge. Anyone who wears glasses will find this is a similar observation. Things change very gradually—almost imperceptibly—over time. But, after a while, you may not even understand why, you just grow out of love with the sound of your turntable.

Let me digress for a minute… Every element of your playback chain matters, not just the turntable. You have to confirm the condition of every piece of equipment that you put your music through. Power supplies sag, capacitors give up their charge capacity, and tubes age dramatically. Even cables and connectors age, especially anything that is exposed to modern urban environments. Oxidation can rob any device of some of it’s potential.

But this effect is very hard to measure as a consumer. You only have your instinct and gut feelings to go on. And, any stereo shop salesman will be sure to bring these points to your attention. “Are you sure your turntable sounds proper? How would you know for sure?

So, lets jump back to the little ole cartridge. This device is somewhat field-serviceable, and an upgrade offers some of the most dramatic changes to your listening experience. You see, there isn’t just one way to play back a record, there are many different cartridge types and each has it’s advantages and shortcomings.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to learn all of that to have a great vinyl experience. I make these things every day and I don’t even know all of the nuances between playback systems. What I do know is that what I play back my records with affects my enjoyment of the music. And it’s not subtle. From, “oh, thats a nice record;” to, “OMG! Everyone should hear this amazing record!”

What I wanted to know was why should I choose one type or one model over another. Beyond the salesman hype and the in-store playback demonstrations on exceptionally expensive turntables, how do you decide:

1. Is my cartridge worn?
2. Is my stylus worn or damaged?
3. Is the stylus’ movement being impinged?
4. Am i getting the performance I should be getting from my cartridge?

And then:

5. Is my cartridge re-build-able?
6. Is it time for a technology upgrade?
7. How many dollars am I willing to part with to fall back in love with my records?

Well, don’t be too shocked to learn that you have to bring your cartridge to someone who can measure it, repair, rebuild it if it’s an expensive model, or offer you recommendations. You have to go beyond your stereo shop. You have to go to someone like Sound Smith in Peekskill, New York. There are many qualified service centers, these guys just happen to be located only 10 mins from my home and they came very well referred from my professional audio friends. They know a ton about cartridges… because they make their own. And these guys are the specialists that you need.