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A turntable cartridge is an electromechanical pickup device that reads a record and sends the signal to your speakers. The cartridge contains the stylus, or needle, which has a tip usually made from a small, polished gemstone such as a diamond or sapphire.
Once it’s attached to the player’s tonearm, the cartridge provides a safe and steady place for all these moving parts to track the modulations in the record’s grooves, with the result coming out as the music you hear.
It’s an intricate and instant process. Even if your turntable came with a cartridge pre-installed, it’s best to take a look at it and make sure it’s aligned properly, or upgrade to a higher quality cartridge to really bring out the best in your records.
What Are the Different Parts of a Turntable Cartridge?
Head-shell: A head-shell is a piece that attaches to the end of your turntable’s tonearm, and the cartridge is often bolted to it. The head-shell holds the cartridge, and the cartridge holds the needle. If you’re looking to specifically prevent skipping, look for a head-shell that lets you add variable weights, which can be extremely helpful especially when scratching.
Turntable Arm/Tonearm: Another deciding factor is which type of cartridge your turntable arm will accept. There are generally two types: standard mount and P-mount. Standards are held together with screws that are about a half-inch apart, and thread through the cartridge’s body, securing it to the head-shell. P-mount cartridges have four plugs and are designed to be plugged directly into a head-shell. Standards are more common, but be sure to check which one you’ll need before buying.
Weight: A weightier cartridge can bring out the best of the bass and make old records sound new again, but also increase the wear on your vinyls. Consider where you’ll be playing too – a crowded area where your turntable might get hit would do better with a weighty cartridge built for anti-skipping. Calibrating and balancing your tone arm with its counterweight on the back will help regulate the tracking force of your cartridge, and prolong the life of your stylus too. There’s typically a recommended range for cartridges specified by the manufacturer, but since balancing weight with the tonearm alone isn’t always perfect, you can also get yourself a small scale called a stylus pressure gauge, which will show you exactly how much weight is bearing down on your vinyl.
Stylus Shape: Most commonly, a stylus will have a diamond tip to cut down on skipping, and spherical needles are better for back-cueing and scratching. The stylus is supported by the cantilever, and is in charge of transmitting the vibrations. Some cartridges even offer the feature of a removable stylus, so you won’t need to replace the entire cart when the needle eventually wears out. If you’re only a casual listener though, needles will last years; professional DJing wears them out significantly faster.
Music Genre: It may seem like what’s actually on your records really doesn’t matter here, but different cartridges can be specially formulated for different types of music. Some can be softer on the low-end of the sound scale, and others heavy in the mids. For example, if EDM is your jam, you’ll want something with a full frequency range: deep bass and shining highs. For hip-hop, good bass is really important, along with a cartridge and needle that’s built for scratching, anti-skipping and back cueing. A wider stylus can help minimize wear as well, also known as “cue burn.”
Replacing your cartridge can completely revitalize your records. We’ve selected three to get you all cued up.
1. Numark CC-1 Premium, Ultra-Robust DJ Cartridge
This NuMark is a highly-versatile cartridge, ready for every level of DJing or simply playing and enjoying records to the fullest.
It provides a strong sound, great channel separation and a tight bass response, with balanced high and mids.
The look is both retro and futuristic all at once, but the real difference is in the details. With the high-output, enhanced tracking of the circular diamond stylus tip, you’ll hear all of the details in your records, and even discover new ones.
PROS: Slim design not only looks cool, but is also practical, making it easier to handle and pinpoint exactly where you want to drop the precision-engineered tip.
CONS: For those who scratch on a 7-inch vinyl, this doesn’t seem to work as well. Also, it may sound rough at first, but give it a few hours to “break-in” and the sound will improve drastically.
2. Ortofon OM Pro S Single Pack
If you’re a fan of Ortofon’s Concorde, chances are you’ll love the OM. It’s not a total redesign like the Concorde was, but more like a smaller version that’s still fully compatible with older Concorde and OM cartridges too.
The OM is a general purpose DJ cartridge, and features a spherical diamond stylus that provides a warm sound and minimizes wear on your vinyl. The durable cantilever is built solid, and can survive rough activity and quick switching.
The tracking is on-point, skipping is minimal, and mixing is definitely way more fun.
PROS: Crystal clear and loud. Great for scratching. This is an ideal choice for DJs just starting out and exploring their sound.
CONS: Be aware that this comes in two versions: Single and pre-mounted. The single is only the cartridge and doesn’t include the head-shell, while the pre-mounted includes a head-shell with a cartridge that’s already mounted and can be easily installed.
3. Audio-Technica AT95E Phonograph Cartridge
Phonograph cartridges were the first thing Audio-Technica began producing when they started out in 1962. Since then, they’ve expanded to all sorts of electronic music gear, but haven’t forgotten about where it all began.
This one still holds the high standard of quality AT is known for. Don’t let the simple aesthetic mislead you about the sound. The AT95E’s incredibly precise diamond stylus lasts long, and is designed to track at high accuracy (with a recommended force of about two grams). The result is crisp and clean sound, complete with balanced amounts of treble and bouncy bass, without over-emphasizing either the high or low ends.
Everything you need is here, including mounting hardware, stylus guard, and a zippered pouch.
PROS: Brings old records to life with a cleaner, fuller, vibrant sound.
CONS: Can be tricky to set up, install, and get it going if you’re unfamiliar with the process. You’ll need to align the cartridge and make sure your tonearm’s counterweight is correct. Takes a lot of patience, and a very small screwdriver.