The Low Down: Turntable Cartridges

If your setup was bought anywhere other than Urban Outfitters, it’s likely that you’re paying some sort of attention to the output quality this is where the turntable cartridge comes in. Sure, you may not be the rimmed glasses-wearing audiophile bragging about a vintage speaker score, but you need something respectable right? A few months back we looked at a few general tips to upgrade your system, but now your resident no-so-expert is back to compile some interwebs words of wisdom about the hazy world of cartridges. Contrary to what your local scene’s keta dealer/DJ says, there are other solutions than the flashiest Ortofon being sold at the nearest Guitar Center. Let’s learn more.

Let’s Start with the Basics

Before the 1960s most records were pressed in mono since stereo was a recent development at the time. By definition, mono wax only has lateral grooves (vs. stereo’s horizontal and lateral). Though stereo turntable cartridges will technically do the trick while spinning old records, the empty side as a bit of mess to the sound. Using a mono cart will greatly reduce pops, clicks, and generally increase clarity. If you’re digging for old gold in the dollar racks, it may be worth grabbing a mono rig for your older records.

Turntable Cartridges come in all forms but there are two basic concepts that power them. The is a similar discussion the concept of belt-drive vs. direct drive, but now we’re talking coils and magnets. Moving Magnet (MM) or Moving Coil (MC) are your choices here. In short, Moving Coil is the most recent technology hence you pay more for better results. Both types can deliver solid output, but to compete with Mr. Rimmed Glasses, you need to know your stuff. For the most part, you aren’t going to find a cheap Moving Coil cartridge that does the job. They exist, but buyers beware. Key takeaway here is $-$$ should look toward Moving Magnet and $$$+ can dig into Moving Coil. To hear more, dig into this diagram by Audio Technica.

But What Should I Actually Buy?

You’re ready to take the informed leap and have scraped together a bit of cash, now what? Now is the time to take a good hard look at yourself and what you do with a turntable. Dreams of a globetrotting DJ, tour manager in tow (lugging your crate of course) are a great goal but probably not your current scenario. Dropping two-fifty on an Ortofon Concorde might not be the best way to spend your dough. When shopping the interweb isles, every listing will spell out the usage, so it makes sense to reference that first.

Obviously, there are both ends of the spectrum here, all we can suggest is to start small. Often times local record shops may add their own gear to the used rack. Even though it’s high volume, they probably treated it right. Audio Technica’s CN5625AL is a great place to start all for less than a club ticket. If you’re tapping into the trust fund for your at-home hi-fi setup, just go for the Rega Exact 2. Whatever your price point, you’re likely to learn a bunch on the research journey. Get out there and find it.

Now Let’s Keep it Fresh

This thing has got to last so better ensure that you’re keeping it fresh. The most straightforward way to keep your turntable cartridge in check is to clean those records. With so many very inexpensive options to keep wax pristine, no excuse on that one. The cleaning doesn’t stop there, snag a brush and have at the cartridge itself (just very delicately). Avoid cleaners with alcohol as it will dissolve the glue holding the stylus. Pair a regular cleaning with a gear head’s best friend: compressed air. If you don’t already have a few cans laying around, get some.

Cleaning cartridges and Stylus tips is not just a ‘quick once over and away you go’. It needs consistency to maintain a clean stylus. There is no recovery from a worn record. Because record deterioration takes place over a period of time, it’s all too easy to miss the vital difference that cleaning will make to preserving long term sound quality. A dirty stylus is the quickest way to ruin records so don’t let it happen to you.

By now you’ve gathered that this is a beginners guide and down the rabbit hole you go. Hopefully your wallet and roommates can handle the best setup that apartment’s ever seen. Don’t forget to enlist the experts if things get hairy. We recommend DJ Fix for the New Yorkers.

Happy listening.