Audio Solutions Question of the Week: Which is the Best Cartridge to Use with my Turntable?

Which is the best cartridge to use with my turntable?

Audio-Technica Phonograph CartridgesAudio-Technica has been manufacturing phonograph cartridges throughout the entire history of the company and is recognized as a world leader in cartridge design and production. The performance potential of any record playing system is defined by the capabilities of its phono cartridge. The selection of the proper cartridge is the critical first step in realizing the full potential of the rest of the system. The cartridge will affect tonal balance, frequency response, clarity on musical peaks, stereo separation and imaging, and help eliminate noise and distortion. As with many Audio-Technica products, we offer a large selection of cartridges, with a broad range in price and features, so that any user can find their ideal match.

Phonograph Cartridge TypesThe way a cartridge mounts to the turntable’s tone arm will be one factor in determining which cartridges you can use. Audio-Technica offers cartridges with two main mounting styles: half-inch mount and P-mount. The half-inch mount cartridges are secured to the tone arm’s headshell with two screws, spaced 1/2″ apart, and have four terminals that are connected via four individual wires. Popular turntables such as the AT-LP120-USB offer a half-inch mount headshell which allows you to use half-inch mount cartridges. A P-mount cartridge also has four terminals, but it plugs directly into the tone arm where it is secured with a single screw. A third cartridge mounting option is the universal mount. An Audio-Technica universal mount cartridge is a P-mount cartridge with an included half-inch mount adapter bracket and thus is compatible with both P-mount and half-inch mount tone arms.

Another difference between cartridges is whether they utilize moving magnets or moving coils. Moving magnet cartridges are more common as they are more robust and have stylus assemblies that are user-replaceable. Moving coil cartridges are often the choice for serious audiophiles. The moving coil cartridges can offer superior clarity and transparency of tone, better defined transients, and precise stereo imaging with lower distortion. However, the moving coil cartridges are usually more expensive and require a specialized RIAA preamp and compatible turntable, due to the fact that the output level of moving coil cartridges is usually between 0.2mV and 0.5mV. By comparison, moving magnet cartridges typically have an output level between 3mV and 5mV.

The “Big 4” specifications of a phonograph cartridge are the frequency response, channel separation, channel balance, and output level. The frequency response is a measurement of the range of sounds that the cartridge will reproduce uniformly. This “flat” response ensures that no frequencies are over- or underemphasized. The channel separation is a measurement of how well one channel “ignores” the other stereo channel. This separation ensures that you don’t get right side sound in your left speaker and vice versa. The best cartridges have high channel separation (a large number as measured in dB), which is especially important at higher frequencies. (Audio-Technica cartridges are designed to realize outstanding separation even at high frequencies.) The channel balance measurement indicates the ability of the cartridge to reproduce the left and right channels in the same manner. A cartridge with perfect channel balance will play a mono signal at equal levels in both channels. The output level measurement allows you to properly match the cartridge with the preamp (discussed above). Too low of an output level may result in more noise, while too high of an output level may result in distortion caused by overdriving your preamp.

We hope that you now have a better understanding of phonograph cartridges (even though the info above is just the tip of the needle, as it were). With the resurgence of vinyl records, a wide range of users are contacting our Audio Solutions Department: everyone from new users with questions about setting up their first turntable to lapsed users who are pulling their turntables and records out from storage and need help getting their systems back in running order. If you need assistance, feel free to drop us a line.

Audio-Technica

4 Comments

  1. Hi, I have an AUDIO TECHNICA AT-LP120-USBHC PROFESSIONAL DIRECT DRIVE USB TURNTABLE – can I use an MC cartridge for this specific turntable? Can you recommend one? Also, do you have any tips how to allign the cartridge properly on this turntable?

  2. I’ve tried searching high and low with no real answer. What is a universal mount tonearm?

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