A turntable cartridge is a crucial aspect of amplifying sounds, and it holds the needle or stylus that translates the vibrations of the record into an electrical signal. The cartridge is connected to the end of the tonearm.
My name is Donovan, and I’m a lifelong music enthusiast. I’ve worked in the music business for years and am a huge fan of vinyl records and turntables. I’ve used, replaced, and purchased many turntable cartridges over the years.
This post will explain what a turntable cartridge is. I’ll break down the various components of a cartridge, explain how it works to help play records and give you some other important and related information.
Let’s get after it.
- Key Takeaways
- What is a Turntable Cartridge?
- How Does a Turntable Cartridge Work?
- Turntable Cartridge Replacement
- Final Thoughts
- A turntable cartridge is the bulky end of the tonearm that contains the needle or stylus. The cartridge is an essential piece of the turntable.
- A cartridge functions as an electromechanical transducer that changes vibrations from the vinyl record into an electrical signal that can be amplified.
- The main component of a cartridge is the needle, also called the stylus. But other parts include coils, magnets, pivot, cantilever, and adjustment screw.
- Cartridges can be replaced and upgraded, meaning they are removable. Always ensure you have the tonearm wires properly installed into the cartridge when replacing.
What is a Turntable Cartridge?
A turntable cartridge is an extremely important part of your turntable. You’ll find the cartridge on the very end of the tonearm, and its primary function is to hold the needle or stylus in place while the turntable is spinning a record.
Every cartridge is essentially an electromechanical transducer. That might sound like a mouthful, but what this means is that your turntable cartridge picks up mechanical vibrations from the vinyl record and transduces them into an electrical signal that can be amplified.
Without a cartridge, you won’t be able to listen to records. It’s a small component on your turntable, but it’s a very critical one. Knowing how a cartridge functions and the parts that make it up will help you understand why it’s so important.
I’ll explain how a cartridge works and its components in the section below. Know that the cartridge directly impacts the quality of audio you get from your turntable setup and that they need to be replaced because they can wear out.
How Does a Turntable Cartridge Work?
A turntable cartridge works by picking up the vibrations from the grooves into a vinyl record and turning those into an electrical signal. This signal can then be sent through a preamp and into speakers to give you amplified sound.
In other words, the turntable cartridge is essentially the brains of the operation. You need a cartridge to listen to records. A cartridge’s quality and design can impact the sound you’ll get from the speakers.
When the needle, also called the stylus, runs over the grooves of a record, it results in small vibrations. These vibrations work their way up into the cartridge, and the components within it send the signal through the wires down the tonearm and out into your setup.
Check out the image below for a look at the internal components of a turntable cartridge:
Most cartridges will have a cover over all of these components, so you can’t always see them when you look at them in person. Not every cartridge looks exactly like this image, but all will have these main components, so it’s a good resource to use for explaining.
Let’s look at each component to help you understand how they work together to turn mechanical sound vibrations into amplified electric signals.
The coils are the largest part of the cartridge and are often responsible for the square or rectangle shape you see with most of them. It is made of thin wires that are bundled together very closely.
Coils play a critical role in creating electric signals. Without these coils, there would be no way to turn the vibrations from the record into sound. It’s a simple design aspect but a highly important one.
Needle or Stylus
The needle or stylus of a cartridge is one component that most people know about. This is the very tip of the cartridge that rests in the grooves of a record when it’s playing. The needle is the first point of contact between the record and the sound amplification process.
The needle can be removed from the cartridge to be replaced or cleaned. But needles are not universal, so you always need to use a specific one to match the cartridge you are using. A dirty or bent needle will result in poor audio quality.
Magnets are another integral component of the cartridge. These are small compared to other magnets you might be used to, but they serve a critical function. The magnets sit between the cantilever and the coils.
The exact function of these magnets can vary depending on the type of cartridge you use, and I’ll explain more about that in the section below. But they essentially help to move the needle or gather electrical current.
The cantilever is a longer arm-like piece of the cartridge. It’s much smaller than the tonearm on the turntable but has a similar shape. The cantilever holds the needle on one end and attaches to the pivot at the other.
The cantilever helps to capture the vibrations that the needle is picking up. This helps to translate the specific sounds that are found within the grooves of the record. The point where the cantilever meets the pivot is where the electric sound begins to form.
The pivot is usually a small piece of rubber that holds the cantilever in place within the turntable cartridge. It’s also sometimes called the suspension. It’s the starting point where the electric signal forms within the cartridge.
The pivot works with the magnets and pole pieces to generate an electric current that can be sent through the tonearm and into the rest of the setup. It allows the cantilever to move freely by holding it within a moveable rubber center.
The pole pieces of the cartridge are found directly under the coils and between these wires and the magnets. These small pieces help to direct the charge of the electric signal so it can be appropriately processed.
Many other electric instruments, such as electric guitars, have pole pieces, and their function is the same. They are like a funnel for current that keeps things better organized within the system.
Turntable Cartridge Mount Types
There are two main types of turntable cartridge types to know about. Each type has pros and cons, so it’s good to know about them so you can get whichever option best meets your needs or preferences.
Moving Magnet Cartridge
A moving magnet cartridge has a design where the magnets are directly connected to the cantilever. These types of cartridges have a vibrating cantilever that moves within the wire coil to create a current that can then be amplified.
Moving magnet cartridges are lighter, which can lead to less damage to records. You might want to use this cartridge if you have old or valuable records. Replacing the needle is also easier on this kind of cartridge.
The downside to using a moving magnet cartridge is that you don’t get as good of sound quality because of their higher output. You don’t always need to use a preamp with these cartridges, but it doesn’t always produce the best sound.
Moving Coil Cartridges
A moving coil cartridge has the wire coil attached directly to the cantilever rather than being positioned above it, like with moving magnet styles. These are smaller cartridges that take less effort and energy to move.
Because of their lighter weight and size, moving coil cartridges provide more precise sound quality. Most audiophiles looking to get the best possible audio quality will choose a moving coil cartridge because of this.
The downside with these is that they can be more expensive, and changing the needle out can take time and effort. It also puts out less overall signal, so you’ll definitely need to use a preamp with your setup with going with a moving coil cartridge.
Turntable Cartridge vs Stylus
Some people who are unfamiliar with using turntables will confuse the cartridge and the stylus. Even though these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they shouldn’t be. Knowing the difference will help you better understand the function of each.
The stylus is the needle-like tip that sticks out from the rest of the cartridge. It’s often just called the needle. It’s usually the only visible component of the cartridge and is one of the replaceable pieces as well.
The cartridge refers to everything else that helps create an electrical signal from the mechanical vibrations that the needle picks up. The cartridge includes the stylus but also the cantilever, pivot, magnet, coils, and pole pieces.
Someone might say that they need to replace the cartridge of their turntable in reference to the stylus, or vice versa. You can see how this can be misleading or confusing and why it’s good to know the real difference between the two.
Turntable Cartridge Replacement
Replacing your turntable cartridge is required at some point during the regular operation of your turntable. Cartridges and the components within them can wear out, leading to less-than-optimal sound quality and playback.
You also might want to change your cartridge for a sound upgrade. Using a different cartridge on the same tonearm is possible, which can help you get improved sound quality from the option you currently have installed.
Replacing a cartridge is easy, regardless of if you want to use the same exact option or go with an upgrade. You just need to remove the cartridge from the control arm to get started.
Most modern turntables are designed to make cartridge replacement really easy. You can often just pull or pop off the cartridge and install a replacement. Always be careful when doing this so you don’t damage any of the smaller parts in the cartridge.
There will be four wires running from the tonearm into the turntable cartridge. You need to connect these wires properly to get the correct sound. Always notice which order the wires are plugged in when you remove the old one, and then install the same way.
To replace the needle on a cartridge, removing the entire cartridge is a good idea to make the task easier. Even if you aren’t replacing the whole cartridge, you will probably still want to remove it from the tonearm.
Replacing a cartridge is a much easier solution than buying a brand-new turntable. If you have issues with getting good sound from your turntable, replace the stylus and cartridge before you assume something else is wrong with it.
Are turntable cartridges universal?
Turntable cartridges are not universal. This is because there are different mounting styles for various cartridges. If you have a tonearm with one mounting type, you need to use the same one to get it to attach.
The two types of cartridges are p-mount and half-inch. Half-inch cartridges will have two screws located on top of the cartridge housing that are about a half-inch apart. You need to remove these screws to change the needle.
P-mount cartridges will not have these screws on top and are a bit easier to install or replace. That makes them a preference for some turntable owners who don’t want to deal with a more complex style.
You can’t install a p-mount cartridge on an arm set up for half-inch or the other way around. Keep that in mind if you are shopping around for a replacement cartridge.
Here are a few short answers to some of the most commonly asked questions related to what a turntable cartridge is.
Do turntable cartridges make a difference?
The turntable cartridge can greatly impact the sound quality you get from your turntable. Cartridges can wear out over time and might need to be replaced. You won’t get great audio quality from your records if you have a bad or worn cartridge.
Do turntable cartridges need to be replaced?
Turntable cartridges should be replaced every once in a while for optimal performance. There is no exact time when you should replace them, but if you notice poor sound or visible signs of wear on the cartridge, it might be time for a replacement.
How important is a turntable cartridge?
A turntable cartridge is one of the most important parts of your turntable. Without one of these in good working condition, you won’t be able to listen to your records at all. Cartridges are a critical component responsible for converting sound vibrations into an electrical signal.
Should I replace a turntable needle or cartridge?
In most cases, you can replace a turntable needle rather than an entire cartridge. But only some cartridges are designed to make needle replacement easy, so you might need to replace the entire cartridge. Replacing just the needle is more affordable.
Why are vinyl cartridges expensive?
Vinyl cartridges are a critical component of your turntable setup. They aren’t the most expensive piece of the puzzle but will cost more than a needle or stylus. They cost more because they have a direct and important impact on overall audio quality.
What is the lifespan of a turntable cartridge?
There is no specific lifespan for turntable cartridges; how long they last can depend on the model and how they are treated. But you should be able to get 500 to 1000 hours of playtime out of most turntable cartridges.
A turntable cartridge is the component on the end of the tonearm. It’s a small part that serves a mighty purpose in taking mechanical vibrations from a vinyl record and turning them into an electrical signal that can be amplified and listened to.
This means that the cartridge is an electromechanical transducer, at least from a technical perspective. Knowing what the cartridge is and how it operates can help you understand when and why it’s time for a replacement to get optimal audio from your turntable setup.
Have you ever replaced a turntable cartridge? Did you notice improved sound quality? Let me know in the comments below.