Understanding each component can be challenging for those who are either new to record player technology or are simply going through a learning curve. You always want to ensure that you have the right part for the job and that everything is compatible to enjoy the highest fidelity audio quality.
With the vast number of brands and individual parts on the market, you might have trouble finding the exact phono cartridge you need for your turntable. This begs the question, are turntable cartridges universal? Keep reading through this article to discover everything you need to know.
So, are Turntable Cartridges Universal?
No, turntable cartridges are not universal and must be properly matched with the tonearm mounting system. There are two primary types of cartridges: half-inch and P-mount. Odds are, if your turntable has a headshell attached, you need a half-inch turntable cartridge. If not, then P-mount.
The Different Kinds of Turntable Cartridges
Although there are many different brands that you can choose from, the actual construction of phono cartridges doesn’t vary too much. Nevertheless, they come with substantial differences regarding quality and the overall performance of your tonearm.
Also referred to as a phono cartridge, this is a small part of the tonearm that affects many factors, such as audio clarity, peaks, tonal balance, and more. Below, you’ll find a comprehensive breakdown of what makes each type of cartridge different from the next.
Widely preferred and known to be one of the best standard cartridges you’ll find, its name comes from the fact that the screw holes on top are merely a half-inch apart. These cartridges come mounted on a headshell, which is the best indicator of which type of cartridge you might need if you’re looking for a replacement or an upgrade.
It’s a fairly simple design that’s easy to replace and is very popular among brands such as Audio Technica, Pro-Ject, and more. The wires from the headshell can be easily affixed without too much hassle. Moreover, you’ll find that not only are half-inch phono cartridges a common standard, but they’re a top choice for many high-end turntables as well.
With a P-Mount cartridge, you won’t find any screw holes on top, and it may or may not require a headshell to be attached, depending on the type of record player and tonearm you have. These cartridges can be easily secured with a single screw near the back end, and installation is a little easier compared to half-inch cartridges.
P-Mount cartridges have four terminals at the back that can be connected to the tonearm, and this particular cartridge can be found among many consumer models of turntables. Although both half-inch and p-mount cartridges are pretty standard, it’s also important to know the difference between the different types of magnetic turntable cartridges.
What Else Differentiates Turntable Cartridges?
In addition to the mounting style, phono cartridges also vary based on their internal components. While we won’t get into all the details in this article, just know that certain types of phono cartridges will only work with specific phono preamp systems. We explain more about these two types of cartridges here.
Moving Magnet Cartridge
Boasting a relatively simple design, a moving magnet cartridge comes with a small magnet within the stylus, and it generates stereo output with the help of two sets of coils. The cartridge’s magnetic field creates a minor electrical current as the stylus tracks the record grooves of a vinyl record.
These are beneficial as they don’t need very much tracking force to be effective, and they don’t put as much wear on records over time. Many people also find them to be quite easy to replace, primarily due to the fact that the stylus can be removed with minimal effort. Moving magnet cartridges come in a range of shapes and sizes, and they offer a high output.
Moving Coil Cartridge
There’s only a slight difference in the construction of moving coil cartridges, as it still transmits audio through a coil and a magnet. Yet, the coils don’t move with the magnet; rather, they work with the stylus as it’s tracking the grooves of a record.
Known for a handful of high-quality benefits, these types of cartridges have the ability to deliver a better frequency response and sound quality. This is due to the stellar electrical signal and the fact that the coils are a bit lighter than moving magnets.
One downside that you should consider is that moving coil cartridges can be a bit more expensive than moving magnets, but many audiophiles feel like they’re worth the investment.
They also come with a few more requirements, from producing less signal and needing a step-up transformer to their stylus being a little harder to replace. Regardless of this fact, their sound quality is unbeatable when compared to MM cartridges.
Which Cartridge Should You Use?
You should think about a few considerations when choosing a cartridge for your record player. A lot of it comes down to the audio quality you want to achieve and what your turntable is built for. When looking at different types of cartridges, it’s also a good idea to think about the type of stylus. In a similar fashion, you’ll find that there are a variety of stylus types, each with its own unique benefits.
The different information provided above gives you a brief overview of a cartridge’s pros and cons, but that’s only one part of what’s important here. It’s crucial to think about different factors that affect the audio quality of your vinyl records, such as stereo separation, distortion, noise, and more. Different combinations are guaranteed to provide a unique listening experience depending on the cartridge and stylus you choose.
Even parts such as the cantilever can have an effect on how your stylus and cartridge perform. This part is what attaches the stylus to the cartridge, and although it may seem fairly insignificant, you’d be surprised how much it actually matters.
To make it easy for you, one of the best cartridges you can use is the AT91B from Audio Technica. Aside from the fact that they’re a widely trusted brand in the community, it comes with a conical stylus which is known for its excellent tracking abilities. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand how each type of stylus, also referred to as a needle, varies from the next.
Are Record Player Needles Universal?
They might look the same without extensive knowledge, but they’re far from universal. From different materials, weights, and shapes, the needle you choose will have a direct bearing on your audio output. Considering this part is what tracks the groove of your record, you want to ensure you’re getting the quality you’re looking for.
Even if they’re a very small component of a record player, they’re up on the list of the most important for numerous reasons. Overall, the level of precision your stylus achieves will play a huge part in the sound quality you get out of your record collection. Once you understand their core differences and strengths, you’ll be better suited to optimize your turntable.
I briefly glanced over this one earlier, but a conical stylus is highly regarded for its precision when tracking the grooves of a record. Many people consider a conical needle to be the optimal choice for most record players. They tend to boast a radius that’s more narrow, which leads to a precise ability to track the sound waves of a record.
Conical styli can also be some of the most affordable, including the added benefit of being relatively simple to manufacture. Although this style is one of the most popular, another common design is the elliptical stylus, which comes with its own unique benefits.
Featuring a bi-radial shape that’s pretty large, the elliptical needle is known for a decent frequency response with a focus on a higher range. It also does a great job of minimizing distortion, and many people notice a satisfactory phase response.
One downside is that they’re known to wear down quicker than some other stylus types, but they’re still a preferred choice for many vinyl enthusiasts. There’s also a type of stylus called a hyper-elliptical which comes with more durability, improved tracking capabilities, and minimizes record wear.
The hyper-elliptical stylus is bound to be a little more expensive, but many people feel the output quality matches the price point. Nevertheless, one of the biggest selling points is the bi-radial shape of the stylus tip.
With one of the most technical designs out of any type of stylus, the Micro-Ridge is hailed for its shape as it’s pretty similar to the cutting stylus that’s used in the vinyl production process. They’re known to be fairly challenging to manufacture, and computers are needed to develop the precise and unique design that makes them stand out from the rest.
The stylus tip comes with a multi-level ridge that delivers one of the best hi-fi experiences you could possibly get out of a record player. Due to their manufacturing needs and output quality, you can expect a Micro-Ridge needle to be somewhat expensive in comparison to other designs.
Overall, each type of stylus has something unique to offer, and newbies and audiophiles are guaranteed to take their own pick on which type of needle they prefer. However, it’s essential to consider their pros and cons if you’re looking to customize or upgrade your record player. Regardless of which one you choose, always remember that each stylus has its place in the world of vinyl records, and expensive doesn’t always mean better for your preferences.
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.