The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XVI: Pins and Needles (Phono Cartridge 101)
A couple of years ago, I butted into a conversation two of my employees were having about phono cartridges. "I had to spend $150 on an Audio-Technica last week!" one of them exclaimed. The other, astonished, shook his head. "That's a lot of money," he replied. Both of these guys were part-time DJ's, as it turned out, in their early early 20's, and to tell you the truth, I lost interest soon after knowing that. I'd rather talk about compact discs than "two turntables and a microphone." But as I turned away, I told them that $150 wasn't really a lot of money for a cartridge. "I just spent $600 on one," I said, trying not to sound like the audiosnob that I am.
They were both dumbstruck. "Six hundred bucks for a cartridge?" one of them finally asked. "Does such a thing exist?"
I then began my lecture, Phono Cartridge 101, talking about the $7500 Clearaudio Insider, the $5000 Symphonic Line RG-8, the $5500 Koetsu Rosewood Signature, and the $5000 van den Hul Grasshopper, the best cartridges in all the land. Now, they seemed impressed. Now, I thought, they could view my $600 investment with some perspective.
"You spent $600 on a cartridge?" they repeated. Oof.
The phono cartridge, also known as the pickup, or the stylus, or the needle, or that little box thingie at the end of the tonearm, is perhaps the most misunderstood component in the world of hi-fi. I believe that next to loudspeakers, the phono cartridge affects the overall sound quality of a stereo system the most. There's a lot of debate in audiophile circles right now about whether amplifiers sound different from each other, or CD players, or cables, but almost everyone agrees in differences between phono cartridges. They can sound radically different from one another.
That's why I like them so much. I said once before that it's a lot of fun to be able to change the overall sound of your system without spending gobs of cash. Mounting cartridges is a bit of a pain in the ass, but the idea of spending $200 or $300 and getting a totally different sound out of your analog spread seems capricious, in a good way.
Most people don't think much about the phono cartridge, though. They know they have to change the stylus every few years, but that's about it. They view the cartridge as something that's integral with the turntable, not at all independent. But it is an independent component, and choosing one is as important to analog bliss as the actual turntable, if not more. (For the record, so is the tonearm, but that's for another day.)
So what cartridge should you buy for your new turntable? A lot of people have their favorites for each specific turntable. For instance, Shure cartridges work well with old Dual turntables, and Rega cartridges work well with Rega turntables. But before you go out and blindly follow someone else's recommendation, you need to look at the rest of your system to make sure it will work. Buy a low-output moving coil cartridge, for instance, to go along with your 1978 Pioneer receiver, and you might hear some music if you turn the volume control somewhere way past the three o'clock position. Make that some music... and a whole lotta hiss.
So you need to figure out what your preamplifier (or integrated amp, or phono preamp, or receiver) will handle when it comes to cartridge compliance. You see, the cartridge itself is a tiny little amplifier that boosts the signal to the rest of your system. Some cartridges, called low-output cartridges, put out very little boost... they leave that for the preamplifier to do. These cartridges tend to be the best in the world; because they don't spend a lot of time amplifying, they can spend more time on extracting the most from the record groove. They are quieter than other cartridges, which makes more musical detail come forth. The only problem is you need to spend even more money on a preamp or a step-up transformer to boost that signal so you can hear it!
That's where high-output cartridges come in. They'll work with any type of system... even 1978 Pioneer receivers. Slap 'em on the end of the tonearm, align them, and fuggedaboutit. Unfortunately, these cartridges get little respect in the world of high-end audio, even the better ones such as Grado and Rega. Because they amplify the signal from the grooves so much, that can sometimes translate into more surface noise, more hum and hiss from your other components, and less detail. Still, a high-output cartridge is a safe bet when you're not sure what your system can handle.
Next, you need to decide whether you want a moving-coil (MC) cartridge, or a moving-magnet (MM) cartridge. The difference, obviously, between these two cartridges are in what part of the interior assembly moves with the LP groove. In the old days, it was easy to choose between the two... the MM cartridges were the worker bees, the drones. Most MM's were also high-output, which was even less glamorous. No, if you wanted analog magic, you needed not only an exotic MC cartridge, but a low-output one to boot. And you needed to spend at least a couple of grand on it, not to mention a couple more on a decent step-up amplifier. You want the magic, you need the cash.
But things have gotten more complicated in the last few years, especially with the Vinyl Renaissance winding down. High-output moving magnets such as the Rega Exact and the Grado References have surprised everyone with their excellent performance, not to mention their affordability. The Grado Statement, which was introduced earlier this year, is not only a $2600 MM cartridge, but it is a low-output MM, a very rare animal indeed. And the price of some high-output MC cartridges have dropped below $200... in fact, the Audio-Technica OC-9, a great low-output MC cartridge, has been discounted by some mail-order firms for as low as $250.
So choosing between a MC or a MM or a LO or a HO cartridge is less a matter of performance, but of compatibility with the rest of your system. As in nearly everything in audio, what sounds the best to your ears is what counts, although I still wouldn't mind that Clearaudio Insider or van den Hul Grasshopper attached to my Rega Planar 25.
Despite all that, I will still attempt to offer recommendations for specific turntables, even though I know I'll get e-mail saying, "Are you nuts? That cartridge sucks! Only the Supercoil MC-1000 Mk. VIIIb gets the most out of that 'table!" I've seen audiophiles (actually, audio salesmen) almost come to blows when it comes to matching cartridges with turntables. So here I go...
There's a lot of other cartridges in the world, and in the twilight years of analog there is almost no such thing as a bad phone cartridge. I've mentioned Rega, Benz-Micro, Shure, Ortofon, Audio-Technica, Grado, and Sumiko. But others are well worth auditioning: Dynavector, Audio Note, Goldring, Denon, Audioquest, and Linn all offer great cartridges for $300 or less. And if you have any questions about any turntable/cartridge combo, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll give you my two cents. But unless you're experienced, foolhardy, or just adventurous, have the dealer install the darned thing and save yourself from an afternoon of cussing, sweating, and more cussing. I love cartridges, but I hate aligning the li'l suckers. There are vinyl lovers who spend hundreds of dollars on hardware and tools just to put cartridges on.
- Rega Let's start with what I know. Rega cartridges work the best with Rega turntables. Other cartridges just don't seem to fit right. I've heard of people sawing off the tips of the headshell screws, drilling extra holes into the base of the turntable, and jerry-rigging all sorts of counterweights with fishing wire just to get a non-Rega cartridge to fit on a Rega 'table. I've tried a half-dozen cartridges on the two Regas I have owned, and I always come back to Rega cartridges. In fact, Rega offers four cartridges, presumably to match with their four turntable models. The Bias ($125) works well on the Planar 2, the Super Bias ($175) works well with the Planar 3, the Elys ($225) works well with the Planar 25, and the Exact ($595) works best on the top-of-the-line Rega Planar 9. I've used the Exact on both my old Planar 3 and my current Planar 25, so sue me. The only other cartridges that I've heard work well with Rega 'tables are the Benz-Micro Glider and the Benz-Micro H2.0, but they're $750 and $1200, respectively, so knock yourself out.
- Dual If you took my recommendation to hit e-bay looking for old vintage Duals, you probably noticed that many of them come already fitted with Shure cartridges. Back when I bought my Dual 510 in the '70's, all of the Duals came fitted with Shures. Shure is one of the great old names of phono cartridges, along with Audio-Technica, Ortofon, Stanton and Pickering. Twenty or thirty years ago, those five companies probably made up for at least 90% of the cartridge sales in the worls, and Shure was the biggest. Were they the best? Probably not, but what makes Shures great are their trackability. Put on your most warped, fucked-up LP, and a Shure will play it. Will it sound like a low-output moving coil? No. But Shures, like Grados and Regas, are very safe recommendations. The classic V15VxMR, at $275, will bring your old Dual to life. If that sounds like a lot of money to add to the $45 you paid for the used Dual on e-bay, then try the M97HE for $100.
- AR Grado has made some of the very best MM cartridges ever. Unfortunately, you cannot put one on an AR (and to a lesser extent, a Rega). Why? This combination will hum like a mofo. I made the mistake of putting a Grado Signature 8M on my AR turntable back in the '80's, and it took about a year of fiddling before I could get that hum down to a marginally acceptable level. Grados work well on any other turntable. But for your AR, I suggest an Ortofon X3-MC ($220) or even better, an X5-MC ($270). These cartridges, both high-output MCs, will make your AR (both versions) sing. My AR turntable, fitted with a Sumiko MMT tonearm and an X5-MC, was my first real taste of high-end sound.
- VPI I haven't really talked about VPI much, but they make a turntable, the HW-19 Jr., which is the Rega Planar 3's only real competition for the best 'table under a grand. From what I understand, every cartridge sounds good on a VPI, so if you have one, you're free to experiment. I think the VPI sounds great with Sumiko cartridges, most notably the Blue Point ($195) and the Blue Point Special ($295), which are both high-output MCs. These two cartridges sound almost unrelentlessly bright on other 'tables, but the VPI's prove to be synergetic. The Grados also shine with VPI... anything from the Prestige Black at $40 to the Prestige Gold at $180, and on to their more expensive line that goes up to $2600. Like I said, Grado makes the best MM cartridges in the world... on the right turntable.
Geez... I'm not even that crazy.
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