How to Choose a Cartridge

The Paula Fixed Coil Cartridge

Where do I start?

Maybe it's best to draw an analogy that is easy to relate to. Certain critical parts of the design of a race car will allow it to stay on the track - to allow the driver to not fly off the road - mainly, the tires, and suspension.  THAT is the cartridge in your analog system. It is KEY.

The engine and transmission - that's the preamp, amplifier, turntable and speakers. Power, and consistency, smoothness (lack of distortion). But none of them will help you stay on the road.

So to hear what is on the record, your stylus must stay in best, consistent contact with the record groove. That's the cartridges job, and it is an almost impossible one.  

Simply put, If you don't read all the words, you wont get the story!

I speak to many people who tell me they have either:

Spent lots of money on their table and arm, so a lower cost cartridge is all that's needed. 

Or....

My table is not extremely high end, so it doesn't deserve a good cartridge.

Neither of these statements make sense. Here is the most important thing to consider: In an analog system, the cartridge does MOST of the heavy lifting - it does the nearly impossible task of retrieving physical information from the groove and converting it into precisely perfect electrical signals. A waveform NOT picked up by the cartridge will not be "re-created" by a great arm or table, electronics and speakers. It will be lost at the beginning of the process. 

A great cartridge will also work wonders on a moderately prices table. Why? For the exact reason stated above - it does the most difficult part of the analog process. 

Some customers say “I am older now, and don’t hear so well, so a lower performance cartridge is all I should get”.

I disagree. To me, this is like saying – “I don’t see as well as I used to, so cheap glasses are all I need.”  Obviously, that is not true. The same goes for  someone who may not hear as well as they used to. That is all the more reason to put larger and better detail into the air to hear, not less !

So....Like many technical decisions, divide and conquer works here.

The issues are:

  • Cost and Value
  • Compatibility
  • Stylus shapes
  • Stereo? Mono?

Cost and Value

I often am confronted with the following regarding cartridge cost;

“OK - I get it. I need a really good cartridge. But why spend what seems like too much money for something that is going to wear out in 1000 hours, or gets broken by accident?”

This is a great question. We have two answers, so please read on. 

My inner voice says  - Is that the same as saying “Why buy good tires when they are going to wear out or get a flat?”

Mind you – tires may save your life, whereas a cartridge likely will not. But isn't the quality of life (great music) high up on the list? I think so.

But the really good news is that with a Soundsmith cartridge you have a unique opportunity to resolve this cost issue in a way that no other company can offer. Unlike ALL OTHER cartridge companies, we can always rebuild your Soundsmith cartridge to new condition and performance, over and over again. For only 20%. From that unique standpoint,  it makes sense to own a high performance design – as high as you can afford. Your cost in the long run will be lower, and your enjoyment, greater. It might even save your life when the road gets bad.

Please remember -

“ I have a lower cost turntable – I cannot justify getting a good cartridge” or…..

“ I spent quite a bit of money on a great turntable and arm – I just don’t think that I need to get a great cartridge because I got a great table and arm”.

This thinking does not take into account that the cartridge is where it all starts. After all, the cartridge has to do an impossible job, turning mechanical energy into electrical. ACCURATELY! Analog reproduction is extremely difficult and very much like a baton race. If you drop the baton in the first round, not much you do later on will make a difference. If you don’t retrieve signal at the record, no amount of tone arm, turntable or preamp is going to recreate or recover it.

Compatibility

This is not as hard as you might think. There are two basic things you need to consider.

Ø  What is the mass of my tone arm (which determines the “compliance” value of the cartridge you need to match the arm mass)

Ø  What kind of cartridges will my phono preamp accept?

COMPLIANCE:

Most modern arms are between 9 and 15 grams in “effective mass”. That means they will work with medium to low compliance cartridges. Cartridges with a compliance between 22 and 10. Most cartridges are between 22 and 10 in compliance.

Some older arms are very lightweight – 4 to 8 grams. They need HIGH compliance cartridges.

Soundsmith makes high, medium and low compliance cartridges to match any arm, so we offer one-stop shopping.

PHONO PREAMPS – What output level of cartridge do I need?

High, medium or low output?? Which do I choose?

Many preamps accept both MM (moving magnet - high output) cartridges, and  MC (typically low output - moving coil) cartridges. There are some high output MC designs as well. There are some preamps that only take one kind of design, and even some that only take “medium” output cartridges.

Some preamps allow adjusting the “gain” or amplifying capability of the phono preamp, allowing a wide range of cartridges with various output levels to be used. High output cartridges usually  need 36-44 dB of gain, medium need 48-52 dB, and low output types need 58-70 dB.

The other issue is “loading” – what electrical “value” does the cartridge experience when connected to a given preamp, and how important is that?

With MM preamps, it is usually NOT adjustable – it is 47,000 Ohms. It may however, have adjustable capacitance loading, although that is not common. If present, that allows tuning the amount or level of high frequency to your listening taste. These MM types of preamps work extremely well with Soundsmith High Output cartridges, and if the gain is high enough, (48-50) with our Medium output designs as well.

With MC preamps, resistive “Loading” has a great effect on performance of MC low output designs and Soundsmith fixed coil low and medium output cartridges, so most MC preamps are adjustable offering different values of “resistive” loading to choose from. Resistive loading affects the high frequency performance of MC designs, so that is important. Typical loading values are 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 Ohms. Sometimes there will be a switch to allow easy changing of values. Sometimes tiny switches inside the unit allow these changes. Sometimes resistors must be soldered into place by someone who knows how to do this. You need to check your MC preamp and how easily (or not) the owner can accomplish these changes.   

So  - the take away here is – what preamp do you own?? If you don’t have one yet, what should you purchase??

Our suggestion is to get the most flexible unit you can, unless you know exactly what cartridge you are always going to be using, and its gain and loading requirements. You might even consider one of my designs.......please check out our Soundsmith high performance low cost units. Click here to see them.

Stylus shapes

Lower performance, lower cost styli have advantages. Conical and elliptical designs are lower cost, and provide an ease of alignment and sometimes lower ticks and pops. The down side?? More record wear and far poorer high frequency reproduction and all that is lost with that loss, such as imaging and dimensionality.

Styli that are better fitting and narrower against the groove walls (contact line or fine line designs) do a far better job, but require more precise alignment and cleaner records. But like higher performance cartridges, they are worth doing.   

Stereo and Mono

I have known many mono “bigots”. I used to be one of them. As a result of being reformed, one of my favorite things to do is to trick a person into listening to a mono recording with one of my mono cartridge designs.

Mono has numerous advantages – recordings of performances and music that are not available in Stereo, better phase or timing accuracy and timbre, and often lower distortion. Stereo on the other hand has dimension that brings you closer to the performance. A front row seat if you will. Many people I know have both mono and stereo cartridges, either with two arms on their table, a separate mono table, or interchangeable head shells.    

Bottom line – whatever works for you. But do consider mono. And when you do, consider that we make more mono designs than anyone.

They Said What?

"The Voice ... is without a doubt the best non-moving coil cartridge I have heard and I would rank it in the top five of any cartridges I have ever heard."

- Jack Roberts, Dagogo

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