We’ve spoken a few times about how we’ve noticed an exponential increase in vinyl sales – it’s becoming an increasingly popular format in the hi-fi realm. So it is no wonder I have customers calling me asking how to get the most out of their vinyl. In my last blog I went through some of my favourite care, cleaning and maintenance products for getting the most from your record collection (and for longer), this time we are going to delve into the strange and varied world of phono cartridges and stages!
‘What the **** is a phono cartridge?’ is a question I get asked a lot (swearing optional!). And it’s a fair question, particularly if you’re new to vinyl. And if the law of averages is anything to go by, many of you are. Put simply, a cartridge is a vessel that allows us to enjoy the recorded art that is vinyl. The tiny diamond tip – known as the stylus – tracks the record groove. picking up the minute movements within. The better a cartridge, the better they can do this and, in theory, the more expensive they are. Good quality components cost money and, as you have probably seen, you can spend £20 or many thousands on one. But what are the differences? And where do you start?
Choosing a Cartridge
There are two main types of phono cartridge out there: MM (Moving Magnet) and MC (Moving Coil). We will discuss these separately below. Mr Gregory of The Cartridge Man – who concededly puts many others to shame when it comes to record playback – also offer MI cartridges (Moving Iron). MI tend to be heavier than their counterparts, but we shan’t dwell on those for now as the chances are you will pick an MM or MC.
As you can assume by its title, an MM uses magnet in order to ‘pick up” the sound from you records –much like the pickup on a guitar. MMs tend to be cheaper when compared to the others but should not be discounted as many sound as good as MCs and have an added bonus – the stylus (commonly referred to as the needle) is replaceable! So if you’re a little clumsy like me and you damage the needle (which I hope you never experience!) it can be replaced easily and cheaply, and you don’t have to replace the entire cartridge – which can get pretty expensive. MMs are not quite as refined as MCs soundwise but offer a great entry into true hi-fi playback and continue into the mid to higher range – lets have a look at some of my favourites:
Goldring 1042 This has been on the market a long time, which is a testament to its longevity. I would still to this day welcome it on any deck that I may own. It is also the inspiration and base for some serious high-end MMs, such as Audio Note UK http://www.audionote.co.uk/ and Linn http://www.linn.co.uk/!
Ortofon 2M Black This comes with my highest recommendation: I own one these, it is on my CA concept – and I am looking at it right now. I had the blue before this one, but the black is something else. It is tonally similar throughout the 2M range but sometimes a cartridge is just special. A well known hi-fi reviewer once said to me, in regards to this specific : ‘you would have to spend a lot of money on an MC to get anything better’.
The Moving Coil magnets tend to dominate the higher-end of the hi-fi spectrum, and they operate by creating a permanent magnet, with the coils attached to the stylus. Due to the finer tolerances needed for MC they tend to be more expensive. But they do sound better due to the lower impedance and inductance alongside their ability to track closer to the original cutting. Here are a selection of some of the best:
Goldring Eroica H The best way of entering the world of MC without completely blowing your budget. What sets this MC apart is it works with both MC and MM inputs, but offers a level of greater rigidity and finer pick up.
Ortofon Quintet Black Through the use of a nude shibita – one of the finest available – this cartridge will pick up on every single glorious detail. Perfect for any genre!
Ortofon Cadenza Blue The perfect entry into higher level cartridges – the Cadenza Blue offers a nude FG70 stylus, ruby cantilever and improved winding process that offers better channel balance and dynamics. In short, it’s well equipped to do your records justice.
‘What does a phonostage do?’ I hear you say. This is another question I get a lot! Basically, it’s a unit which takes the minute signal developed by the cartridge and works as an extra amplification stage. It’s essentially a turntable pre amplifier. Turntables operate at a much lower ‘line level’ than other formats. In order to get it somewhere near line level signal for you amplifier, the signal must pass through one of these. Some turntables have them in-built, but anything mid to higher-end will require a separate one. And those that don’t should.
‘Why choose a dedicated phonostage?’ one may ask next, well let me put it like this:
The stage built into your existing amplifier may well be good. but lets consider this
1) You bought it as an amplifier, not a phonostage
2) A dedicated phono stage will not share its power supply
3) The signal is so minuscule keeping continuity is key, no matter the level you are at
When you choose a dedicated phono stage for the job they are often user-tuneable, which means they’re not limited to just MM or just MC. If properly implemented, a separate phono stage will improve the sound quality and therefore your enjoyment of your collection – which means it is worth the extra investment. Here are three of our favourites, based on customer reviews and our own usage.
Pro-ject Phonobox E An excellent way of introducing a phono stage into your system if you’re on a budget. But this little box has impressed the socks off everyone who has heard it – critics and customers alike!
Trichord Dino MK3 Based on the multiple award winning Dino Mk2, the Mk3 boasts super quiet and highly dynamic reproduction of analogue signals. These signals are very easily affected by external interference from noise – so a quiet phono stage is highly desirable.
Icon Audio PS Range It’s incredibly difficult to narrow it down to just one phonostage from Icon Audio, so lets just say we recommend their entire range. These are valve phonostages, which offer the lush and rich Class A reproduction of analogue signals that most transistor amps struggle to replicate. The perfect accompaniment to the naturally rich and detailed vinyl sound.
Yes, when it comes to your vinyl set up, there’s an awful lot to consider. But we think that’s part of the fun! Every turntable is fully customisable to your personal taste, and tiny changes can make a huge difference. And when it’s something as important as how you’ll listen to your beloved record collection, being fully in control is a definite lure for the format. And when it’s broken down into its individual components, it’s really not that scary.
… is it?