The ultimate performance potential of any record playing system is defined by the capabilities of its phono cartridge. Tonal balance, response range, clarity on musical peaks, stereo separation and imaging, along with freedom from noise and distortion are all affected at the outset. The selection of this first component is critical to the full enjoyment of the rest of your system. Your choice of cartridge can also strongly affect the life of your records.
With vinyl records becoming more and more difficult to replace, it’s an important point to keep in mind when selecting a cartridge or upgrading your system. Since Audio-Technica has long been recognised as a world leader in phonograph cartridge design and production, we offer a wide range of models designed to match turntable/tonearm requirements, performance levels and budget considerations.
This article is intended to help make your decision easier by giving you as much information as possible. It will also give you specific “numbers” for all of our cartridges, with additional detailed information on our Audiophile Series. But no matter which model you select, we’re confident you’ll find your Audio-Technica cartridge to be outstanding value in every respect.
Choosing your cartridge format
Audio-Technica cartridges can be:
- P-mount (plug-in),
- Half-inch mount (1/2”)
P-mount cartridges have four terminals at the back that simply plug into the end of the tonearm. The cartridge is then secured to the tonearm with a single screw.
Half-inch mount cartridges also have four terminals at the back, but they have larger pins that connect to four individual wires at the end of the tonearm. The cartridge is secured to the tonearm’s headshell with two screws, spaced 1/2” apart.
Cartridges such as AT81CP and AT85EP are P-mount design, though they can be used as 1/2” cartridges using the optional half-inch adapter bracket AT-PMA1. Once equipped with the optional half-inch adapter bracket AT-PMA1, P-mount cartridges become compatible with both half-inch mount tonearms and half-inch mount headshells.
The most important specifications include frequency response, channel separation, channel balance and output level.
These “numbers” are an attempt to describe how your cartridge will perform, and how well it will meet your needs.
- Frequency response is a measure of the range of sounds that the cartridge will reproduce uniformly. This “flatness” of response ensures that no frequencies are given over- or under-emphasis. And uniform response is a hallmark of Audio-Technica Vector Aligned cartridges, with even the least expensive units providing smooth reproduction within their stated ranges.
- Channel separation is another key specification. lt is the measure of how well one channel “ignores” the other stereo channel, so that you don’t hear signals from the right channel in your left-side speaker. lt’s measured in dB, and the higher the number, the higher the separation. Separation is especially important at the higher frequencies, a region where Audio-Technica cartridges are particularly outstanding.
- Channel balance is a measure of both production quality and good basic design. Both sides of a stereo cartridge should have equal loudness when equally recorded levels are present.
- Output level is important in matching your cartridge to the electronics. Too low a level can result in noise, too high a level can over-drive a preamp into distortion. However, the output levels of all A-T Dual Magnet cartridges will work well with virtually any magnetic phono input.
There are a number of other measurements of phono cartridge performance, but in the final analysis, the most important characteristics to you will probably be how well the cartridge performs audibly, how it interfaces with your other system components, and how carefully it preserves your record library for future use.
ls tracking force important?
Yes, but not to the exclusion of other characteristics. Each cartridge (regardless of its manufacturer) operates best in a particular range of tonearm tracking forces. It is important that this range is within the capabilities of your turntable if optimum performance is to be achieved. Keep in mind also that record wear goes up as pressure on the record surface increases. Tracking too light can cause as much (or more) damage as tracking too heavily.
Understanding styli shapes, shank shapes and constructions
Four main series of cartridges: Excellence, Moving Coil, VM Series and Moving Magnet entry models.
Five different diamond stylus shapes :Special Line Contact, Shibata, Microlinear, Elliptical and Conical.
Four different stylus constructions: Nude Rectangular Shank, Nude Square Shank, Nude Round Shank and Bonded Round Shank.
The Special Line Contact stylus offers the optimum tip design for high frequency response with minimum abrasion, providing low distortion and low record wear.
The Shibata stylus was originally developed to play four-channel vinyl records (quadraphonic), for this purpose it was necessary to playback upto 45 kHz. The Shibata shape provides a long line of contact with groove walls, minimising record wear and playback high frequency material with minimal distortion.
The Microlinear stylus almost exactly duplicates the shape of the cutting stylus used to produce the original master disc. This enables it to track portions of the groove other styli cannot reach, resulting in extremely accurate tracking of high frequency passages and ruler-flat frequency response within the audible range.
The Elliptical stylus has two radii, the front radius being wider than the side radius. This allows the stylus to ride in the center of the groove, like the conical, while the smaller side radius can more accurately track higher frequencies. Elliptical styli are available in two sizes – 0.2 x 0.7 mil(1) and 0.3 x 0.7 mil with the first number indicating the side radius. The smaller the side radius, the better the sound quality will be.
The Conical stylus is the simplest, least expensive and most widely used stylus. Its spherical tip, which has a typical radius of 0.6 mil, normally touches the center of the record groove walls. The conical design works best in moderate to lower priced, and older record players with a tonearm imposing higher tracking forces, or tonearm not featuring cartridge tilt adjustment. Typical radius of conical stylus for 78rpm records is 2.5 or 3 mil, four times bigger than LP record conical styli.
Stylus shank construction: Nude or Bonded Styli
Nude styli, shaped from whole diamonds, are more costly than bonded styli, with their diamond tips “bonded” to metal shanks before finishing. But because of their lower mass, nude styli track more accurately. Also,since our nude styli are grain-oriented, with their longest-wearing faces touching the record surface, they last longer.
Stylus shank form factor: Rectangular & Square Shanks or Round Shank
Rectangular & square shanks nude styli cost even more than round shank nude styli to make, but mounting them in laser-cut square holes in the cantilever locks them precisely in correct alignment with record grooves.
Which cartridge is best? Moving coil or moving magnet?
Many serious audiophiles prefer moving coil designs, citing clarity and transparency of tone, better defined transients, precise stereo imaging and lower distortion as the reason for their preference.
Please note that moving coil cartridges require preamps with special compatible inputs (MC phono inputs). The output level of MC cartridges is between 0.2mV to 0.5mV, therefore MM phono inputs designed for cartridges delivering around from 3mV to 5mV cannot accomodate moving coil cartridges.
Moving magnet cartridges are more robust. Moving magnet cartridges stylus assembly are field replaceable.
Once you have decided on the most important factors for you, see which cartridges are best suited to you in the image below.