Insight

How much for a needle?

By Jack Lawson · 19th Oct 2016

Record players are a return to real Hi-Fi in terms of emotionally involving sound and a lifestyle activity, not a peripheral. You focus on music, play throughout rather than surf tracks or relegate music as a background abstraction.

With the welcome rediscovery of vinyl’s greatness, cartridge manufacturers are back in full production. Many people have brand awareness for turntables, and tonearms, but how important is that little pick up cartridge?

Well, when we at The Music Room upgrade the free cartridge on Project turntables costing just a few hundred pounds, the performance jumps two orbits into the kind of sound that very costly turntables can give.

People tend to underestimate and spend little on an object that is, well, little but a cartridge is like your loudspeakers – an acoustical device, a transducer, and like your loudspeakers crucial to the organic sound of your system.

Generally, the large manufacturers make uniform but bland products. At The Music Room, we favour more specialist manufacturers, often (but not always) small companies owned by enthusiasts. Mass produced cartridges, made by assembling sub-contracted parts, are not so emotionally involving: they are electronics rather than musical instruments.

Recommendations

Our recommended budget cartridges include SUMIKO for various reasons. They are affordable yet exceptionally high performance, even their modest entry point cartridges. They have a wide tonearm synergy and they are very consistent, high quality and long lasting.

Our recommended super cartridges are Transfiguration. Consummate artistry sold without hype, more pride and passion of manufacture.

Our recommended specialist cartridges are custom designs by A.J. van den Hul. They do not take too long to make nor cost too much. When our customers disclose their components, their musical tastes, etc, we can configure the coil metal, number of turns, cantilever material, and other materials. The result is not subtle. At first we had to be convinced. Now we know that bespoke is best.

Tips

  • Synergy is good. If you use a Brinkmann cartridge, arm and motor you are getting the advantage of Helmut’s genius and his years of experimenting. If mixing brands use maths to configure the dynamics of stylus compliance and effective mass of the tonearm, etc.
  • Moving magnet cartridges, sometimes dismissed as inferior sound full-bodied and exciting; can outperform moving coil if tonearm and phono amplifier are not so great.
  • Clean LPs and clean stylus tips for good sound and long stylus life. Always clean stylus carefully with a brush rear to front (like the LP’s movement).
  • Stylast or Lyra’s SPT coat diamond tips for better sound and reduced wear. Apply before playing each side.
  • Setting up (1): don’t be afraid; just be careful
  • Setting up (2): before installing cartridge clean the pins with a contact cleaner. The output voltage is in microvolts and the signal needs to be protected.
  • Setting up (3): you’ll understand the set up adjustments if you grasp the aim is really quite simple -- to position the cartridge in all three planes.
  • Interchange or select cartridges for acoustical accuracy, dynamics (rock), mono or for 1960’s pressings, Decca, RCA or CBS. This may sound extreme but the results will make you laugh, sweat, choke, or fall off your chair. Technology is regressive. Hi-Fi once sounded this good!

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