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CARTRIDGE BUYER’S ADVICE…FOR BUDGET BEGINNERS

Got yourself a low cost, budget turntable? Still using the cartridge supplied with it? Chances are that it’s a design with a conical stylus. Hmm…you might want to think about an upgrade then. Paul Rigby delves…because that’s what he does

New budget turntables often arrive with a cartridge supplied with a low-cost but perfectly serviceable conical/spherical stylus.

They’re good performers but you can do better.

If you’re looking to improve the sound quality from your turntable, check out the video below for buyer’s advice.

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To see the video, click the image below…

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15 Comments

  • Reply
    Richard Stretto
    30th November 2019 at 1:26 am

    whoa … i think this is the first time i really do absolutely not agree with you …

    with all due respect, but i believe your comparison is uneven and leads you to the wrong conclusion. Let me explain.

    Even a super cheap turntable that retails for £ 100 consists of many complex mechanical parts that must be manufactured and assembled within tolerances, and all of this is then crowned with a piece of diamond. The manufacturer can only survive by using the absolutely cheapest, barest minimum quality components. The cartridge will have poorly aligned coils; the cantilever will be a QC reject of a slightly more expensive cartridge; it will consist of a, bent aluminum tube to which the cheapest suspension foam, and magnets from the scrap heaps are fitted – as well as a piece of round diamond with a diameter of 17µm, a speck of 7th grade, quasi unpolished industrial diamond that was bonded with too much glue to a yet another badly aligned shank of scrap aluminum. ex factory this cartridge can’t cost more than £3.

    and this miserable PoS you now compare to a indidually sold cartridge with an elliptical stylus that may cost £12 ex factory. Every single component of this cartridge will be of slightly better quality, assembled a bit more carefully and aligned a bit more precisely. The diamond will be 3rd and not 7th grade industrial, and, more important, have a much smoother surface (because it’s impossble manufacturing a multi-facet cut without polishing). Because the tip has less mass, it will be lighter and it will be bonded to a lighter, straighter and tapered shank of better grade aluminum using less and better glue. and this shank is pressfit with a certan precision into a smaller square shape hole in a lighter, stiffer and straighter cantilever.

    And you logically conclude that an elliptical stylus sounds better than a spherical.

    That’s where our ways part at least partially.

    Because: Had the same amount of lavishing and polishing been applied to a spherical diamond tip, it may have actually been the better recommendation for a still-budget turntable.

    Remember, you suggested keeping the budget turntable and to upgrade only the cartridge. Inevitably the tonearm will still be lowest grade. The arm bearing will be almost as noisy as my knees in the morning. And the tolerances are be haphazard and huge.

    A spherical stylus is so much more tolerant to adjust and it will produce a lot less distortion.

    The record wear of the elliptical stylus will be much higher and more disturbing because the misaligned chisel will scrape his way through the groove.

    And, being elliptical, it will need more skating compensation, which will normally be either under- or overcompensated.

    The spherical stylus on the other hand will eventually flatten the groove (elegantly like an elefant), but the wear will be less offensive.

    Kogan and other researchers scientifically compared spherical and elliptical stylii in the early 1960s. To their own surprise the spherical stylus produced considerably and consistently less distortion; the elliptical’s distortion spektrum consisted of more higher order odd harmonics. Sort of like pentode vs. triode if you want – and which, by the way, is the secret behind that “more twang” you heard in the guitar.

    Up to. let’s pick an arbitrary number, retail £800 or 1500 for a complete turntable, i find high grade spherical stylii the better choice: more forgiving, less destructive, more organic, and more pleasing to the ear.
    Once the turntable is north of £2000, it will have good bearings, the platter will be even and the motor silent precise. The arm, too, will be made to much higher precision and have no play in the bearings. The playfield gets more even, and a properely aligned elliptical stylus will track slightly better, especially in the highs and in loud passages near the run-out.

    Yet, when i listen to a vintage 1960s LP with eg an Ortofon SPU GM with spherical tip, the sound is more organic, more coherent, more …ear friendly.

    The SPU GME on the other hand will render the same recording with more emphasis on details and less on the whole picture.

    Do you have some vintage Dynagroove LPs in your collection? In that case you *must* use a spherical stylus … because Dynagrooves were cut predistorted with the inverted distortion spectrum of a spherical stylus. At least theoretically the two identical, but phase reversed distortions should cancell. If you play a Dynagroove with any non-spherical stylus shape, you will add the e.g. typical distortion of an elliptical stylus on top of the spherical’s.

    To conclude in other words (and in my very own, very subjective opinion), the cheaper the turntable, the bigger the benefits of a good quality, well polishd *spherical* stylus. Above a certain quality level, the discussion is no longer about better or worse, right or wrong – it’s whether you want to hear more music or more information. The elliptical has a more extended top and thus more “air”. The spherical on the other side is less sibilant, voices will be less spitty and smoother.

    But because most people think like you, they reason that an elliptical stylus is per se superior to a spherical.

    Thusly prejudiced, they don’t even consider sphericals a contender in the upper middle class of cartridges.

    The quality of the polish however is dominant and makes a much more audible difference thant the shape of the stylus. And cleanliness, as we know, is godliness.

    (Ironically, a cartridge builder of high renown told me not long ago that for OEM it has become increasingly difficult to find nice big fat top quality spherical tips. And if they are offered, they cost quite a lot more than a comparable quality elliptical tip.)

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      2nd December 2019 at 9:49 am

      Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts on this Richard. A few thoughts of my own on this:
      1: The video addresses budget (i.e. £200+) not the £100 sub-budget designs you mention. ‘Sub-budget’ has grown into a genre all of its own and I will tackle that in a future video.
      2: “The spherical stylus on the other hand will eventually flatten the groove” That sounds like severe groove damage to me, there’s nothing “elegant” in that 🙂 I disagree that modern stylii damage records in the way you suggest. Vinyl wear is a given, that’s true, but there’s many other elements out there that pose a greater threat.
      3: If your ears prefer the conical design then great – that’s part of the joy of hi-fi as a hobby. If you love conicals then I support your decision and wish you many hours of happy listening. As I say in the video, conicals have many advantages but my ears say that, ultimately, they are the bottom of the heap in terms of pure sound quality. Polish or no polish. Of course, you need good hardware support to manifest that sound (i.e. the rest of the turntable, amp, speakers, etc).

  • Reply
    Richard Stretto
    2nd December 2019 at 1:19 pm

    Aha … I wasn’t aware that you referred to a different kind of “budget” turntables 🙂 And in re-reading my rambling i realize that I actually failed to make my points clear.

    1: The novice buyer of a £200 budget turntable probably does not have your experience and expertise in cartridge alignment. And most likely the tonearm of said budget turntable has some potential (as you say in the video), but probably does not allow fine adjustment of VTA, azimuth etc. An improperly installed bi-radial stylus has the potential to do more damage as a spherical.

    2: Of all stylus shapes, the elliptical has the smallest contact patch i.e. it also produces the highest pressure on the vinyl. In his research, Kogen determined in the 1960 that the maximum VTF of a elliptical stylus should not be higher than 1.5 gram or else the wear on both, the diamond and the vinyl, will be too high. (just google “kogen””elliptical””vinyl” and you’ll find more information; Kogen later became a top brass in Shure’s research.)

    3: A worn or dirty elliptical stylus will literally chisel pieces of vinyl from the groove whereas a worn or dirty spherical stylus will “only” slowly flatten the groove; the high frequencies will be the first to disappear. I hasten to add that this will only happen after playing the same record more than 500 times…

    4: It used to be a RIAA standard to check the freshly cut lacquer with a spherical stylus; the lacquer was rejected if it couldn’t be traced with a spherical Shure MM or if distortion became too high. One of the reasons for using a spherical stylus on lacquers was that ellipticals would in a sense “deburr” the lacquer. This “deburring” would happen anyway during the various stages of galvanisation; a “deburred” lacquer would result in LPs with less high frequency information.

    5: The Beeb (if I remember correctly, but it might as well have been Nippon Broadcast) extensively and scientifically researched the distortion of spherical and elliptical stylii. They found out that ellipticals produced more distortion except when tracking highly modulated passages near the end of a side. They also found out that the skating effect was more pronounced with ellipticals – and more difficult to compensate. (Obvious, since the pressure on the vinyl is squared when calculating the skating effect, see 2 above)

    6: I’m neither saying nor implying that sphericals are “better” or even superior to elliptical or other bi-radial cuts. I just wanted to point out that most cartridge manufacturers reserve sphericals for their budget cartridges and the more exotical shapes for their upper ranges. Why? I can’t prove it but i strongly assume it’s for marketing reasons. It’s easier to ask more money for a more complex stylus shape because of the intrinsic assumption that spherical = base line.

    7: The Denon DL-103 was the result of the scientifical research mentioned above. Introduced in 1962, this cartridge to this day has a spherical stylus – albeit polished to mirror finish. Assembly and alignment are top notch, especially if one considers the modest price. The 103 is anything but a bland performer. Of course it’s not perfect, but it does most things right and reproduces LPs in a highly engaging way. Not audiophile, just musical. Would I recommend the DL-103 as an upgrade on a £200 budget turntable? Most likely not because very likely the (budget) tonearm will not be able to cope with the vibrations caused by the stiff suspension.

    8: Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to recommend the owner of a £200 budget turntable NOT to invest in upgrades but instead put that money aside and save for a midrange turntable? (This does not apply to owners of £800+ budget turntables…) (I know, there is a whole industry living off upgrades. But where does “polishing a turd” start; where is the threshold of diminishing returns? Just thinking loud… 😉 )

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      3rd December 2019 at 10:31 am

      Hi Stephen – not everyone *can* save up to buy a new turntable. Sometimes budget is it, I’m afraid. We don’t all have the disposable income. Also, most turntables, as I stated in the video, have immediate unfulfilled capacity which is why I targeted this value for money upgrade. There’s other upgrades you can initiate later to improve the turntable via ancillaries – a subject of a forthcoming video.

  • Reply
    Richard Stretto
    3rd December 2019 at 12:25 pm

    Paul, of course everyone CAN save up for a new turntable – instead of pouring the money piecewise into upgrades (i.e. spending £100 here for a new stylus, £50 there for a new platter mat, £100 here for a new tonearm cable, £100 there for a record weight etc.) our aspiring audiophile could decide NOT to spend that money but instead put it aside. After a year of no upgrades, he will have, say, £600 (£50 per month) at his disposal. That’s not terribly much; spending it for a new TT will buy him not much more than a budget TT. But if he steps up from a £200 TT, the new TT will be clearly better. On the other hand, our audiophile-in-spe will have read a lot about turntables, he will have followed your blog – in short: he’s much better informed. And he will maybe decide to look for a good secod hand Project, Rega, Linn, Thorens, Technics, Denon, or whatnot for his £600.
    _
    (I’m well aware that my suggestion is completely anachronistic and typically Swiss… I’ve been on the upgrade path for decades until i realized that a budget turntable as a whole will remain a budget turntable regardless of the many details i’ve upgraded. The arm and platter bearing, the motor, the tolerances etc will remain budget. And often the upgrade items bought will be obsolete and useless when finally buying a better turntable. To finish with a lighter note: I agree that installing a better cartridge or stylus gives instant satisfaction, so the money is probably well spent. 🙂 )

    _
    Oh, and by the way, it’s Richard, not Stephen… :-p

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      3rd December 2019 at 1:09 pm

      Apologies – I’d just answered a question to a reader named Stephen 🙂

  • Reply
    Colin Seymour
    9th December 2019 at 11:02 pm

    Hello Paul
    As you suggested I have found your website. This is an interesting read. I understand enough to know what you are both talking about but don’t feel inclined to get into the usual hifi deep and meaningful debate yet. What I can say from personal experience is ‘That cartridge next to your head in the pic is an Audio Technica AT3600L which must surely be the cheapest real hifi cartridge in existence. I bought one direct from china off ebay for £8.75 including shipping. It does make me wonder why on earth I have paid more in the past. My current set up is £200 budget turntable. AT3600L is after all acceptable to Rega for their P1.

    I don’t believe that the fitted carts which come on turntables are the rejects. It wouldn’t be in a manufacturer’s interest to do that. A cheap cart is usual but cheap doesn’t mean bad. I have learned that an elliptical stylus on a poorly engineered arm is going to produce an inferior sound to a good spherical. This is due to the elliptical stylus jittering around in the upper area of the groove, whereas a spherical can bed itself in better and stays where it is supposed to.

    I read somewhere, some time ago that a spherical stylus actually recuts the groove to its own shape making the record then not ideal for ellipticals. The advice was basically saying don’t switch back and forth between spherical and elliptical. I am certain everyone does just that – especially reviewers, and I have never read such advice anywhere else. It probably doesn’t matter very much.

    My personal experience of styli is a mixed bag, The spherical A3600L sounds better than the elliptical AT-VM95E on my turntable, but the elliptical Grado Prestige Black sounds better than both of those on my cheap £200 turntable.

    Judging by some of the reviews in comments from other purchasers where I bought my turntable from, ignorance reigns supreme at the most basic level. And from people who ‘think’ they know what they are talking about. So good advice from yourself or any other genuinely knowlegable person to the £200 turntable buying masses is probably a waste of time anyway in most cases. Colin

    • Reply
      Paul Rigby
      10th December 2019 at 12:00 pm

      Glad to see you’ve found me Colin – welcome to the site! Thanks for you comments too 🙂 There are a host of different stylus profiles on the market. The aim is to track the groove and also to contact as much of the groove as possible. To do this means time, expertise and some fine engineering. The bottom line is money. Which is why the best stylus profiles out there that track the best, cost a lot of cash. Of course, the stylus tip is just one part of the equation. It’s not all about stylus tips. The cantilever is a major factor (boron will out perform the aluminium you’re using…sapphire will out perform both…diamond is the best of the lot, etc), the cartridge type and design is also a biggie. Even the basic material used to construct the cart’s chassis is important and will affect sound. Then there’s the arm…and on and on 🙂 You could go potty trying to keep track of it all.
      Oh and please don’t believe the guy who talked about sphericals gouging out a nice homely trench in vinyl either. That’s just not so. Pure hokum and dangerous hokum at that. The only thing that will do that is the original lathe in the cutting engineer’s office 🙂 If you ever have a stylus do that then you bin the stylus, returned to the shop you bought it and demand your money back – and pronto! Then you buy a new record because you’ve just changed the basic nature of the sound and ruined it for good.

      Here’s a couple of links for extra reading/watching…
      https://www.sound-smith.com/articles/stylus-shape-information

      https://blog.audio-technica.com/audio-solutions-question-week-question-week-can-explain-different-types-styli/

      • Reply
        Colin Seymour
        10th December 2019 at 9:42 pm

        Thanks. The word ‘snakeoil’ crops up a lot in the hifi world, especially high end. So I guess there must be a lot of snake oil salesmen too, peddling untruths. I see on one of your reviews you were using an Ortofon Concorde ProS. I was pleasantly surprised as few outside of entry-level DJing would give it a second look. I have a little pro-audio background from yesteryear so I do tend to mix pro and domestic equipment. I love my Concorde ProS and if a spherical stylus is ever going to recut a groove then that one surely would as it tracks at 4grams. I have 40 year old record which have been played over and over with that cartridge and they are perfect. A mistracking cart tracking too light will be harm. People are so concerned about high tracking force and spherical tips and I believe the concern is unfounded. I mentioned in a previous comment that my factory fitted Audio Technica AT-VM95E cartridge was not very good (darn cartridge I called it) I need to learn to not judge too soon. After some perseverance with listening and giving it a chance to run-in it is really singing now and will probably be a popular choice in the sub £50 bracket. I saw your review of the new Project Concorde lookalike cartridge. Worth pointing out that any replacement stylus from the ortofon OM range will fit it so in practice it could be upgraded with Ortofon OM replacement styli. Not that I am suggesting it. I think OM is great at the lower end like the OM10 (I have one) but further up the price range people can do better for their money (Just my opinion) I never know when to stop replying so don’t feel obliged to respond – I can’t help always saying more and more.

        • Reply
          Paul Rigby
          11th December 2019 at 3:53 pm

          Hi Colin – I dislike the term ‘snake oil’ a lot because it’s often used by people who dismiss any form of lateral thinking if it clashes with their own rigid thought processes. So when I hear the term I tend to think dark thoughts 🙂 I wouldn’t call the groove wear thing you mentioned that, for example, just an urban myth. Something which has gained traction through repetition.
          Don’t worry about spilling words – I’m guilty o that too. Once thing for the future, if you do come across issues with a turntable, the problem might be caused by something else. For example, I’ve heard turntable issues in which you could blame the cart, for example but the actual problem was a ringing platter that wasn’t being damped properly and the solution was a better quality platter mat. A minor example but it pays to keep an open mind about these things 🙂

          • Colin Seymour
            11th December 2019 at 4:14 pm

            The least open minded place on the internet I ever encountered was the whathifi forum. It was like unarmed combat and just plain nasty. I dared to mention a brand name cable I use that I had bought which had improved the end result and actually made the system sound louder for same volume setting. First message back was to inform me I had been reprted to the moderaters for promoting and then next a deluge of responses all negative.. Followed by several derogatory comments questioning my sanity and telling me my mind was playing tricks on my ears. After a few weeks when I realised this was the general culture I deleted the account. My ears are actually very good for my age.

          • Paul Rigby
            11th December 2019 at 4:38 pm

            Blimey – sorry to hear that Colin. Not a good experience, I agree.

        • Reply
          Richard Stretto
          12th December 2019 at 1:03 pm

          “I love my Concorde ProS and if a spherical stylus is ever going to recut a groove then that one surely would as it tracks at 4grams.” Funny that you mention the Concorde in that context – just the other day I had an e-mail conversation with Flo Kaufmann. Flo is the guy that almost single handedly keeps Neumann cutting lathes all over the world up and running (Neumann no longer offers maintenance and repair of their lathes). Flo is also the guy that cut Ortofon’s actual test record. In other words: Flo is a guy that knows what he’s talking about. And he mentioned in his mail that some cartridges literally EAT grooves for breakfast – with the Concorde being one of the worst gluttons. (He added that he doesn’t know why, but that he can prove it by experiment.)

          • Colin Seymour
            13th December 2019 at 11:38 pm

            Thanks for the interesting comment. I have been watching lots of you tube videos recently of trips around record pressing plants and learning about how it is done. I will look him up and see if he has any web content. The only possible cause of the ProS eating records for breakfast that I can think of was the ProS used to be fitted with an enormous 26um diameter diamond instead of the usual 18um diameter further up the range. However when I replaced my ProS stylus a while ago I checked the specs and noticed the proS now has a 18um diameter stylus just like the others. There was no mention of this change by Ortofon – onlu my eagle eye noticed. The big earlier diamond may well have been ideal for wide grooved 45rpm singles but that is me guessing. And of course 4g is heavy. I can’t say I have ever noticed any record damage or excessive wear from using the ProS but I don’t use it much now. I went through a Pro Audio phase mainly because I am a lover of knob twiddling but I’m back onto the real hifi again with a rekindled interest in vinyl. I actually find vinyl extremely inconvienient but there is a certain kind of magic about it. probably because it is mechanical and relies of good engineeering rather than digital which is for the most part electronic code and too convienient to prove any real user involvement. Personally I find digital sound totally acceptable and of a high standard usually. I saw on the videos that the record pressing machines are all at least 40 years old and obsolete. Mostly working at full capacity. Maybe if vinyl is going to be popular long term some company may concider building some new ones. I will check out FLO. Colin

  • Reply
    Colin Seymour
    10th December 2019 at 12:12 am

    To add my controversial tuppence worth, my concise advice to anyone who wants to debate hifi till the cows come home is ‘just use your bloody ears’ . I know that is an oversimplification and doesn’t help guide novices in the right direction but in the end, our ears will tell us if something is right or not.

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