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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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6 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 🙂

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