record player needle

Getting to the Point: 5 Best Record Player Needles

The end of the tonearm is a complicated place: There are cartridges, styluses (technically styli) and record player needles. What does each do? How do they literally and figuratively connect to each other? 

It’s actually a bit simpler than it sounds. The apparatus at the at this delicate point–where the vinyl is touched by the equipment– are cartridges. The bit of the cartridge closest to the record is a turntable stylus. The term stylus is synonymous with the far more familiar phrase record player needles.

Click here for cartridge highlights from Sumiko, Ortofon, Audio Technica, Rega and Gemini 
One way to look at a component sound system is that it is a series of potential weak links. A damaged, dirty or poorly recorded record, a malfunctioning or poorly made turntable, a bum preamp, amp or speakers or elements that work fine but don’t complement each other all degrade or ruin audio quality. 

Each of these truly is a potential trouble spot.

But none are as sensitive and operates with as much nuance or tighter tolerances as cartridges and record player needles. Their mission-critical job is to “read” minute variations in the grooves in a record and transform them into tiny electric currents that are sent via wires to phono preamplifier circuitry (which may be located in a standalone device or collocated with other elements). The preamp does two things: It boosts the signal enough for the amp to further process it and equalizes high and low frequency signals.

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Obviously, if the impulses upon which this amplification, equalization and other operations are not accurate representations of the sound that was recorded the final output simply will be amplified imperfection. The old computer expression “garbage in/garbage out” fits perfectly.

A discussion of the record player needles requires a look at a slightly broader issue, which is the design of the cartridges into which they fit. There are two approaches: Moving coil and moving magnet (MC and MM). The MM vs. MC debate sounds like it would be a good old geek fight. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The thinking is that MC cartridges are for audiophiles and MM cartridges — while capable of great sonic performance — are geared toward less exacting (and less affluent) consumers. The bottom line is that they both types of cartridges produce good sound.

Audiophiles love this conversation. It’s a subtle difference that determines the type of cartridge used and the sound it ultimately generates. At the same time, the issue is relatively easy to understand.

A site with the unique name Become Singers describes the difference between the two approaches, which deal with the way in which physical activity (the needle bouncing around in the record grooves) are transformed into electric impulses. 

The MM focuses on the movement of its magnet that is connected to the stylus cantilever. It moves in a back-and-forth motion making signals that are then transmitted to a coiled wire corresponding to the grooves engraved on the vinyl record. Meanwhile, MC follows the same principle of the MM but mainly includes two coils that also move in the same manner. 

The two methods diverge at the precise point at which the system is obtaining the signal from the record. This is a critical difference and separates those of us who like a nice sounding but relatively inexpensive system from true audiophiles, many of whom have hearing acuity of blood hounds.

Jay Hunt describes the differences between MC and MM cartridges in a nicely done “Best Kept Secrets” video. MM cartridges have higher outputs but are heavier and can’t navigate around the grooves as agilely. This means that they miss some of the subtleties of the recording.

MC coils are lighter and read every nuance. However, the output is so small that a boost is necessary even before the preamp. This is provided by a “pre-preamp” or head amp, Hunt said. Another disadvantage he mentions is that MM cartridges must be professionally changed or even replaced if the stylus breaks.

5 Tips for Find the Right Record Player Needles
– Unless you want to spend more for spectacular results, go with moving magnet cartridges
– Use standard mount cartridges
– Clean your stylus regularly and use a brush that is suspended over the vinyl
– Be aware of conical and elliptical stylus designs
– Buy a diamond stylus (needle) unless you really are trying save money
Jay Hunt describes the differences between MC and MM cartridges in a nicely done “Best Kept Secrets” video. MM cartridges have higher outputs but are heavier and can’t navigate around the grooves as agilely. This means that they miss some of the subtleties of the recording. MC coils are lighter and read every nuance.

However, MC cartridges have such low output that a boost even before the preamp sometimes is necessary. This is provided by a “pre-preamp” or head amp, Hunt said. Another disadvantage that MM cartridges must be professionally changed if the stylus breaks.

MC cartridges are more expensive than MMs. House of Turntables points out that the extra cost is not only for the MC cartridge itself but ancillary equipment necessary to boost the signal. While MM cartridge-based systems tend to be lower priced, they certainly can be of very high quality and provide a satisfactory experience to even a sophisticated and demanding listener.

This is Turntable Solutions’ bottom line:

Both moving magnet and moving coil cartridges provide great performance and are offered in a range of prices, shapes, sizes, and levels of quality. Both cartridge designs can sound excellent but the MC variant has the ability to go one step further and reach audiophile heights. Generally, the best value, lower cost, cartridges are of a MM design.

Another fundamental issue to be aware of is the shape of the record player needle that extends into the grooves of the record. The two types are elliptical and conical.

Vendor Fluence describes record player needles in a blog, which features a nice side view illustration of both types. An amateur’s takeaway is that more of the surface area of an elliptical stylus is in contact with the sides of the groove and therefore is better. It turns out that I’m an amateur for a reasons. The reality is that it is a trade off. The post suggests that limiting the contact in the conical approach reduces access to higher frequencies embedded in the disk but at the same time limits the deleterious impact of dust and dirt. The elliptical approach is more precise, increases the frequency response, lowers distortion and improves phase response.

Fluence says the conical approach is more common and least expensive. The company comes to no definitive conclusion on which is best style record player needle, however:

Technically, there is no “better” when deciding between a conical stylus or an elliptical stylus. A conical stylus might suit those who favor feasibility and lower prices. Meanwhile, an elliptical stylus is better used by music-lovers who want an improved phase response and lower distortion. Some record enthusiasts prefer to have both on hand depending on the records they are listening to.

There is a lot there, of course, and many folks new to vinyl may choose to avoid all the complications and complexities. Conversely, they may be intrigued and dig deeper into the world of vinyl. The good news is that not knowing a MM from and MC or a conical from an elliptical in no way limits the chances of finding a great sounding system.

A record player needle is an interesting thing: While it is the only piece of equipment that actually touches the vinyl, it seems that they almost are commodity items. The equipment in which they come — the cartridge — is a more interesting category at which to look.


MM Cartridges from Sumiko, Orotofon, Audio Technica, Rega and Gemini

Note: All images are courtesy of the manufacturer. Hover over images for a closer view (in most cases). Vendors have unique short hands for record player needle specifications, as they do with all equipment. I’ve more or less left these unchanged, so the capsules are a bit inconsistent.  The paraphrased comments are subjective (and, indeed, sometimes contradictory). Folks sometimes use equipment incorrectly and then complain. Problems mentioned may have been addressed by the manufacturer. Amazon has a tremendous amount of information and feedback on the what it sells and is a recommended element of your shopping research. If you do shop and potentially buy from Amazon, please link to there from HiFi and Vinyl Now. If you are kind enough to do so we’ll get a small commission. The price you pay will remain the same. (Thanks!)

Which record player needle used is more or less dictated by the record player cartridge, so presenting them instead seemed to make sense.

Sumiko Pearl MM

The Pearl from Sumiko is a standard mount elliptical MM cartridge with a frequency response of 12HZ-30kHz and 30db channel separation.

The tracking force range is 1.5G- 2G, with 2.0G grams recommended. The vertical tracking angle is 25 degrees. The company’s write up at its site positions the Sumiko MM as a midrange cartridge with smooth top frequencies that offers capabilities usually associated with higher priced units.

What People are Saying about the Sumiko Pearl MM
Pros
+ Balanced and “detailed” sound
+ Nice bass, “palpable mid-range”
+ Inexpensive enough to allow continued experimentation
Cons
– Deteriorated after four months
– Stylus tracking issues
– Expected better performance for the price

Ortofon 2M Red

The Ortofon 2M Red features a universal mount that fits a wide range of S-shaped tonearms. It is an all-purpose cartridge carrying elliptical diamond. It can be upgraded with an Ortofon Stylus 2M Blue.

The company says that the elliptical cartridge has a channel separation of 22 dB at 1KHz and a tracking force range of 1.6 – 2.0 g, with a recommended tracking force of 1.8 g., The tracking angle is 20 degrees.

What People are Saying about the Ortofon 2M Red
Pros
+ Easy installation, good product and sound quality
+ Smooth and warm sound
+ Deep bass, clean midrange and and sharp highs
Cons
– Tracking problem after several weeks
– Poor headshell
– Cuts bass and much of middle

The Audio-Technica AT95EX

The Audio-Technica AT95EX elliptical cartridge fits half-inch mount turntables. The bonded shank construction features a dual magnet design, which the company says results in low distortion.

The frequency response is 20 Hz-220 kHz, channel separation is 20 dB at 1 kHz.  The vertical tracking force is 1.5g – 2.5 g, with 2.0 g standard, with the AT95EX’s vertical tracking angle is 20 degrees.

What People are Saying about the Audio-Technica AT95EX
Pros
+ Easy installation, good product and sound quality
+ Smooth and warm sound
+ Deep bass, clean midrange and and sharp highs
Cons
– No on/off switch
– Can’t adjust output levels up or down
– Cuts bass and much of middle

The Rega Carbon

The Rega Carbon cartridge is easy to set up and install, according to the company. It is standard on the Planar 1 and Planar 2 turntables. The company says that the Rega Carbon is removable for easy replacement.

The cartridge features a carbon cantilever — hence the name — and a conical profile and a detachable stylus. The tracking press is 2-3 g and the output is 2.5 mV at 1 kHz.

What People are Saying about the Rega Carbon
Pros
+ Highs and midrange perfectly tuned
+ Sturdy and reliable
+ Good for entry level users
Cons
– Sounds good but overpriced
– Exaggerates surface noise
– Good overall but deep bass slightly lacking

Gemini HDCN-15

The Gemini HDCN-15 is an elliptical unit with a tracking arm/rubber washer designed for snug fit to tone arm. It sturdy silver body with tracking arm, according to the company. It comes with a stylus cover for extended life.

The HDCN-15 is a pre-mounted cartridge and needle to make installation easier. It features a sliver body with lifting arm, rubber washers designed to keep the cartridge snug against the tone arm and a spherical stylus for strong tracking.

What People are Saying about the HDCN-15 Mini
Pros
+ High quality cartridge and headshell
+ Easily installed
+ Tracks well at +/- 2.25 grams
Cons
– No Cartridge good, headshell poor
– Wired so that sound comes out of the opposite speaker than expected
– Limited frequency range

 

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