How to Choose Your Next Turntable Cartridge or Stylus

A close up of a standard mount turntable cartridge
A standard turntable cartridge mounts to the underside of the tonearm, secured by a pair of vertical screws. Amy T. Zielinski/Getty Images

Like most anything else mechanical in nature, turntable cartridges - the stylus (also known as a needle) in particular - wear down through use. Eventually, these parts will need to be replaced in order to maintain top sonic performance, even/especially if you have one of the best turntables available. Periodically changing out the stylus (at the very least) will also help preserve the integrity of your growing collection of vinyl records, which can become scratched or damaged from needles played out past the recommended life span. And while your turntable cartridge/stylus may be in great working condition, you can still opt for a newer, better-performing upgrade. There are many choices, but the selection is made simpler by understanding some turntable basics.

Although they work together as a precision instrument, a turntable cartridge and stylus are considered two separate parts. If you think of turntable cartridges like windshield wiper arms/assemblies on cars, the stylus would be the thin rubber blade that makes direct contact with the windshield. You know that the blade is starting to wear out when it can no longer effectively clear away the rain. And so long as the wiper arm/assembly is still in good condition, you would need to replace only the blade portion (also referred to as wiper refills or inserts). This same concept applies to how you would treat a turntable; if the cartridge is still in good condition, you would generally replace only the stylus. The exception to the rule is that some types of turntable cartridges lack a removable stylus, so you would have to replace the entire cartridge.

When to Replace a Cartridge or Stylus

There are audible signs that indicate when it’s time to replace a turntable stylus. In order to get an idea, you’ll want to play some vinyl records (particularly ones that you’re intimately familiar with) and really listen to the music. Before you start, be sure to carefully clean off the stylus and record(s) themselves, as any bits of dust can alter what you hear. As each track plays, if you can detect distortion, fuzziness/noise, channel imbalance, spitting/crackle, sibilance, static/hiss, and/or blurring where there hasn't been any before, then you’ve been overdue for a new stylus.

There are also physical signs that your turntable needs a replacement stylus, too. One key indicator is if the stylus has developed a habit of skipping or bouncing on records, or if it no longer seems to fit properly in the grooves. You can also check to see if the needle head looks bent, misshapen, damaged, or coated (dust, oil, and friction combine together as a hardened residue) – it helps to to closely observe the stylus under a powered microscope to tell. If any of these seem evident, then you know it’s time to get a new stylus. If your turntable has been experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s strongly recommended to replace the stylus before playing any more vinyl records. Using an old, worn stylus is a sure way to permanently damage your vinyl record collection.

Although less common in terms of frequency, turntable cartridges also require replacement due to degrading performance/sensitivity; they’re designed to last, but not forever. You’d know it’s time to get a new windshield wiper arm/assembly when the parts are loose/wobbly, making noise when they shouldn’t be, are visibly damaged, and/or fail to wipe away the rain (even with fresh blade inserts). The same general concept applies to turntable cartridges. Typically, replacing the stylus itself is enough to breathe new life into your records. But there are times when you’d want to (or have to, as in the case of many moving coil cartridge types) replace the entire cartridge, such as after purchasing a used turntable – since you have no idea about its history or how well it had been cared for – or when you want to upgrade your turntable's sonic output.

If your turntable lacks the ability to replace either the cartridge or the stylus, then you probably have a toy and not a serious piece of audio equipment. In such a situation, the entire unit would have to be replaced. But double check first, since even the most affordable/inexpensive turntable models allow users to upgrade the cartridge/stylus.

Start by Setting a Budget

There are literally thousands of turntable cartridges and styli to pick from a variety of manufacturers, all of which can seem quite overwhelming at first. But with the right steps, you can narrow the field and zero in on select options that would work best for you and your equipment. First and foremost, you’ll want to decide on how much to spend. Like with many other purchasing situations – such as building a home stereo system while sticking to a budget – it’s prudent to set a limit ahead of time. Turntable cartridges can run anywhere between US$25 to $15,000 apiece, so this can be quite the consideration!

If you’re unsure about how much to spend, you can examine a cost-comparison to the rest of your equipment. For example, you might not want to pay more than a hundred dollars upgrading your turntable if it’s an inexpensive/basic model (e.g. one that costs between $40 to $300 or so). If you have a higher-end unit, however, you’ll probably want to spend more on a quality cartridge or stylus to match. But also consider the rest of your home stereo system. Money could go further—in terms of getting the best sound for the dollar—by upgrading the speakers or receiver/amplifier first, depending. But if you already have top-notch gear, then spending more on a replacement cartridge/stylus for your turntable makes far more sense.

Cartridge vs. Stylus

Once you have a price range in mind, the next step would be to determine if you’re replacing the whole cartridge or just the stylus. Typically, entry-level (i.e. affordable, value, or "budget" type) turntables have a non-removable cartridge that allows users to upgrade/replace the stylus. If you're unsure, take a look at the end of your turntable's tonearm (the part you lift and set on the vinyl to play the music). If you see screws mounting the cartridge to the end of the arm, then the cartridge can be replaced. If you don't see any screws, then you'll only be able to replace the stylus. Double checking the product's manual can quickly confirm this; more robust turntables allow users to replace either or sometimes both of these parts.

If you plan on replacing the entire cartridge, there’s additional information you’ll want to check for in the turntable’s product manual. You’ll need to determine if your turntable uses a standard or p-mount cartridge. Don't worry, a standard cartridge is most common. Manuals should be available on the manufacturer’s website if you no longer have a physical copy. However, you can also tell the style your turntable takes by a simple visual inspection. A standard cartridge mounts to the underside of the turntable’s tonearm and is secured by a pair of vertical screws. A p-mount cartridge inserts into the end of the tonearm and is secured with a single horizontal screw.

If you plan on replacing only the stylus, then all you need to do is find a compatible stylus with the desired needle shape. While the manufacturer likely has its own selection to pick from (a good place to start), there are other companies who make and sell replacement styli for all different brands/models of turntables. Some stylus replacements come with installation instructions, but the best reference is your own turntable's product manual, which should show the best steps for replacing your turntable's stylus. But if you're careful and confident, it's not hard to figure out how to remove the stylus on your own.

Proper Cartridge Mass

The next important consideration—but only if you're replacing the whole cartridge—is finding the cartridge mass that is compatible with the turntable tonearm. This is where cross-checking product manuals can be exceptionally handy, since the specifications should list a range of acceptable minimum/maximum values. Generally, the goal is to have the total mass of the tonearm (which includes the cartridge) to balance just right. Doing so ensures that the stylus will accurately track grooves, as opposed to pressing down with too much force (can severely damage/warp the tip and/or vinyl) or not enough (can improperly reproduce sound and/or skip out of grooves). Each turntable is different, so referencing the product manual can do away with any guesswork.

Once you know the mass range and cartridge mounting style needed, you’ll have to decide between a moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC) cartridge type. There are notable differences between moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Keep in mind that turntables using moving coil cartridges typically don’t have a replaceable stylus, so you can expect to have to replace the entire cartridge. Also, some turntable models are only compatible with one cartridge type. Others offer flexibility by being able to work with either moving magnet or moving coil cartridges.

Choose a Needle Shape

Lastly—whether you’re selecting an entire turntable cartridge or just a replacement stylus—you’ll need to choose a stylus shape. Although many manufacturers have created their own proprietary designs (e.g. MicroLine from Audio-Technica), the common stylus shapes to encounter are: spherical (also known as conical), elliptical (also known as bi-radial), line (also known as fine line or linear contact), and Shibata. The shape of the stylus is important, since it is a major factor in determining the system's overall audio performance and reproduction. The more surface contact made between a stylus tip and the grooves of a record, the better and more accurate the sound – this generally means greater depth and imaging with less distortion and phase errors.

The shape of the stylus also has a direct affect on cost, alignment precision, and wear. For example, spherical tips are found to be the most basic/affordable, the easiest to use, and longest-lasting over time (because they make the least amount of surface contact). However, they don’t exhibit the same level of performance as the elliptical, line, or Shibata stylus tip shapes.

The other stylus shapes tend to be more expensive, since they’re far more difficult to manufacture. Not just that, but they also offer better sonic performance; you'll just need to make sure the stylus is properly aligned on the turntable in order for it to accurately track the grooves. This can be difficult to do for those without the tools and/or practice/courage, which is why the basic spherical stylus tip is popular for ease of use. Additionally, since these better tips maintain more surface contact with vinyl records, you can expect the stylus to wear down faster over time (compared to the spherical shaped needles).

Before you buy, double check once more that the chosen cartridge or stylus is compatible with your turntable model. Once you have it in hand, simply install it and properly set your turntable for the best results.

Recap of Steps

  • Set a budget.
  • Decide if you’re replacing the turntable cartridge or just the stylus.
  • Determine if you need a standard or p-mount cartridge type.
  • Find the range of cartridge mass that your turntable can accept.
  • Choose between moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC) cartridge type.
  • Select the preferred shape of stylus tip.
  • Double check the replacement product’s compatibility before purchasing.

Tips on Installation and Care

  • Keep your vinyl records and stylus tip clean (free of dust and fingerprints) to help preserve the condition of the stylus.
  • Rest the stylus gently on the record. Dropping it can blunt the tip and also harm the record.
  • Styli have limited lifespans (anywhere between 200 and 1000 hours, depending on make/model), so it’s a good idea to replace them every few years according to use.
  • Turntable cartridges don’t last forever and gradually lose sensitivity, so plan on eventual replacement.
  • Maintaining a log of the hours played by the turntable can help determine when it's time to replace the cartridge or stylus. While it may seem a bit tedious, it will eliminate most of the guesswork.
  • Always replace the cartridge or stylus when buying a used turntable. It's never worth risking damaging your vinyl records with an old or unknown needle.