How to Choose Your Next Turntable Cartridge or Stylus

Turntable cartridges—the stylus, also known as a needle, in particular—wear down through use. Eventually, these parts must be replaced to maintain top sonic performance, especially if you have one of the best turntables available. Periodically changing the stylus 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 lifespan. And while your turntable cartridge 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.

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

Anatomy of a Cartridge

Although they work together as a precision instrument, a turntable cartridge and stylus are two separate parts. If you think of turntable cartridges like windshield wiper 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 assembly is still in good condition, you would need to replace only the blade portion. This same concept applies to how you would treat a turntable — if the cartridge is still in good condition, 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

Audible signs indicate when it’s time to replace a turntable stylus. If you detect distortion, fuzziness, noise, channel imbalance, spitting, crackle, sibilance, static, or blurring where there hasn't been any before, then you’re due for a new stylus.

The usual audio signals suggesting you need a new stylus are similar to the sounds of a dirty record, so test the audio quality with a clean, good-condition LP only.

Watch for physical signs that your turntable needs a replacement stylus. If the stylus skips or bounces, it's time for a replacement. 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 closely observe the stylus under a powered microscope to tell. If any of these factors seem evident, then you know it’s time to get a new stylus.

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. They’re designed to last, but not forever. You’d know it’s time to get a new windshield wiper assembly when the parts become wobbly, making noise when they shouldn’t, 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 must 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 you cannot 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 inexpensive turntable models allow users to upgrade the cartridge and stylus.

Set a Budget

There are literally thousands of turntable cartridges and styli to pick from a variety of manufacturers. First, 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 $25 to $15,000 apiece!

If you’re unsure about how much to spend, compare your costs against the rest of your equipment. For example, you might not want to pay more than $100 upgrading your turntable if it’s a basic model. 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 farther—in terms of getting the best sound for the dollar—by upgrading the speakers or amplifier first. But if you already have top-notch gear, then spending more on a replacement cartridge or stylus for your turntable makes far more sense.

Cartridge or Stylus?

Typically, entry-level turntables use a non-removable cartridge that supports stylus replacements. 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 confirms this capability; more robust turntables allow you to replace either or sometimes both of these parts.

Determine if your turntable uses a standard or p-mount cartridge. A standard cartridge is most common. 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 to replace 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, other companies make and sell replacement styli for all different 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.

Proper Cartridge Mass

The next important consideration—but only if you're replacing the whole cartridgeis 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 and maximum values. Generally, the goal is to have the total mass of the tonearm, which includes the cartridge, to balance just right. Effective balance ensures that the stylus will accurately track grooves, as opposed to pressing down with too much force or not enough. Each turntable is different, so referencing the product manual can do away with guesswork.

After you know the mass range and cartridge mounting style needed, you’ll have to decide between a moving magnet or moving coil cartridge type. There are notable differences between moving magnet and moving coil phono cartridges, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. 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

Man playing vinyl record
Nicolevanf/RooM/Getty Images

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 because 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—i.e., greater depth and imaging with less distortion and phase errors.

The shape of the stylus also has a direct effect on cost, alignment precision, and wear. For example, spherical tips are the most 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. They also offer better sonic performance; you'll just need to make sure the stylus is properly aligned on the turntable for it to accurately track the grooves. This alignment can be difficult to achieve without tools and practice, which is why the basic spherical stylus tip is popular. 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. After you have it in hand, simply install it and properly set your turntable for the best results.

Tips for 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 1,000 hours, depending on 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 you purchased a used turntable. It's never worth risking damaging your vinyl records with an old or unknown needle.