The very first upgrade to consider when looking to get more sonic performance out of your turntable will in most cases be to upgrade the cartridge.
The cartridge is the heart and soul of your turntable. The component that transforms the physical grooves in your records to an electrical music signal. The cartridge has a profound impact on both the sound quality and the sound characteristics of a turntable.
The 4 main reasons to upgrade your turntable cartridge are:
- Improve the overall sound quality
- Change the characteristics/color of the sound (warmer and smoother sound, more bass, etc.)
- Improve tracking (reduce skipping)
- Increase signal level and signal-to-noise ratio
These 4 reasons might or might not be in correlation. Meaning that when upgrading the cartridge, you might see an improvement of one or two of the aspects above, but no improvement or even a worsening of one or more of the other aspects.
So upgrading the cartridge can sometimes be a compromise. Especially in the high-end (money-no-object) home stereo segment.
But in the entry-level or mid-range category, upgrading the cartridge will usually give an improvement across the board.
Let us look at each of the 4 reasons for a cartridge upgrade in detail.
#1 Improve the overall sound quality
In a nut-shell, we can describe sound quality (or sonic performance) as the turntable’s ability to reproduce music identical to its original sound.
So a perfectly sounding turntable would make the recorded music sound exactly the same as if the singer or band performed live in front of you.
That is not really possible, but the greater the sound quality of the turntable and stereo, the closer the sound quality will get to the sound quality of a live performance.
Sound qualities that can be improved by upgrading the turntable cartridge are:
- Clearer sound
- More open and lively sound
- Improved musical presents
- Improved dynamic performance
- Tighter and more controlled bass
- Improved control and precision
- A bigger and more precise sound stage
- Better channel separation
- Lower distortion
- Lower noise
So when upgrading a cartridge to increase the sound quality, we are looking to improve all or several of the sound qualities listed above.
#2 Change the characteristics of the sound
Some cartridges produce a very neutral and uncolored sound that aims to be identical to the original music.
Other cartridges will, however, add a color or flavor the sound. It can be in the form of a slightly skewed tonal balance. As for example more bass and less treble. Or the other way around.
Another characteristic is warm vs analytical/bright sound. A cartridge that has a warm character is preferred by some vinyl collectors as it will be more pleasant to listen to. This might hoverer be viewed as dull and boring by others that like a more bright and analytical flavor to the sound.
So it is more or less down to personal preference.
Taken too far a warm sounding cartridge can be dull and boring. While an analytical sounding cartridge can sound harsh and unpleasant to listen to if taken too far.
Another aspect is to choose a cartridge that matches the other components in the stereo. I bright cartridge can be a perfect fit for a stereo that has an amplifier and speakers that are on the warm side. And vice versa.
So cartridges can be hand-picked to fit your preferred sound color of the reproduced recorded music. Or to balance the sound character of your turntable to fit the other stereo components. Or both.
#3 Improve tracking
Some cartridges are considered better trackers others. More resistant to skipping, dancing, jumping etc.
In general, higher priced cartridges are better trackers than the entry-level once.
But it is, however, no absolute answer to which cartridges that are better trackers than others that will be true in all cases. It depends quite a bit on the other components of the turntable. Especially the tonearm.
Some cartridges can perform well in some turntables. And be a skipping nightmare in others.
The safe route to take is however to select upgrades that are well tested (we’ll look at some examples in a bit) or to stick to the same manufacturer and select upgrades within the manufacturers model range. like, for example, to upgrade from the Ortofon 2M Red to a Ortofon 2M Blue which is a very popular upgrade to do. And that is very likely to improve tracking performance rather than reducing it.
#4 Increase signal level and signal-to-noise ratio
A moving magnet cartridge (most common in entry-level and mid-range turntables) typically output a signal level between 3mV and 6mV. So different cartridges have different output signal levels.
A cartridge that outputs a higher signal-level (6mV) will need less amplification than a cartridge that outputs a lower signal-level (3mV) to generate the same music volume from the speakers.
And less amplification means that any noise that is picked up from the record or from the turntable’s motor etc. will also be less amplified. And hence, less noticeable in the sound coming from the speakers. So the signal-to-noise ratio will be higher with a higher signal-level cartridge. Which is good.
So hum and noise can often be reduced by replacing the cartridge with one with a higher output voltage. And as a bonus, you will get higher sound volume from your stereo as well.
Cartridges will lower voltage output will generally require better (and more expensive) turntables and preamps which produce less noise to level out the signal-to-noise advantage a higher voltage cartridge gives. This is especially true for moving coil cartridges that are used in many high-end turntables and outputs a very low signal level.
Mistakes to avoid when upgrading your cartridge
Not aligning the new cartridge
When the new cartridge is mounted it is crucial to align the cartridge so that the needly will sit in the grooves perfectly.
We do this using an alignment protractor.
These can be downloaded for free from vinylengine.
Correct cartridge alignment ensures the most accurate reproduction of the recording and stops the stylus from wearing down immaturely.
Not re-calibrating tracking force and anti-skate
After mounting and aligning the new cartridge, make sure that you re-adjust the tracking force and anti-skate to be exactly what’s recommended for the new cartridge.
Incorrect tracking force and anti-skate can compromise sound quality and make the tear and wear on the needle (and on your records) higher than necessary.
Not adjusting the tonearm height to fit the new cartridge
When changing the cartridge it is important to verify that the tonearm still sits perfectly horizontal. The new cartridge might be taller or lower than the one it replaces.
Not giving it time to “brake-in”
New cartridges often need time to break-in. It can often take 20-30 hours of record spinning for the sound to open up.
So don’t get buyers remorse during the first song played after a cartridge upgrade. If you don’t notice a sound improvement in the beginning, that can be perfectly normal. The sound will improve as you spend more time using the new cartridge.
Confusing MM and MC
Moving Magnet vs Moving Coil.
Make sure that you don’t confuse MM and MC cartridges. Don’t accidentally replace a MM cartridge with a MC cartridge as it might (or will) cause a few problems as the MC have significantly lower output levels than MM.
Confusing Cartridge and Stylus
And also, make sure to not confuse cartridge and stylus.
Make sure you are buying the cartridge you want. Not just the stylus replacement for the cartridge you want. I know people that have made this mistake when shopping at Amazon.
Audio-Technica AT-LP120 popular cartridge upgrades
If you are interested in cartridge upgrades for the AT-LP120, then please also check out this article were I go more in-depth on the best cartridge upgrades for the AT-LP120!
The LP-120 comes equipped with a AT95E cartridge.
Upgrading to a Ortofon 2M Red will make the LP120 sound a lot more open and lively. One of the complaints people often have about the LP120 sound is that it is a bit dark and lifeless. A Ortofon 2M Red will improve that a lot.
If you want to take it a step further the Ortofon 2M Blue is the next popular option. It will open up the sound just like the Ortofon 2M Red, and give a bigger boost to the overall sound quality as it a is even higher quality cartridge overall.
The Ortofon 2M Red have the tendency, depending on the other parts in the stereo, to sound a tiny bit bright and analytical. The Ortofon 2M Blue adds a tiny bit warmth to the music, that is lacking in the Ortofon 2M Red. So that might be another valid reason to jump straight to the Ortofon 2M Blue if you have the money to spend.
Ortofon 2M Red and Ortofon 2M Blue are among the most popular upgrades to the LP120.
Another very popular option is the VM540ML cartridge from Audio-Technica. This is the one I chose when I upgraded my LP120.
And last but not least, if you are after really warm sound, the Grado Prestige Black or Gold are great choices for the LP120. Grado is well known and widely loved for its very warm sounding character.
Pro-Ject Debut Carbon popular cartridge upgrades
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon comes equipped with a Ortofon 2M Red. Which is a pretty good cartridge for a turntable that usually sells for around $400.
A very popular upgrade for the Debut Carbon is, however, the Ortofon 2M Blue. The Red’s bigger brother. It will sound a bit warmer than the Red in the top end and will have a more accurate mid-range and a tighter bass.
You can also take one step further and go directly to the Ortofon 2M Bronze. The Bronze will definitely take the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon even one step further towards stereophile performance compared to the Blue. But the Bronze will require a significantly bigger budget.
The Ortofon 2M Blue and Bronze both have a reputation for improving tracking over the Red.
Also for the Pro-Ject, the Grado cartridges will be the place to go for really warm sound. For the Debut-Carbon it might be worth to pass the Prestige Black and go directly to the Prestige Gold.