How To Tell If A Phono Cartridge Is Bad: A Comprehensive Guide

Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, and with that comes the need for a properly functioning turntable and phono cartridge.

But how do you know if your phono cartridge is bad?

It’s important to be able to identify the signs of a worn-out or damaged cartridge to ensure that you’re getting the best possible sound from your vinyl collection.

In this article, we’ll go over some common indicators that your phono cartridge needs to be replaced, as well as some tips on how to maintain it for optimal performance.

So, let’s dive in and learn how to tell if a phono cartridge is bad.

How To Tell If A Phono Cartridge Is Bad

There are several signs that your phono cartridge may be bad, and the first step is to visually inspect it. If you have a high-powered magnifying glass, you can examine the needle’s tip for signs of wear. Look for bends and jagged edges on the stylus’ head. If you notice any black residue on the needle, it means that it has been overused and has never been maintained or cleaned in a very long time.

Another visual inspection to determine if your needle or cartridge needs to be replaced is to check if the sharp point in the middle of the assembly that sticks out of your cartridge has become visibly dull and looks more like a raised pimple than a sharp tip. If it is too dull, it should be replaced.

Additionally, you might want to consider the following indicators:

– Thin sounding: You could start hearing a faint thinning sound playing back from your records. These can easily be identified because your records will start sounding exceptionally similar to an AM radio station. Therefore, it’ll have minimal bass or dynamic range.

– Skips and scratches: In the worse circumstances, it can present skips and scratches because it’ll lose its trackability on the record. If you’re listening to a well-memorized vinyl, then try to listen out for incorrect frequencies.

If you’re already hearing any of these symptoms, please don’t use your record player until you have replaced your stylus! A damaged or worn-out stylus can seriously damage your record collection.

What Is A Phono Cartridge?

A phono cartridge is a small device that is responsible for converting the vibrations of a record’s grooves into an electrical signal that can be amplified and played back through speakers. It consists of a stylus, also known as a needle, which is attached to a cantilever, and a set of coils. As the stylus moves through the groove of the record, it creates vibrations that are transmitted through the cantilever and into the coils. The coils then convert these vibrations into an electrical signal that can be amplified and played back through speakers.

There are two main types of phono cartridges: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). MM cartridges have a magnet that moves along with the stylus, while MC cartridges have a set of coils that move along with the stylus. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and which one you choose will depend on your personal preferences and the type of music you listen to.

Regardless of which type of phono cartridge you choose, it is important to properly maintain it and replace the stylus when necessary. A damaged or worn-out stylus can cause serious damage to your record collection and can also result in poor sound quality. By regularly inspecting your phono cartridge and replacing the stylus when necessary, you can ensure that your record player is running optimally and that you are getting the best possible sound quality from your vinyl collection.

The Importance Of A Good Phono Cartridge

A phono cartridge is a crucial component of a turntable that is responsible for converting the mechanical vibrations of the stylus into electrical signals that can be amplified and played through speakers. A good phono cartridge can make all the difference in the quality of sound you hear from your records.

One of the most important factors to consider when choosing a phono cartridge is the type of stylus it uses. High-quality cartridges use diamond-tipped styli, which are made from the hardest material known to man. These styli are incredibly durable and can last for thousands of hours of playtime without losing their sharpness.

Another important factor to consider is the construction and shape of the stylus. The shape of the stylus can affect its ability to track the grooves on a record accurately, which can impact the overall sound quality. Some cartridges use a “tipped” diamond, where the diamond tip is mounted on a metal shank, while others use a pure diamond that is not tipped, which is referred to as a Nude diamond.

In addition to the stylus, other factors that can affect the quality of a phono cartridge include its mass and compliance. The mass of a cartridge should be compatible with the turntable tonearm to ensure proper tracking and sound quality. Compliance refers to how easily the stylus moves in response to changes in the record groove. A cartridge with high compliance will be able to track more accurately and produce better sound quality.

Signs Of A Bad Phono Cartridge

In addition to the above indicators, there are other signs that your phono cartridge may be bad. Poor alignment can lead to poor bass reproduction, poor treble reproduction, change in sound quality as the arm/cartridge tracks across the record, sibilance, muffled or muddy sound, and poor tracking.

If you are aware that the shape of your needle head was rounded, but is now pointed, replace the stylus immediately and do not use it in light of the physical damage that can occur. If the needle starts to “skip forward or bounce,” it will need to be replaced. Make sure the grip of the cantilever is solid and not loose.

If there is any visible damage, such as jagged edges or bending of the needle head, it’s a good indication that the stylus might need changing. Additionally, if you can hear audible hiss or static where there was none previously on your favorite album, it’s time for a new replacement stylus. An overabundance of sibilance (excessive “ssss” sounds by vocalists) is a red flag that something may be wrong with the needle.

Lastly, if there is black residue stuck to the point of the needle, it may be a sign that the stylus was overused and not properly maintained. It may need a proper cleaning, or in worst case scenarios, it will need to be replaced.

How To Test Your Phono Cartridge

If you’re not sure if your phono cartridge is bad, you can test it using a multimeter. Here are the steps to follow:

1. Remove the wires you connected to the phono cartridge. Your test starts at the pins of the cartridge, so it’s best to remove the wires. If not, the test or check wouldn’t be successful. Also, accidents or injuries might happen because of electric shock.

2. Set the multimeter to 10,000 ohms. In this test, you’ll check the continuity of the phono cartridge to determine what’s the problem.

3. Connect the multimeter to the blue (LG) and white (L) pin. Take note: the multimeter should measure above 100 ohms and 10,000 ohms.

4. Connect the multimeter leads to the green pin (RG) and the red pin (R). Again, the test meter’s reading should be above 100 ohms and under 10,000 ohms. The reading you’ll get in this step should match the reading you have in step 3.

5. Connect the multimeter’s leads to the red and white pin. You’ll see a reading that says “open” and “infinity.”

6. Connect the multimeter’s leads on the green and blue pin. Again, you should have the same reading that reads “open” or “infinity.” If you get a different result, there’s a defect on the phono cartridge of your turntable.

One of the most common causes of a bad phono cartridge is connecting it to an output that is not designed for it. The right cartridge output should have a PHONO label. If you see that the input is CD, TAPE, VCR, AUX, and DVD, then your phono cartridge won’t work effectively. The input labels wouldn’t give the required frequency equalization and amplification that a phono cartridge should have.

If you’re a beginner in using a multimeter, read the tool’s manual carefully. Familiarize yourself with its parts and functions so that you wouldn’t experience any hassles using it. Make sure to observe and follow WARNINGS and PRECAUTIONS before using it.

Remember: Follow these steps in testing a cartridge with a multimeter for success and safe test meter usage. Be careful when you’re doing a test or troubleshooting. Safety comes first when you’re handling electronic devices or circuits. Now you know how to test your phono cartridge with a multimeter!

Maintaining Your Phono Cartridge For Optimal Performance

To ensure optimal performance of your phono cartridge, it’s important to maintain it properly. There are several things you can do to extend the lifespan of your cartridge and ensure that it performs at its best:

1. Keep your records clean: Dirty records are one of the leading causes of a worn-out stylus. Make sure to clean your records regularly with a kit like this one from EVEO, which has everything you need to ensure optimal cleanliness for your vinyls.

2. Set up your turntable correctly: A poorly configured azimuth, anti-skate, and tracking force can quickly contribute to unnecessary and excessive wear. Take the time to set up your turntable correctly to avoid this issue.

3. Check for an unbalanced cantilever: Over time, the pivot and magnets holding the cantilever in place can become out of line. This can cause the stylus to rest heavier on the record, leading to faster wear. If you notice this issue, adjust the phono cartridge into an ideal position.

4. Check for signs of wear: Use a high-powered magnifying glass to examine the tip of the stylus for signs of wear or damage. Look for bends, jagged edges, or black residue on the needle. If you notice any of these issues, it’s time to replace the cartridge or stylus.

By following these tips, you can ensure that your phono cartridge performs at its best for years to come. Remember to always take care of your equipment and replace any worn-out parts promptly to avoid damaging your record collection.

When To Replace Your Phono Cartridge

It’s important to note that while the stylus may need replacing, the phono cartridge may also be worn out. The average life of a phono cartridge is about 5 years, so if you’re replacing a stylus on a 30-year-old turntable, your cartridge could be considered ancient. Replacing the stylus in this situation could result in a 40% return on a 100% investment.

It’s also important to remember that the stylus is about 90% of the cost of a phono cartridge, so it may be more cost-effective to purchase an entirely new cartridge instead of just replacing the stylus.

If you want to get the best sound and look after your precious vinyl, it’s crucial to upgrade your cartridge. A conical shaped sapphire stylus will give you a limited music experience due to its minimal contact with the record groove, and that minimal contact also creates a pressure point on the sides of the record groove that damages your records. Upgrading to an elliptical diamond cartridge and stylus is a much better option. Unlike a conical stylus, an elliptical stylus is a “V” shape, much better matched to the shape of the record groove, and offers far more contact with the record groove. This equates to more musical information and far less record wear.

Most manufacturers recommend turntable stylus replacement at around 1,000 hours of record playing time. If you’re using your turntable for an hour or so per day on average, ideally you should be changing the stylus every couple of years. Some hi-fi fans will say sticking strictly to the manufacturer lifespan is being overly cautious (as long as you’re cleaning the stylus correctly and playing well-maintained records in decent condition), while others say replacing your stylus within its lifespan is essential to preserving your records and getting the most out of your setup. Ultimately, it’s not an exact science, and there are several factors that will affect the rate your stylus will wear.

In summary, if you notice any visual signs of wear on your phono cartridge or if you hear thinning sounds, skips, or scratches while playing back your records, it’s time to replace your phono cartridge. Upgrading to an elliptical diamond cartridge and stylus is highly recommended for optimal sound quality and less record wear.