Choosing a Phono Cartridge in the Vinyl Revival

Who would have guessed that in an era when Apple’s iTunes has sold over 35 billion songs to 800 million customers (and counting), the market for old-school analog playback LPs would revive? What’s particularly surprising is that the push is coming from millennials.

The numbers change depending on the source, but record sales are clearly on the rise:

  • In a February 2015 article, the San Francisco Chronicle cited Nielsen SoundScan figures that showed a 51% rise in vinyl sales from 2013 to 2014 and 9.2 million records sold in 2014
  • Most major new releases have a vinyl version
  • Record companies are starting to reissue classics from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as LPs
  • More than a dozen newcomers have joined the few surviving record-pressing plants according to The New York Times

Audiophiles have long touted the warmth and depth of an LP’s grooves, but a new audience has discovered the joy of reading liner notes, admiring an album cover, walking across a room to change a record, building a record collection, and cruising used record stores to find that pristine copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico.

Phono Cartridges at Shure

Shure began making quality phonograph cartridges in 1937 and pioneered advances in cartridge design with Ralph Glover and Ben Bauer’s “needle-tilt” principle for minimizing record wear while improving sound reproduction, and Jim Kogen’s “trackability” concept. Shure produced the first phonograph cartridge capable of playing both long-playing and 78 RPM records, the first cartridge with a tracking force of only one gram, and the first cartridge meeting the requirements of stereo recording.

Shure Phono Cartridge Display

Shure cartridges in just about every music store

At the peak of Shure’s phonograph cartridge production in the 1960s and 1970s, the company was producing approximately 28,000 cartridges per day. There was a Shure cartridge in almost every home, diner, radio station, and nightclub across the United States.

By 1988, CD players had created a fatal decline in the demand for phono cartridges. With the exception of audiophiles, radio stations, and baby boomers needing replacement cartridges for their vast record collections, the market disappeared. Then Fate stepped in. In the late 1990s, Shure discovered that discontinued and overstocked Shure needles were being snapped up by American scratch DJs traveling in Asia. Scratching had come to dominate the DJ Battle scene. The Shure M44-7 was, and still is, the go-to cartridge in that sphere.

Today Shure manufactures eight phono cartridge models for DJs, jazz-loving, 78 RPM collectors; and vinyl enthusiasts.

How a Phono Cartridge Works

A phono cartridge is a micro-manufactured electromechanical device that tells your entire audio system what’s happening along the half-mile groove that’s cut into a typical analog disc.

Phono cartridges, microphones, and earphones all contain transducers that convert one form of energy into another. Phono cartridges do it by translating variations in the groove walls into electrical signals. Thomas Edison pioneered this technology way back in 1877 using a stylus on a tinfoil or wax cylinder.

The stylus (needle) moves horizontally and vertically as the groove of the record travels underneath it. A coil of wire and magnet at its other end generates a small audio signal.

Inside a moving magnet phono cartridge

Inside a moving magnet phono cartridge

These days there are two main types of phono cartridges: moving magnet (or MM) and moving coil (MC).  (Audiophiles may mention Moving Micro Cross and Moving Iron types, but those are far less common.)

Shure cartridges are all moving magnet (MM) types. A tiny magnet rests on the end of a stylus shank that is suspended between two coils. The vibrating magnet induces a small current in the coils. Cartridges are compatible with any phono input on a stereo component, which is convenient. Another advantage is that the stylus can be replaced.

Moving coil (MC) types invert the MC design by attaching the coils to the stylus shank or cantilever. The magnet resides near coils that are constructed of very fine wire. The low output of MC cartridges (a function of the coil size) usually requires the use of a preamp to boost the signal. Some audiophiles feel that the lighter weight provides more stylus agility, better tracking, and more accurate sound. The stylus is not user-replaceable.

Choosing a Phono Cartridge

Deciding which phono cartridge will work best for you depends on a few factors.

Standard or P-mount

You’ll need to know how the cartridge attaches to the turntable you have or are planning to purchase.  There are two types:

  • Standard mount, by far the most common: Two screws, half an inch apart, thread through the cartridge body to secure it to the headshell, which then plugs into the tone arm.
  • P-mount, primarily on Technics brand turntables: The four prongs at the back of the cartridge plug directly into the tone arm. A setscrew goes through the side of the cartridge at the back to hold it in place on the tone arm.
Shure elliptical stylus

Shure elliptical stylus

Elliptical (Bi-radial) or Spherical Stylus

The stylus (or needle) is really the heart and soul of the cartridge and accounts for about 90% of the cost of it.  Almost all styli have industrial diamond tips. There are two needle shapes: elliptical and spherical. Elliptical needles pick up more information from the record groove and are typically the choice of audiophiles. DJs choose spherical needles because they sit higher in the groove and result in less record wear.

DJ, Audiophile, or LP Convert

These days, every cartridge manufacturer, including Shure, has developed phono cartridges with features for specific market segments. The rugged construction and sonic characteristics of DJ cartridges aren’t meant for personal listening. Likewise, you won’t want to listen to Daft Punk’s LP using a cartridge designed for 78s.

Budget

Believe it or not, there are cartridges priced at $15,000, but of course, those are partly constructed of gold. The questions are: how much can you afford, and how good is your turntable? You won’t want to put a $600 cartridge on a $100 turntable.

Shure cartridges range in price from $60 the personal listening M92E to $180 for the club DJ Whitelabel. There are a number of highly rated turntables that start at around $250.

Personal Listening and Audiophile Cartridges

Shure M92E Phono Cartridge

M92E

Value Phono Cartridge (MSRP $60)
Excellent affordable cartridge that fits 85% of turntables. P-mount design or S-mount with included adapter.

Shure M78S Phono Cartridge

M78S

78 RPM Phono Cartridge (MSRP $120)
Highly precise tracking ability and flat frequency response.

Shure M97XE Phono Cartridge

M97XE

Audiophile Phono Cartridge (MSRP $165)
Smooth sounds and extremely accurate sound reproduction over entire frequency range.

DJ and Turntablist

Shure SC35C Phono Cartridge

SC35C

DJ Record Needle (MSRP $75)
Standard DJ needle well suited for both scratching and mixing.

Shure M35X Phono Cartridge

M35X

DJ Record Needle (MSRP $85)
Designed for use with House/Techno mixing. Low record wear helps preserves vinyl. High skip resistance for safeguard against back-cueing.

Shure M44G Phono Cartridge

M44G

DJ Record Needle (MSRP $105)
Ideal for when versatile performance is needed. Appropriate for both intensive scratching and mixing.

Shure M44-7 Phono Cartridge

M44-7

Turntablist Record Needle (MSRP $125)
Engineered for scratch DJs. Designed not to skip under even the most demanding circumstances.

Shure Whitelabel Phono Cartridge

Whitelabel

DJ Record Needle (MSRP $180)
Tailored for the club environment. Features solid drop bass, flat mids and accented highs.

A Few Words About Cartridge Maintenance

A stylus tip can provide between 800 and 1,000 hours of playing time. You can extend the life of your needle and the quality of the audio by keeping your records and your stylus clean. There are dozens of ways to clean both, from around-the-house supplies to products marketed to vinyl-loving audiophiles. (You can find many of them on YouTube.) A good habit is to clean both stylus and record at the beginning of every listening session.

Also true: Even with proper maintenance, repeated play of the same beloved LP causes record wear. Pay attention to manufacturer instructions on cartridge alignment, tracking pressure, and anti-skating.

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Davida Rochman

Davida Rochman

A Shure associate since 1979, Davida Rochman graduated with a degree in Speech Communications and never imagined that her first post-college job would result in a lifelong career that had her marketing microphones rather than speaking into them. Today, Davida is a Communications Manager, lending her skills to a wide spectrum of activities, from public relations and social media to content development and sponsorships.

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17 Comments

  • AD says:

    Many thanks Davida for your kind reply.

    a. The M97xE user guide on Shure website is out dated (rev.3-2008) and the one supplied in the cartridge box is rev.5-2015.
    b. Output voltage from the cartridge stands much lower than the rated 4.0mV, and appears to be around 3.5mV. Did a few tests with a similar spec. Japanese cartridge in comparison and certainly the output of M97xE was significantly lower.

    May be these issues could be passed to the Shure QC team for further investigation.

    Thanks again!

  • AD says:

    Out of curiosity, I used a digital scale to weigh Shure M97xE cartridge and was amazed to see the scale read 7.14 gms. Any reason for this 0.5 gms deviation against its standard weight rating of 6.6 gms?

    Has Shure made a recent revision to product specs, or is it some quality control issue?

    Thanks.

    • Davida Rochman says:

      Hi AD! Thank you for the observation. I have sent it to Shure Quality Assurance for their investigation and to Shure Technical Writing as perhaps the weight spec may require updating.

      Have a good day.

  • AJ says:

    I have a Shure V15 type IV cartridge on my Sanyo turntable, but the stylus is done for. I can’t seem to find a type IV stylus, but I see a lot of type III replacements. Does anyone know if the type III will fit?

    • Davida Rochman says:

      While the Shure made cartridges will inter-change, there is no guarantee that the third party styli will work. Based on what we know about our product, they’re interchangeable. For third party styli, we would recommend contacting the manufacturer to double check.

  • Theron says:

    Shure looks to be missing a golden opportuity to somehow get the V15 (or variation with new sourced material for cantilever) back into production. They would sell like hotcakes!!!

  • Mike says:

    With the vinyl revival, can the V15 go back into production? I still have one, and after 3 years of not using it, and installing it on my turntable tonight, all I can say is WOW!!!! This cartridge is perfect. A certain magic it has that needs to be available to all!!!! Please, please, please bring this magnificent piece of engineering back to life.

  • Eddie Beasom says:

    Great article and tips!! Thanks.

  • Bob says:

    Hi. I own a Yamaha turntable (and a Shure cartridge) that I probably bought in the 80s or 90s and have barely used for the past 15 years. I try it now and there are serious problems in the audio that tells me that I should replace the stylus. One problem seems to be that it is difficult to find replacement styli and a second problem is that it is difficult for me to identify which Shure cartridge I have (and no I do not have any documentation that would tell me, and I cannot tell you when I bought it other than in the 80s or 90s).

    It is a standard mount cartridge whose body is mostly black, with a gray section on the top that has a shiny silver “V” on the front face thereof.

    The removable stylus has a mostly black body and the gray dynamic stabilizer says “SHURE” in silver on the front face thereof. The stylus body has a silver plate on the front face thereof that has a six-digit number in red — “005129.”

    I figure mine is a V-15 and that sounds familiar, I just don’t know which type it is. I tried to shop online and because the M97xE looks similar, I ordered the replacement stylus for that one, hoping it would work with mine. The N97xE stylus is shaped similarly, but colored differently, and it will not insert into my cartridge. It appears to me that the extended brass or copper tube to which the needle is attached is slightly too large to insert into my cartridge.

    Do you have any helpful suggestions?

    • Davida Rochman Davida Rochman says:

      Hi Bob–thanks for the question. The V15 Cartridge Series is discontinued and replacement styli are no longer available for any of the versions. You may want to replace the cartridge with M97xE, which is our current model for audiophile use. For additional assistance, please contact customerservice@shure.com.

  • Electric Mike says:

    I have been using ShureCartridges and Stylus since my 1st “good” turntable, a Thorens TD150II AB. Over the year’s I owned 17 differant turntables. Recently I had the original Thorens refurbished and installed a new M97XE. The Thorens still sounds great, and is every bit as good as ANY of the turntables under $3000 that I have owned. Keep up the great job Shure and THANKS for making me realize how good that old 1972 Thorens still sounds! 🙂

    • Davida Rochman Davida Rochman says:

      We appreciate your kind comments, thank you very much!

    • Alfredo M. Claussen says:

      ME TOO! I´m the extremely proud owner of a much modified Thorens TD-160Super belt drive armless turntable, fitted with a long discontinued Grace 747 arm and both a Grace F9E magnetic cartridge (considered by many to be the best magnetic cartridge ever), with both the original stylus and the latter Ruby-shank stylus too; and a well used Shure V-15 Type IV. While the Grace F9E is more detailed and transparent than the V15 Type IV, the Shure can track some very heavily modulated records a little better, and at a lower tracking force, with a tad more lateral separation; albeit, less depth. The Thorens is from the very best design of all: the Belt Driven turntables with suspended sub-chassis, a design started either by the Thorens TD150 or the Acoustic Research XB. Both appeared at about the same time in the early 1960s, so it was a case of either parallel development or piracy. As no law suits went flying (although they surely would today) and I have no wish to upset the status quo, let’s assume it was the former! Just watch the prices: The SOTA Sapphire debuting at $795 (in 1981), now costs $2700 [3.4 X] , The Linn Sondek LP12 retailed for around $500 (in 1972) now costs $3590 [7.2 X]; the Oracle around $1500 in the early eighties, the entry-level now $8500 [5.6 X]). I will never sell my Thorens !
      Some of the mods are to deaden the wooden chassis, a better platter mat (“Sorbothane”), some viscous damping for the arm, a thicker multilayer acrylic cover and a dedicated 60Hz power supply for the sinchronous motor.
      This old (1978 vintage) Turntable-arm-cartridges rival ANY turntable that is sold in esoteric Hi-Fi stores here in Mexico City, some of them costing more than 20 times its price ($495 USD for the table in 1978, and $299 for the Grace Arm, $199.95 for the Grace F9E cartridge, and $29.95 for the aditional headshell to install the then $149.95 SHURE V15 Type IV). Previously, I owned many M44-7, M-44-E, M55 and other cartridges, and the best performance/price ratio was the seldom seen M91E, that I installed in many homes between 1977 and 1987 for its outstanding bang-for-the-buck results at mid-range prices. Amclaussen, Mexico City

  • Jeff Whisnant says:

    As a current user of the SHURE V15 Vx MR ,and having a replacement stylus archived. This has long been the finest tracking needle ever made , but was discontinued 10 years ago. The Audiophile world is waiting for SHURE to step-up and take it’s rightful place again in this Vinyl Revival.

    • Alfredo M. Claussen says:

      You are completely right, Jeff. The V15’s were outstanding pieces of AFFORDABLE precision art back in the 70’s and 80’s. The first V15s were thin sounding, until the Type IV, which has a much more solid sound. I never upgraded my Type IV with the newer Type V Micro Ridge, only because I had a Grace F9E Ruby that outperformed the Shures, But never sold the V15 IV either, because it tracked a little better and sounded very good, allowing me to only use the Grace for the few, true Audiophyle sessions where a few friends really appreciated and distiguished the very small differences between the two, both surpassing some much more expensive moving coil designs that worked better only with a few UN-demanding records… But on demanding heavily modulated records, my Shure V15 IV outperformed them because the moving coils were often mistracking even at high tracking forces!
      As a bonus, after so many years of use, I found that my Shure V15 IV helped a lot at keeping my records in a better shape, with less wear. (A single hard mistracking will leave a heavily damaged passage at the groove, ruining a precious recording forever!… and SOME records are just IRREPLACEABLE.

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