When you buy a record turntable, it is preferred to buy one with a removable headshell so that you can easily swap or replace the cartridge, which is the component with a stylus or needle that touches the vinyl to read the grooves. After you read this article, you will know why.
Cartridge and Stylus
Almost all turntable cartridges are removable from the turntable tonearm because the stylus needs to be replaced after long usage or when accidentally damaged during use. You can replace the stylus alone (the section of the cartridge with a different colour) without removing the entire cartridge. You can also replace the entire cartridge if you want to change to a different model.
Some turntables have removable headshells via screw mount. This means you can swap the entire headshell, cartridge and stylus. A removable headshell allows you to replace the cartridge in a more comfortable position instead of having to carry out the harrowing operation on the tonearm itself. I previously tried replacing the cartridge on the Gadhouse Brad turntable and it wasn’t easy, because the wires are so thin and any breakage would render the turntable useless.
Even with a removable headshell, I still have difficulty slotting the cables to the connectors. They are so small that I need a plier to push the wire connectors into the pins.
Once that is done, I would need to align the cartridge using a protractor. All turntable manufacturers should be able to provide a overhang adjustment guide (here is the download for AT-LP5X and AT-LP7). With so many steps needed, I seriously recommend buying the headshell + cartridge set. Just watch the below video for the simple steps to swap the cartridges.
Different Types of Stylus
Different styli can achieve different sound quality because of the tip shape. To keep things simple, the cheapest stylus tip commonly found in budget turntables is conical and relatively thick, so it tracks the grooves less accurately. The other end of the quality spectrum is the MicroLine, which almost exactly duplicates the shape of the cutting stylus used to cut the master disc from which records are pressed.
There are also other factors that further improves the cartridge quality, resulting in a higher price. The naming convention of A-T cartridges provide useful information of the type of cartridge, stylus, and the type. For instance, the VM95 series support up to 18 different types of styli, and the “ML” indicates that this is a MicroLine cut. For the VM540ML, it uses a VM500-series cartridge body, a VMN40 stylus, and a “ML” microline tip. The VM520EB uses an Elliptical Bonded stylus tip and can be fitted on any VM500 body.
VM95ML vs. VM540ML: Karl Jenkins Adiemus – Songs of Sanctuary – 2LP Vinyl Edition
I recently acquired a brand new vinyl copy of Adiemus: Songs of Sanctuary. This edition was pressed in 2019 and for the first time in 2xLP format. Each side contains at most 3 tracks, which is uncommon as usually the cutting engineer would squeeze as many tracks in one side. With shorter play time, the groove pitch can be spaced out more and prevent tracking errors.
Although I already owned the CD, it excites me to be able to experience the same album in a different audio format. Plus, the size of a vinyl record album sleeve is so gratifying to own. Images are larger, text are bigger.
I took the effort to compare the sounds of the CD and the vinyl, which I also did previously with Phantom of the Opera. This time, I added another element of comparison using different phono cartridges, the Audio-Technica VM95ML and VM540ML. Watch and listen to the video below.
While both cartridges are microline stylus, you can hear that the VM540ML extracts the treble frequency more and sounds the clearest. Other than that, I find that the mastering is largely identical, so any audio difference is due to the turntable equipment.
Compare VM520EB vs. VM540ML
In my AT-PEQ30 phono cartridge article, I demonstrated the difference between the two VM95 series, the stock AT-LP5X phono cartridge (VM95E) and the VM95ML. The former is the elliptical tip and the latter is the microline tip. In the following video, I have compared the VM500 series, VM520EB and VM540ML phono cartridges. Similarly, the former is an elliptical tip and the latter is a microline tip. The VM520EB is also the stylus pre-installed in AT-LP7, A-T’s top-range turntable.
When compared with the VM540ML, the VM520EB treble is slightly less refined, the sibilance is harsher while the upper midrange sounds a little more body. The tracking at the inner grooves are excellent on the VM540ML while the VM520EB exhibits distortion. If you also listen carefully to the VM95 series video comparison, you will hear that the VM95E sounds a little more beefier at the lower frequencies. Conversely, the microline series exude airier upper frequencies while sacrificing the warmth. These various character differences are some of the reasons why one could match the phono cartridge with the genre or the recording. If the headshell can be swapped conveniently, then it would make vinyl listening more rewarding and fun.
After going through several phono cartridges, I found out the subtle differences between the types of stylus tips and how they affect the vinyl sound. It does not necessarily mean a more expensive cartridge will make your records sound better. Naturally, a more expensive cartridge will be able to track the vinyl grooves better, but you also need the right equipment to amplify the electrical signal.
Among the cartridges I have tested, I am pleased to find the VM540ML (RRP S$388 with headshell) lives up to its name as a premier phono cartridge. It sound quality easily stands out among all the cartridges I have reviewed and it elevates the vinyl sound to a different level compared to the others. The lower frequency is clean and neutral but if you like it more, you could apply some EQ or to pair it with an amp or headphones that emphasizes the bass a little more.
I am sure there are far better cartridges that will wow me further, but the pursuit for “the best” is never-ending, and like any other audio hobby, there is no end to achieving “perfection”. Rather, like any hobby, it is the journey and experience that is more important.
What I have gained from this accidental hobby of vinyl collection is that I become more interested in seeking out different music, to understand its origins and appreciate its history, just like any artwork. I can’t wait to share my vinyl collection process in my upcoming posts.