After having presented our basics to equip your turntable, our team decided to launch a series of articles looking at each vinyl accessory, in order to have a maximum of information. And this month, we tackle the cell!
The turntable's cell is one of the first things we think about when we want to improve the listening quality of our vinyls. Indeed, the cell is what allows to draw the musical engravings of the record and to reveal the sounds. It is thus the very source of your analog system and is an essential factor in your good listening conditions. It is composed of the mount, which is the connection system used to fix the turntable on the tone arm and which converts the movements into electrical replicas of the sound, the stylus, which is the pickup of your cell, and the cantilever, which is the rigid rod that serves as an intermediary between the first two. These elements are crucial to the sound quality of a cell, and must be considered almost separately to understand the performance of its cell.
As explained in our last article, there are two main types of cartridges with different output levels: Moving Magnet (MM) cartridges and Moving Coil (MC) cartridges. MC cartridges are most commonly found in high-end vinyl decks, while MM cartridges are reserved for less expensive equipment because of their simpler design.
These two cells have a completely different technical design: the MM cell consists of a magnet which is located at the end of the cantilever and the diamond (or stylus) and between two coils. During the reading of the record, the magnet will vibrate according to the curves of the engraving during the passage of the diamond in the groove, producing a tension in the coils, and a sound.
On MC cells, it is the opposite: the coil is attached to the cantilever and is positioned between two magnets. The signal passes first through the coil, which sends the vibrations back to the two magnets, producing a sound characterized as being more faithful to the original recording because of its more linear frequency.
If one could say that MC cells are superior to MM cells because of the more faithful representation of the recorded sound, you must keep in mind that this judgment remains to be nuanced: indeed, sound quality is a very subjective notion, and some will prefer the rendering of a MM cell to that of a MC cell.
We are going to talk about three main types of mounts in this article: the P-Mount, Ortofon/SME and Standard 1/2" mounts.
The P-Mount, rectangular in shape, is a rather old cell which is fixed directly on the tone arm. It is hardly used anymore, but if your turntable is old, it is possible that it uses this traditional type of connection.
The SME/Ortofon mount is a very simple mount to use and to mount. Since the cell holder and cell are one, you just position it on the arm mount before screwing on the safety collar.
The Standard ½'' mount is found on the vast majority of high-fidelity vinyl decks.
There are two types of configurations for this type of mount: either the cell is attached to the cell holder, similar to an Ortofon/SME type, or it is attached directly to the arm. In both cases, you will find a set of 4 cables, red (right channel), white (left channel), green (right ground), and blue (left ground), which will connect the cell and the cell holder.
However, the assembly remains a little more complex if the cell is not pre-assembled. At first. You have to make sure that you connect the wires from the arm to the cell with a flat nose pliers. Be sure to follow the color code and be as gentle as possible so as not to damage the wires. Then align the cell with the arm before tightening the screws. Although there are measuring devices designed specifically for cell alignment, a template with parallel lines drawn on it is usually included with most models. Once the cell is aligned, you can then tighten the screws, ensuring an optimal reading angle and reduced distortion. This essential step requires a little patience and, in addition to reducing distortion, minimizes wear on your discs.
There are many shapes of diamond, but two main ones can be distinguished: spherical (or conical) and elliptical.
Both shapes have their advantages and disadvantages: spherical diamonds have a larger contact area with the disc than an elliptical tip, reducing wear on the disc. They are also less expensive because they are easier to design. But inevitably, elliptical-shaped diamonds provide a lower level of distortion (especially in the high end of the spectrum), and thus a more refined sound. This is why most "audiophile" users turn to them... Which is not necessarily the case for the more collector profiles, who prefer to privilege the perfect conservation of the record before the quality of restitution.
Other "hybrid" and more complex diamonds exist, such as the Shibata, the Micro-Line, or the Replicant, which try to combine these two forms and further improve the quality of reproduction thanks to a larger and longer contact surface.
One important thing to know: the diamond is almost the only element that can be worn out in a phono cell, and when the performance deteriorates and the sound information starts to be weaker, it is necessary to replace it.
Please note that the replacement of the diamond is only possible on MM cells: indeed, due to their specific design, the diamonds of MC cells are not replaceable by the user. It is theoretically possible to replace the diamond of a cell, but the brands generally prefer to offer you new cells at a reduced price, for saving time, and sometimes even money (diamond replacements on MC cells being particularly expensive).
As said in the last article, setting up a cell requires a minimum of precision. Even if in most cases you will find your turntables already assembled, be sure to take into account the support force and the alignment of the cell, especially if you have assembled it yourself.
The recommended support force, generally indicated by the cell manufacturer, is usually between 1.5 and 2.5 g. It can be adjusted by adjusting the counterweight at the end of the tone arm (most counterweights are also marked to facilitate this adjustment). It is therefore recommended to stay within the range communicated by the manufacturer while adjusting the support force according to your turntable. If the sound seems dull and without energy, the pressure force is probably too high. If the pressure is too low, the sound will be too aggressive and without depth. Note that if the contact force is too low, the cartridge may slip and damage your record. It is therefore better to have a slightly higher contact force than an insufficient one.
Proper alignment of the cartridge will also reduce distortion and minimize wear on the disc.
To help you in the adjustment and mounting of your new stylus, there are many accessories, such as alignment templates to properly align your cartridge, or a cartridge scale which will prove to be indispensable to prolong its life. We advise you to invest in this kind of equipment to avoid irreversible breakage.
The cells must be taken seriously if you want to optimize your turntable. So don't hesitate to pay the price while adapting the range of your cell to that of your turntable.
If this introductory article has motivated you to want to know more about the world of vinyl records, pay attention and follow us on our social channels and our blog! Many more tips and advice are coming soon!
Also, feel free to check out our accessories here, or the website of our partners Pro-Ject here and Ortofon [here]ici, ! 💿🎶