Turntable cartridges are often one of the most expensive components within a turntable. The main reason is that cartridges are very delicate and precise component to manufacture, high precision is needed since they have a big influence on the sound quality. A second reason is those high-end cartridges are in low demand and are mostly manufactured manually.
What is expensive?
Turntable cartridge prices range from just 20 dollars to a couple of thousand so it is hard to say all turntable cartridges are expensive. In general the feeling a lot of people is how can such a small component be worth a couple of hundred dollars? And why are willing to spend that money?
The answer is simple, people that are willing that spend amount of money often have an audio setup worth a couple of thousands. Audiophiles seek a great turntable, receiver, speakers and also, a matching cartridge. You don’t want the cartridge to be the bottleneck in your setup when you are spending that amount of money on your equipment. However if you are an average vinyl enthusiast you don’t have to spend that amount of money.
The fact is a decent turntable cartridge doesn’t have to break the bank. Premium brands like Ortofon and Audio Technica have good performing models on the market that can be a nice choice or upgrade in most turntable setups. For example the Ortofon 2m Red is a popular choice for a good reason under 100 dollar, with its balanced and detailed sound it can get just a lot more out of your records. A nice step up is the Ortofon 2m Blue for just under 200 dollars or good budget alternative is the Audio Technica AT95E that can often be found for under 40 dollars.
And what about suitcase record players that you can get for 50 dollars? Well… Their cartridges often produce not the best sound quality but what is worse is that overtime they can easily damage your records, read more here.
What makes a turntable cartridge so complex?
As said already we think out of all the turntable components the cartridge and its stylus have the biggest impact on the sound quality. The cartridge houses components responsible for picking up and creating an audio signal, if the audio signal here is bad it can’t be fixed later on. The cartridge is therefore the starting point of every record player setup.
In order to fully understand how it works let’s look at the different components:
The stylus, which is also called a stylus tip or needle, is attached to a metal rod called a cantilever. The cantilever extends from the inside of the cartridge, where it is attached to a magnet or a coil of wire, depending on the type of cartridge. Cartridges consist of either a moving magnet or moving coil. If you want to know anything about how these components work together read our article on how turntable cartridges work.
Now you have to imagine that all these components fit into a casing that smaller than one inch. Every component needs to be very precise at a small scale. For example, the stylus tracks the grooves of a records that are between just 0.04mm ti 0.08mm wide.
Not only that but the materials used are expensive and scares. All quality styluses re made out of diamonds, either fully or just the tip. To fit these expensive components on such a small frame requires precision that is why we need to look into the manufacturing process next.
How cartridges are manufactured
As you can see from the video above creating a premium cartridge is an elaborate handmade process. The reason is that as described above the components are tiny and need to be very accurate for every single unit. This makes it not only a difficult process but also a time consuming one where each product needs to be checked and calibrated in order to meet the standards. Detailed machinery is needed and needs to be operated by a trained professional that also has the experience to do quality controls on every cartridge produced.
As for the materials, they are not only hard to come by and expensive, such as diamonds. But they also require a lot of reworking to make it suitable. For example, cutting a diamond will result in a way too sharp stylus that can cut into your records, therefore, the diamond needs to be formed and polished into a smooth rounded shape. A task that requires experience and precision because of the small scale.
Supply and demand
There is another reason that influences the price of more premium cartridges which is the market itself. Cheaper cartridges can be mass-produced and integrated into turntables that sell in high quantities. The more high-end cartridges however are only focused on the audiophiles that are willing to spend a lot more, making it a rather small niche. Because of this low demand setting up a whole automated production line, which actually needs way more attention to detail, is in most cases not worth the cost.
In other cases, the demand for certain cartridges is so high that cartridge brands up the prices simply because they can. Normally the market balance this and people will look at competitors but in some cases the reputation of some models is so high that people are willing to pay the extra cost.
Looking for something else?
If you are looking for a turntable with a specific feature or within a certain budget you can take look at one of guides below.