At this point, almost everyone knows about vinyl’s Lazarus moment. For a medium that seemed to be on the way out some 20 years ago, 2018 marked the 13th consecutive year of growth in vinyl sales, with a Nielson-era record (no pun intended) 16.8 million LPs sold. That is a 14.6 percent jump from the previous year, and the trend shows no signs of this vinyl comeback letting up.
Thousands of on-trend audiophiles have dug their record players out of storage or purchased a new player online, just to find that the cartridge—which holds the all-important stylus, AKA the needle—is either broken entirely or performing poorly. While some might feel daunted by the prospect of DIY repair, the truth is that, by taking it step-by-step, almost anyone can successfully replace a cartridge.
Parts of a Record Player Cartridge
Before diving into the repair, it is important to know exactly what you are going to be fixing. While the cartridge may be small compared to the turntable and the tonearm, it’s also the most critical component in terms of how music is produced. Think of it like this: if your record player is a violin, the cartridge is the bow.
Most cartridges contain three primary components. These parts work in concert to convert the movement detected by the stylus into a signal which is then picked up by your record player’s amplifier.
The three main parts include:Stylus: The stylus—or record player needle, often referred to as the “needle” or “stylus needle”—is the crown jewel of your record player’s cartridge. Usually cut from polished diamond or some other gemstone, the stylus is the point of contact between the cartridge and vinyl record. (For more info regarding how to clean a record needle, check out our related blog article!)
Magnets and Coils: Above the cantilever are magnets which receive the vibrations emitted from the stylus/cantilever, causing them to vibrate in turn. The vibrating magnets create a reaction in the nearby coils, which sends an electric signal up the tonearm and into an amplifier.
So, while the cartridge may be small, it is an undeniable marvel of engineering. This process happens almost instantaneously and produces the warm, static noise that vinyl aficionados know and love.
How to Replace Record Player Cartridge
We will deep-dive into the important details about replacing your record player cartridge, but the most important thing to remind anyone attempting a DIY replacement is to be gentle. The process requires intricate movements, and the cartridge itself is composed of very small pieces.
Tools Needed to Replace Record Player Cartridge
Of course, before attempting any DIY repair the one thing you are going to need is your tools. While several of these items should be found lying around the house, unless you are a long-time record player owner, the stylus force gauge probably will have to be found elsewhere. However, you can easily order one up online.
It is also unlikely that most people attempting a DIY cartridge repair will have a cartridge alignment protractor either. While you can buy them from many places online, there are also free options that can simply be printed out. Thank goodness for the internet.
Once you have your tools assembled, set aside thirty minutes or so to complete the process. Remember, you do not want to rush through things and wind up damaging a tender component (arguably the most important) of your turntable.
It’s true—there are many, many types of cartridges out there. However, despite the make and turntable model, the vast majority are made from the same essential components and can be replaced by following the same set of instructions:
To complete the first step, you should grab your:
Once you have your tool at the ready, grab the cartridge and move it, along with the tonearm, away from the turntable.
Now, look at the back of the cartridge. You should see several wires—typically four and typically different colors—sticking out of the back of the cartridge and feeding into the tonearm. Note the color pattern, as you will have to recreate it when you attach the new cartridge.
Take your pliers and carefully use them to unplug the wires from the back of the cartridge. If you pull them out at an awkward angle, you run the risk of damaging the quality of the wires and making it difficult to plug them into your new replacement cartridge. This is why we recommend using needle nose pliers instead of your fingers.
To complete the second step, you should grab your:
Now that the wires are unplugged, you are going to remove the cartridge from the tonearm by unscrewing the headshell screws that are sticking down into the cartridge. They should be easy to spot. In the vast majority of cartridges, there are only two, and they are positioned at the very end of the tonearm.
Using your flat screwdriver, turn the screws counterclockwise until they come loose. Some turntable cartridges have hard-shell nuts or fasteners which are attached to the end of the screws. These should be saved and reattached to the replacement cartridge.
For step three, you will need both the:
Now that the old cartridge has been removed, it is time to affix the new cartridge to the tonearm.
Take your new cartridge and hold it underneath the tonearm, in the same position as the old cartridge. You don’t need to be perfectly precise here—when you screw in the headshell screws, the cartridge should essentially align itself.
Holding the cartridge in place, push the screws through the top of the tonearm and into the cartridge. Then, re-thread the nuts by carefully twisting them onto the bottom of each screw. If you have trouble re-threading the nuts, try holding them in place with your thumb while twisting the top of the screw.
If the nut is fully threaded, use your flat screwdriver to tighten the screw. However, make sure you leave the screw loose enough so that it can wiggle slightly. You are going to have to adjust it later.
Next, find the wires that are sticking out of the tonearm and attach them to the new cartridge. Make sure to re-attach them in a way that matches the same color pattern that you observed when you unplugged them from the old cartridge (taking a picture is always recommended).
For the fourth step, you will need your:
Your force gauge should have a small pad that measures your cartridge’s vertical tracking force (VTF). Turn the device on and lower the stylus onto the pad. Check the recommend VTF on the spec sheet that came with your cartridge. If too much or too little weight is being applied, adjust the counterweight on the back of the tonearm until you hit the perfect amount of VTF.
The fifth step requires your:
Attach your cartridge alignment protractor to the spindle in the middle of the turntable. You will notice two different grids on the protractor. A properly aligned cartridge will sit parallel to the grid lines when placed in the center of both grids. If the cartridge is not parallel, rotate it gently until it is. Once you are satisfied, tighten the screws the rest of the way.
At this point, some people chose to readjust the VTF one more time.
Enjoy Your Music!
Congratulations! You have successfully replaced your record stereo cartridge. While the stylus should be replaced every few years, you won’t have to repeat this process for much, much longer, unless something totally unexpected happens.
Moore, J. (2017, September 21). Back in the Groove. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/vinyl-demand-lps-record-store-day-a7952911.html
Richter, F. (2019, April 12). Infographic: The Surprising Comeback of Vinyl Records. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from https://www.statista.com/chart/7699/lp-sales-in-the-united-states/
Rosenblatt, B. (2019, march 29). Vinyl Is bigger Than We Thought. Much Bigger. Retrieved April 23, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/billrosenblatt/2018/09/18/vinyl-is-bigger-than-we-thought-much-bigger/#613accbb1c9c