Shure's groovy phono cartridges

Whether you're just now getting into turntables or you're an old pro, Shure phono cartridges dig more music out of your record grooves.

Shure is one of the leading professional microphone manufacturers, and it makes terrific headphones, but my first brush with a Shure product was with one of its phono cartridges in the early 1970s. Shure cartridges were known for their superior tracking ability, and had lower distortion than most competitors. Shure now offers a full line of consumer and DJ phono cartridges.

Shure M97xE phono cartridge Shure

I recently chatted with Shure's Michael Pettersen to learn more about how to get the best sound from any phono cartridge, and his first order of business was keeping the "needle" in the groove.

Pettersen says it's important to accurately adjust the stylus' tracking force, which firmly holds the stylus in place as it's tracing the undulating curves in the record groove. Setting the precise amount of tracking force, usually referred to in grams, is the primary goal. If it's too high, stylus and record wear will be accelerated; a too-low setting will result in mistracking that will damage the record grooves. To optimally set the tone-arm's tracking force (that specification is included with the cartridge when you buy it) Pettersen recommends using a stylus force gauge, because the one on the turntable may not be all that accurate.

Setting stylus force and mounting a new phono cartridge isn't hard to do, but requires some dexterity. If you're unsure of your skills, try to find a knowledgeable friend, or take the turntable to a shop that mounts and adjusts phono cartridges. Your cartridge's optimum stylus force is determined by the cartridge manufacturer. Getting that set just right will provide the best sound and the longest possible stylus and record life.

Pettersen reminded me that 90 percent of the retail cost of a cartridge is in the stylus, but the good news is that when you replace an old or worn out "needle," you essentially have a new cartridge (there's nothing in the cartridge body that wears out or goes bad). The diamond stylus is usually the part that wears, and the effects of that may become noticeable after 1,000 or more hours of use. But the little rubber/elastomer bushing that supports the cantilever shank that sticks out of the cartridge body and holds the stylus can also deteriorate over time, whether the cartridge is played or not. That bushing hardens over time, and restricts the movement of the stylus in the groove. You may hear less bass when the bushing has deteriorated, so if you have a used or unplayed cartridge that's more than 10 years old, replace the stylus. It's very easy to do -- the old stylus assembly slides out -- and you plug in the new one. There's nothing to adjust or calibrate.

DJ cartridges are more ruggedly built than consumer models -- to better withstand the stresses of scratching -- and DJ cartridges use spherical diamond tips to reduce record wear when the record is rotated in reverse. Most consumer cartridges have elliptical (more football-shaped) diamond tips that have better treble response than spherical DJ "needles."

Shure's top consumer cartridge, the M97xE, debuted in the late 1990s, and now sells for around $70 on Amazon; the M-44G DJ cartridge runs $55, and the entry-level M92E sells for around $40. Shure phono cartridges are sold with a two-year warranty, and if you have technical questions about Shure cartridges, call its U.S. customer service department (1-800-25-SHURE).

This Sound and Vision magazine article has more turntable setup tips.