Finding a Needle in a Haystack - EMusician

Finding a Needle in a Haystack

Although the turntable used by a turntablist is important, the cartridge mounted on the tonearm also plays a key role in the relationship between a vinyl
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Although the turntable used by a turntablist is important, thecartridge mounted on the tonearm also plays a key role in therelationship between a vinyl record and the sounds you can make bymanipulating it. With the wrong cartridge, your three-click flarecan become a no-click skipfest, and your bottom-heavy stutter cansound about as thin as Christina Aguilera looks. To help you findthe best turntable cartridge for your needs and budget, I tested avariety of cartridges and compared their strengths andweaknesses.

Turntable cartridge manufacturers have responded to theincreasing popularity of scratching by introducing products aimedspecifically at turntablists. For many years Ortofon, Shure, andStanton have remained the three key players in the world of DJcartridges, so I started my search by looking at some of theturntablist-specific cartridges offered by each of thesemanufacturers.

From Ortofon I selected the brand-new Concorde Scratch and OMScratch models, as well as the older OM DJ-Pro. Ortofon is bestknown for its Concorde line of cartridges, which features anall-in-one headshell-and-cartridge design that looks like the noseof its airplane namesake. Although Ortofon cartridges are verypopular with club DJs, the models have not gained significantacceptance from scratch DJs. The newly introduced Concorde Scratchand OM Scratch cartridges (designed with the help of DJ Noize)represent Ortofon's first serious attempt at addressing theturntablist's needs.

From Shure I selected the turntablist's all-around favorite: theM44-7. Recently reintroduced because of popular demand and nowpackaged as a turntablist-oriented product, the M44-7 is aboxy-looking high-output cartridge popularized by the InvisiblSkratch Piklz.

Stanton, the granddaddy of the DJ cartridge scene, isrepresented by the inexpensive 505SK, designed with input from theBeat Junkies' DJ Babu; the DJ Craze — endorsed 520SK(essentially a modified 505SK); and the higher-end 605SK, popularwith several DJs, including DJ Focus, DJ Radar, and Z-Trip.

I made twofold comparisons of these cartridges — first onpaper, checking the specifications for each; then a hands-oncomparison, noting how the cartridge performed. To start with, Ireviewed each cartridge's specifications. In comparing the specs, Ichose to focus on four features of prime importance toturntablists: output voltage, tracking force, frequency response,and price.

OUTPUT VOLTAGE

The output voltage of a cartridge directly affects how loud itsounds. With respect to the needs of scratch DJs, the higher theoutput voltage, the better. The leader in this department isclearly the Shure M44-7. At 9.5 millivolts (mV), its output issignificantly higher than that of its nearest competitors, theOrtofon Scratch line (at 7 mV) and the Stanton 605SK (at 6.6 mV).If you perform in clubs and live settings, you'll consider a higheroutput voltage more important than if you scratch in your basementat night with headphones on.

TRACKING FORCE

The tracking force — the weight placed on theneedle — is probably the most important feature for scratchDJs. One of the most tweaked settings, tracking force can affectboth the cartridge's skip resistance and the rapidity with whichthe needle causes record burn (the nasty hiss you hear ona much-scratched part of a record).

In the early days of scratch DJing, DJs tracked as heavily aspossible (which is why old-school DJs taped pennies to theheadshell). In basic terms, the more heavily you can track (withouta heavy impact on the needle), the less likely the record is toskip during rigorous scratch performances. The trade-off is thatthe more heavily you track, the more quickly you'll encounterundesirable record burn.

The optimal tracking force for most of these cartridges seems tobe around 3 to 3.5 grams, with all but the M44-7 capable oftracking up to 5 grams. With hands-on experience and someexperimentation, you can tweak this setting to your specific needs,with the goal of tracking as lightly as possible withoutskipping. (See the “Record Burn” section for more onthe effect of the tracking force.)

FREQUENCY RESPONSE

While it is not the scratch DJ's primary focus, the cartridge'ssonic quality is important. Generally speaking, attempts toincrease the skip resistance or reduce the likelihood of recordburn decrease the cartridge's sonic accuracy.

On average, all of the cartridges here perform below the levelthat one would expect of a cartridge used by an audio purist. Thetrade-off is generally in the high-end or treble range of sounds,which is the most difficult to reproduce accurately. Most of thesecartridges can hit at least 17,000 Hz. Although this is certainlynot ideal for audiophile applications, it is acceptable when youtake into account the cartridges' skip-resistant behavior.

The leaders in frequency response are the 605SK from Stanton andthe OM DJ-Pro from Ortofon, both of which are capable of reaching18,000 Hz RMS. Unfortunately, it appears that Ortofon had to giveup a lot of high-end performance in its Scratch line, which maxesout at 15,000 Hz RMS.

PRICE

Products in the DJ cartridge market cover a wide range of pricepoints. The typical price you can expect to pay for a high-qualityDJ cartridge is between $65 and $80. For your money you typicallyget the cartridge (without the headshell, which is $15 to $25more), one or two styli, and mounting hardware for a headshell.

In this lineup, the price leader is the Stanton 505SK, which at$39.99 sells for less than half the price of many of the othercartridges featured here. As with most things, however, you getwhat you pay for. Although the Stanton 505SK and 520SK costsignificantly less than the cartridges from Ortofon and Shure, theyare definitely entry-level models.

The most expensive cartridge is the Ortofon Concorde Scratch. At$175, it costs significantly more than the current industry fave,the Shure M44-7. The Scratch doesn't need a headshell, because theConcorde line features a unique integrated headshell-and-cartridgedesign. The Concorde Scratch installs in a snap — all youneed to do is screw it onto the tonearm and adjust the weight. Forthis reason, Ortofon gets bonus points in the ease-of-use categoryfor its Concorde line of cartridges.

TESTING METHODOLOGY

To test and compare the cartridges, I premounted each of them onheadshells so that I could quickly switch between models whilecomparing them. I also used the manufacturers' recommended settingsand tracking weights so that I could test them in optimalconditions.

I ran through a series of tests to gain a subjective feel forthe performance and sound of each cartridge. These tests includedscratching with the cartridge installed on the left turntable, thenon the right turntable. I also performed similar scratches using arecord that rarely skipped on my normal setup, as well as with arecord prone to skipping easily. In one blitz of testing, I triedeach cartridge and made note of my impressions and findings.

I then used each cartridge for at least two hours to practicescratching over a period of a few days. I made some further notesabout the feel and performance of each model and compared thesefindings with my original notes.

As a final test, I listened to an unscratched record throughheadphones and compared the sound quality of each cartridge.

The four areas of comparison were skip resistance, record burn,sonic quality, and overall feel.

SKIP RESISTANCE

For most turntablists, skip resistance is the most importantconsideration. A skipping cartridge is the scratch DJ's number oneenemy and biggest nightmare. The leaders in skip-free performanceare the Shure M44-7, the Stanton 605SK, and the Ortofon ConcordeScratch. The most surprising of these three was the ConcordeScratch. I was expecting Ortofon's unusual design to affectperformance negatively in favor of style, but this was not thecase. In fact, the Concorde Scratch model in my testingoutperformed the OM Scratch, which requires mounting in a regularheadshell but uses the same needle. It was no surprise that theShure M44-7 made the list of top performers — it is renownedfor its skip resistance.

What did surprise me was how poorly the Stanton 520SK cartridgeperformed. I was quite excited to receive this model and lookedforward to testing a cartridge endorsed by DJ Craze, the three-timeDMC world champion. I was disappointed to find that with Stanton'srecommended settings and even with some experimental tweaking, the520SK performed the worst of all the cartridges in this list (evencompared with the 505SK on which it is based), skipping frequentlyon a variety of records.

RECORD BURN

Record burn (or lack thereof) is also fairly important to thescratch DJ, especially if you don't like buying the same recordsover and over again. In the early days of turntablism, scratchcartridges were notorious for causing rapid record burn, and DJsaccepted this shortcoming as part of the territory. Thankfully,things have changed; cartridge manufacturers have now focused onreducing record burn while increasing tracking ability.

The two clear leaders in this category are the Shure M44-7 andthe Ortofon Scratch models. The M44-7 creates very little recordburn, partly because of its design and partly because it tracks onaverage 0.5 gram lighter than the other models while maintainingits high resistance to skipping. Ortofon's Scratch lines alsocaused very little record burn — a surprise considering thatmost Ortofon cartridges (including the OM DJ-Pro model reviewedhere) do cause record burn under scratch applications.

Note that all of the cartridges in this review have a sphericalstylus tip. Some are available with an elliptical stylus tip, butthis design is best avoided for scratch applications. Althoughelliptical styli generally sound better, they are a surefire causeof record burn because of how they interact with the record grooveduring scratching.

SONIC QUALITY

This is a fairly subjective rating, but to my ear the Stanton605SK and the Ortofon OM DJ-Pro had the best overall sonic quality.Not coincidentally, they also have the widest frequency outputrange.

Each cartridge in this roundup has unique sonic characteristics,some of which may appeal to you more than they do to me. Forexample, the M44-7 seems to have a fuller, bassier sound than theOM Scratch. However, the sonic quality of all the cartridges Itested here is perfectly adequate for turntablist applications.

OVERALL FEEL

I attempted to organize the models reviewed in order of overallfeel — admittedly the most subjective rating of all. Theresult is the closest I can get to making recommendations. Most ofmy considerations for this rating emerged from the experience ofsimply playing around with each cartridge during a practicesession.

I was happiest with the tried-and-true Shure M44-7 and willcontinue using it as my cartridge of choice. If I had to pick asubstitute, I would go with the Stanton 605SK or the OrtofonConcorde Scratch. As a budget model the Stanton 505SK is a goodchoice with a very appealing price, particularly if you do notperform in live and club settings. Of course, you should check outa variety of cartridges to determine which works best for yourstyle. Happy scratching!

CONTACT INFO

ORTOFON
tel. (631) 979-5828
Web www.ortofon.com

SHURE
tel. (800) 25-SHURE
e-mail info@shure.com
Web www.shure.com

STANTON
tel. (954) 929-8999
e-mail info@stantonmagnetics.com
Web www.stantonmagnetics.com

PRODUCT SUMMARY

CARTRIDGE OUTPUT VOLTAGE TRACKING FORCE STYLUS TIP TYPE AND RADIUS FREQUENCY RESPONSE LIST PRICE NET WEIGHT PROS CONS OVERALL RATING (1-5)

Ortofon Concorde Scratch 7 mV 3-5g Spherical 18 μm (~0.7 mm) 20-15,000 Hz $175 w/extra stylus 18.5g Setup ease. Low record burn. Skip resistance. Bonus stylus.Cool looks. Expensive. 4 Ortofon OM Scratch 7 mV 3-5g Spherical 18 μm (~0.7 mm) 20-15,000 Hz $115 w/extra stylus 5g Low record burn. Skip resistance. Bonus stylus. Expensive. 3.5 Ortofon OM DJ-Pro 5 mV 3-5g Spherical 18 μm (~0.7 mm) 20-18,000 Hz $90 5g High-quality sound. Prone to record burn. 3 Shure M44-7 9.5 mV 1.5-3g Spherical 0.7 mm 20-17,000 Hz $115 6.7g Skip resistance. High output voltage. Low record burn. Average sound quality. 4.5 Stanton 505SK 6 mV 2-5g Spherical 0.7 mm 20-17,000 Hz $39.99 5.5g Inexpensive. Can cause record burn if not dialed in. 3.5 Stanton 520SK 6 mV 2-5g Spherical 0.7 mm 20-17,000 Hz $49.99 w/extra stylus 5.5g Inexpensive. Bonus stylus. Skip, skip, skip. 2.5 Stanton 605SK 6.6 mV 2-5g Spherical 0.7 mm 20-18,000 Hz $64.99 6.3g Skip resistance. High-quality sound. Excellent performance fora low-cost unit. Very tall (requires height ring adjusted to max setting). 4