Interface: Cartridge-Preamp or Cart-Tonearm?

I'm trying to choose a cartridge.

Which plays the more influential role, the cartridge / pre+phono amp interface (electronic complementarity) or cartridge / tonearm interaction (physics of tonearm-cartridge mating), all other factors being equal? assuming correct setup with proper cartridge-arm load matching...

Or, as in so much else in audio, does each contribute differently --and if so, how do the two differ, as relates to choosing a cartridge?

If need be, I can specify the equipment involved in my choice, but this is intended to be a non-specific question --at least at this phase of inquiry.

Thanks in advance for sharing your experience(s).

Generally speaking the expectation is that the closer you get to the LP, the more resolution you stand to gain with improvements. So the cart-arm combination is what to get right first. Information lost upstream can't be added back downstream.

YMMV section: of course that doesn't mean you can't make intelligent tradeoffs to suit your taste and budget. ;)
Both are important. Missing on either will degrade the final sound.

The cart/arm interface is mostly concerned with the mechanical operation of the arm/cart/table. Things like alignment, mass, bearing design, etc., are the parameters here. We can make educated guesses using the resonance calculations here to see if a particular combo won't be grossly mis-matched but in the end we usually have to listen to a particular set to decide if they work well or not for us while playing music. Or, rely on the experience of others.

The cart/phono interface is mostly concerned with the electrical operation. Gain, internal resistance, tonearm cable, loading, slew rates, etc., are some of the parameters here. Here it gets more difficult as most times what works on company A's phono stage won't necessarily work the same on company B's phono stage, for instance. Many times issues in this interface can sound like mis-tracking when in fact we are hearing distortions. This, to me, really does rely on listening to get right, and many times input by the phono stage designer can be invaluable. Or, again, rely on the experience of others.

There is a lot more that can be said, but I hope this gets the basic idea across.
Dear Cdk84: IMHO the source is the more important audio link: cartridge/tonearm and from here the Phonolinepreamp.

Both are to close on importance because what you are looking for is that the very sensitive source signal when must pass through the Phonolinepreamp comes out with minimum degradation: lose and add the less to the source signal. So this Phonolinepreamp has a critical role too.

Regards and enjoy the music,
First I would match the cartridge sound to the sound of the speakers - they should be similar.Then I would match the cartridge to the tonearm. Then I would match cartridge/arm to the table and then to the phono stage. The final tuning would be the resonance control of the entire chain, this is the most difficult part.
Dear Inna: +++++ " First I would match the cartridge sound to the sound of the speakers - they should be similar, " +++++

I respect your statement, is the first time I read something like that and I would like that you could explain why you think things should be that way: what do you mean with " similar ", what involve this " similar "?. Thank you in advance and appreciate it.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Raul has good advice. If the cartridge does not work with the arm, you can pretty well forget about the preamp somehow fixing things!
Arm cartridge has to be more important - a mistracting cartridge can wreck the most valuable component of your system - the records.

Back in the glory days of analogue when dealers had multiple turntables/arms as a dealer I found that certain arms worked better with certain turntables. There is synergy beyond the specs. I assume complementary resonances is a big factor as there are no perfect components - hence the arguments and differing views.

So I try to find the most common arm/tt combinations people are running and then find the most common cartridges people are using with that arm. Then try and then from that group of cartridges check the reviews out. Also when you read the reviews check what speakers the reviewers are using as that will give you an idea of their preferences as well and the context of that review.
"Similar" was not quite the right word. I meant certain chemistry, synergy. Cartridge and speakers are two points where the energy conversion occurs, the rest are "wires" and "supporting structures" with the exception of the table itself which occupies a unique position.
Often it appears that people just can't find the satisfying sound no matter what they do, so it is possibly that they cannot because there is a mismatch between the front end, especially perhaps the cartridge, and the speakers.
We can debate all that.
First of all, my compliments to the contributors of this thread for their respectful suggestions that I incorporate.
Especially what Dover said and we tend to forget these days.
I've also experienced the mistracking caused by phonostage that Dan ed mentioned.
Dear Inna, I'm supporting your advice as the cart & speakers are the most personalised items in our set-up. I think we can't debate on this subject as there are obviously different favorites of extreme opposites.
(ie:) Proac Vs Sonus Faber , LS3/5a Vs Wilson Audio , Altec Vs Focal , Soundlab Vs Magnepan , Full-Range BLHs Vs Compressor Drivers FHs.
(and:) Colibri Vs Benz , Clearaudio Vs Koetsu , Dynavector Vs Zyx , Lyra Vs Shelter , Denon DL 103R Vs AT 33 PTG/II.
Sometimes we can find pleasure by matching opposites like : Soundlab + Koetsu , but the rule is mostly as you state. If we praise speed & openness, we avoid the "musicality" term.
Something that I would like to remind to the OP that is not asked but IMHO is very critical for our hunting of the most satisfying system, is the whole wiring loom! For 30 years I've had the impression that the cables were the last thing to add as a fine tuning procedure. But no more for me. I've realised that a great help could offered by choosing them in the first place! Obscured characters exposed clearly with utmost definition by a credible cable system and the comparison between components become easier. The expression of individual performance strengths is highlighted to the point that I can say with confidence that to me it is the first priority this cable theme. Then, the phonolinepre follows as the heart of the system that is equally demanding of our greatest attention before we start to hunting for anything else! With these two by hand, the success is guaranteed and every one of us can find his favorite speaker & cartridge without much effort. I don't want to be out of topic here, and I apologise for if it seems to provoke a heretic approach, but I just want to secure a method of choosing components without regrets about the right evaluation afterwards. And that is, because the cables & phonolinepre are not so much in the ballpark of what we like as a flavour, but I accept them more as the monitoring tool to judge all the rest items in the chain. And these items are quite several if one counts the blending combination provided by the apparent tube rolling!

Thank you.
while the cartridge does need to be compatable with the arm's compliance in a general sense, most cartridges are compatable with most arms these days. and if a cartridge or phono stage is too colored to match the other, then one or both are to be avoided. if you have an extremely low output MC (say below .2mv) then obviously it is essential than the phono stage be high gain low noise. these are all common sense issues, but to comment one must first state the obvious.

so assuming all those things, the most important issue (setting aside spot on setup) is the arm; a great arm will make a moderatly priced but well chosen cartridge sound refined and musical. a mediocre arm holds back the best of cartridges. i'll take a top level arm with a moderately priced cartridge every time over an expensive cartridge and a mediocre arm. an arm is the 'hard part', it does the heavy lifting in a vinyl set-up. it allows the cartridge to attain that precise set-up and groove tracking ability where the magic happens.

i've compared arms and compared cartridges, and when the arms are different things are much more different than when the cartridges (within similar price ranges) are different. arms are even more significant than tt's with similar designs. you want to upgrade the performance of your vinyl, get a better arm.

better arms have the potential to have less distortion. period.

so it's not so much a matter of cartridge-arm interface verses cartridge-phono stage interface as much as it's simply getting the very best possible arm you can, making sure it is solidly attached to the plinth, and then setting it up perfectly.

i've had more than a few cartridges, more than a few tt's, more than a few phono stages, and more than a few arms. in the last couple of years i've been fortunate to watch development of a series of tonearms, and it is easy to see where the real performance in a vinyl setup comes from.

as arm performance improves, cartridges get better and better, and previously held perspectives on cause and effect get hit with the real truth. once you reach a certain level of cartridge quality it becomes a flavor issue, once you reach a certain level of phono stage you pay astonishingly higher dollars for dramatically diminished returns.

arm performance is like bass performance in a system, until you hear bass in your system without the distortion, you won't realize that you have been listening to distortion, it's an experiential thing. you cannot explain it to someone, they have to hear it for themselves. their reference for bass performance must change.

arms are like that too.

so what does that matter in terms of cartridge choosing?

the least colored cartridge will continue to improve as the arm improves. as you remove distortion from the arm, the true character of the cartridge will be more and more evidant. likely you are moving down a system path desiring better, lower distortion, sound.

12 years ago i had a Koetsu RSP as my reference in a Levinson-Wilson system. it balanced. since then i moved toward lower distortion, more natural sounding systems and even though the RSP still had a piece of my heart, it was exposed as being too colored to live with. i sold it a couple of years ago.
"most cartridges are compatable with most arms these days".
I suppose this is true but compatibility is one thing and best match for the particular listener and his/her system is another. It is almost like saying that all records are compatible with all turntables. Doesn't give us much, really. We are talking about fine tuning and finding the best possible combination.
you are right, i was referring to mechanical compatability, not character synergy.

what i'm saying is that if you get the best possible arm, then it will always synergize with a cartridge that is properly designed.

the pitfall is having an arm which might be limiting due to a sound signature which requires balancing. and my point was to get the best arm so any cartridge will be optimized. forget about trying to balance color with color. at the end of the day you are just throwing roadblocks in front of the musical message....and veiling the sound.

i agree that there are arms and cartridge combinations which are special for various reasons. but the highest performance will always be with the least distorted products, which do the least to the sound.

If I sense a theme, it would seem that money spent on the finest arm one can afford would be step one. The logic I infer from the thread is that a cartridge upgrade can always come later --as one learns how to fine tune the front end, and perhaps even listen with better informed ears-- but the arm is a pivotal link, not to be "settled for" or compromised upon.

Does that seem to be the consensus?

While I take cabling to be highly important, my amplifier ICs are hard wired (partly to eliminate extra, image-degrading hardware in the signal path, and partly because I have what I consider a very fine IC wire in Furutech's best), there is nothing I can do --or at present want to do-- to change it.

That would leave the phono pre as an object of attention, except that --again by intention-- the phono pre is built into the system and most satisfactory at present. In my case the counsel you offer, Mike, makes most sense. First because it's a place that I can make an easy accommodation of your advice, and second because everything else upstream is, for the time being, completely satisfactory.

If I were to buy a Talea tonearm, what cartridge would work with it at a $1500 price point? (I know that's not exactly how this thread started, exactly...)

Thanks very much for your outstanding support and shared experience. I am grateful.

Did I miss it or you told us nothing about your table?
I certainly would not put $5k or whatever it is tonearm on $3k table not to mention the table/arm match Dover talked about. Unless of course you intend to upgrade the table soon as well.
If I were to buy a Talea tonearm, what cartridge would work with it at a $1500 price point? (I know that's not exactly how this thread started, exactly...)

honestly, i do not have much experience with new $1500 cartridges, either retail list or 'street price'.

i have an MM cartridge i really like (Raul helped me get it), an Azden YM-P50VL, which is on one of my Reed 2P's, which plays way above it's $250 list price. they are scarce and i paid $400 for it. it is likely competitive with $2500 list price cartridges i have heard.

i also have an $1100 Miyajima Labs Premium Be mono cartridge on my Talea series 1 arm which is amazing and also betters my $11k Lyra Olympos SL and my A90's on most mono pressings.

i might recommend looking for a used Dynavector XV-1s in the low $2k neighborhood if you can find one with some life left in it; they are an outstanding all around cartridge which i have owned. a used vdH Colibri is another consideration for maybe $1500--$1800, i've owned 7 of them. however; they are the Jeckle/Hyde of cartridges and very edgy when not happy.

i could list a few new cartridges in that 'around $1500' price range but it would be only thru reputation and not first hand knowledge. investigate it for yourself with a search here and on the vinyl forum on audioasylum.

i own 2 Ortofon A90's, which are now sold out. if you can possibly stretch to $3k-$4k someplace and can lay your hands on one of those you really cannot do any better and i can tell you it is world class on a Talea.

i'm sure Raul could (and has) write(n) pages of cartridge recommendations.

good luck.
Dear friends: I think that some way or the other all the opinions posted here are valid and with with value.

All we know that an audio system quality performance be as high as it's its weakest item link in that system. From this point of view any single link in the system audio chain is critical an important and has the same " weight ": IMHO we can't diminish any audio link's system if we want to achieve " perfection " or nearest to perfection level/status. That's why Geoch or Dover opinions are valid and with value.

Some of you already readed my audio " prayer "/advise that I posted several times: """ add and lose the less to conserve the signal integrity """" through each link in the system audio chain.

I don't believe in synergy per se ( other than electrical audio items synergy/match about impedances ( mainly. ). ).

Dlaloum posted in other thread:
+++ " My philosophy is to get each step in the chain as technically "right" as possible, so as to minimise the dependency on "synergy" " ++++

I agree with him. The " take " is that if you take in deep care on each single audio link then you don't have to worry about synergy between cartridge and speakers. If you already take care and made good choices then there is no reason the system quality performance be just great.

Normally today audio items have from prety " decent " performance to excellent performance, today is not to easy to find out bad/wrong audio items and things are that the whole audio industry is growing up with improvements on each links in the whole audio chain ( in some areas to slowly. ).

I agree with Mike that a better tonearm makes that several cartridges can performs good matched with but IMHO Inna is right too when he said that we have to work to achieve the best and this means the best couple: tonearm/cartridge. Unfortunately till today does not exist a " universal " tonearm where all cartridges shows its best.

The problem here is to choose the " best tonearm we can ", why is a problem or why I said it: because how we know this or that is " the best one ", which one has lower distortions and nearest " neutral " behavior? with which cartridges?, which one help the better to dissipate/damp/disappear the self playback cartridge distortions when each cartridge has different distortions level and different kind of it?.

IMHO it is easy ( as Mike pointed out ) to achieve good quality performance with almost any cartridge in a top today tonearm but from here to achieve the best performance a cartridge can shows is way different
. IMHO there is no one answer to this subject due to its complex full environment.

As Thuchan answer me: not all is blak or white and there is an audio link that for me is the more important and this link is: each one of us, our each one audio/music knowledge-ignorance level and skills because this link IMHO is the one that at the end will define the quality performance level in our audio system.

I think that each one of us followed a build and fine tunning system process according to or knowledge-ignorance level and skills.

In my " process " there are two main parameters/factors that define the road to go: accuracy and certain/credibility. Accuracy means: no frequency response deviations, very low noise, very low distortions, no colorations, no power limitations, wide frequency range, neutral balance, no reproduction limitations, etc.

In the other side, certain/credibility means: true instrument performance " color ", non-musicality but musical true, natural music agresiveness, brigthness when music ask for, same for music strident tendency according the " score ", etc.

When these main factors are achieved then you are " there " with out worry about synergy between " cartridge and speakers ".

So a good place to start is: give the same importance to each one single link with out diminish any in any way. IMHO, we can't lose on that " road ".

Of course, if it is true that nothing is totally blak or totally white it is true too that does not exist one and only one " road " to be " there ": we have several options/alternative to get " there ".

Regards and enjoy the music,
I can tell you what some of these lesser cartridges sound like on a Talea. So far, I've used a 103r, older Benz Glider MO, Shelter 901, Dyna 10x5 and 20XH-2. I think many people might change their opinion on these carts when heard on a Talea/Galibier combination.

dealer disclaimer
When I would have the choice between

1. Top Phonostage+ cheap turntable+cheap Arm+cheap Cartridge
2. Cheap Phonostage+cheap turntable+cheap Arm+ more expensive cartridge

I would choose no.1
Most would do the other way, but I think, the Phonostage is THE key component in a analog set up.
Not easy, because cheap turntable has not really something to do with price. There are also expensive ones out there which won't give you a superior result.
Dear Syntax, the logic of your reasoning is strange. If one
can afford an 'top Phonostage' then he probable can also afford the 'top' of the rest. Your argument looks academic
to me.

Dear Nandric,
the normal discriminated Audiophile saves some money to get something he wants. When he bought it, he saves money for the next, step by step. I don't know many audiophiles who bought a top analog System in a very short time. The definition of "top" also gives lot of room for endless discussions. A outstanding Phonostage which amplifies the signal without adding electronic fingerprints, distortions, colorations is even today very rare. There are a lot of them out there, but at the end of day, only very few are really outstanding.
Same with Arms and Turntables. Cartridge is not such a big deal.
Each his own of course. when I started in the 90's as a poor Student I compared a lot in Dealer Demos, friends Systems and I also had good knowledge in my area (Record collectors). Even when I had a simple Roksan Turntable for 1.5k (complete with Arm and cartridge) I had a 6k Phonostage for it. Never had frustrations. Always a System where my guests had no hurry to leave.
Interesting to note the conversation has moved from the stylus end in Tobias' post to the phono stage in Syntax's post. Mechanical vs electrical.

I think there is much I would agree with Syntax on his approach. Knowing what bits I've learned and what I like, this would be a very fast progression of upgrades from there on out to the cartridge, but they would be done once and over with. Critically damped, so to speak. :-) But I can't help but feel that which end one starts with is dependent on what that someone may be more comfortable debugging. Most people seem to be mechanically intuitive, so I think one has to have some level of listening sophistication with electronics for this approach to work.
Dear Syntax, I got it. Something like buying an Rolls Royce
then sleeping under some bridge for,say, 10 years till all
the savings allow to buy a home for both.

Used Rolls is not that expensive, cheaper than many stereo systems that people here have. Not cheaper than mine though. And the service would cost you dearly; but they last for at least fifty years so it might be worth it.
Inna, You totaly spoiled my methaphoric meaning so 'my'
Rolls should be read as the 'new one'.

Didn't mean to. For some reason I just wanted to be very concrete.
It is interesting to read the responses here. Having used various analogue set ups over 30 years or so, from garrard onwards. I have tended to go with the TT manufacture's arm(eg. sme 20+V arm) as it has been very difficult to audition alternative arm/TT combinations. The assumption being the manufacture's gear must be compatible.
Being in the uk I had the usual Linn + naim set up. When I decided to move on from this I had to go to extreme lengths to to REALLY improve on the built-in naim stage.
Turntable and arm improvements have been the most positive means of upgrading for me. No matter how good the phono stage is if the TT and arm are not getting the information to it then it will not give of it's best.
I have found the same with cartrides, the arm is more important. The cartridge will sound better in agood arm, a modest cartride will give better results in an exceptional arm than than the other way round.
Of course it is essential to ensure the cartridge is set up optimally so the arm must accomodate this. In recent years the adjustment of azimuth prooved to be a critical factor for me in addition to the usual VTA and tracking offset.
I now use an oscillascope to help check this.
Experimenting with cartridges I have come to the conclusion there is no one best cartridge, they all have strengths and weaknesses in different areas so I now use two arms to partly cover this. I know looking at the posts above there are plenty of systems with more, I guess for the same reason.

To Dctom,

Thank you for responding to this thread. Could you give more detail on your use of a 'scope to evaluate cartridge setup?


I use a an old phillips dual channel scope - connecting left tape output from pre to one scope channel right to other. I use the tape out as it is a fixed output and bypasses the volume control.
You then need a test record with a constant tone recorded on the left and right channel separately. 1kHz is a common tone to use.
The aim is to get the crosstalk trace to be equal for left and right. This is the trace from the "silent" channel i.e. the output from the channel which has not been recorded, so to speak.
Say you are playing the right track- you will see a nice big sine wave displayed for the right channel and a small "wiggle" for the left and vice versa when playing the left channel track.
On my arm it is possible to rotate the arm tube by very small increments - this clearly becomes visible on the scope screen as the small crosstalk trace increases or decreases accordingly and hence it is possible to equalize the left and right output.
I hope this makes sense it sounds more complicated than it actually is.
Anyway I have found this has improved channel balance, imaging and sound stage. Needless to say the VTA has to be correct as well.
hope this helps

Hello again, Dctom, and Everyone Else as well,

Dctom, your explanation sounds clear to me at present. When I gain access to a scope, if I have difficulty, would you be willing to 'walk me through the process?' This could take a year or so, as there's a lot to do between now and then.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed their experience and suggestions. I'm grateful for Audiogon for just that reason.

Best Wishes,

No problem David