No one said collecting vinyl records was gonna be an easy hobby.
There’s a lot to consider — how to store your records, clean them, check off items in your Wantlist without breaking the bank, etc. Let me throw another consideration onto this quickly mounting pile of vinyl concerns: Does your turntable’s stylus need replacing?
Which part is the stylus?
This is the needle that tracks the grooves in your vinyl records, reproducing an audio signal. It’s the cone, or ellipses shaped tip, usually made of diamond or sapphire, fixed to the cantilever. The cone sits in the grooves, reading information from each side to give you a stereo signal.
What’s the big deal?
Your stylus arguably has the toughest and most involved job of all your turntable parts. It’s right in the trenches of your records, confronting dust and whatever else might cross it’s path to reproduce a signal and play those sweet tunes you dig so much. Besides being on the frontlines against dust and debris, hour upon hour of contact through the course of playback toll on your stylus, even if it is a diamond. If you don’t show your stylus the respect it deserves by paying attention (even passing) to how many hours it’s clocking and retiring it when necessary, the effects will be more than just compromised playback. You could also be damaging your records by having a worn needle gouging micro-chips, or bearing heavily against grooves. A several misshapen stylus could even start carving into your vinyl. This is not the kind of thing you gamble with.
When does a turntable stylus need to be replaced?
Most manufacturers recommend changing your stylus at around 1000 hours of record playing time. So if you’re using your turntable for an hour or so per day on average, ideally you should be changing the stylus every couple of years. This varies depending on the manufacturer and what type of materials they’re using. It’s worth checking the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan for your stylus when you get it. Some hi-fi fans will say sticking strictly to the manufacturer lifespan is being overly cautious (as long as you’re cleaning the stylus correctly and playing well-maintained records in decent condition), while others say replacing your stylus within its lifespan is essential to preserving your records and getting the most out of your set up. It’s your call how daring you’re feeling.
Ultimately, it’s not an exact science, and there are several factors that will affect the rate your stylus will wear.
If you’re not totally sure of your styli’s recommended lifespan or where you’re at within that timeline, here are some things to look out for:
- If you have access to a high powered magnifier, you can take a look at your needle up close for signs of wear. Look out for jagged edges or bends in the needle head. If there’s black residue on the needle it may be a sign of overuse and lack of proper care. It may just need a good cleaning, or may need to be replaced.
- Listen out for a dip in sound quality, there’s a chance this could be down to stylus wear. A good way to test it out is to put on a record you’re very familiar with (it’s probably best if it’s not super valuable, just in case). If it is indeed stylus wear that’s impairing the sound of your record, the sound will likely be muffled or distorted. You may find the upper mids and treble harder to discern, or have lost the clean ‘ting’ of a cymbal. Listen out for the presence of a hiss or static on a record where previously there was none. The change in sound quality will be gradual, so you’ll want to pay close attention if you think it’s about time for a needle change.
- If the needle is skipping or jumping out of the grooves, you’ll definitely be doing some damage to your record, so remove it as soon as possible and don’t turn it on again until you’ve changed your stylus.
- Always replace the stylus on a second-hand turntable. There’s no real way of knowing how old it is, how much use it’s had, or how well it was treated. Your records will thank you for the upfront investment.
Depending on the cartridge you’re using, you may be able to replace just the stylus, or you may need to spring for a whole cartridge. Most moving magnet cartridge’s offer replacement styli, which you can usually just clip into the front end of the cart. Often you can even sub in a more expensive model for a performance boost. If you’re using a moving coil cart, a worn stylus usually spells the end, though the manufacturer may offer retipping.
There are a few things you can do to treat your stylus right and prolong its lifespan (if you’re brave enough to flout the manufacturers recommendations). The most important thing is to treat your stylus with care, keep in mind how many hours it’s in service (ballpark is fine), and ensure the records you’re playing are clean and kept in good condition. In the end, hours of playback means your stylus is going to wear out. Make sure you replace it before it starts doing damage to your records.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about how to care for your stylus correctly, the different types available, as well as different types cartridges and how to pick the right one for your turntable.