Turntables are high-precision devices comprised of many parts, each playing a crucial role in the restitution of the signal. Whether they are designed to dampen vibrations, transmit the signal or to turn the information etched in the record groove into an electrical signal, all the components of a turntable work together to deliver a faithful and natural reproduction of the original recording. The performance of a turntable can therefore be improved with the use of accessories such as a record clamp or damping feet.
The stylus is key to the performance of a turntable. As small as it may be, it has the essential role of transforming the groove of a record into music. In other words, changing the stylus can have a major impact on the sound restitution and can bring a new lease of life to a system which seems to be running out of steam. However, the question remains: when should you change the stylus on a phono cartridge?
The different types of styli
The stylus is the very small needle that one can see when looking at a cartridge up close. It is made from diamond, sometimes sapphire, and is attached to a cantilever. The function of the stylus is to run through the groove of vinyl record, more precisely to follow its exact shape. With every minuscule bump and gap inside the groove, the diamond tip transmits information to the cantilever. The latter is attached to a magnet which is placed between pole pieces if it is a mobile magnet cartridge or to an electrical coil placed close to a magnet for a mobile coil cartridge. The electrical signal which results from this interaction is then transmitted to the RCA output of the turntable.
There are different kinds of diamond tip. Spherical models are the least used for hi-fi. A spherical tip’s ability to extract information is limited because of its shape which makes it impossible to go all the way to the bottom of the groove to retrieve all the details. The shape of a spherical stylus also makes it sturdier than the other types, which is why it is often used by DJs. Elliptical styli are the most common and are designed to follow the groove very precisely. Elliptical syli have a high sensitivity and offer plenty of details, which ensures a high fidelity experience. Shibata, Line Contact, and Micro Line styli are the state-of-the-art in audio restitution. They offer an extremely faithful reproduction of the recording and excellent channel separation for a natural and well-defined stereo effect.
Keeping in mind the variables that are the conditions of use and the lifespan of a phono cartridge, it is usually recommended to change the stylus after an average of 500 to 1.000 hours of use. A thousand hours represents roughly a maximum of 3 years for regular use, which is the case of the iconic Ortofon 2M Red cartridge for example. The number of hours depends on the build quality, the materials and the type of stylus. A Shibata stylus may have a shorter lifespan than midrange models due to its shape which ensures better contact with the groove but also weakens the diamond tip. It goes without saying that a DJ who does regular sets will need to change the stylus a lot more often than an audiophile who listens to records at home. Some DJs even said that they needed to change the stylus of their cartridge every 3 months if they played regular sets and put the needle through strenuous use (scratching, needle drops).
For a turntable in a hi-fi system which will not be used quite as often, a few times a month for example, the lifespan may be over three years, especially if you take good care of your turntable and records. Don’t worry, you will not have to count how many hours you’ve spent listening to records, nor will you have to remember exactly how much time it has been since you last changed the stylus or cartridge. Your turntable will let you know when it is time to change it. There’s a very high probability that it might be time to change the stylus if you notice that:
- the sound isn’t quite as punchy as it used to be
- you don’t hear as many details as you used to
- the sound restitution is not as precise as before
- there is an abnormal level of distortion and it has been getting worse over time
How to change the stylus?
Changing the stylus of a phono cartridge can be done simply by carefully pulling on the detachable part. Just hold the body of the cartridge between your thumb and index finger and hold the part to which the cantilever is attached the same way with your other hand. Without applying any force, simply pull lightly. The stylus will disconnect without much effort and you can then replace it with a new one. Note that although it is sometimes possible to replace the stylus with a cheaper model in the same series to save money, it is recommended to replace it with the same model or a superior version for increased performance.
Be careful, not all cartridges are fitted with a replaceable stylus. This is the case of the majority of cartridges used for entry-level turntables or suitcase type record players. Some high-end models are not fitted with a replaceable stylus either. The entire cartridge needs to be replaced once it has reached the end of its life.
Take good care of your records to maximize the lifespan of your stylus
Taking good care of your records and stylus is essential to maximize the lifespan of your cartridge. Systematically cleaning your records before and after listening to them is more than just a fun ritual which brings a certain charm to listening to albums on vinyl. Admittedly, DJs don’t have time to do so when they are in the middle of a set, but this isn’t the case for people who listen to records at home and where taking your time is an essential part of the process. Cleaning a record using a carbon fibre brush gets rid of the small particles and specks of dust that are on its surface. These particles are responsible for premature wear of the stylus. Think of it this way: it is like driving a car on a small dirt track versus driving on a freshly paved road. The tires will wear out much faster in the former situation than in the latter.
For used records bought at a flea market, a yard sale, or found in an old collection, a deeper clean using a special product or a record cleaning machine is necessary. For more information on the topic, you can consult our guide on how to take care of your vinyl records.