Long the preserve of audiophiles and DJs, vinyl is once again mainstream. As the CD has given way to digital downloads, the good old LP record has quietly made an impressive comeback.
No one can say for sure whether it’s the undeniable warmth of the sound or the enjoyably tactile experience spurring vinyl’s renewed popularity. But record sales are once again growing after decades of declines.
So maybe you’ve splashed out on a high-tech turntable or simply found a used one at garage sale. You are prepared to join the legions of vinyl aficionados around the world. But as you start spinning your freshly pressed 180 gram discs or dad’s old record collection, know that you’ll eventually need to consider replacing the needle – also know as a phono cartridge stylus.
Though Shure is now predominately known for its microphones, the company has long been one of the world’s leading makers of quality phono cartridges. Since the 1930s, we’ve made more than 2,000 different models!
About the Stylus
The heart and soul of a phono cartridge is the stylus (needle). With its tip made from extremely hard material, usually an industrial diamond, the stylus tracks the grooves in the record. That vibrational energy is converted into electrical energy via a moving magnet assembly located inside the phono cartridge, which houses everything needed to create an audio signal.
Repeatedly pulling the stylus through the 1500 feet of groove on each side of an LP ultimately results in wear and tear to both stylus and record. This means you’ll eventually need to replace your record player’s needle.
Symptoms of a Worn Stylus
Here are some signs that it’s time for a new stylus:
1. Total playing time exceeds 1,000 hours.
Estimates vary by manufacturer, but Shure phono styli (yes, that’s the plural of stylus) typically provide 800-1,000 hours of use. That’s roughly equivalent to listening to 1500 standard LPs, with an average of 40 minutes per LP. But the life of a stylus naturally also depends on how well it and the records it plays are maintained.
2. The audio quality is poor.
Generally speaking, the first indication is a loss in higher frequencies. Over time, the sound may become distorted or fuzzy. At this stage, the stylus may be causing damage to your records.
3. The stylus is bent, crooked or shows sign of wear.
If the damage isn’t obvious to the naked eye, use a loupe or a magnifying glass.
The stylus can be removed for a better view, sliding out of the cartridge body. A microscope of 200x or greater magnification is required to view stylus tip wear.
If you bought a new turntable and have been burning up the vinyl, it might suffice to replace just the stylus. To determine what stylus is required, refer to the model number of the cartridge.
But if your record player was used or is a vintage model in need of an upgrade, it could be time for a whole new cartridge. This requires a little advance planning before visiting your local hi-fi store or shopping online.
Replacing the Cartridge
Here are some things to consider:
1. What kind of mount does the cartridge have?
There are two types: A standard mount is, well, the industry standard. But you might come across the less common P-mount cartridge with some vintage turntables.
2. What fidelity is required?
For most listeners and audiophiles, an elliptical stylus is the usual choice. DJs concerned about record wear typically pick a spherical stylus.
3. What kind of records do you own?
For example, if you have a collection of 78s, choose a cartridge that is specifically designed for wide grooves.
4. What’s your budget?
Phono cartridges can range in price from around $50 for casual listening to high-end audiophile cartridges costing thousands. Another consideration is the quality of your turntable. You probably don’t need a $200 cartridge for a $75 USB record player.
Click here to view Shure phono cartridges.
Keeping your records and stylus clean are good ways to extend the life of both. There are plenty of products on the market along with resources online recommending various solutions. There are also record cleaning machines for vinyl purists that run into the thousands of dollars. The key thing to remember is: The needle and records themselves are the most important pieces of the turntable setup and they both collect dirt. Cleaning after each listening session is essential.
Equally important is referring to the turntable manufacturer’s recommendations for tonearm balance and tracking force. Maintaining the right adjustments can keep a vintage copy of Michael Jackson’s Thriller sounding good for years to come.