The gorgeous natural sound that comes from a retro record player belies the wear and tear endured by the components responsible for creating it. And no component shoulders more grunt work than the stylus, the needle that weaves in and out of the vinyl record grooves—often accumulating dust—to make the music you love play through your speakers.
Because it’s so often on the move, every stylus, no matter how durable, has a finite lifespan. Most experts recommend replacing it every 1,000 hours of use. But unless you keep a running diary of the records you play, that can be difficult to gauge. So, how will you know when it’s time? Here are five telltale signs that your record player is screaming for a stylus change.
Why Replacing Your Stylus is so Important
When your stylus has surpassed its tip life, you risk far more than your record player producing distorted audio. You also make any record you play vulnerable to permanent damage.
A misshapen stylus carves into vinyl, rendering it unplayable. Thus, proper maintenance of the stylus is imperative to not only your record player but also your entire album collection.
Sign #1: The Classic Sound Test
When the playback of your records stops being loud and clear, the need for a stylus replacement is loud and clear. You’ll know your stylus has had its last spin when you hear the following classic signs of sound distortion:
- Muffled overall audio
- Noticeable hiss and static
- Overemphasis on vocalists’ S sounds
- Less distinct bass and treble
Sound distortion happens gradually, which means that each of these red flags will be subtle at first. Thus, when you hear even the slightest indication of one of the above examples of sound distortion, take action immediately.
If you wait until the signs are glaringly obvious, it might already be too late.
Sign #2: Needle Skipping or Jumping
Few things are more destructive to a vinyl surface than when a stylus skips or bounces out of the grooves entirely. This can be caused by one of two issues: the buildup of dust or an expired stylus.
If the needle skipping and jumping persists after a thorough cleaning of both the record player's surface and the record itself, don’t play another record until your stylus has been replaced.
Sign #3: You Purchased a Previously Used Record Player
When you purchase clothes from a secondhand store, the first thing you do before you wear them is to wash them. After all, you don’t know who previously owned the clothes or where they’ve been.
The same logic applies to a secondhand record player. Even if you purchase it from a reputable seller, there’s no way to know the stylus’s full history.
Don’t take a gamble. Start fresh with a brand-new stylus.
Sign #4: The Cantilever Grip is Loose
The cantilever is the thin metal rod that extends from the turntable’s cartridge and holds the stylus at its tip. Or should hold it in place, anyway.
If the cantilever’s grip on the stylus is loose, it’s time for your stylus to be swapped out.
Sign #5: A Closer Look Magnifies the Problems
Because the stylus is a relatively small component, issues with it can be difficult to see with the naked eye.
That’s why a powerful magnifier is a valuable purchase. It can illuminate major issues with your stylus that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, such as:
- Needle Damage – When the head of a stylus is either bending or has developed jagged edges, any vinyl that gets placed on the turntable is asking for a permanent scratch or even a crack
- Black Residue – Gunk on the tip of the needle may just require a cleaning. But in the event that a thorough cleaning doesn’t suffice, you need to take swift action on a stylus replacement
Other Variables to Consider
For most record player owners, replacing your stylus every 1,000 hours of play means you’ll be getting a new one roughly once every two years. But determining the lifespan of a stylus isn’t an exact science. There are several factors that may result in your stylus needing to be replaced more often, such as:
- Frequent Use – If you’re a DJ or you simply just love playing records all day and night, your stylus will obviously endure higher than average wear, giving it a shorter lifespan.
- Stylus Material – Because diamonds are the hardest natural material, you’d be hard-pressed to find a record player manufacturer that will settle for anything less in the design of their styli. But if your stylus is composed of a less durable material like sapphire or especially ruby, it will need to be replaced more frequently.
- Manufacturer – As is the case in any business, some record player manufacturers are going to be better than others. Going with a cheaper manufacturer for your record player will save you money upfront, but you’ll pay for it down the road in the form of stylus replacements. Some manufacturers design styli with a lifespan as low as 150 hours, a staggering 850 less than those of industry leaders!
Is There Anything I Can do to Extend My Stylus’s Lifespan?
Thankfully, no matter what kind of record player you own or how often you use it, there are a few tried and true maintenance-related measures you can take that will help you delay having to switch your stylus up.
Like every component of your record player, the best thing you can do is to clean your stylus after every use. For optimal results, do the following:
- Head to your local record store and pick up a stylus brush. Because their bristles are specifically designed to clean styli, they’re worth the investment. If, however, you can’t get a hold of a stylus brush, a soft paintbrush isn’t a bad alternative
- Grab a steady hold of your record player’s tonearm so that the stylus remains firmly in place. Then, use your brush to dust off your stylus with 5-10 strokes. Make sure to do so in a front to back motion or vice versa. Brushing side to side puts you at risk of accidentally bending your stylus
- If your stylus still doesn’t look spotless, moisten your brush with rubbing alcohol for an even deeper clean
- Use a dry, lint-free cloth to wipe away any residue left behind by the rubbing alcohol
Another way to extend your stylus’s lifespan is to address the following aspects of your cartridge:
- Alignment – When it comes to cartridge alignment, being even slightly off can cause a major problem. Proper alignment determines the consequential difference between your stylus nestling perfectly between a record’s grooves and withstanding unnecessary wear from combatting the grooves at every turn. The finer your stylus’s tip, the more crucial it becomes to set your cartridge alignment right on the money.
- Tracking Weight – Every cartridge can operate within a certain weight range, which is likely to be listed on the record player’s original packaging. Striking the perfect balance is vital to your stylus’s lifespan, as setting the weight too far in either direction can have damaging effects. Running the cartridge at too heavy a weight causes the stylus to put extra strain on the vinyl grooves, resulting in the steady deterioration of the stylus and record alike. Conversely, running the cartridge at too light a weight is basically like putting the stylus in the hot air balloon house from Up. Without the necessary pressure to keep the stylus in place, it will bounce around the grooves willy-nilly, which likewise causes the stylus and record to beat each other up.
An Additional Note on Cartridges: The Magnetic Advantage
With turntable cartridges that feature built-in moving coils, both the stylus and cantilever are essentially stuck to it as part of a packaged deal. Unfortunately, this means that when it comes time to replace your stylus, you’ll be forced to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and replace the whole cartridge (or pay a professional to reassemble the entire thing).
Some record store retailers will help soften the blow by letting you trade in your old cartridge and apply it toward a new one. But even with trade-in value applied, the cost of replacement will be expensive.
If, however, your record player has a magnetic cartridge, you’re in luck. In the same way that you only have to buy a razor blade once and can simply keep popping in replacement razors as needed, magnetic turntable cartridges allow you to replace only the stylus without affecting the cartridge as a whole. And as an added bonus, you can sometimes purchase styli from a more expensive model and hitch them to your cartridge for a free performance boost.
No matter how well-equipped your stylus may be, the nature of the gig makes wear and tear inevitable. Keep both an eye and an ear out for warning signs, and replace the stylus as soon as you sense something’s off.
And if you’re diligent about taking the precautionary measures, it may be quite a while before that happens.
- “How to Know When to Change the Stylus on Your Turntable” by Ed Selley http://www.vinylmeplease.com/magazine/changerecordstylus/
“How to Clean a Record Player” by editorial staff at HowToCleanStuff.net