How do You Know When to Change the Turntable Cartridge?
For true audiophiles, there is no alternative to the magical notes of music emanating from the retro-styled turntable or phonograph or gramophone. Turntables are a complex contraption composed of many delicate parts that working in unison produce the melodies that we fall in love with! As with all machinery, turntables must be maintained if they are to perform as we expect them to. Some components of a turntable are more prone to breakdown or wear out than others. One of them is the turntable cartridge, and more specifically, the stylus. The stylus is the first interaction between the vinyl record and the turntable’s phono cartridge. This is why the stylus is that part of a turntable, which gets worn out the fastest.
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What is a Stylus?
The stylus is the point of contact between the vinyl record and the moving magnet or moving coil phono cartridge. It is a needle-shaped metal, which glides along the grooves on a vinyl record and detects and transfers vibrations that are reproduced as music. The stylus has a tip that is spherical-shaped, or elliptical-shaped. The material of the tip can be diamond or sapphire.
The spherical-shaped stylus is a heavy-duty model. It is used by vinyl spinning DJs and for people who are on a tight budget. Since this stylus’s tip is spherical, it cannot glean as much information from the deep grooves on a vinyl record, which translates into not so fine a music experience. On the other hand, the elliptical-shaped stylus is used in high fidelity setups since this stylus is highly sensitive to the shapes and grooves of the vinyl and can reproduce great music.
What does a Stylus Do?
The stylus has the most grueling job of all the components of a turntable. The stylus creates vibrations (which are translated into musical tones by your turntable) as it glides along the grooves on your vinyl record and any dust or other debris on the record are encountered by the stylus. Having a diamond or sapphire tip does not make the stylus invulnerable to wear and tear. Prolonged usage of the stylus will render it misshaped and such a stylus could damage your priceless vinyl records beyond repair. Not to mention, the quality of the music playback will be detrimentally affected by a worn-out stylus.
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When do You Know to Replace Your Turntable Cartridge?
According to most audiophiles, you should expect to change your stylus after at least one thousand hours of playback. This should give your pricey vinyl records the durability that you deserve. Changing your stylus every 1000 hours is just a guideline meant for the most cautious turntable owners. However, if you regularly perform maintenance on your turntable and your vinyl records, then you should not need to change your stylus this often.
Using good vinyl records will also determine the frequency of stylus replacements. For example, if you only use cheap and worn-out vinyl records then your stylus will wear out faster. Since some cartridges have fixed styluses, you have no choice but to replace the entire phono cartridge. However, do not worry; you do not have to count or log the hours of playback meticulously. There are some telltale signs that you should be able to discern to know when it is time to replace your stylus. For example:
- The music will be less energetic than it used to be.
- There will be less detail in the sound.
- The music reproduction will be less nuanced.
- The level of noise will start to increase over time.
How to Maintain Your Stylus?
The process of maintaining your stylus to ensure its longevity is not as complex as you might think. The first step is of course to set up your turntable correctly, especially the phono cartridge and its stylus. What you should be particularly critical about is the placement and anti-skate of the phono cartridge. The shape of your stylus’s tip also matters. For example, if you have an elliptical-shaped stylus then a slight misalignment will not matter much to the longevity of your stylus or your vinyl record. On the other hand, if the tip of your stylus is pointed and fine, then a slight misalignment can result in a permanently damaged vinyl record and too much wear and tear for your stylus in the end.
Anti-skate is a turntable term, which is a spring-loaded mechanism that allows for better performance for your stylus at the cost of increased wear and tear. The only good thing about anti-skate is that it prevents the stylus from damaging your vinyl record.
Cleaning the stylus
Cleaning your stylus is part of the maintenance you will need to do on your turntable to keep it in operating condition as well as to keep your vinyl records in pristine condition.
Just use a fine fibrous brush, ideally made from carbon fiber, and gently but firmly brush away the dust on the surface of the stylus and the vinyl records. Regular cleaning of your stylus and vinyl records will not only prolong the life of your vinyl records and the usability of your turntable but also reduce any chances of permanently damaging your vinyl records due to dust buildups.
Changing the Stylus
When all the signs have appeared that your stylus needs changing there is nothing you can do but the obvious. Changing your stylus depends largely on which type of phono cartridge you have. If it is a moving magnet or MM phono cartridge then your stylus is not fixed and you can easily replace the stylus. You can also boost the performance of your turntable by ordering a better stylus.
If you have a moving coil or MC phono cartridge then you are out of luck (financially) since the stylus is affixed to the moving coil cartridge. You must replace the whole cartridge with a moving coil cartridge. Some specialty audio stores can re-tip your moving coil cartridge stylus for a fee. However, to be on the safe side you should consider buying a new moving coil phono cartridge.
Changing a turntable’s cartridge boils down to a few crucial factors: your budget, the state of your vinyl records, the wear and tear of your stylus. If you are using a turntable, gramophone, or phonograph then you are already a music listener of a higher caliber than the mainstream audiophile is. Therefore, you are used to the higher costs of maintaining a turntable compared to the cost of maintenance for an iPod, a CD player modern hi-fi system. Regularly replacing your stylus or turntable cartridge will reward you with an unparalleled musical experience, which a true audiophile should not monetize.
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