Playing vinyl records is a demanding physical process that involves your stylus traveling a great distance. (Around 1,500 feet across each side of an average LP).
It’s no easy task. Your stylus will confront, dirt, dust, debris, and even scratches as it traverses miles of grooves over the course of its useable life.
Not surprisingly, a stylus needs to be tough if it’s going to last the distance. But despite the fact most styli are made from diamond (one of the top ten toughest materials known to man) your stylus will eventually wear out.
When Should I Replace My Stylus?
There is no simple answer to this question, as it depends on a number of factors. Asking how long a record stylus will last is much like asking how long a set of strings will last on a guitar. There are many factors that influence the life of a stylus, from the condition of your records to the quality and material of the stylus, and much more. Either way, a worn stylus will damage records, so you definitely want to maintain it well and replace it regularly.
As a stylus wears, flat spots form on the surface that make it harder for the stylus to track grooves accurately. This wear manifests itself as a light, fuzzy distortion in the high-end, and becomes more obvious as wear increases. We should not use distortion as the main signal of wear, however, as by this point the stylus is already causing record wear.
As a guide, a diamond stylus should be replaced after 800 to 1,000 hours of playing time. However, hours are a difficult metric to measure when we consider vinyl playback, so I like to convert this into a rough number of albums. If we take the best possible outcome and an average playing time of 40 minutes per record, 1000 playing hours works out at 1500 album plays. If we then take this number and split it between all 52 weeks in a year, it works out at approximately 4 records per day. In all honesty, while this sounds like a reasonable amount, I make a habit of changing the stylus once every year as a matter of caution.
Some vinyl collectors will claim that sticking strictly to the 1000 playing hours guideline is excessive and that with proper care, setup and maintenance, your stylus can live on for much longer. This view certainly holds a lot of merit. If you set up your turntable correctly, clean your stylus religiously, and only play records in good condition, it is highly likely your stylus will outlive the average. How far you want to push it will depend greatly on how brave you feel.
How to Tell if Your Stylus Needs Replacing
If you want to push your stylus beyond my admittedly over cautious annual replacement (or the 1000 playing hours rule), you’ll need to check carefully for signs of wear. Here are some of the basics:
- Check your stylus using a USB microscope or magnifying glass for signs of ware. Look out for changes in the stylus profile, be they flat spots, edges, or other mutations. Also, check for any residue that won’t come off after cleaning.
- Listen carefully for audible signs of ware. As stated, if the audio starts to degrade, your stylus is almost certainly worn and you should replace it as soon as possible. Failure to do so could result in damage to your precious records. The most noticeable degradation is a light, fuzzy distortion in the high-end, but you should also listen out for any loss of clarity across the frequency spectrum. As the loss of sound quality is so gradual, you will find these defects easier to hear when listening to music you’re very familiar with.
- In some extreme cases, the stylus may start to jump out of the groove through passages of music where previously it was stable. If this happens, stop the turntable immediatly and cease playing records until the stylus is replaced.
- If you purchased a turntable second hand, change the stylus as a matter of good practice; you don’t know how long it’s been in service, or how well it was handled.
How Do I Replace My Turntable Stylus?
Fortunately for your bank balance, you will likely only need to replace the stylus component, not the main cartridge body – although in many cases, a replacement stylus can cost almost as much as the entire cartridge. What can I say? Nobody ever said record collecting was going to be cheap!
The vast majority of moving magnet cartridges allow you to replace the styli, which normally just clips into the front end of the cartridge. If your cartridge is a moving coil design, then you may have the shell out for an entirely new cartridge – unless the manufacturer offers a re-tipping service.
How to Look After Your Stylus
- Good stylus maintenance starts with clean vinyl records. Be sure to dry clean your records before and after each playback using a carbon fiber brush.
- Despite your best dry cleaning efforts, your records will occasionally need wet cleaning to remove dirt and grime that may build up over time.
- Avoid playing damaged or very dirty records, and always clean any used records before you allow them to grace your turntable. Any dust or dirt will act like sandpaper on your stylus, speeding up the process of wear.
- Clean your stylus regularly. There is much debate as to how often you should do this and which methods are safe. You should dry clean your stylus after each record (some folks go as far as cleaning after each side). Occasional wet cleaning using a specially formulated stylus cleaning solution will help to remove any stubborn dirt; don’t over do it, though, as too much wet cleaning is said to potentially cause the stylus to come loose.
- Be sure to correctly set up your turntable, as poorly configured anti-skate, azimuth, and tracking force can easily contribute to excessive or uneven wear.