Your record player or turntable’s stylus is the first point in the audio signal chain. It is the instrument responsible for directly tracking your record and beginning the process of transforming an other-wise useless groove into sweet, sweet music.
Most stylus tips are made from diamond, which is one of the hardest surfaces known to man. Some cheaper models use sapphire, but a diamond is preferred for its durability for the most part. After all, your stylus has quite a tough job at hand—tracking miles and miles of record groove at a microscopic level.
Despite the durability of diamonds, the intense job of tracking record after record eventually takes its toll, and the stylus will ultimately wear out and require replacement. If your records are dirty, the stylus will wear out quicker; similarly, if your stylus is clogged with dust and gunk, this will also speed up its demise. (To learn more about how often you should replace a stylus, check out our previous article).
What causes the stylus to wear out?
The physical process and friction involved in playing a record are enough to wear down the stylus tip slowly. But more importantly, dust, finger oil, and any other built-up grime will speed up the process significantly. As the stylus tracks the groove, heat builds up from the friction, which causes dust and oils to harden and adhere to the stylus surface.
Not only does this degrade the audio performance in the short term, but it also causes faster and more uneven stylus wear. If that weren’t bad enough, a misshaped or badly worn stylus would also cause more significant record wear, and we don’t want that!
So how do we avoid excessive stylus wear?
Keeping your records clean is a good start, of course, but regular stylus cleaning is essential. Cartridge manufacturers rarely ship their products with any cleaning kit; at best, you might receive a very basic brush like the one pictured below.
For the best results, invest in a purpose-designed stylus cleaning kit. I use the GrooveWasher SC1. It’s a very simple and cost-effective kit consisting of a stylus brush and the SC1 stylus cleaning fluid.
Compared to a basic stylus brush, there are several design improvements. The curved, ergonomic design makes it easier to access your stylus and the underside of the cartridge. The longer, more dense cleaning bristles help clean the stylus thoroughly while reducing the risk of knocking the delicate stylus cantilever.
The images below show one of my styli before and after cleaning. As you can see, the example stylus is coated with a significant amount of unwanted dust and grime. A tiny drop of GrooveWashers SC1 fluid swept away this grime, leaving the stylus clean and the audio playback greatly improved.
Don’t forget: Sound Matters readers receive 10% when buying directly from the GrooveWasher website. Simply use the code SOUNDMATTERS10 on checkout.
Technique: How to Clean the Stylus
The most crucial point to remember is the brushing technique. Always brush the stylus from back to front, never from front to back. The latter will risk bending the stylus cantilever, resulting in permanent miss-alignment and a big hit to your bank balance as you’ll now need to replace the stylus.
How Often Should you Clean the Stylus?
The short answer is, it’s best to clean the stylus after you playback each side. The vinyl community will debate the best approach until the end of time, but here’s the routine I follow:
Use the brush dry after each side without fail. Once every 2-3 records, use a drop of the SC1 fluid to remove any stubborn build-up. You can increase or decrease the fluid use depending on how dirty your stylus gets, but if the stylus is picking up excessive grime, it’s a sign you need to clean your records.
Some collectors worry about over-using fluids on a stylus, as manufacturers sometimes use glue to attach the stylus tip. If you’re not careful and you use the wrong type of liquid, there is a possibility you could dissolve the glue. The SC1 fluid is safe to use on your stylus, and I have never experienced any issues. At the very least, you should always stick to a reputable brand when choosing a cleaning solution, but if you’re still worried about fluids, I can also recommend the Onzow Zero Dust (a gel-based alternative).
When using the Onzow, though, be very careful to make sure your surface and turntable are steady. If the turntable moves when lowered into the gel, there’s a chance you could damage the cantilever.
Like all things vinyl, proceed with care and caution as the kit we’re using relies on precision to work correctly. Treat your stylus and cartridge with great respect, and it will reward you with many hours of great-sounding music. Happy spinning.