Welcome to our growing vinyl FAQ, where we continually upload concise answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about collecting and enjoying vinyl records.
When should I replace my needle/stylus?
There’s a lot of active discussion and opinions on this topic, but the short answer is, it depends. 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.
In short, 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 a key indicator of wear, however, as by this point the stylus is already causing record wear. As a rough guide, I follow Shure’s advice on stylus replacement: “As a rule of thumb, a diamond stylus should be replaced after 800 to 1,000 hours of playing time.”
Based on the above, 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 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 at the very least.
What is a turntable pre-amp and why do I need one?
Records are recorded with the bass frequencies reduced, and the high frequencies boosted to keep groove dimensions small. A phono pre-amp boosts bass frequencies and reduces high frequencies in an attempt to restore — as close as possible — the frequency response of the master recording.
The signal produced by a record cartridge is also very weak; a typical phono pre-amp will boost your signal by 40 – 50 dB to meet the requirement of your aux input. If your system/receiver has an input labeled “phono,” there’s a good chance this input has a built-in phono pre-amp stage.
How can dust affect records?
Needless to say, dust is a fact of life when it comes to vinyl records. A few basic vinyl maintenance principles are usually enough to keep things under control, however, left unchecked, dust can cause real damage to both your stylus and records. Not only does it contribute to pops and crackles, but it can also lead to the needle jumping, and even stylus and record wear.
Dust build-up over time can also compound inside the groove, and over time, becomes sticky and stubborn. While it makes sense to prevent dust forming in the first place through proper record storage, there will be times that, despite your best efforts, dust and dirt will start to build up. For a crash course on preventing dust (plus other maintenance tips) consider reading our guide to looking after vinyl records.
How can I clean my records?
All records need cleaning from time-to-time, and there are many documented cleaning methods — some perfectly logical, others damn right ludicrous. Either way, there are far too many details to mention in this FAQ — check out our guide to cleaning vinyl records for full details.
Can I clean my records with soap and water?
You could, but we don’t recommend it. The mineral deposits and impurities that domestic tapwater leave behind are a potential threat to delicate vinyl grooves. Household cleaning products, such as washing up liquid, should be avioded as they are not necessarily safe for use on delicate vinyl records. Wherever water is applied, always opt for distilled water.
Can you clean vinyl records with Windex?
Household cleaning products (such as windex or other cleaning brands) should be avoided. To understand why Windex is such a bad idea on vinyl, we need only look at the ingredients, which are less than natural. Best to stick to substances purpose-mixed by folks who know that thy’re doing. For more on how NOT to clean vinyl records, visit our guide, here.
Is it safe to clean vinyl records with alcohol?
There is much debate around this topic, and the answer depends greatly upon who you ask. In general, the conscientious throughout the industry is to proceed with caution. Some evidence appears to support the notion that pure alcohol can damage the record grooves. Specifically, isopropyl alcohol can allegedly remove plasticizers from the vinyl and make the groove brittle.
The jury might remain open on this topic, but overall, we advise readers to steer clear of any record cleaning solution that contains a large amount of isopropyl alcohol. Learn more about alcohol as a record cleaner, here.
Does 180gram vinyl sound better?
The technical standard for cutting grooves to vinyl master discs are exactly the same for all vinyl records regardless of weight. Therefore, the weight of a vinyl record has little to no impact on sound quality. Also, the stylus tip in the groove is only capable of reading a limited depth anyway, and thus anything below a certain point is missed.
The Sound quality of a given record is mostly determined by the quality of the source material and the mastering process — alongside to pressing process, of course.
So what’s all the fuss about 180g?
The benefit of thicker weight vinyl are mostly twofold: 1) They’re more satisfying to handle — more substantial, and 2) They’re more resilient to damage over time, including breakage and warping. In addition, many argue heavier grade vinyl provides a more stable platform for your stylus and cantilever whilst also better isolating the stylus from unwanted vibration.
What’s the difference between a “belt drive” and a “direct drive” turntable?
The key difference is how the motor drives the record platter. A belt drive turntable works by spinning the platter using an elastic belt that is attached to a motor. With a direct drive turntable, on the other hand, the platter sits directly on the motor.
Generally speaking (and I do mean very generally), belt drive turntables benefit sonically from the isolated motor, making them the choice of hi-fi enthusiasts. However, the playback speed can be less accurate. DJ’s will almost invariably opt for direct drive due to their consistent playback speed, faster start and stopping time, plus the capability to spin the platter backward for cueing and special effects.
What is the difference between spherical and conical styli?
A spherical stylus tip is round like a ballpoint pen. Because of the shape, spherical styli have a large radius and subsequently trace less of the smaller groove modulations that represent higher frequencies — the result is a “warmer” sound quality. DJ’s have long favored spherical styli for their scratching and backspin performance. Many also argue that record wear is very low when tracking light.
An elliptical stylus has a dual radii which makes contact across a larger area of the groove wall – this allows for more precise tracking and greater high-frequency detail. Other benefits include better phase response and lower distortion. Hi-fi listeners often prefer elliptical styli for sonic performance. To learn more about these stylus shapes and other designs, consider reading our post on vinyl stylus shapes.
How should I store my vinyl collection?
There are many products available to help store records safely, but the overall practice comes down to a few fundamentals: vinyl records must by stored vertically, as stacking records flat in piles will lead to warping over time. You also want to store them in a clean environment at a consistent temperature. Check out our guide to storing vinyl records for more info.
What are record weights, and do they make a difference?
Record weights are designed to fit over the spindle and clamp the record in place. Audiophiles claim that weights ensure stability, and therefore, improved tracking. There is some debate among the vinyl community as to whether or not vinyl record weights work. In our experience, they do provide a marginal improvement in playback performance and a small uplift in sound quality (particularly in the bass response, which sounds tighter). It works by clamping the record tighter to your turntable platter, which helps to improve tracking and reduce vibrations. The added mass may also help to reduce wow and flutter. Additionally, the applied weight can also help to flatten mildly warped records.
Important! Always be sure to check your turntable manual before using a record weight, as some lower-end turntables are not able to support the additional mass.
What is Half Speed Mastering?
Half Speed Mastering is a highly skilled job performed by a talented mastering engineer. Here’s the “skinny” on the whole process. To produce a master record, a lacquer disc is placed on the cutting machine, known as a mastering lathe. The lathe cutting head engraves the source waveform into the lacquer.
In the case of half speed mastering, the whole process is slowed down to, you guessed it, half of the original speed. In other words, a typical 33rpm record is cut at 16 2/3rpm. The source material is also slowed down (reducing the pitch in the process) meaning the final record will still sound normal when played back. The whole process can have huge sonic benefits, which you can read more about in our full feature on half speed mastering.
Are vinyl records better when sourced from the original master tapes?
This is a BIG question. But in essence, it’s the mastering process and the quality of source material that matters most. The deficiencies attributed to digital may have had some relevance in the early days, but not now. Almost everything these days is recorded and mixed digitally, and so long as digital files are handled with care, there is no reason why digital source files pressed to vinyl can’t shine through. There is, however, a lot of valid criticism in vinyl records cut from heavily compressed digital masters, which just sound diminished on vinyl rather than open, dynamic and loud. Our conversations with well-known industry mastering engineers appear to back this theory up.
Have a question you’d like answered?
If you’d like to suggest another common question that should be added to our list, please feel free to get in touch.