The hi-fi world is full of technical jargon and vinyl records are certainly no exception. In the following article, you’ll learn about the most common stylus shapes on the market designed for vinyl playback.
So what exactly is a stylus?
In simple terms the stylus (or needle) is the tip that tracks your vinyl record. Most styli are made from industrial diamonds (sometimes sapphire), but diamond is the material of choice as it’s the hardest material known to man. (On the mohs scale of mineral hardness, diamonds rank at number 10; sapphires come a close second at 9).
The two most common stylus shapes are spherical styli (also called conical) and elliptical styli (also referred to as bi-radial). Both types have positive and negative attributes…
A spherical stylus tip, by definition, resembles a sphere – similar to a ballpoint pen. Because of their shape, spherical styli have a large radius and subsequently trace less of the smaller groove modulations that represent higher frequencies. They are the least expensive and most widely used stylus type.
There is much debate in the hi-fi community as to how spherical styli perform from a record wear standpoint. Some claim that spherical styli have the greatest record wear because the contact area of the diamond is restricted to two very small points. Others claim spherical styli produce less record wear. The video below features some great images taken using an electron microscope showing actual record wear between different spherical and elliptical styli at varying tracking forces. From the evidence shown, it would appear spherical styli are kindest to your records when tracked light.
An elliptical (or bi-radial) stylus has a dual radii and makes contact across a larger area of the groove wall, which allows for more precise tracking. The result is improved frequency response (particularly highs), improved phase response, and lower distortion, especially in the inner grooves that are harder to track. The drawback is faster tip wear and you’ll need to pay particular attention to cartridge and tone arm alignment for the best results.
Also known as shibata, fine line, or stereohedron, hyperelliptical styli take the elliptical design further for greater contact with the record. When properly aligned, hyperelliptical styli offer fantastic high-frequency performance, longer tip life, improved tracking, and low record wear. They are, however, harder to manufacture than elliptical styli, and therefore expensive.
The Micro-Ridge (or Microline) stylus is a very advanced, computer designed tip shape that comes very close to the shape of a cutting stylus used to produce original master discs. They are difficult to manufacture, and very expensive, but when aligned correctly are capable of the best high-frequency performance with extended record and stylus life. Such performance is made possible by the advanced multilevel “ridge” shape of a MicroLine tip.
Stylus for 78 RPM records
The groove of a 78 RPM record is about 3 to 4 times wider than the a typical 33 1/3 RPM record. To play 78 records, you must use a stylus designed specifically for the wider grooves. The tip radius should be at least 2.0 mil. If a standard microgroove spherical stylus tip is used, it will ride very low in the groove and produce a very noisy, unlistenable signal. Not to mentioned it will destroy your standard stylus very quickly!
Note About Stylus Shank Construction:
There are two primary methods of attached a stylus to the cantilever:
a. Nude diamond. Where the stylus is a whole diamond that’s glued or fastened to the cantilever. Nude styli have lower mass and therefore track more accurately.
b. Tipped diamond. Here, a diamond stylus tip is mounted on a metal shank. Such designs often have increased mass which can impair tracking and reduce transient reproduction.
The Bottom Line
There are no right or wrong choices when it comes to selecting the right stylus for you. Every shape and design is a balance between performance, price, and application. DJ’s tend to use spherical styli for their performance in scratching and backspin applications. Hi-fi enthusiasts will appreciate the sonic accuracy of elliptical, hyperelliptical, or micro-ridge designs; the one you settle on will very much depend on your budget.
In any case, it’s important to keep your stylus clean as this will extend its life and prevent deterioration in sound quality due to a build up of dust and grime. Keeping your records clean will reduce the amount of work required here, of course, but inevitably, all styli wear out eventually and need to be replaced. (Check our full guide to see how often you should replace your stylus/needle).
What styli do you use? I’d love to hear your experience and what influenced your decision in the comments bellow.