If you’re asking how to replace a record player needle, you might be thinking in outdated turntable terminology dating back to the Victrola days, when they used actual cactus needles to play records. Actually, even in the 50s and early 60s many manufacturers, such as Pfansteil, and Shure used to call them needles, and visiting a department store’s “stereo section,” usually had signs up for needle replacement, or calling your attention to “make sure and get a new needle,” or “get rid of that old needle.” To be honest, the “needles” of the 60s were probably a lot closer to cactus needles than we’d like to remember. However, back then a new cartridge might only have set you back 10, 20, or 30 dollars, and a new stylus was maybe 10 or 12 bucks.
Perusing through the Radio Shack/Allied Radio of that time period offered up pages and pages of cartridges, replacement styli and turntable/cartridge packages. They even had a section for “magnetic” cartridges, which was a relatively new thing, and “ceramic cartridges.” Some of you that collect vintage audio gear will see separate phono inputs for magnetic and ceramic cartridges on the back of your amplifier. Google that!
When Is it Time to Replace a Turntable Cartridge?
This is a question that has a double-edged sword for an answer. By the time the stylus on that phonograph of yours needs replacement, it will have worn to the point that it will be damaging your records. Playback will suffer, and you’ll notice the sound quality will suffer to the point where it sounds like when you get a big dust ball on the stylus tip. But the bad news is things will sound this way with a clean stylus.
Catch it before it damages your favorite record. Vinyl records are extremely delicate, and those grooves are microscopic, yet complex in nature. Even just having the tracking force on your tonearm can do permanent damage (not enough tracking force will do just as much harm as too much) and even bend the stylus cantilever permanently, requiring replacement.
A good rule of thumb is to expect about 2000-3000 hours from a stylus that has been properly set up. Check your owner’s manual or an instruction sheet that came with your cartridge to be sure. These days, if you didn’t get one with the cartridge, chances are high you can find this information out on the internet easily – often at the cartridge/stylus manufacturer’s website.
Considering that a typical album side is about 20 minutes, that shakes out to about 6000 album sides before you need to replace your stylus. Keeping track is up to you. Crazed audiophiles often move on to a new cartridge before they wear out the old cartridge, which can make purchasing second-hand a good value proposition if you know who you’re buying from. But it could be a waste of hundreds of dollars if you don’t know how to replace a record player needle with a new one.
New turntable, cartridge, stylus, or even tonearm?
All but the most expensive and elaborate turntables have fixed tonearms, though many have removable headshells, allowing you to mount additional cartridges in an easy manner. Unless you are looking for a major performance upgrade, deciding whether to get a new cartridge or a new turntable will probably be limited to a new cartridge. Nearly all of today’s modern cartridges fall into two categories: MM (moving magnet) and MC (moving coil). This will be another in-depth topic, but for now, the main difference between the two is that MM cartridges have a higher output electrical signal, usually not requiring as elaborate of a phono section on your amplifier, or outboard phono preamp. And, MM cartridges have user-replaceable stylus assemblies.
Because of the removable stylus, it’s rare that you need to replace the entire cartridge when it’s time to change yours. Considering most replacement styli are in the $75 – $300 range, changing it every two or three years will keep you out of the extreme wear zone. One of the best features of Sumiko cartridges is that the main body of the cartridge on their MM cartridges is similar, with the improvement in the stylus assembly as you go up the range. A higher-quality stylus assembly allows that “record player needle” to track the groove more precisely. This delivers more musical detail, and if set up correctly, will cut down on record wear too. It also makes for a cost-effective upgrade path – when it’s time for a replacement stylus, get the next model or two up the range, and you’ve got a new, improved music system at the same time.
How to Replace a Record player Needle or Stylus
Changing a stylus is easy. First, make sure your amplifier or preamplifier is turned off, or at least the volume is all the way down. Pulling a stylus with the volume up to normal listening levels could make a loud noise and damage the tweeters in your speakers. Next, secure the tonearm either with a clasp if your turntable is so equipped, or if it isn’t, find some painter’s tape to secure it.
All that remains is to pull the old stylus assembly straight out from the sides. Minimal force is required. When installing the new stylus, it’s not a bad idea to have a small flashlight, or activating the light on your smartphone to help you see just how to ease the new one back in place. The whole operation should take no more than a minute or two.
How to Replace the Entire Phono Cartridge
Changing the whole cartridge is a bit more involving. If you have a direct drive turntable like a Technics, Denon, or another vintage direct drive table with a tonearm offering a removable headshell, you can do this with the headshell on the tonearm or off. Whatever you feel most comfortable with. Should you remove the headshell to mount the cartridge, consider removing the counterweight from your tonearm, or at least securing the tonearm in place, so it doesn’t pop up when you remove that weight from the front half of the tonearm.
Most Pro-Ject tables have a fixed headshell that is an integral part of the tonearm. This makes securing the tonearm even more of a priority, so that arm isn’t floating free. The last thing you want to do is come this far and damage the stylus on a new cartridge while installing it! (ask me how I know this…)
Make sure you have a small flat head screwdriver a pair of needle-nose pliers to remove the headshell wires that attach to the cartridge. These are extremely delicate and easy to damage – so proceed with care. If your cartridge comes with a stylus guard or protector, leave it in place to protect things.
Once you have things re-assembled, you’ll need two more tools, a protractor to align the cartridge properly, and a stylus force gauge, to make sure the stylus is contacting your record with the proper amount of force. Look back to that cartridge data-sheet under tracking force. Most manufacturers will specify a range within a few tenths of a gram. If you’re a beginner, set the tracking force for your new cartridge to the middle of the range and call it good. We’ll offer up an advanced class or two, for those of you that really want to geek out.
Learning How to Replace a Record Player Needle Isn’t the Only Way to Take Things Up a Notch
Pro-Ject’s Measure it S2 is an excellent stylus force gauge that is extremely accurate and priced at about $129. Got a couple of friends that love vinyl as much as you do? This is a great group buy. If you’re more territorial, consider the Measure it E, which tips the scale just under $50.
Pro-Ject also offers the Align it DS2 alignment protractor for just under $50, which will get your cartridge optimized perfectly. How perfectly depends on your patience, but it’s a fantastic tool for the job.
All of this assumes you’re a DIY kind of person. None of these tasks are terribly tough to accomplish, and it will give you more of a connection with your record player. If you don’t feel confident, this might be the perfect time to visit your favorite audio dealer and ask for some help.
Who knows, you might even come home with a brand new, upgraded turntable?