Cartridge 101: Can Playing Scratched Records Impact Your Stylus?

Cartridge 101: Can Playing Scratched Records Impact Your Stylus?

Collecting vinyl records can be absolutely dreamy, even when playing scratched records. Nothing quite beats the experience of putting on an album you picked up at your favorite record store. There is a nostalgic luxury that comes with the feeling of sinking into your couch with a tasty beverage while the warm sound of vinyl washes over you. There’s a reason that amidst endless streaming options, the number of people collecting vinyl has only increased in recent years. You can’t argue with the textured sound quality of a turntable, and there’s something to be said for the archival feeling of physically storing objects full of music.

However, there are always two sides to the coin, and the crucial but less romantic side of collecting records is all of the maintenance. A little bit of negligence is all it takes to accidentally damage your favorite album, or even the turntable itself, and it’s always best to stay vigilant to avoid regrets. The most difficult aspect of staying vigilant is figuring out which parts of the record player are most fragile, and when it’s time to call it a day for a damaged record.

Because the medium of vinyl dates back, and many collectors are excited by the idea of scoring a secondhand record, it’s inevitable that you’ll find yourself handling some scratched records. Obviously, there’s a big difference between a record with a light scratch and an album that has been completely mutilated by time and mishandling. Plenty of records with small scratches will still make for an overall pleasant listening experience, save a few moments of imperfection. But regardless of the severity of sound quality itself, it’s important to consider how playing scratched records can affect the turntable itself, but more specifically, the stylus.

Will a Scratched Record Dent or Ruin the Stylus?

The stylus (also known as the needle) is the only part of the turntable that is constantly making contact with the surface of the record. Without the stylus, none of the information in the record grooves would be translated to electrical signals which are then amplified into music. All of this is to say, the stylus is the part of the record player that’s most affected by the state of the record itself. It’s only logical to wonder whether a scratched record could ruin a stylus, and the answer to that isn’t completely straightforward.

It’s a yes, in certain circumstances, and a no in others, so let’s dive in.

Will a Scratch on a Record Ruin a Stylus by Itself?

The short answer is usually a “no.”

The needle is made of a hard precious stone (usually diamond or sapphire), and the records are made of plastic. The stones styli are made of are far harder than plastic, so it would be very difficult for a scratch to physically break or alter the shape of a stylus. However, if you’re dealing with a truly deep scratch, it’s possible for the needle to get stuck or lodged in the scratch. In most cases, a needle will jump out of a scratch, and while it might make a startling “popping” sound, it reflects far more on the state of the vinyl than the actual needle. However, if you’re constantly playing scratched records, even lightly scratched records, it’s likely you are damaging your needle at a faster pace. So, no, in most cases playing a scratched record won’t immediately dent, or break your stylus. However, if you’re playing damaged records consistently it likely will lead to damage, and here’s why.

What Actually Damages Your Needle

Even the most well cared for stylus, that is used to exclusively play pristine records is going to have a shelf-life. But when cared for right, a high-quality stylus can last a long time without serious damage. The biggest culprit that damages a stylus is long-term exposure to dirt and grime. Aside from constant use and the passage of time itself, a needle is most affected by dirty records. Constant exposure to the dirt build-up inside record grooves wears down the surface of a needle. 

While consistently playing scratched records can slightly affect the surface of your stylus, dirty records will wear down the needle far faster. It’s all cyclical because when a needle becomes jagged from exposure to dirt, it then goes on to damage the grooves in your records. This can create a feedback loop of damage, dirt, and decay. While not all scratched records are dirty, most scratched records have been in use for longer, which means they have more opportunities to accumulate dirt. Even if you regularly wash your records, vinyl scratches create their own sorts of grooves, which means it’s often hard to keep damaged records pristine vs. a new or unscratched album.

All this is to say, record scratches don’t directly break your stylus, but the dirt surrounding them, and constant playback can rapidly damage the needle.

How Do You Avoid Playing Scratched Records?

First off, never touch the surface of your records. Always handle your records by gently gripping the outer edge and the label. It doesn’t matter how clean your hands are, the debris from fingerprints can quickly cause trouble for your needle. And as we already established, the dirtier the record, the more likely it is to damage the needle which will then cause scratches.

Make Sure You Use an Inner Sleeve

When you’re taking records in and out of their sleeves, it’s best to keep them inside the inner sleeve. If you buy a record that doesn’t come with an inner sleeve, it’s worth buying one, as these protect the vinyl from getting scuff from the inside of the main sleeve. It’s super easy to overlook how quickly the inside of a sleeve can give your vinyl small surface scratches. This is why an inner sleeve provides a crucial extra barrier of protection.

Store Your Records Properly

One of the quickest ways to scratch or warp a record is by stacking it. This can be counterintuitive since vinyl are flat and look so stackable. However, the storage for your record collection is without a doubt one of the most important parts of maintenance. For the best lifespan, you’ll want to store your records upright. Vinyl crates with dividers are a solid and space-efficient way to store records. You’ll also want to make sure the space you store and play records is well ventilated. Cleaning the space and mitigating humidity will help keep extra dirt and grime off your collection.

Use the Cueing Lever

In the movies, we often see people placing the needle on the record with their bare hands. But that is not the move. The cueing lever on a turntable is there to protect the records and the stylus. The lever gently raises and lowers the tonearm, and applies just the right amount of pressure on the record grooves. Even if you feel anxious to hear your favorite song, it’s not worth the potential damage of damaging the records or cantilever with your hands.

Regularly Clean Your Records

Everything vinyl related comes back to cleanliness. Keeping your records clean prevents them from damaging the stylus, which then prevents the stylus from scratching the grooves. In a perfect scenario, you’d clean all of your records after one or two plays. There are a lot of ways to clean your records, and your method will likely be influenced by budget. 

One simple and effective method is a vinyl record brush. A static-dissipating carbon fiber record brush (like the Brush It from Pro-Ject USA) can remove dust and reduce overall static. Removing static is crucial since static electricity can be a magnet for dust and lead to crackle. In order to clean with a record brush, all you have to do is hold the brush in place during playback to catch both the static charge and dust. 

Another tried and true cleaning method is a microfiber cloth and some cleaning solution. You’ll want to opt for a microfiber cloth that is super absorbent and lint-free, and it’s best to swap them out often enough you don’t have leftover residue. With the microfiber in hand, all you’ll need is a safe record cleaning fluid (like the eco-friendly Wash-It from Pro-Ject USA). Just follow the grooves of the record with gentle circular motions, and once it’s been thoroughly wiped, you’ll let it air dry.

However, if you want to truly keep your records in the cleanest shape ever, investing in a record cleaning machine is going to be your best bet. ​​A vacuum-based record cleaning machine combines cleaning fluid with a vacuum tube to thoroughly suck out dirt and dust. 

The VC-S2 record cleaning machine from Pro-Ject USA is designed to clean records in as little as one or two spins (a few seconds each). So if you want to regularly and thoroughly clean your records, a machine may be worth it.

How Do You Fix Scratched Records?

While prevention is always key, some records are simply scratched. One of the best ways to salvage the sound quality in a scratched record is to keep it pristinely clean. Having a cleaning kit on-hand (like the Pro-ject USA VS’7 Vacuum Arm Kit) will make this process easier. This will help prevent it from damaging the needle with dirt, and will also give you the most optimal sound quality possible. Playing scratched records with light scratches will still play beautifully save a fleeting moment, so long as they’re maintained you can still use them.

The Toothpick Trick For Playing Scratched Records

If you feel more adventurous than simply cleaning your record and living with it, there is a simple DIY hack some people swear by. While this won’t work on a deep scratch, it could potentially help with lighter scratches. You’ll need a wooden toothpick, a magnifying glass, and a clean anti-static cloth. With those in tow, you’ll play the record, and when you hear the skip, pause it and isolate the scratched section. Watching through the magnifying glass, you’ll gently but firmly push the toothpick along the harmed area, checking for “bumps.” Clean any debris with the anti-static cloth, and play the record again and repeat until it sounds better, or you’ve determined all is lost. Some articles online suggest using sandpaper to repair records, and we strongly advise against that.

Don’t Rorget to Clean Your Stylus

Much like the records themselves, your stylus should be regularly cleaned in order to give it a longer go. If you’re a record collector who regularly uses your turntable, cleaning the stylus once a week is a solid move. The best tool for cleaning a stylus is going to be a carbon fiber brush, because it tackles both dirt and static energy. The Pro-Ject USA Clean It Stylus Cleaner is an affordable and high-quality option. All you have to do is glide the stylus brush across from back to front, in the direction a record spins.

When is it Time to Replace My Stylus?

A stylus, like any part of a turntable, is going to have a very different lifespan depending on its quality and how well taken care of it is. According to manufacturers, if you take good care of your needle it should last for 1000 hours, some people even claim a well-cared-for needle can last 3,000 hours. If you go by the 1000 hour estimate, you could play records every day for three years before needing a replacement. With the 3,000 hour rule, you could go up to 8 years. 

However, since a lot of factors besides math affect your needle, you can always grab a high-powered magnifying glass to see if it’s time for a new needle. If you see any sign of jagged edges, black grime, or the needle bending in, then it’s time to pack in and get a new one. 

Similarly, if your needle is constantly jumping out of the record grooves, that may be a sign it needs to be replaced. Occasional skipping is likely the record, but constant jumping is usually the stylus. In general, if you’re purchasing a secondhand turntable, it’s highly recommended you buy a new stylus since you have no way of fully guaranteeing it’s not damaged (and won’t damage your record collection).

Can Playing Scratched Records Harm Your Stylus?

As you see, the simple answer is yes. But the reasoning can be complicated.

Playing scratched records can impact your stylus, but often not in the ways people assume. The scratches are unlikely to break or change the shape of the stylus, but the surrounding dirt can create a feedback loop of damage. Cleaning and storing everything properly is the best way to protect both the stylus and the records.


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