It doesn’t matter how glossy and gorgeous your vinyl records are, how fancy your record player is, or how impeccably organized your music corner is, if the stylus on your turntable is busted, the entire listening experience will be massively undermined.
Few feelings are sadder than putting on your favorite record only to discover the nuance of your sound quality has gone down. Instead of feeling surrounded by a warm holographic chorus, or distinctly detailed guitar riffs, you might notice something toned down, glitchy, or less “on” about your favorite songs. While there are plenty of factors in sound quality, one of the most important things to stay mindful of is just how old your needle is, and whether it’s time to shop for a new stylus.
Given the small size of record player needles, it’s all too easy for even the most diligent audiophile to miss signs it’s time to upgrade before it’s too late and a prized record is already damaged.
So, whether you’re new to the world of vinyl, or you’re just looking to cross-reference and brush up on your knowledge, this is a basic primer on when, how, and why to replace your styli.
Why Replacing Your Stylus Matters
The stylus has the most important job out of any part of the record player. This small diamond or cone-shaped turntable needle is tasked with gently dancing with the record grooves of your vinyl so that electrical signals can be transformed into beautiful music and blasted through the amplifier. As the only part of the turntable that directly touches your vinyl, the quality of your record player needle is the top priority.
Even the most well-maintained stylus endures hours of wear from playback, battles with dust and debris, and has the ability to seriously damage your records. An old or overused needle can gouge microchips, cause damage by bearing heavily against grooves, and even go so far as to carve into your vinyl. Suffice it to say: routinely updating your stylus is of the utmost importance.
When to Consider Replacing Your Stylus
Timing is everything when it comes to buying a replacement stylus, waiting too long can cause you serious grief and leave your record collection damaged. But on the other hand, if you’re working on a budget it can be expensive and stressful to feel pressured to upgrade to a new needle when your current one is still working like magic. Ultimately, the “when” question is going to vary depending on how often you use your turntable and how old your turntable cartridge is, but there are a few universal signs it’s time to say bye to your old needle.
For starters, if you bought a used record player and are unsure how many hours it’s been used, it’s best to replace the stylus ASAP. Even if it’s in great shape, it’s far too big of a risk to put your records in contact with an old stylus whose lifespan you haven’t been able to monitor.
Since the stylus tip is so small, it can be helpful to use a magnifying glass to inspect it for telltale signs. If you can see any visible damage such as jagged edges or a bent needle head, then it’s definitely time to replace it. Also, if you see black residue on the needle that can also be a sign it’s time to get a new one, but there are times when that merely signifies the need for a good clean (it can never hurt to clean your needle before making a big decision).
Similarly, if you can hear any audible hiss or static in places you never noticed before, that’s likely due to a damaged or worn needle. A massive amount of sibilant “s” sounds from vocalists can also be a signifier, as well as the decreased sound quality of treble and bass (high and low frequencies).
If you see the needle skipping or bouncing around on the record, it’s time to stop using it ASAP until you can buy a new one. Also, it’s important to check the grip of the cantilever to make sure it’s not too loose, or the connection isn’t misshapen in any way.
One common refrain about the lifespan of a stylus is that you should replace them roughly every 1000 hours of playing time. Of course, this would be hard to precisely track, but if you play records for one hour a day that would mean a new needle every few years, and if you play them 12 hours a day that would mean a replacement stylus every six months.
Different Types of Replacement Styli
The process of getting a new needle is going to vary depending on which turntable cartridge type it’s attached to and the shape of the stylus tip itself. If your record player has a moving magnet cartridge, then it’s a bit simpler, because most moving magnet cartridges come with replaceable styli. This means you can clip a new stylus onto the front of the cartridge without shelling out the big bucks to upgrade the entire cartridge.
However, with moving coil cartridges, a worn stylus generally means it’s time for a new cartridge. This means the cost is higher, but also that your manual work won’t be centered on attaching the new needle itself, but rather a whole new cartridge. Depending on your comfort level, this can be a plus or minus.
Once you’ve established whether you need to replace the whole photo cartridge or just the stylus, you’ll want to pinpoint which model of needle you’re working with. Most styli have a model number or serial number printed on the top (you might need the magnifying glass for this). But if you’re unable to find a number, you can check the owner’s manual to find the serial number. If you don’t have a paper version of the set-up manual, you can pull one up online for your record player. If the cartridge was purchased separately, you can search for the cartridge and accompanying brand in order to find the stylus number.
If you want to upgrade to a completely different needle instead of buying a new model of your old stylus, then you don’t need to search for the needle number since you’ll be swapping it out for something new.
It’s likely your stylus will fall into one of four shape categories: microline, shibata, conical, and elliptical.
Microline styli are computer-designed tips with high-precision and great hi-fi quality, but they are harder to make and thus cost a lot of money and make for an involved replacement process.
The spherical conical styli are the most affordable, common, and easy to replace, but they can potentially run the risk for heavier tracking force (which means greater care is needed to preserve your records).
Shibata styli (also often known as “fine line”) are diamond-shaped, great for hi-fi quality and creating minimal contact damage on your records, but they also run on the higher end price-wise.
Elliptical styli come with a polished tip and run gentler on records than conical, but are often less expensive or hard to replace than shibata or microline.
Ultimately, the stylus replacement shape you go for depends entirely on the set-up you already have, your budget, and your personal preferences.
How to Replace Your Stylus
Now, we’ve arrived at the most important aspect of needle replacement, how you actually install a new needle. The first thing you need to do is turn off and unplug your turntable. If your tonearm has a removable headshell, you want to carefully disconnect it and remove it. If the headshell can’t be removed, then you’ll want to use the locking clamp to lock it in place so the tonearm is steady throughout the entire process.
Next, you’ll want to remove the old stylus completely by gently gripping the stylus assembly between your forefinger and thumb (you can also use pliers if that feels easier) to pull the stylus assembly away from the old cartridge until it clips out. Of course, if you’re replacing the whole cartridge, this step would be replaced by removing the entire cartridge.
Your new stylus (or really any replacement parts) should come with its own set of directions, so give those a read to check if there are any specific assembly details.
Before attaching the new stylus, you’ll want to make sure the needle is safely seated in its protector. Once that’s confirmed, you’ll grip it by its sides and line up the underside of the stylus with the cartridge body. You’ll want to double-check that any tabs or openings are fully lined up.
Once it’s lined up, you’ll gently apply pressure until the new stylus clips into place. If you removed the headshell before installing the new stylus, you’ll now want to reattach it to the tonearm. Make sure the tonearm’s counterweight stays in place during this process, so you don’t have to rebalance the tonearm or reset the tracking force. After this is all done, you can remove the stylus protector and enjoy tunes once again!
Replacing the Whole Cartridge
If your stylus was attached to a moving coil cartridge and you have to replace the whole thing, or you decided to upgrade completely, the process will be a little bit different.
For the first step, you’ll need a flathead screwdriver in order to remove the whole cartridge from the headshell. Start by unscrewing the small screws that attach the cartridge to the headshell, be careful to not let the cartridge slip and fall during this step, since there are little wires attached.
Next, you’ll gently use pliers or tweezers to disconnect the wires from the cartridge, noting which color wires connect to each pin (you can also take a photo). Keeping track of these wires will help when you install the new cartridge.
Since you’re installing an entire cartridge, it’s best to remove the new stylus from the cartridge for this next step, that way you don’t accidentally damage it while attaching the new cartridge. You’ll line up the new cartridge to the headshell (you can use a protractor to help with accuracy), and then use the small screws and flathead screwdriver to attach it. No need to tighten the screws too much, just make sure the cartridge is in place and there’s a little bit of wiggle room.
With the tweezers, you can now gently reattach the headshell’s wires to the pins on the new cartridge. Now that the cartridge is safely installed, you can refer to the general steps on how to attach your stylus.
Now you can get to the good part: playing your favorite records!