To get exceptional audio performance from a record player, you need to consider the science behind the turntable stylus moving across the record and the energy created and heard through playback. Regardless of how much of an audiophile you are, you know that a turntable does not play vinyl records without a stylus.
The stylus is part of a turntable cartridge at the end of the tonearm on any record player, often called the needle.
The Difference a Budget Makes
When it comes to styli, there are thousands of different options to select. The prices range between $15 and $15,000, so based on the cost of the rest of your equipment, find one that fits your needs without sacrificing that hi-fi sound that you expect.
You don’t want to put a high-end stylus in a basic phonograph, but if you have a high-end system, spending more on a replacement stylus is well worth it.
One of the most important things about the stylus is the material the tip is made out of. Higher-end needles are often made out of a pure diamond.
Often called a nude diamond stylus, this option provides the best quality you can get with analog music because it has a lower weight that tracks the grooves of the vinyl more easily. The needle will be more responsive to smaller vibrations, creating higher frequencies while still reducing the amount of distortion you hear.
Lower-end models typically have a diamond tip resting on a small piece of metal that makes up the rest of the needle.
The metal adds weight to the stylus and affects the overall sound of a record – whether you use an amplifier for sound or wireless Bluetooth technology found in Pro-Ject, Victrola, and other high-end turntables.
Cartridge Weight Matters When Selecting a Turntable Stylus
Entry-level turntables often use a phono cartridge that cannot be removed. This means that you will still be able to change the needle when it needs to be replaced, but whether the cartridge connects to the cantilever with a p-mount or a standard one, the cartridge will not be replaceable.
One way to check if a cartridge replacement is possible is to see if there are screws on the headshell mounting.
Make sure that your turntable uses a moving magnet cartridge because a moving coil cartridge does not typically have a replaceable stylus. Many moving coil cartridges are made by hand, which is what drives up the cost of these cartridges.
They also have differing weights, which is moving coil vs moving magnet cartridge sound is often hotly debated amongst audiophiles.
Since the cartridge includes the needle, you want to select both parts so that they are light enough to not distort the sound too much during playback.
Also, if the needle scrapes across the top of the record during playback, the weight may need adjustment. To prevent this, you can get an adapter to raise the tonearm a bit.
Turntable Stylus Shapes
A turntable stylus is available in many different shapes, and the design you select for your replacement needle will be a key factor in the type of sound your turntable produces. The turntable stylus types to consider include:
- Spherical: A spherical stylus is the least expensive variation, which makes it the most common for record players that you purchase ready to use. They have a large radius that traces less of the grooves, so higher frequencies are easily heard. This stylus creates less overall wear but more in the two specific points of the vinyl grooves that the stylus touches.
- Elliptical: An elliptical stylus is another option to consider that makes contact with a wider area of the vinyl because it has dual radii. This provides a better high-frequency response with lower distortion because the tracking is more precise. This stylus type tends to wear more quickly, so make sure your tonearm and cartridge alignment are always correct. The Pro-Ject Align It tool is a simple way to make these adjustments.
- Hyperelliptical: A hyperelliptical or a shibata stylus takes the design of the needle one step further with a sharper tip that increases the contact with the grooves of the record. This stylus offers very high-frequency performance with improved tracking and less wear on the records, which adds tip life to the stylus. This stylus has a more complex design, so you will find that it typically has a higher price point than an elliptical stylus.
- Micro-ridge: Also called a microline stylus, this is the highest quality tip that you’ll find, and it has the most advanced features. It has a multilevel ridge that is very close to the shape of the cutting stylus, so it creates the best hi-fi sounds. When aligned properly, the stylus and the records you play tend to last much longer because of minimal wear.
Noticeable Audio Differences
Low-cost stylus options tend to sound great to someone who is not used to hearing the difference in the quality of sound that you can get from a top-of-the-line record player. With a high-end stylus, you’ll notice the sound is clearer with much less distortion.
The music being created will sound more open instead of boxed in; making it sound like you are listening to a live performance.
The sound that the artist intended is what you will get, and each note will be clear. In addition, the drums and percussion will have more of a snap, and the bass will have more of a dynamic sound that hits the lower, almost inaudible frequencies.
Overall, the sound is more intense with a high-quality stylus option, but most of the differences will not be noticed by the average listener.
Expand the Lifespan of your Stylus
Most styli have a lifespan that ranges between 200 and 1,000 hours, but a high-end diamond stylus often lasts almost 2,000 hours before it’s completely worn out. If the music’s sound begins to change, it may be time to replace the record player needle.
Consider replacing the needle every few years. The lifespan will vary based on the quality of the stylus and how much it’s used.
Some tips to expand the lifespan of your stylus include:
- Adjust the cartridge because too much weight on the stylus damages the stylus as well as the records.
- Record cleaning will help keep dust from transferring to the stylus, preserving the condition of the stylus.
- Never drop the stylus onto the record because it can blunt the tip.
- Always put a fresh needle into a used turntable before using it so that you get the most out of your needle and don’t damage your records.
- Brush the stylus after every use to remove the chance of unwanted tracing distortion.