The stylus, or what you might call the needle, is a vital component of any turntable. It’s the connective tissue between the record player and the actual record — without it, a turntable is just a spinning platter.
Here’s how it works. When the stylus is placed on a spinning record, it then rides along the record’s grooves, picking up and relaying the vibrations through the tonearm and to the cartridge. The cartridge then turns those vibrations into electrical signals, which are then amplified (by a separate amplifier or the turntable’s built-in pre-amp) and then transmitted to your speakers.
Today’s entry-level turntables come equipped with everything needed to actually play records, including their own tonearm, counterweight, cartridge and stylus. Essentially, they are plug-and-play machines — you just place the record, drop the stylus and then you’re in business. If you have an automatic turntable, the stylus (and tonearm) will even drop itself for you.
But, like anything else, a stylus is subject to wear and tear over time. The whole process relies on friction between the stylus and the record being played — and eventually the stylus will get dull and wear down. You’ll have to replace it sometime down the road.
How do you know when stylus should be replaced?
There are both audible and physical indicators that will let you know that you’re stylus should be replaced. On the audible side, your records won’t sound as good if your stylus is old or damaged. You’ll hear more distortion, crackling, static and overall fuzziness. Basically, if your records aren’t sounding like they used to — check your turntable’s stylus.
On the physical side, there are a few ways to notice if your stylus is damaged. First, check to see if it’s crooked or otherwise misshapen. Even if you can’t see any distortion, you might notice that the stylus is actually skipping or jumping out of the record grooves when it’s playing. If that’s happening, your stylus needs replacing.
And if you buy a used turntable, you should always replace its stylus. You don’t know the condition of a used stylus, or how it’s been used, and a damaged stylus could damage your records. The risk isn’t worth it.
How long does a typical stylus last?
Most styluses are made of either diamond or sapphire, two of the hardest natural materials on the planet, so they’re not something you’re going to have to think about replacing all too frequently. Obviously, the more you use the turntable, the quicker the stylus will get worn down. Most manufacturers recommend you think about replacing the stylus after 150 or 200 hours of playtime. Some more expensive styluses can have 5-times that lifespan, however.
Are there ways to extend the life of a stylus?
Yes. The easiest way to extend to the lifespan of a turntable’s stylus is to simply take care of it — and to also take care of your records. Anything that’s going to cause excess friction, like dust or dirt stuck in a record’s grooves, can potentially damage the stylus and thus negatively impact the audio quality as well.
What kind of stylus should you buy?
If you’re looking to upgrade your turntable’s stylus, you might be thinking about upgrading its cartridge too. However, you might not be able to do both. Some turntables have tonearms that allow you to replace a stylus and cartridge. Others allow you to replace the stylus but not a cartridge (in case you’re thinking about replacing both). A good rule of thumb is that if the cartridge is mounted to the tonearm with screws, then you can replace the cartridge and stylus. If you don’t see any screws, it’s likely that only the stylus can be replaced.
There are limitations to what kind of stylus you can replace your old one with. It’s always recommended that you check the product manual or manufacturer’s website to see what it recommends. If you’re looking to upgrade to a stylus different than what’s recommended, it’s important to note that not every stylus is the same. Styluses can be either spherical (also known as conical) or elliptical shaped and this can have a big impact on sound quality.
Generally, an elliptical-shaped stylus is more accurate than a spherical stylus because it makes more contact with the record grooves, and thus it can extract more of its data. Since these styluses make more contact, they can wear down more easily; but again, this depends on many factors, including the material of the stylus. For more information about the various differences between styluses, you can read more on Fluance’s website.