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close up shot of a record player cartridge and stylus on a vinyl record

How Often Should You Replace Your Record Player Needle?

No one said collecting vinyl records was gonna be an easy hobby There’s a lot to consider — how to store your records, clean them, check off items in your Wantlist without breaking the bank, etc. Let me throw another consideration onto this quickly mounting pile of vinyl concerns: Is it time to replace your record player needle?

What is the stylus?

The stylus is the record player needle that tracks the grooves in your vinyl records, reproducing an audio signal. It’s the cone or ellipses-shaped tip usually made of diamond or sapphire and fixed to the cantilever. The cone sits in the grooves, reading information from each side to give you a stereo signal.

What’s the big deal?

Your stylus arguably has the most challenging and involved job of all your turntable parts. It’s right in the trenches of your records, confronting dust and whatever else might cross its path to reproduce a signal and play those sweet tunes you dig so much. If you don’t show your stylus the respect it deserves by paying attention to how many hours it’s clocking and retiring it when necessary, the effects will be more than just compromised playback. You could also damage your records by having a worn needle gouging micro-chips or bearing heavily against grooves. A misshapen stylus could even start carving into your vinyl. This is not the kind of thing you should gamble with.

When is it time for turntable stylus replacement?

Most manufacturers recommend turntable stylus replacement at around 1,000 hours of record playing time. So if you’re using your turntable for an hour or so per day on average, ideally you should be changing the stylus every couple of years. This varies depending on the manufacturer and what type of materials they’re using. It’s worth checking the manufacturer’s recommended lifespan for your stylus when you get it. Some hi-fi fans will say sticking strictly to the manufacturer lifespan is being overly cautious (as long as you’re cleaning the stylus correctly and playing well-maintained records in decent condition), while others say replacing your stylus within its lifespan is essential to preserving your records and getting the most out of your setup. Ultimately, it’s not an exact science, and there are several factors that will affect the rate your stylus will wear.

What should I look for?

  • If you have access to a high-powered magnifier, you can take a look at your needle up close for signs of wear. Look out for jagged edges or bends in the needle head. If there’s black residue on the needle it may be a sign of overuse and lack of proper care. It may just need a good cleaning or may need to be replaced.
  • Listen out for a dip in sound quality, there’s a chance this could be down to stylus wear. A good way to test it out is to put on a record you’re very familiar with (it’s probably best if it’s not super valuable, just in case). If it is indeed stylus wear that’s impairing the sound of your record, the sound will likely be muffled or distorted. You may find the upper mids and treble harder to discern, or have lost the clean ‘ting’ of a cymbal. Listen out for the presence of a hiss or static on a record where previously there was none. The change in sound quality will be gradual, so you’ll want to pay close attention if you think it’s about time for a needle change.
  • If the needle is skipping or jumping out of the grooves, you’ll definitely be doing some damage to your record, so remove it as soon as possible and don’t turn it on again until you’ve changed your stylus.
  • Always replace the stylus on a second-hand turntable. There’s no real way of knowing how old it is, how much use it’s had, or how well it was treated. Your records will thank you for the upfront investment.

Depending on the cartridge you’re using, you may be able to just replace the stylus, or you may need to spring for a whole cartridge. Most moving magnet cartridges offer replacement styli, which you can usually just clip into the front end of the cart. Often, you can even sub in a more expensive model for a performance boost. If you’re using a moving coil cart, a worn stylus usually spells the end, though the manufacturer may offer retipping.

There are a few things you can do to treat your stylus right and prolong its lifespan (if you’re brave enough to flout the manufacturers’ recommendations). The most important thing is to treat your stylus with care, keep in mind how many hours it’s in service (ballpark is fine), and ensure the records you’re playing are clean and kept in good condition. In the end, hours of playback means your stylus is going to wear out. Make sure you replace it before it starts doing damage to your records.

Stay tuned for more blog posts about how to care for your stylus correctly, the different types available, and how to pick the right one for your turntable.

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