We’re often asked about the lifespan of a turntable needle/stylus. The answer is not so easy. It depends on many factors.
- Do you play new or almost new records, clean used records, or beaters? If you have a lot of ‘beaters’ in your collection, you should always look to upgrade and you should keep them clean.
- Does your turntable have an adjustable counterweight, and do you track at the recommended weight for your cartridge?
- Do you keep your records AND your needle clean and free from dirt/oils?
- What material is the stylus tip?
All of these factor in to the amount of time you can safely use your needle. Generally, a well-made stylus with a diamond tip will last 500-800 hours of play. The sapphire tips will general wear much quicker, but there are fewer and fewer of those out there. Steel needles for 78’s should be replaced after playing just a few records. We’ll be talking about diamond tips.
If your collection is primarily new or nearly new records that are kept clean and you regularly clean the stylus tip, you can approach the upper limit, often even surpassing that mark with no degradation in sound and minimal damage to the vinyl you play. If you ignore the condition of the needle and take no care in cleaning the records, you may not even hit the minimum hours and can do substantial damage to your collection.
As a tip begins to wear, you’ll start to hear differences in the sound of your records. Usually, the first sign will be at the very high end of the audio spectrum: You’ll start to hear sibilance in the ‘S’ sounds, and the highest notes such as piccolos and cymbals will not have that crisp sound you used to hear. As soon as you begin to hear the sound degrading in records that you know sounded fine the last time you listened, it’s time to pay attention. If your turntable has adjustments, check them. Make sure you’re still tracking at the proper weight and that the anti-skate (if you have one) is set correctly. Check all the settings available.
If everything is fine there, check the condition of the tip. Here at POPS, we have both a 30X loupe and a microscope. You probably won’t need a microscope, but a 30 power magnifier will be a good tool to have. We can check the condition of your needle at no charge if you bring it in. The tip should have a VERY sharp point with no ‘rounding’. If you do a search of images, you’ll find some good pics of sharp vs worn needles as a guide. If there is wear, it’s time to replace the needle before serious damage is done!
At POPS, we have well over a thousand different needles. Most are not interchangeable. Some look almost exactly the same as others, with minor physical differences that make a large difference in performance. We have replacement needles for cartridges and players going back to the days of steel needles (little more than small nails). In those rare instances where we can’t replace a needle, we’ll usually have a replacement cartridge available.
Note the picture of needle wear. A bit simplified, but an effective example.