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When should I replace my needle/stylus?

There’s a lot of active discussion and opinions on this topic, but the short answer is, it depends. Asking how long a record stylus will last is much like asking how long a set of strings will last on a guitar. There are many factors that influence the life of a stylus, from the condition of your records to the quality and material of the stylus, and much more. Either way, a worn stylus will damage records, so you definitely want to maintain it well and replace it regularly.

In short, as a stylus wears, flat spots form on the surface that makes it harder for the stylus to track grooves accurately. This wear manifests itself as a light, fuzzy distortion in the high-end, and becomes more obvious as wear increases. We should not use distortion as a key indicator of wear, however, as by this point the stylus is already causing record wear. As a rough guide, I follow Shure’s advice on stylus replacement: “As a rule of thumb, a diamond stylus should be replaced after 800 to 1,000 hours of playing time.”

Based on the above, if we take the best possible outcome and an average playing time of 40 minutes per record, 1000 playing hours works out to about 1500 album plays. If we then take this number and split it between all 52 weeks in a year, it works out approximately 4 records per day. In all honesty, while this sounds like a reasonable amount, I make a habit of changing the stylus once every year at the very least.

What is the difference between spherical and conical styli?

A spherical stylus tip is round like a ballpoint pen. Because of the shape, spherical styli have a large radius and are subsequently traceless of the smaller groove modulations that represent higher frequencies — the result is a “warmer” sound quality. DJs have long favored spherical styli for their scratching and backspin performance. Many also argue that record wear is very low when tracking light.

An elliptical stylus has dual radii which makes contact across a larger area of the groove wall – this allows for more precise tracking and greater high-frequency detail. Other benefits include better phase response and lower distortion. Hi-fi listeners often prefer elliptical styli for sonic performance.

What are record weights, and do they make a difference?

Record weights are designed to fit over the spindle and clamp the record in place. Audiophiles claim that weights ensure stability, and therefore, improved tracking. There is some debate among the vinyl community as to whether or not vinyl record weights work. In our experience, they do provide a marginal improvement in playback performance and a small uplift in sound quality (particularly in the bass response, which sounds tighter). It works by clamping the record tighter to your turntable platter, which helps to improve tracking and reduce vibrations. The added mass may also help to reduce wow and flutter. Additionally, the applied weight can also help to flatten mildly warped records.

Important! Always be sure to check your turntable manual before using a record weight, as some lower-end turntables are not able to support the additional mass.

What is a turntable pre-amp and why do I need one?

Records are recorded with the bass frequencies reduced, and the high frequencies boosted to keep groove dimensions small. A phono pre-amp boosts bass frequencies and reduces high frequencies in an attempt to restore — as close as possible — the frequency response of the master recording.

The signal produced by a record cartridge is also very weak; a typical phono pre-amp will boost your signal by 40 – 50 dB to meet the requirement of your aux input. If your system/receiver has an input labeled “phono,” there’s a good chance this input has a built-in phono pre-amp stage.

What’s the difference between a “belt-drive” and a “direct-drive” turntable?

The key difference is how the motor drives the record platter. A belt-drive turntable works by spinning the platter using an elastic belt that is attached to a motor. With a direct drive turntable, on the other hand, the platter sits directly on the motor.

Generally speaking (and I do mean very generally), belt drive turntables benefit sonically from the isolated motor, making them the choice of hi-fi enthusiasts. However, the playback speed can be less accurate. DJ’s will almost invariably opt for direct drive due to their consistent playback speed, faster start and stopping time, plus the capability to spin the platter backward for cueing and special effects.