To mix metaphors to the point where they fall over in a heap, playing records is a contact sport. Your turntable spins a record to the required speed and the tonearm is used to hold a cartridge over the groove of a record. On the end of the cartridge is a cantilever that supports the stylus on its path through the record. The movement of this diamond on the end of the cantilever generates the signal that you hear.
The act of pulling the stylus though the groove generates contact between diamond and plastic. Over time, this contact will wear the stylus out. The effect is progressive but pushed beyond certain points of wear, the sound of the cartridge will start to degrade and pushed further than that, you risk damaging your records. Naturally, this is something you'll want to avoid. So, what are the ins and outs of stylus wear?
Viewed on high magnification from head on, a stylus is a pointed cone shaped device that is attached to the cantilever. Styli differ in terms of their profile, ranging from conical in some basic designs through to fine ellipses in more expensive models but the tip itself retains the basic cone shape. The cone is intended to sit equidistant in the groove and read information from both sides to give you a stereo signal.
The simple act of the cartridge tracking inwards towards the centre tends to result in more wear on the outer edge of the stylus but a degree of wear will occur on both sides. The management of this wear breaks down into two categories- preventative and restorative. Preventing stylus wear in an absolute sense is impossible- the contact is constant and wear will result from playing records- but you can ensure that this wear is managed.
How to Prevent Stylus Wear
The first is to ensure that the cartridge is set up correctly. There is already some great information on setup on the blog so I won't rehash everything here but the most pertinent aspects of setup in regards to cartridge wear are alignment, anti skate and tracking weight. The cartridge needs to be aligned correctly to allow the stylus to sit in the groove and track correctly. The finer the stylus profile, the more important this alignment becomes. A spherical stylus won't be too adversely affected by running slightly out of alignment- although it isn't going to give you perfect performance. A fine profile stylus on the other hand will be travelling through the groove in the vinyl equivalent of a powerslide which isn't going to do the cartridge or the stylus any favours.
Anti skate is more contentious in wear terms in that some arms use anti skate systems that offer higher performance at the (slight it must be stressed) expense of wear. Any sprung loaded anti skate will exert greater force on the stylus as the arm moves in toward the centre which isn't absolutely ideal. In the pursuit of a simple blog entry that weighs in shorter than War and Peace, I'd generally recommend you stick with the manufacturers recommendations for anti skate but note that threaded weight systems, while looking a bit Rube Goldberg, are more forgiving in wear terms and some arms can run a number of cartridges with no anti skate at all which can oddly help the wear on the stylus be more benign and consistent.
Tracking weight is also vital. All cartridges have a specified weight they have been set to run at- although some have this given as an operating margin- weight x to weight y rather than a single figure. The effects of running the cartridge at too high a weight are largely self explanatory. The stylus will apply too much force in the groove causing adverse wear to it and the record. The suspension of the cartridge will be under strain and can lead to the body of the cartridge hitting the record. What is less intuitive is that too little weight is also going to be a problem. Without the required amount of mass, the stylus can 'pinball' around the groove of the record which doesn't do it or the record any favours. If a cartridge is designed to track at x- let it track at x.
Cleanliness is A Major Key
Having done this, keep everything clean. The less debris in the groove, the less wear the stylus suffers from bulldozing objects out of the way. As such, cleaning your records and also applying a contact cleaner to the stylus will help you here. The regularity at which you apply contact cleaner is a source of lively debate- it ranges from at the start of every side down- but any cleaning is better than no cleaning at all. If you have a lot of records that are a bit tired, it can be worthwhile having a more sacrificial cartridge available to handle them because sooner or later, even the best regimen of cleaning and setup won't prevent a cartridge wearing out.
The life of a stylus varies depending on the manufacturer and the materials used so in the first instance, it is worth seeing what their recommendation on lifespan is. Figures range from the uncomfortably low- Nagaoka states that their styli are designed around a 150-200 hour life- to the impressively high- figures as high as 1,000 hours crop up from time to time. Generally, the signs that a cart is running out of go is a duller or noisier sound and often a degree of channel imbalance.
The problems in simply listening for wear is that the issues build up over time and it is hard to spot slow and incremental degeneration. While I don't necessarily advocate actually logging hours you've used cartridges for- I do for review samples out of courtesy to the companies that supply them but that's a slightly different case- it will help you enormously to simply note how many albums you played on a given evening to give you a very rough usage calculation.
It's Time to Change the Stylus
Once you've faced the inevitable and realized that it's time for a new stylus, you have different options depending on your cartridge. If you use a moving magnet type cartridge, you can generally buy replacement styli for them and simply replace the front end of the cart and keep listening. In many cases, you can even choose the stylus from a more expensive model and give yourself a useful performance boost at the same time. Alternatively, a change is as good as a feast and you can replace the whole cartridge.
If you are using a moving coil cartridge, a worn stylus is more final. As the cantilever is a much more fixed part of the assembly, you will need to either submit the whole cartridge for retipping or chop the whole thing in. Many brands offer a trade in on your worn cart against a new one which can reduce costs but my comments on running a sacrificial cartridge for background stuff and worn records might make a little more sense when you take into account that the running costs of some high end moving coil carts approach $10/hr in wear alone.
Ultimately, don't become obsessed with wear. It happens, you can't do much about it and the payoff is a sound quality and interaction that you won't easily replicate any other way. Ignoring it and hoping for the best is not wise though. Set things up properly, keep it all clean and keep a note on your usage and you'll be fine.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.