The most important part of a record player is the stylus combined with proper amplification and speakers. Without this trifecta, it doesn’t matter how good the record is. The perfect stylus price for most people is around $100. Stylus quality can be maintained by cleaning and timely replacement.
To fully explore the importance of stylus quality regarding audio quality I have interviewed 3 experts on the subject. In no particular order I have spoken with Ken Micallef, Steven Smith, and Pat & Emily from Cinderblock People.
Table of Contents
Ken Micallef is the author of Classic Rock Drummers and writer at Stereophile Magazine. He also assists Fred Cohen at Jazz Record Center by reviewing audio equipment. He was nice enough to take the time to help me out with this article.
Steven Smith is one of the owners of Human Head Records in New York City. He has been repairing and tinkering with record players since he was young. He has helped me out on previous projects too. He’s helpful like that!
Pat and Emily are the owners of Cinderblock People which is an independent record shop in NYC. They sell records, tapes, turntables, and vinyl accessories. They also buy and trade records! They really helped me out here with elaborate and interesting answers.
Record Player Stylus Quality Importance
When I asked how stylus quality ranks in importance when compared to the other components of a record player and the vinyl record itself, Pat and Emily answered, “I’d say, for it being the piece of equipment that is actually touching the record and riding through the grooves with force and friction, the stylus ranks pretty high up there for us.”
They continued, “A clean record and a clean stylus is just the best combination for great sound and longevity. For audio quality itself, of course, each component will ‘color’ the sound in its own way.”
Pat also added, “… The trifecta of stylus/amplification/speakers are where you should focus your time and budget, once you’ve got yourself a sturdy, well-built table.“
So to summarize, the quality of a stylus is the most important in combination with a clean record, amplification, and speakers when trying to achieve higher audio quality.
Styli come in several shapes. These days, conical and elliptical are most popular for high-fidelity audio. Older cartridges often use a spherical stylus, which would have fit better in the wider and horizontal groove mono records of that time.
Check out my other article for more detailed information about stylus types. (opens in a new tab)
I asked Pat and Emily about the general consensus on what stylus type is the best, this is what they told me, “General consensus here is that elliptical is best for audiophile listening because it makes contact with more surface area of the groove.”
They continued, “Whereas the spherical shape has less contact with the walls of the groove and thus is more forgiving with back-cueing and scratching. We say for fidelity go elliptical, for DJing go spherical. Even more importantly, set your correct tracking weight!“.
MM vs MC Cartridges
The stylus is only one of the components of a cartridge. An electromagnetic inductive application is used within the cartridge to translate the tracked movements from the stylus into an electrical signal.
This application comes in two forms. These two Moving Magnet (MM) and Moving Coil (MC) cartridges. MM cartridges use a magnet moving between coils to create the electrical signal, where MC cartridges use a moving coil between magnets.
MC cartridges are generally more expensive, because they need an extra preamp to amplify the generated signal. You might have heard MC cartridges offer better audio quality.
When I asked Ken Micallef, he had the following to say, “Moving coil cartridges are far more transparent than moving magnet.“, To clarify the answer I asked what he meant with transparent, he told me it refers to the audible distinction between lower and higher frequencies.
Pat and Emily had a more subjective answer, “If we ever heard a record being played on an MC system we didn’t know it, so it’s tough to say. Yes MC is engineered to have less resonance and more precision, thus more expensive and theoretically better.“
Pat continued, “Having only studied it, I’d have to experience it to say for sure, but I’m confident the science is right! That said, it’s all subjective and may not be worth the extra coin to even the intermediate or veteran record collector.“
Stylus Replacement / Lifetime
The stylus of a record player wears down over time, decreasing the audio quality it can produce. Eventually a stylus will have to be replaced.
“There is no ‘lifetime cartridge’. At a certain point if you don’t change your cartridge you will be destroying your record.“, says Ken Micallef.
Ken Micallef continues, “Any stylus will wear after time. Eventually, it no longer contacts the groove as designed, and begins to carve out the groove. If your turntable is level, and the cart correctly mounted within a perfectly aligned tonearm, your records will last forever. But no stylus lasts forever.“
Check out the article I wrote about worn stylus symptoms (opens in a new tab)
Pat and Emily told me, “… each stylus manufacturer will give you their lifetime estimate for that specific stylus. I’ve seen anywhere from 500 – 1,000 hours. That range will generally depend on whether you’re listening vs DJing.“
They continued, “Also, remember, it comes down to cleaning your records with a carbon fiber brush; cleaning your stylus with the appropriate anti-static brush; and your tracking force. Set accurately (or even a hair light in my opinion) will exert less wear and tear on both the stylus and the records.”
“The intention is to make sure you get the full range of frequencies represented in your listening set-up, so use your ear! Every month or so, play a favorite record you know well and you’d be surprised when you can start to hear the high trebles just a bit muted on the ride cymbal or big vocal or guitar lead. Time to replace!“
Record Player Stylus Cleaning
The needle sometimes just needs to be cleaned to maintain the audio quality. Dirt and residues will build up over time, but these can be cleaned off.
“Any cartridge brush will do, but always make sure to clean the cartridge in the same direction as the groove. Move the brush under the stylus towards you, never away.“, explained Ken Micallef.
When I asked him why it’s so important to move the brush towards you he explained, “It’s designed to track the groove forward, not backward.“
Steven Smith suggested a specific product, “I will suggest the magic eraser to get the gunk from older records with more buildup. They work wonders.“
When I asked Pat and Emily about an alternative to the brush, Pat explained, “There are liquid cleaners available, too, but I reserve that for cleaning only when there is a hard to remove residue or “gunk” from playtesting hundreds of records in the shop that need an extra cleaning! At home, I stick to the little brush.“
How Much To Pay For A Stylus
Considering the importance of the stylus, let’s take a look at what’s considered a decent price/quality ratio.
Steven Smith explained to me his skepticism towards highly prices styli, “At a certain point I feel once you get around $100 on a stylus, any more is so marginally noticeable unless you are a true audiophile. I think most are really deluding themselves though.“
Pat and Emily seemed to agree with that $100, they told me, “I think average Joe will be happy in the $50 range. Anything up to $100 really. After that, Joe still needs some change to go out and buy records!“
Ken Micallef showed less of this skepticism, he said, “Honestly, if you pay $4000 for a cartridge you will hear the difference. It depends on your wallet.“
Why Are Phono Cartridges So Expensive
Phono cartridges are so expensive because of the required labor and the limited access to mass production these days. They require the precision of a machine, but the current demand volume isn’t necessarily justifying mass production machinery.
It looks like this is changing because of the vinyl revival. The image below shows the growing interest in vinyl records on Google Trends in the past 15 years.