Record player needles wear out, and they can damage records if they're overly worn. If your record player is distorting noise, or you don't know how old the stylus is, the safe bet is to replace the stylus.
There used to be four materials used for making record-player needles. In order of hardness, they are: steel, osmium, sapphire and diamond. Between the gradual shift to digital music, and dropping prices for artificial sapphire and diamond, sapphire and diamond have become the standards. Sapphire needles are less expensive, but are generally good for only 40 to 75 hours of play before displaying noticeable wear and degradation of sound quality. Diamond needles can be anywhere from two to four times as expensive, but are good for anywhere from 300 to 1000 hours of play before they wear out.
There are a number of needle widths in use, measured in mils. For 33.3 RPM and 45 RPM records, which have narrower grooves, the standard is called "Microgroove," which has elliptical dimensions of 0.3 mil wide by 0.7 mil long. The grooves on 78 RPM LPs are wider, and the needles for them are also wider, about 1.5 mil by 2.7 mil. Needles work by traveling through the groove, and vibrating over tiny imperfections in the side of the groove. There are a number of needle cross-sectional shapes, ranging from spherical to chisel to tapered conic. Avoid the spherical tipped needles and go for the elliptical cross-section.
While needles are largely standardized, the mechanism they mount in (called the cartridge) was not. There have been at least 3000 different cartridge configurations on the market. Fortunately, the way those cartridges mount on tone arms is standardized. Standard mount cartridges require that you insert wires into sockets on the cartridge from leads on the tone arm -- and are somewhat tedious to set up -- while p-mount cartridges plug in more easily.
The cartridge model number is a better guide for what to buy as a replacement than your turntable's model number, because many manufacturers bundled different cartridges with the same turntable model over different model years. There are two types of cartridges, in addition to the mounting types listed above. MM cartridges use a moving magnet to convert the vibrations of the needle to electrical signals. MC cartridges integrate the needle into a moving coil assembly for the same purpose. MC cartridges cannot replace the needle directly, the entire cartridge has to be replaced; MM cartridges are the most common.
Matching Cartridges to Tone Arms
If you have the model number for your turntable, or for the tone arm on it, it will specify the mass of the cartridge that works best with the tone arm. In general, you want to match high-mass cartridges with high-mass tone arms, and low-mass cartridges with low-mass tone arms.
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