The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl.

Dave Barry

Once again, Dr. Scott Garlock shares some recommendations for how you can enhance your at-home listening experience. This week, he’s diving into cartridges, styli, and LP care. Enjoy!

Cartridges & Styli
Cartridges

If you’ve decided to go down the analog path, the most important piece to consider is the point of contact between your beloved LP and the turntable. The needle or stylus is a very small and fragile diamond (preferable), sapphire, or crystal mounted on a cantilever that rides up and down in the grooves of a vinyl LP. The friction between the grooves and the stylus produce vibrations, which are then transmitted to the cartridge, which translates these vibrations into sound via magnets. Via some connectors, this information is fed either directly to a receiver with a phono preamp or to an exterior box dedicated for that purpose.

When shopping for a new or replacement cartridge, note that unless you’re buying something used, the stylus will usually be included as part of the cartridge. There are often multiple different styli that fit a cartridge, so it is possible to buy and mount a replacement stylus to an existing cartridge for some savings. Invest here – a great cartridge can make a serviceable turntable sound great. And, this is not a place to buy used in most circumstances.

One should not simply buy a cartridge without some guidance, as the tone arms (the part of the turntable that the cartridge is mounted to) on various manufacturers’ turntables vary from one another. Make certain that your purchase will work on your machine! That having been said, most of the time, what you buy in low to mid fi will work globally.

Cartridges come in various configurations, mostly either moving coil (more expensive) or moving magnet (see https://www.goldring.co.uk/ for nice explanations of these). And, of course, these come in various price ranges. Cartridges require no maintenance, and as they are chiefly just magnets, they don’t usually wear out at the rate of other pieces of audio gear.

Some cartridges to consider ($150-$400):

Styli

Styli do need to be cleaned and cared for. They are very fragile – for example, a few weeks ago, I bumped my tone arm and bent the cantilever on my stylus. It had 5 years on it, and I was looking to replace it soon anyway, but now I have to. Generally, the higher the grade of cartridge, the more care is needed to derive the potential sonic results. Styli can pick up dirt and animal hair and can damage themselves or your LP’s, so investing in some cleaning devices is needed. There are brushes (https://www.audio-technica.com/en-us/at607a) made specifically for this purpose (when using, be sure and brush the stylus gingerly in the same clockwise direction that the needle tracks in on an LP). There are also neat cleaners that simply dip the stylus in that clean it (https://elusivedisc.com/onzow-zerodust-stylus-cleaner/).

Care & Feeding of Your LP’s

Dirt and static are your enemies with vinyl, so care must be taken with how you store and handle your LP in addition to having a clean stylus. Incredibly, more damage happens to LP’s as a result of handling and storage, versus being dragged by a diamond needle.

Some tips:

  • ALWAYS store your LP’s perpendicular to the ground. LP’s are heavy, and it won’t take many of them to press into one another. Any dirt in the jacket or sleeve of the LP will get ground into the grooves, or, worse yet, warping will be caused.
  • Most damage happens to an LP when taking it in or out of its sleeve. The plastic or paper on the sleeve can easily be cut into the vinyl. Do this slowly and without force.
  • ALWAYS handle your LP with a thumb on the edge of the LP and other fingertips on the center (where the paper with LP information/title has been adhered to the vinyl).
  • Once placed on the spindle, clean your record EVERY TIME, using a fluid and brush designed for this purpose. There are several approaches to this, and, of course, lots of different dollar amounts one can spend. Every little bit helps here – the important thing is to aim towards cleanliness.

Here are a few good articles on this:

There are those that feel that the traditional method of cleaning an LP only grinds any fine dirt deeper into the grooves (think about what your doctor says about Q-tips and your ears). These folks maintain that a machine dedicated to cleaning LP’s is what is needed for a deep cleaning. I have no experience with these (though I’m contemplating it). Beginning research indicates that these machines range in price from $79 to that of a 2012 Honda Accord.

Until next time, happy listening and enjoy spinning your sides! 

*The CJO is not endorsing any products or sites listed, nor is it receiving any compensation from the businesses listed above.