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A good turntable can keep you spinning records for years, if not decades. But the stylus, or needle, which actually draws the music out of a record’s grooves, and the cartridge into which it is inserted, are considerably less durable.
A dozen different websites will offer you a dozen different suggestions as to how frequently a stylus should be changed, often conveying that information in terms of playing hours — as if anybody actually logs every record they play, totting up the total times until they hit the magic number. But you should invest in a new needle at least once a year, and sooner if you play a lot of records a lot of the time, or if you enjoy churning through scratchy and/or dirty discs.
One thing is certain: Do not wait until you notice the sound of your records deteriorating as you play them (distortion, fuzz, skipping, etc). Because it’s not only your needle that is finished. The original fidelity of your record is on the way out as well.
What needle do you need?
That can be tricky. Recent years have seen a lot of turntable manufacturers (particularly at the lower end of the price scale) neglect to offer this information on either their websites or in the literature that comes with the player — why, one can only guess.
Thankfully, a lot of stylus merchants will provide a checklist on their website, allowing you to match the make and model of your turntable to the appropriate needle. So, again, before purchasing a particular turntable, do yourself a favor. Find out (a) if replacement needles are readily available from any source beyond turntable’s own manufacturer; and (b), how much they’re going to cost you. Because that can sometimes be a shock.
The cartridge that holds the needle will also require replacing at some point, although that is further on down the road — and it can often also be upgraded as well, to improve the turntable’s sound even further. (Just remember, the stylus you require might also change, to fit the new cartridge’s specifications.)
The final thing to watch, or rather listen, for is the condition of the turntable belt — the fat elastic band that makes the platter spin. These will, over time, begin to stretch, subtly altering the speed at which you are listening to a record. This will not harm your record, but it might damage your appreciation of what you’re listening to. So pay attention!
There is one other area that you need to get a grounding, and that is how to look at a record and decide whether or not it’s in good enough condition to actually listen to.
Stay tuned for the next column.