Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXIV: The Tipping Point: Straight Talk About Replacement Stylii
(April 2017)

"Where can I get a replacement stylus?"

Back when I was a teenager, this was a common enough question. Whenever you bought a new record player you were probably reminded in the owner's manual that the needle had to be replaced every few years. Finding a replacement was easy--in most cases you could buy them at the same place where you bought the record player. Record stores sold them. Radio Shack sold them. Good old-fashioned hi-fi stores could be found on every street corner in those days, and they sold them. I can even remember seeing replacement styli hung up on pegboard fixtures in a supermarket next to watch batteries and Norelco replacement blades.

It was even easier to replace the stylus yourself. In most cases, you just had to slide the needle assembly out of the cartridge body and slide the new one in. Anyone with a thumb and an index finger could manage it.

In 2017, things are a little different. When people start asking me about a replacement stylus, I usually head them off at the pass by asking them the age of the cartridge and/or turntable. I usually get the same answer, more or less.

"Oh, really old. I bought it back in [insert ancient epoch here]."

If you've read a number of my columns over the years, you already know how I feel about old cartridges. There are hobbyists into vintage amplifiers. There are hobbyists into vintage turntables. Vintage cartridge enthusiasts tend to be few and far between because most cartridges have finite lifespans--and that has nothing to do with a worn stylus. Old cartridges can ruin your records. Blah blah blah.

So why am I talking about all of this again? Because for some reason, I keep fielding questions about replacement styli, as if they're still a thing. They're not. It's getting harder and harder to find user-replaceable record needles, and for good reason: after 20 or 30 years, it's time to buy a new cartridge.

All right, all right--replacement styli are still a thing for some people, and there are sources for them. Not too long ago I watched a news segment on a Japanese company that claims to stock replacement needles for nearly every phono pickup ever made, which I though was pretty cool. You can buy needles online from places such as Sweetwater (which focuses on pro audio and DJ equipment), Turntable Lab, and my old favorite, Needle Doctor. This isn't even a sure thing since you can still purchase the wrong stylus even if you know the model of cartridge you're using--designs often change over a product cycle, and you might need to supply serial numbers, date of purchase and more to get the proper needle. But if you truly need a replacement stylus for your cartridge, you should belong to one of the following groups:

If you belong in one of these three groups, I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to that person who has been playing records on the same turntable since 1978, with the same $49 cartridge that came with it. YOU need a new cartridge. Stop looking for replacement needles. There's a reason why all your LP's are all scratchy.

I could leave it at that, but there's a little matter of re-tipping your stylus, which goes back to the second scenario listed above. No doubt you've heard plenty about re-tipping a stylus as an option. Most cartridge models list a re-tipping fee, which can be either relatively affordable or a substantial percentage (as much as 80% or more!) of the original MSRP of the cartridge. But that's a little different than replacing a stylus.

With a few exceptions (such as Rega), most moving-magnet cartridges have replacement styli that can be easily replaced by the consumer. Back in the old days, that's what you did--you listened to your record player for a few years until your records started sounding like crap, and then one of your friends told you that it was time to replace the needle. I can remember people keeping several extra needles around just in case. It was no big deal.

Then moving-coil cartridges became popular. As I've explained before, moving-coil cartridges usually offer better performance than a moving-magnet because the inner parts are more responsive to the incoming signal. The downside, however, is that the consumer can't replace the stylus--it has to be sent back to the factory for re-tipping. This requires taking the cartridge apart and putting it back together by someone who has been doing it for decades. Microscopes are used. Precision tools and parts are employed. The technician needs a good eye, a steady hand and a lot of training to get it perfect. One wrong move and the entire cartridge becomes garbage. That's why re-tipping is expensive.

It's cheaper than the alternative, however. It's one thing to throw away a moving-magnet cartridge that cost you $109 back in 1978. It's quite another to buy a $15,000 Koetsu Blue Lace Onyx Platinum and toss it once you've got a couple of thousand hours on the needle (for the record, most audiophiles never throw away old cartridges--we all have an old drawer or box that contains every cartridge we've ever owned). If you've spent more than a few hundred dollars on a cartridge and it's less than 10 or 15 years old, you should send it in for a re-tipping or at least donate it to a young audiophile who's just getting started and can handle the re-tipping fee. I've actually done that before. It felt really good.

So who re-tips moving-coil cartridges? In most cases, you send it back to the manufacturer, and they handle it. You really want the guy who built it to fix it. Sometimes that's a royal pain in the ass. Twice I sent in a Koetsu for a re-tipping. It went all the way to Japan and back. It took two months. That's two months I spent crying and whining and complaining because I had to listen to CD's. It was awful.

Then I learned a trick. If you're lucky enough to afford an expensive moving-coil that needs to be re-tipped every 2000-5000 hours or so, then you can probably afford a relatively cheap back-up cartridge. For example, I own a Transfiguration Axia cartridge which retails for $2500. It's my reference cartridge. But alas, it's due for a re-tipping soon. So what did I do? I grabbed a classic Denon DL-103 moving coil cartridge, a legendary MC with a design that's older than me. But it still sounds great, and it only costs $229. Does it sound as good as the Transfiguration? Of course not. But it does allow me to enjoy a different sonic perspective for a while, a pleasant and musical one. It's like eating Haagen Dazs Expresso Chocolate Cookie Crumble every day, and then one day someone tells you they're temporarily out of that but they do have plenty of the regular Haagen Dazs chocolate. It's not as fancy, but it's still plenty delicious. It'll do.

The time-consuming re-tipping issue is an inconvenience, especially when you consider that most moving-coil cartridge manufacturers are located in places like Japan, Denmark and Germany. But there is another option. I've mentioned Soundsmith before--I chose their $7000 Hyperion cartridge, the one with the cantilever made out of a cactus needle, as Cartridge of the Year in my 2011 annual wrap-up, and I also chose their $479 Otello as Cartridge of the Year in 2013. I'm currently using a $700 Soundsmith Carmen on my back-up Rega RP6 and it offers a smooth and laid-back sound I truly enjoy.

Soundsmith actually evolved out of Peter Ledermann's re-tipping service. He was the go-to guy if you needed to re-tip a Koetsu or a van den Hul or Lyra and you didn't want to ship your cartridge around the world to get it done (Soundsmith is located in Peekskill, New York--not too far from me). Peter eventually started his own cartridge line, and soon had a full line of speakers, phono amplifiers and more. But his company still re-tips cartridges for a very reasonable fee. To reinforce this idea of value in high-quality phono cartridges, re-tipping service on Soundsmith brand cartridges are usually about 20% of the cost of a new cartridge, which is amazing considering the quality of the work they do.

We've wandered a bit from that poor customer who needs a $49 replacement stylus, but it's important to know your options when you're getting into vinyl for the first time. Many cartridges offer so-so value for the simple reason that you don't get a lot of hours out of the stylus. I know one popular $500 cartridge, since re-designed, that used to need a re-tip every 500 to 1000 hours--most cartridges don't even get broken until you play them for at least 250 hours. I also know a hyper-expensive cartridge with an unusually high re-tipping fee, which means that it winds up costing you eight or ten bucks to play a single record. That's nuts.

A decent turntable rig should cost less than an equivalent digital rig. Think about it. The laser assemblies on most CD players in the 80s and 90s would take a dirt nap after a couple of years, and they were so expensive to replace that most people just bought new players. Even today, most of us are paying to subscribe to Spotify, Tidal or Roon. A great turntable should run for years and years before you replace a belt or a stylus. And after you're gone, your kids can pull your old analog rig out of the attic, plug it in, and listen to your LP's--after they replace the cartridge, of course.

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