The Finish Line for your Phono Cartridge- Stylus Wear by Mike Bodell

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by Bill Hart, May 24, 2019.

  1. Bill Hart

    Bill Hart Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Austin
    [​IMG]Unknown-5 by bill hart, on Flickr

    The phono stylus is the point of contact most likely to wear due to friction and its lifespan may be far shorter than most believe. Many of the studies were performed decades ago, when playing records was a mainstream medium.
    Mike Bodell, an audiophile and professional geologist (who knows a little about rocks, like diamonds) dug deep into the early studies, the empirical and anecdotal reports, and talked to more than a few people involved in the process of examining phono styli for wear. The main concern, aside from trackability and sonics, is, of course, the potential for record damage. Mike’s conclusion—that wear starts to occur much earlier than most people believe----is well grounded in the material he cites, as are his recommendations. Mike suggests that the long life claimed for some styli is really an outside limit- not necessarily a realistic reflection of when wear begins. This leaves a big gap in information between when wear is first discerned under a microscope and when mistracking or other evidence of stylus wear manifests itself in playback. I'm honored to have been able to publish this piece.
    The Finish Line for Your Phonograph Stylus… - The Vinyl Press
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2019
  2. Drewan77

    Drewan77 Forum Resident

    Location:
    UK/USA
    Thanks Bill, Interesting and quite shocking. I've extracted a couple of quotes that summarise the findings....

    "....at some point between 400 to 600 hours or 1,200 to 1,800 play sides this advanced diamond stylus regardless of its tip shape would be worn sufficiently to begin high-frequency distortion, depending also on VTF, quality of the diamond, and condition of the vinyl records being played. At 650 to 700 hours the worn diamond tip may begin to wear record grooves at an accelerated rate....

    Keeping track of the number of listening hours or sides of play is important support, and easily done with a hand-held counter. Consider also the effects of VTF on the stylus where higher VTF may cause faster wear and too low a VTF causes permanent damage through mistracking. A properly aligned cartridge using a protractor avoids differential wear. Maintaining clean records with a vacuum or ultrasonic record cleaning machine not only minimizes record wear but also extends stylus life by reducing friction-based abrasion.... "


    Sorry if this offends but if anything this has made me even more determined never to use a moving coil cartridge, regardless of audible benefits. I can't face sending away regularly, and re-aligning as compared to just clipping in a spare MM stylus which I always keep as a reference.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2019
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  3. Bill Hart

    Bill Hart Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Austin
    I have been using moving coils for a long time. Keep in mind that the first study Mike quotes, Weiler, did involve a pretty large conical stylus from the era before stereo. But as Mike points out, stylus shapes may not make much difference in wear. That is one of several areas of conflicting information.
    To me-- and Mike can weigh in here-- it's an "information gap" between the conservative evaluations (some involving later, more modern tips) showing wear under a microscope which may not be audible or cause damage and the point when damage starts to occur.
    Obviously there are variables in set up, tracking weight and the like.
    I've run expensive moving coils far longer than these conservative estimates with no discernible damage, but I'm now adopting a few of Mike's suggestions, including tracking the number of sides played using a tally counter.
    I also decided to go a little crazy recently on buying cartridges, so I'm learning more as I go.
     
  4. Drewan77

    Drewan77 Forum Resident

    Location:
    UK/USA
    My really simple (naive?!) method to determine wear on a MM/MI cartridge:

    • Purchase a spare stylus at the same time as a new cartridge. (eg 1s = stylus on cartridge, 2s = spare)
    • Run the main cartridge (with 1s) for something like 50-80 hours & then swap the stylus with the spare (2s).
    • The original stylus (1s) is now the 'spare' & can be used periodically as a reference to check for distortion or audible signs of wear.
    • If that happens, buy another stylus (3s), run it for 50-80 hours, put this aside as the spare (3s) & now continue to use the 'original' (1s).
    • The original spare (2s) is scrapped

      ....Repeat as required
     
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  5. Bill Hart

    Bill Hart Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Austin
    Replaceable styli make it easy. I will have to try a few as well. One of my goals has been to find the cheapie that closely approximates the mojo of the fancy ones. I have another one coming in- not dirt cheap, but easy enough to buy and have redone quickly.
     
  6. tman53

    tman53 Vinyl is an Addiction

    Location:
    Pa
    I guess if you only ever want to run MM carts this works. None of my MC have replaceable styli.
     
  7. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    Very interesting article. I just replaced my stylus about 6 months ahead of my traditional schedule because it just didn't sound right and apparently I was correct to do so. I have been replacing my stylus every two years but it appears that I should be replacing it more like once a year. Fortunately my replacement stylus is inexpensive!
     
  8. Bill Hart

    Bill Hart Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Austin
    And there's the rub. I remember in the old days, the lore with Decca cartridges was to buy three (after you picked the best sounding ones). That way, you had one to run, one that was being sent back and a back-up. I'd still love to try that cartridge in its more modern incarnation. Haven't heard one in decades.
     
  9. Strat-Mangler

    Strat-Mangler Forum Resident

    Location:
    Toronto
    Funny, I had the opposite experience. Replaced a 20X2L which sounded terrific with an almost new (40h, used as a demo) XX2 MKII which sounded just as good (except with better detail). No distortion whatsoever emanating from my 20X2L. I estimate it ran for about 800-1000 hours, too.
     
  10. dkmonroe

    dkmonroe A completely self-taught idiot

    Location:
    Atlanta
    My replacement stylus is a $35 generic elliptical, it isn't going to last as long as a 20X2l under any circumstances.
     
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  11. 4011021

    4011021 Forum Resident

    Location:
    Brazil
    Nagaoka says that their stylii begin to wear after 200h.
     
  12. BendBound

    BendBound Forum Resident

    Location:
    Bend, OR
    "Mike can weigh in here." I'm the culprit. There is a lot of information packed into that article. On audible distortion, look at the quote in the article by poster "5 String" that I drew from another SHF thread. He did not hear distortion, yet at 650 hours his Shibata-tipped Ortofon 2m Black was worn out, and worn out on records cleaned on a VPI vacuum RCM. My Ortofon with the same tip was at 800 hours, and was deemed "badly worn" by the company that examined it. I will not play a record that has not first been cleaned on a RCM. More advanced tip shapes in MC cartridges are designed with greater line contact across the length of the record groove to improve high frequency detail. Yes, I had noticed increased sibilance that only showed up on certain records. I played the cartridge for about another 100 hours past the point where I noticed that. I'm guessing now, but I believe that cartridges designed for greater contact with the record also mask critical wear and when distortion is audible, damage to your records has already begun.

    That shocked me because ever since I installed the Ortofon Cadenza Black, I was comfortable in the belief that this cartridge if played on very clean records and proper cartridge alignment was maintained, it would last for 2,000 hours. To find that figure, you need to dig on Ortofon's website, under FAQ. A well-known US dealer told me that because my tonearm was a unipivot the tip may wear out sooner and told me Ortofon advised him 1,600 hours. I asked the designer of my tonearm about that and it was the first he ever heard that unipivot arms wear cartridge tips out sooner than gimballed arms. He told me that his arm while unipivot was dampened and he therefore was suspicious of the claim for premature wear. Still, at 1,600 hours, I was only half the way there, yet audible distortion had already set it.

    The US dealer also said that Ortofon did not retip this cartridge, but if I returned it, I would get a 20% discount off of a new one. Then I was told by someone else who is in the know that likely my cartridge was worn to the point of replacement 400 hours earlier, at 400 to 500 hours of play when I was already at 800 hours of play. Obviously, the subsequent examination of the cartridge revealed that it was in fact past due for replacement.

    The sum of this information set me off on a deep dive to learn more about stylus wear. Everything I learned is codified in that text. The Harold Weiler work from 1954 is only a suitable benchmark for what can be done to understand critical stylus wear. Today, we don't use cartridges and vertical tracking forces that were common in the mono era. So what I recommend is keeping track of hours of play, and based on your stylus tip shape, have your cartridge examined at the appropriate time to learn for yourself what the condition is. Then retip if necessary. But also, I felt strongly that the cartridge manufacturers publish work similar to what Weiler did for various tip shapes, so consumers would understand and could make better informed choices on purchase and to avoid record damage.

    I purchase a lot of used records from local shops, garage sales, ebay and Discogs. Even records that look VG++ to NM can somethings contain the hash of critical groove wear. I believe what we are hearing is damage from a critically worn stylus and also from misalignment. I spoke to a good dozen local vinyl nuts about stylus wear hours and not a single one of them had a good idea on number of hours of play. One said it best, "I just never think about stylus wear, I just play my records...I don't know anyone who keeps track of that. No one thinks about the stylus wearing out." A local dealer who I know quite well asked me to examine and clean a small collection of Brian Eno original pressings from the early to mid 1970s. He know something was amiss, but the records looked NM. I cleaned them on a VPI17 and played them. Every single one had the same harsh, gritty sound of groove wear. I told him that likely the owner had a worn out stylus that progressively damaged the records. The dealer tossed those lps into the garbage, after paying good money for them. I can understand now why buying used records is such a crap shoot and I have become a lot more discerning.

    A stylus on a turntable system is like tires on your car. Where the diamond meets the vinyl is like where the rubber meets the road. At least for tires, manufactures will tell you right up front that if you align your front end, rotate the tires, keep them properly inflated, and don't burn rubber, the tires will last say 40,000 miles. And most are reliably close. You know what I am thinking, at this point. Show me the data for modern diamond styli.
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2019
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  13. patient_ot

    patient_ot Forum Resident

    Location:
    USA
    One of the reasons I like reasonably priced carts is because I can change the stylus fairly often without breaking the bank. I'm not tempted to run the cart longer than I should. It's not a big deal for me to replace a stylus once or twice a year if necessary.
     
  14. Bill Hart

    Bill Hart Forum Resident Thread Starter

    Location:
    Austin
    Using the tire analogy (i know), I used to change out high performance tires on serious sports cars well under the 5k mile mark. There was a noticeable difference in performance you could sense driving the cars, grip, seat of the pants 'feel' of the car. When I got my first motorcycle, it had these Dunlop tires on it that had crazy long life. I was more interested in preserving my own life, and could care less about a few hundred dollars on grippier tires. I switched from the factory supplied by Ducati tire to some sticky sports tire. Made a big difference in how the bike handled. I was happy to pay the tariff.
    With expensive moving coils, it's a different story. You don't want to be worrying about stylus wear so early. So I guess my take away --because I use expensive moving coils-- is to keep track of playing hours, and have it checked.
    I did buy a vintage SEK-2 microscope, but honestly, I'm not sure I'd know what I was looking at-- one of the reasons I bought it (aside from the fact that it was a cool artifact you don't see much any more) is to educate myself a little more.
    I think some modern high end moving coil manufacturers simply replace the cartridge when you send it in, if it is still in production (or perhaps cut you a break on the newer model, I don't know). As far as I know, Koetsu, and a few others (Van den Hul) rebuild them. I think you can still send Koetsu some ancient cartridge originally built by Sugano -San (the elder) and they'll rebuild it. My 'Bill Hart justification for spending money" rationalization is that if you have a really expensive cartridge, the rebuild cost is far less than the replacement cost. That sort of thinking has cost me a lot of money over the years, but I still have a roof over my head.
    Now that I'm retired, and a pensioner living on my investments (note Godfather reference), I am searching for the elusive cheap cartridge that closely approximates the sound I get from these uber cartridges. I know, a fool's errand. But, I can spend a little on cheapies and vintage rebuilds. So, that's what I'm doing right now.
    Mike's article was an awesome undertaking-- huge amount of info to assimilate and present in an understandable and, what I think, fairly neutral way.
    I have a cartridge with Peter L at the moment and will be curious to get his take on it when he gets to it.
    Steve Leung has crazy fast turn around times-- I now have a second cartridge from him on the way-- a custom job based on a Denon 103 tweaked out.
    I also have a second Koetsu. And another Airtight that nobody has touched, but needs attention.
    The killer is you buy these things and expect 'em to last forever. They don't. You have to maintain them. The clean records, good stylus cleaning regime will help.
    I also buy a lot of older copies. Some have groove chew.
    I don't think there is an easy answer to any of this.
    I still love LP playback and at least for now, am willing to go through what it takes to manage it. (Don't ask about balancing 250 lbs of turntable with multiple arms on a Minus K isolation platform- that's where I'm struggling right now). I know, this is a 'first world problem' but to paraphrase Pierre Laval, a noted jurist, 'it's nice to be on the cutting edge, as long as you are not the salami."
    I have some years on some of you. And the wherewithal to do this within reason as a retired pensioner- as well as enough interest to do it without any money-making agenda.
    I thank Mike for his massive undertaking in researching and writing this piece.
    That's all I got. (I think).
     
    Last edited: May 24, 2019
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  15. Radio

    Radio Forum Resident

    Location:
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Great article. Thanks for posting. No mention of speed though. Presumably playing records at higher speeds means increased stylus wear? I’m thinking of all those audiophile 45rpm albums.
     
  16. The FRiNgE

    The FRiNgE Forum Resident

    If the records are clean, stylus life is extended. When records were the mainstream medium, users were not nearly as fussy as they are now. First of all, original pressings are collectibles, so the care has been advanced with the wide availability of record cleaning machines. The old way, a cloth or record brush are largely ineffective, so the stylus ends up plowing through a minefield of abrasive dirt. The photo shows a dirty stylus, not too bad, but man... clean that dang thing?
     
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  17. The FRiNgE

    The FRiNgE Forum Resident

    Good question, I am thinking 45 RPM may decrease the forces on the stylus, reason being the groove pitch is lessened. The 45 RPM records are easier to track.
     
  18. Great thread! My old Denon DL-110 is going to need replacement or a re-tip soon, as I've been using it on & off for years. However, visual inspection, test-records & my own hearing confirm that it still performs flawlessly. The original stylus-tip was clearly a high quality design & implementation.
     
  19. recstar24

    recstar24 Forum Resident

    Location:
    Glen Ellyn, IL
    I can't believe I never thought of getting a little hand tally counter clicker thing to track wear...
     
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  20. Optimize

    Optimize Forum Resident

    Location:
    EU
    Yes exactly what I was thinking. It is sounding that we should expect half of number of hours then what the cartridge manufacturer is claiming that makes a MC to be less of an option. When it is easier and cheaper and more likely to happen earlier that the stylus is changed on a MM..

    I have bought a clicker with a base so it can stand beside the TT. That are waiting to begin to be used when my new cartridge have arrived that is why it is on 0000. In the picture is also blue tac that I put down the stylus on after each play "1.6g". I see the arch of trace's of dirt on it. It is time to fix that.
    Interesting to see that on the blue tac, when I know I have rather clean records to begin with..

    [​IMG]

    (But I am starting to get worried that my package from Japan is lost in the postage :shake: )
     
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  21. daytona600

    daytona600 Forum Resident

    Location:
    UK
    A properly aligned cartridge using a protractor avoids differential wear. Maintaining clean records with a vacuum or ultrasonic record cleaning machine not only minimizes record wear but also extends stylus life by reducing friction-based abrasion

    Get a RCM it pays for itself over time & Correct set up of cartridge , both will save money in the long term
     
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  22. Radio

    Radio Forum Resident

    Location:
    Ann Arbor, MI
    More miles but a smoother road?
     
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  23. avanti1960

    avanti1960 Forum Resident

    Location:
    Chicago metro, USA
    Excellent article and great (if somewhat somber) information.
    My own experiences is a little more optimistic because a former cartridge (Dynavector DV20X2L) was used for 2-1/2 years and I tracked the hours at ~ 1950. At that time it was inspected rigorously and the report said that it looked excellent and showed little wear!

    Good news for those that clean their new records before use, maintain their setup geometry and practice good vinyl hygiene!

    One question- as a stylus wears, why would it start to damage the grooves? Doesn't it become smoother and more polished?
     
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  24. recstar24

    recstar24 Forum Resident

    Location:
    Glen Ellyn, IL
    I believe the shape starts to change to the point of where it looks like a flathead screwdriver, which in addition to distortion sounds like it would just tear up the groove.
     
  25. Radio

    Radio Forum Resident

    Location:
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Seems it would make sense to have a less expensive cartridge/stylus for less-than-perfect records. Maybe I need to put a Grado Black stylus on my Gold cart for playing my thrift store finds or get a less-expensive mono cart for my well-loved 50s LPs.
     
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