What are the symptoms of a failing phono cartridge?

Discussion in 'Audio Hardware' started by stereoptic, Feb 10, 2009.

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  1. stereoptic

    stereoptic Anaglyphic GORT Staff Thread Starter

    Location:
    NY
    What are the indicators that it is time to replace a phonograph cartridge? Can the symptoms be confused with those of a worn stylus?
     
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  2. doodlebug

    doodlebug Member

    Location:
    Chapel Hill, NC
    Ok, I'll take a stab at this one. Short Answer: It depends on the type and age of the cartridge. Here's what comes to mind quickly:

    - Stylus falls away from cantilever. Happens quickly and arm usually skates across LP.

    - Cantilever metal fails causing kink or bend so that stylus doesn't fit into groove.

    - Crud (technical term!) builds up on stylus. Gentle cleaning is in order, hopefully.

    - Stylus chips off. Can be heard but not always. May leave little filings on LP. Examine with ocular to confirm.

    - Cantilever rubber surround gets old, dries out and becomes brittle. Typical of old carts found on TTs not used since the 70s or 80s. Poor tracking, requires excessive or over-spec'd tracking weight to get it to work just ok. Replacement is in order, if possible.

    These are generally problems I've saw as an old bench tech back in the 70s while in engineering school. Assuming you take clean care of the cart and stylus, most failures will be mechanical issues of wear - not electrical. I think I might have seen one or two open windings in about 7 years of bench time.

    These are general issues listed that would apply to MC or MM carts alike, for the most part.

    My best recommendation is to have a back up cart available to help diagnose little gremlins that show from time to time. It doesn't have to be one of the same type or model, either.

    Hope that helps.

    Cheers,

    David
     
  3. stereoptic

    stereoptic Anaglyphic GORT Staff Thread Starter

    Location:
    NY
    thanks!
     
  4. Sid Hartha

    Sid Hartha Well-Known Member

    Location:
    The Midwest
    Those all sound like symptoms of a failing stylus.

    What happens when cartridges wear out?
     
  5. doodlebug

    doodlebug Member

    Location:
    Chapel Hill, NC
    Assuming you take clean care of the cart and stylus, most failures will be mechanical issues of wear - not electrical. I think I might have seen one or two cart bodies with open windings in about 7 years of bench time.

    Cheers,

    David
     
  6. Larpy

    Larpy Active Member

    Location:
    USA
    Here's my experience over many years of using cartridges.

    First you notice that records start sounding a little raspy, like the stylus has a bit of dirt on it. You clean, clean, clean the stylus, but the raspiness won't go away.

    Then records start sounding a little brighter than you think they should. You start listening to more CDs and think "wow, my CD player is sounding better than my turntable; digital is getting really good."

    Then you notice occasional mistracking, especially in vocals. You monkey with VTF and anti-skating. Adding more downforce doesn't really help.

    Then it hits you: you need a new stylus or cart!

    Go too much longer and you'll start to injure your LPs.

    Personally, I can go about 3 years before I need to change carts. But I play records just about every day.
     
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  7. Abbagold

    Abbagold Working class hero

    Location:
    World
    This happened to me today! LP's started sounding really bright about a week ago. Started losing depth to the music as well. Rolled in different tubes, changed stylus and phonograph cable too. Never thought to check the cart. Have to bury the ADC and pull out my Shure Ultra 400. I'm lucky to have my old standby.
     
  8. Sckott

    Sckott Hand Tighten Only.

    Location:
    Sagamore Beach, Ma
    Tracks like a drunken sailor.
     
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  9. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    I've never had a phono cartridge fail, to be quite honest. That doesn't mean that they can't, I just haven't had the experience. I have experienced cantilever failure, I had the stylus pop out of its' mount, and of course experienced the degradation of the sound when the stylus is beginning to wear.

    Currently, I'm listening to an Audio-Technica AT-14Sa cartridge that I bought new in 1975. The nice thing about AT MM cartridges (and probably most other MM brands as well,) is that when you replace the stylus you're also replacing the suspension, so a new stylus is like getting a new cartridge. My mom's Sears console stereo still has it's original ceramic cartridge, and it will be 50 years old next spring, and it still plays (though I wouldn't play any of my precious records on that machine.)

    I would think that signs of failure could be a variety of things, like a change in output level, a change in channel balance, distortion and so on. I agree with the others that you should suspect the stylus first.
     
  10. 5-String

    5-String Forum Resident

    Location:
    Sunshine State
    Concerning the stylus lifespan, which is not what this topic is about I guess, but anyway, here is an interesting story from my experience. Everywhere on the internet you read numbers from 800 to 1200 hours or even more before the stylus gets damaged and needs replacement. Not always true.

    I used to have an Ortofon 2m black, the one with the Shibata stylus. Excellent cartridge BTW. Every record I played was cleaned with the VPI. At approximately 650 hours of playing time, I took it to my audio dealer to examine it with the microscope. It needed replacement. I verified this with my own eyes, which was actually a fun experience and a great lesson to stylus geometry.
    Were there any symptoms, like sound degradation, distortion etc before I took it to the microscope?Nope, not that I could tell. So here is my advice.

    Examine your stylus with a microscope. That's the only way to tell and to be absolute sure about the condition of your stylus.
     
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  11. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    I agree 100%. Visual inspection is the only way to tell if you need to replace your stylus.
     
  12. stereoptic

    stereoptic Anaglyphic GORT Staff Thread Starter

    Location:
    NY
    Good advice.
     
  13. CaptBeyond

    CaptBeyond Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Above the Ozone
    No dealer nearby, no microscope at hand, vision too blurry with fingers too klutzy to futz with delicate miniature phone leads, just plain old screwed I guess. :help:
     
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  14. Hoser Rob

    Hoser Rob Member

    I'd second the visual inspection approach for wear. The trouble with doing it by ear is that it changes gradually.
     
  15. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    Not necessarily. Years ago, I became acquainted with the manager of a jewelry store, who let me use the stores stereo gem microscope (I had made several purchases for my wife, so I suspect he was being nice to a regular customer.) It takes a little practice to use the microscope but is fully adequate for the task, and they even have a clip that can securely hold the stylus assembly (I'm not sure if it could hold an entire MC cartridge.) Short of that, you can purchase a jeweler's loupe for around $10 and can see the stylus pretty clearly with one of those, being mindful that at 30X you're only going to see the worst wear. I also don't have the visual acuity that I did when younger (I've become far-sighted in my old age :D ), but I manage. Finally, you can do what most people do when you can't visually inspect styli: log the hours on it and replace it when the manufacturer recommends. Since you're on this forum, I don't need to tell you that your stylus will last a lot longer if you keep it and your records clean, but I will, as it cannot be stated too often.
     
  16. stereoguy

    stereoguy Its Gotta Be True Stereo!

    Location:
    Brooklyn
    When it starts to sound like Bernard Purdie is playing on your Beatles Lps, thats the time to change the stylus!!!
     
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  17. bluesky

    bluesky Forum Resident

    Location:
    south florida, usa
    Stylis is missing off the headshell.

    Don't laugh, it happen to me.

    WHY in the WORLD does my cart skip across the record???

    No Stylis. It vaporized.

    It must be in the same place as my stylis brush, that I haven't been able to find for 3 years.
     
  18. bluesky

    bluesky Forum Resident

    Location:
    south florida, usa
  19. coffeecupman

    coffeecupman Forum Resident

    Location:
    Caterham, UK
    You guys reminded me that I have been meaning to buy a good magnifying glass and a loupe.

    Just bought 'em. Got the highest magnification Zeiss ones. Looking forward to inspecting stuff like record groove wear/dirt.

    And stylus tips. As quadjoe says, I'll only be seeing the worst wear, but probably worth a look anyway, even just to see how dirty the stylus is.

    ccm
     
  20. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    It fell out of its mounting, which means it is likely to be on a record somewhere. A good reason to clean records before playing because you don't want a new stylus running over the old one......
     
  21. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    You'll definitely be able to see how dirty it is, and you'll also be able to judge the various methods of stylus cleaning as well. I purchased a couple of hand-held microscopes, but found that they are difficult to use, and anything over 60X is almost impossible to hold still for effective viewing.
     
  22. CaptBeyond

    CaptBeyond Well-Known Member

    Location:
    Above the Ozone
    Do they sell them on Amazon? Save me the trouble of going shopping in the real world. :shake:
     
  23. My previous Goldring G1042 cartridge slowly degraded over time but I didn't realise it because the change was gradual. I didn't even realise that cartridges degrade with use. (Silly, really, because it's quite obvious in retrospect.)

    A new outboard phono stage improved things somewhat, but that was simply because the new phono stage was better than the onboard one in my NAD preamp. In fact, the new phono stage served to hide the cartridge wear.

    As each stylus degraded over time, that became obvious, as the upper and lower registers lost some prominence and as crackles and pops got a bit louder.

    Replacing the stylus brought an immediate improvement but didn't show up the slower degradation of the cartridge.

    I eventually learned that my cartridge had degraded after - at the suggestion of my local hi fi dealer - I replaced it with a new one of the same type and suddenly everything had more life and and attack and lost its previous wooliness (that had crept up without me noticing).

    So... barring extreme problems, cartridge wear might be hard to detect unless you're in the position of doing an old versus new comparison.
     
  24. rene smalldridge

    rene smalldridge Senior Member

    Location:
    manhattan,kansas
    When you have to attach two quarters for correct tracking instead of just one.
     
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  25. quadjoe

    quadjoe Senior Member

    Yes, that's where I bought mine. There are no stores in my area that sell such items.
     
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