Personalizing a home turntable setup is one of many invigorating facets for record collectors. Within the plethora of turntables lies a wide range of accessories for aesthetic and technical needs.
A record needle is nearly the most crucial component of a turntable and requires patience while setting up. So in this article, we will look at how to replace a record needle safely and efficiently for beginner vinyl enthusiasts and seasoned audiophiles.
When to Replace a Record Needle
It’s important to note that replacing a record needle isn’t always necessary.
If you’re buying a used turntable, invest in a new stylus. If you’re working with a new and trusted turntable, you have some time until you need to make that compromise of buying a needle instead of a new album.
Record needles have a lifespan ranging from 500 to 1000 hours of audio play; or about 3-5 years. There are a handful of stylus cleaning tips for prolonging the life of your vinyl records- leading to audio playback that sounds clear as new.
But once we’re ready to replace our stylus, we’ll need to dedicate some time and patience so we can prolong the life of our beloved vinyl records.
Identifying Your Record Needle and Tonearm
The way we swap out or record needles depends on our cartridge-to-tonearm mount. The two common types are p-mount and standard mount (s-mount).
P-mounts are typically found on entry-level turntables and have a cartridge that is attached to the end of the tonearm through a singular click and securing screw. These mounts do not detach a stylus from cartridges.
S-mounts connect the stylus and cartridge through a half-inch headshell which is then screwed into the tonearm. These are the preferred record needle setups among audiophiles due to the range of premium options available- therefore, we will focus on how to swap a needle and cartridge for this setup.
Stylus and Cartridge Compatibility
Once we’ve identified our record needle’s setup, it’s important to acknowledge what stylus will be compatible with our cartridge- based on our preexisting stylus. A stylus serial number will often be on the underside of the record needle.
If a stylus’ serial number cannot be found, check within a manual, conduct research, or consult with a local retailer. Make sure to research what styluses and cartridges best suit your record player and desired playback experiences!
It’s important to note that specified record needles, such as those designated for mono vinyl records and 78 records, should only be used for their record styles and could cause severe damage to stereo vinyl records.
Removing a Headshell
The first step in any record player maintenance should be to turn off and safely unplug your turntable set up and any components in its company like speakers, preamps, etc. Make sure the tonearm is also stabilized on the tonearm guard and begin to work with clean hands.
Tools you will need include:
- A slotted screwdriver
- Long nose pliers or tweezers
- A dust-free environment
- Calm hands and some patience
First, unscrew the headshell from the tonearm by simply loosening the collar until the headshell comes out. This facilitates easier removal of the rest of the headshells components.
Disconnecting the Stylus
With your thumb and index finger, pinch the lateral sides of the stylus gently yet firmly enough to pull the assembly away from the cartridge. The stylus should detach itself smoothly and with little difficulty (view the picture below, which shows me removing the stylus from my Ortofon phono cartridge):
At this point, it’s best to store the old stylus in a safe place. I always recommend storing your old stylus in your new styluses packaging, once that’s available to you.
Connecting the New Stylus
When placing in a new stylus, remove it from its packaging and find a safe spot for it. Even your turntable mat will suffice. Make sure the protective casing remains on the stylus until the stylus has fully clicked into the cartridge.
Once ready to install the needle- with the protective cover still intact: grab the lateral sides of the stylus, align it with the cartridge, and ease the stylus into the cartridge until it clicks into place. Then remove its protective cover and now your needle is ready for spinning!
Disconnecting the Cartridge
Now, removing a cartridge (as opposed to a stylus) is a bit more involved—and can be a bit more tricky. It’s not complicated, but it does require a larger degree of delicacy here.
Begin by loosening the screws located on top of the headshell, with your slotted screwdriver, until the nuts located at the bottom of the headshell are free. Store this safely, preferably on the turntable mat, until you’re ready to reassemble the headshell.
With a pair of tweezers: detach the cartridge from the headshell, via the metal tips at the end of the colored wires, and make sure only to touch the metal plating that plugs into the cartridge with the styluses corresponding pins.
Disconnecting the wires require extra care considering these wires are the most critical yet fragile component of the headshell unit.
Each wire that connects a cartridge to a headshell unit is color-coded and should connect to its respective counterpart.
The color-coding system goes as follows: Red: R+ (Red), Green: R- (Green), White: L+ (White), Blue: L- (Blue). R+, R-, L+, and L- represent either the right or left channel, and a negative and positive charge.
Above anything, make sure not to switch around any wires and their coloring.
Connecting a New Cartridge
Once you’re ready to connect your new cartridge to your headshell: begin by removing the accompanying stylus—find a safe space for the stylus to rest—and leave the stylus remaining in its protective covering until your cartridge is ready to be reinstalled into the headshell.
Align the cartridge with the headshell and begin to tighten the screws from the top of the headshell while holding the nut in place.
Do not overtighten the headshell, you will need some slack to align the record needle later on. Once the cartridge is screwed in, plug the headshell wiring into the cartridge pins with the corresponding lead-to-pin coloring.
Attach the stylus by aligning and clipping into the new cartridge, remove the protective casing, and now your cartridge is good to go!
Once you’ve secured your cartridge, it’s important to make sure your record player’s tonearm is properly aligned. If you don’t have a turntable protractor, there are a handful available online for free.
Equally important is making sure your anti-skate and tracking force is dialed, where your tonearm is level and not applying too much or too little pressure while tracking.
Pros and Cons of Replacing Record Needles
Yes, we may be fascinated with the idea of a new premium cartridge or stylus—but the question is…do we really need one? I err on the side of swinging by my local record shop if I have any turntable inquiries. We can equally destroy our turntables and records by rushing through the delicate installation setup, or just being too overeager and damaging an otherwise fragile piece of tech.
For every new stylus we buy, we should consider whether or not we need a new cartridge. There’s nothing wrong with upgrade to a new record needle, but I always think it’s wise to ask yourself this question: Does buying a new record stylus or cartridge right now make the most sense, or would I be happier upgrading my speakers? Or my preamp? Or purchasing more records?
The extra step that research takes also prevents us from spending unnecessary money on an item that may not be compatible with our record player.
With the vast amount of premium record needles and cartridges available, there are endless possibilities for us to curate a stellar turntable setup. When we’re ready to take the next step in investing in a new stylus or cartridge, it’s important to learn how to replace a record needle safely.
The whole process is fairly simple for vinyl newbies—but you do have to be very present (and not distracted) when replacing the needle itself. Surely all it takes is a steady hand and a little patience to replace the needle or cartridge, but it you have any reservations, don’t hesitate to contact your local dealer.