How to Clean and Care for Your Turntable Needle
It’s notoriously delicate and easy to ruin—the turntable needle or the stylus comes in many variants and designs, but they all have one thing in common: if you want it to perform at optimum level and offer the best possible sound, you’ll need to give it regular care and attention. It’s not rocket science. On the other hand, handling a sensitive piece of audio design isn’t exactly child’s play either. Here’s our guide to cleaning and caring for your turntable needle.
To kick things off, we’ll start with the basics: an uncomplicated intro to what a cartridge is made of and how it works.
Generally speaking, cartridges contain three parts: the stylus, the cantilever, and the generating system. The stylus traces the modulations in the groove; the cantilever is the part that carries the stylus; and the generating system ‘translates’ the movement from the stylus into an electrical signal, which is then amplified and sent through to the speaker.
Most turntable needles are made from diamond or sapphire, two extremely durable types of materials. This makes sense when you consider the job that your stylus has to perform on a regular basis—tracking an unending amount of vinyl grooves at the tiniest of microscopic levels. It’s a tough job, someone has to do it, and your stylus in right there in the thick of it among the dust, grime and countless other substances navigating the wilderness like an intrepid 19th century explorer hacking their way through a dense, mysterious forest with a machete to unearth the coveted treasure: the sound that makes your brain tingle, giving rise to heightened dopamine levels and blissed-out listening sessions. Unsurprisingly, the process that your needle is subjected to whenever you play your record lets it pick up unwanted elements. This is why a good needle-cleaning routine is crucial.
As you might expect, there are quite a few ways to clean your needle and the vinyl community isn't always in agreement on what the best way is. We subscribe to three main cleaning methods:
1) Cleaning with an anti-static carbon fiber stylus brush that removes dust and static.
2) Using a gel-based stylus cleaner that removes dust and other contaminants
3) A liquid-based stylus cleaning routine that removes all unwanted elements, including static.
It’s a good idea to apply the first method at regular intervals. If you really want to prevent the buildup of dust and grime in the most efficient and proactive of ways, you can actually apply this routine every time you play your record. The second method is similar to the first one in terms of the level of cleaning with a slightly more thorough removal of hard-do-spot sound contaminants like micro-dust. And the third method is great for those grimier instances where your needle needs a deeper round of wet cleaning.
The first routine goes as follows:
1) Run the brush along the cantilever from front to back in the direction of the stylus.
2) Always remember to brush the stylus from back to front, and never the other way around. If you brush from front to back there’s an increased risk of bending the stylus, which is a great way to permanently ruining a crucial part of your turntable.
3) With that in mind, we’ll just reiterate: always brush the stylus from back to front.
We highly recommend using an anti-static brush here as the conductivity of the brush’s carbon fiber bristles helps to drain the static charge from the stylus while removing any residual dust and debris. Just putting it out there that the The AM anti-static pick-up brush offers a great way to maintain your cartridge, improve audio fidelity and lengthen the life of your records.
The second cleaning routine goes a little something like this:
1) Take the lid of the gel-based stylus cleaner.
2) Place it on the turntable.
3) Gently lower the needle onto the gel, so that it touches the substance.
The process of lowering and raising the tonearm has to be repeated several times to get the full effect of the gel. Gentleness is crucial here; it’s important to remember that the needle should only make contact with the gel. In other words, you should never force the stylus into the gel.
And here’s the third method:
1) Open the bottle and gently remove the brush from the cleaning solution.
2) Wipe excess liquid on the top of the bottle.
3) Use the brush from back to front—never the other way or from side to side.
As mentioned, the method using a cleaning solution is appropriate when you need a deeper, more extensive cleaning of your stylus. There’s no need to apply this method every time you play your record. With moderate use, the liquid-based method will get rid of all that nasty, unwanted debris safely and effectively. The AM stylus cleaner is your friend when it comes to the deep stylus clean.
It goes without saying that one great way of keeping your stylus clean is to keep your records clean. The stylus picks up dust and gunk from your record, and dusty records will inevitably lead to dusty needles in need of a good clean-up job. However, all elements are vital when it comes to the clear reproduction of sound, and we highly recommend affording every part of your turntable with a generous amount of care and cleaning.
With that said, no matter how frequently and diligently you clean your records, you will always need to clean your stylus from time to time. There’s just no way around that build up of dust and other unwanted substances. Be gentle, proceed with common sense and you’ll get to enjoy clean and gunk-free sound for a long time to come.
A few stylus tips before we go:
Most manufacturers advise that you replace your turntable stylus after 100 hours of playing time. As with so many other things involving the Hi-Fi community, there’s varying opinions on the matter. Still, this is our rule of thumb.
Using a stylus guard when the the stylus is not in use is another good way to prevent that pesky buildup of dust.
Storing your back-up styli at room temperature in an environment without direct sunlight that’s safe from pets, kids and other potentially stylus-damaging elements will increase the chances of having a long-lasting needle performing at its unrivaled best.