Turntables come with a wide range of features and variations that all have an intended purpose. At a glance, every stylus tip may look the same as you place it on the record, but if you take a good look, you’ll realize this is far from the truth.
Each type of stylus has an intended purpose, delivers varying qualities, and can even be made from different materials. In this article, I’m going to provide details on the 4 turntable stylus types and why they’re important for the listening experience as a whole.
What Is a Stylus and How Do They Work?
The stylus, or turntable needle, is a component of turntables that reads the grooves on vinyl records. It vibrates as it tracks every curve, and these vibrations travel through its rod, which then reaches the inside of the turntable’s cartridge. From there, the turntable cartridge creates an electrical signal which is sent to the preamp and then the amplifier.
All of this is an extremely fast process, but it all starts with the stylus itself. Turntable needles come in many different styles and materials. Although novice users may not notice much of a difference, you’ll hear many opinions from audiophiles who have been around them for a while.
There are also numerous parts that are connected to the stylus, such as the tonearm, headshell, counterweight, and more – all of which can have an effect on how it performs. Overall, there are four main stylus types that you’ll find with a majority of turntables, and you can find more information on their differences down below.
The 4 Turntable Stylus Types
Also known as the conical style, this is one of the most common stylus types that you’ll find on a turntable. Due to their large radius and spherical tip, it doesn’t trace much of the smaller grooves on a vinyl record, meaning it could potentially miss certain high frequencies. Many audiophiles consider the spherical styli to also deliver the most wear and tear, among others, primarily due to the diamond being restricted to two different points.
It’s also one of the most cost-efficient styles and generally comes with a radius of 0.6 mil. Its main point of contact with the record focuses on the center of the grooves, giving a pretty standard listening experience. Moreover, you’ll also find there are different sizes of this type of stylus, and they’re generally larger when working with wider grooves, such as records that are meant to be played at 78 RPM.
The elliptical-shaped styli is another common stylus shape. Elliptical styli focus on contact with a broader area of the record groove, and this is due to its dual radii design. Also known as a bi-radial stylus, it’s known to track grooves with more precision and does a great job of delivering high frequencies. The stylus also excels with lowering distortion, improving phase response, and can even track the most inner record grooves.
Many people agree that this type of stylus tip tends to wear out a bit faster than others and to achieve optimal performance, you may need to adjust the alignment of the tonearm and the turntable cartridge. Between the two radii, the front radius is always wider than the side, and while the front radius focuses on the center grooves, it’s the side radius that tracks higher frequencies.
Another difference in its design is that the elliptical stylus has a narrower front-to-back contact area and a longer vertical contact area, which is a unique difference from the spherical style. The elliptical stylus can be found in various sizes with two measurements for the bi-radial design. 0.2 x 07 mil would be an example, with the first number representing the side radius. Moreover, with a smaller side radius, you’re generally guaranteed a better sound quality overall.
Hyper Elliptical Styli
This type of stylus shape takes it one step further by offering a sharper design, which aims to make an even more precise contact with every groove on the record. It delivers a stellar high-frequency performance, better tracking, and a longer lifespan, and it also causes less wear on your equipment over time. They’re also referred to as a line contact stylus, and you can expect them to be relatively more expensive than their counterparts.
Many audiophiles choose to upgrade their stylus all the time, and the hyper elliptical is excellent at minimizing abrasion while helping to maximize sound quality. One of the minor downsides is the fact it can actually generate more noise on worn-out records, as this is because of its significant tracing footprint. It’s also suggested that this particular stylus should be used with a high-quality moving coil cartridge for the best performance.
It’s a fan favorite for many vinyl enthusiasts, but it may not be the best choice with every turntable setup and record collection. Keep this in mind if you think you may want to upgrade. Still, at the end of the day, the hyper elliptical stylus definitely outshines much of the competition in a few areas regarding sound fidelity and accrued wear over time.
The micro-ridge stylus, also commonly known as a Microline stylus, is easily the most effective and advanced design out of the four in this article. The main reason for this is the fact that the stylus is engineered to closely resemble the cutting stylus that’s used to create master discs.
In many ways, this is the most precision you can find in a stylus. With the Microline stylus tip having a ridge-like shape, the multi-level design is able to read high frequencies with ease. When it’s in the proper alignment, it’ll also guarantee a long lifespan.
It’s known to be quite challenging to manufacture, so you can expect this quality to reflect in the price tag. The micro-ridge stylus is best used with high-quality moving magnet or moving coil cartridges, and it delivers a ruler-flat frequency response that many other styles simply can’t achieve. It can add a substantial amount of quality to any record player, and it’ll track any vinyl record with a level of precision that’s unmatched.
What is the Best Type of Stylus On Vinyl?
Each variation comes with its pros and cons, but at the end of the day, the micro-ridge stylus is your best bet for a full and well-rounded listening experience.
By no means is it a requirement to take this route, while other stylus shapes do just fine, but the quality it delivers is unique on its own. It may offer a stand-out quality, but another reason it’s the best stylus for vinyl as it doesn’t tack on as much wear and tear as other stylus designs.
Diamond Stylus Tip vs. Sapphire Needles
Another angle to consider when looking at a stylus is what material the needle is made out of. A majority of stylus designs come with a diamond stylus; this is mainly because it’s a very durable and resistant material. In comparison, you’ll also come across sapphire needles, but they’re known to be much softer and wear down a lot faster.
To provide a reference, sapphire needles are assumed to give around 100 hours of use, whereas diamond needles are considered to deliver roughly 1,000 hours of use (source). You can see why many people would prefer a diamond needle with their stylus.
How Often Should You Replace a Turntable Stylus?
First off, this depends on what material the stylus is made out of. With a diamond tip, replacing the stylus after around 1,000 hours of use is advisable, but this can vary depending on care and alignment. With a sapphire needle, this would need a replacement much sooner, as the material will wear significantly faster. Obviously, this can be somewhat hard to gauge, so you’ll need to pay close attention to how your stylus performs as it ages.
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After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.