What do record player needles do? What should I know about record player needles?
You won’t be alone in finding the the world of record player parts confusing to understand.
There is as much to know about needles as there is debate amongst the record player community about them!
So where do you start?
This blog explores the 9 essential things you should know about record player needles, including what they do and how to use one without scratching your vinyl’s.
In this blog, you’ll learn;
- What Do Record Player Needles Do?
- What Is The Difference Between A Record Player Needle, Stylus and Cartridge?
- What Are Record Player Needles Made Of?
- Can You Touch A Record Player Needle?
- Can Record Player Needles Scratch Vinyl Records?
- How Long Should A Record Player Needle Last?
- Should You Clean A Record Player Needle?
- Are All Record Player Needles The Same?
- When (And How) To Replace A Record Player Needle
1. What Do Record Player Needles Do?
A record player needle, also known as a phonograph needle or stylus, reads audio information within the grooves of a vinyl record, and translates it into sound.
The needle is a small, pointed tip that glides along the vinyl’s physical grooves, and vibrates as the record is played. These vibrations are converted into electrical signals by the cartridge, which are then sent to the amplifier, and then finally to the speakers to produce sound.
A record player is the first port of call for reading the music encased within the vinyl record.
In essence, it translates physical information into music via vibrations!
2. What Is The Difference Between A Record Player Needle, Stylus and Cartridge?
A record player needle is the same as a stylus: the pointed tip at the end of the tonearm that glides along the record while it spins. There is no difference except by name!
A record player cartridge is a small, rectangular device that is attached to the tonearm of the record player. Within the cartridge, contains the needle.
As a record is played, the needle vibrates along with the grooves, but it’s the cartridge that converts the vibrations into electrical signals.
In other words: record player needles pick up vibrations from a record, and the cartridge it is attached to translates it into signals that can be amplified and played as audio.
Needles and cartridges are both essential to being able to read and convert vinyl records into playable music.
3. What Are Record Player Needles Made Of?
Almost all record player needles are made of diamond, but some are made from sapphire and ceramic.
Non-diamond needles, like sapphire, were typically found in older records, when it was much cheaper to make compared to diamond. Now however, diamonds are in higher supply with the evolution of industrial and synthetic diamonds.
Diamond is the best needle material because it is the hardest material on earth. This means it can withstand repeated wear and tear as it vibrates and rotates along the grooves of your vinyl record. It also means it is unlikely to damage your vinyl!
Some higher-end needles are made of a combination of different materials, such as a diamond-tip with a sapphire shank, to provide the best sound quality and durability. However, there is a lot of debate over how much of a difference this really makes.
4. Can You Touch A Record Player Needle?
It is best NOT to touch a record player needle with your bare hands, as this can cause several issues.
- The oils and dirt from your skin can transfer onto the needle, causing it to become dirty and affect its ability to track the grooves of a record accurately.
- Oils from your hands can make it easier for the needle to pick up lint or dust.
- There is a greater risk of you accidentally ‘dropping’ the needle and damaging it, or your vinyl compared to using the lever.
All of these issues can cause record skipping, poorer sound quality or damage to your vinyl record.
When you need to use your needle, use the tonearm to move it and the lever to lower it onto the record instead.
If you need to handle the needle, such as when cleaning dust from it, use a soft, clean cloth instead.
5. Can Record Player Needles Scratch Vinyl Records?
Record player needles can scratch vinyl records if they aren’t properly used or cleaned
A needle scratching your vinyl is almost always due to using it wrong, as opposed to it being the needle itself so you shouldn’t worry too much. You should however, know how to use your needle properly, and safely, and how to clean it.
The 5 most common ways a needle can scratch your vinyl are:
- Dust, lint, hair or pet fur stuck to the needle, causing it to move off of the groove.
- Accidentally ‘dropping’ the needle onto the record.
- Setting the wrong weight, causing too much downward pressure on the record.
- Oils from your hands (from touching the needle), causing it to track the grooves improperly.
- A worn, old or damaged needle having the wrong shape and size to track the grooves properly.
So how do you prevent your needle scratching your records then?
Fortunately, it’s very simple!
The 4 ways to prevent a needle scratching your vinyl are to:
- Keep the needle clean.
- Avoid touching the needle with your bare hands.
- Set the weight correctly every time you use it.
- Replace your needle when it starts to show signs of wear and tear (or ideally, before then).
6. How Long Should A Record Player Needle Last?
Most record player needles will last between 200 and 1,000 hours of use. High-end needles will often last much longer though, giving you up to 2000 hours of use.
The lifespan of a record player needle varies considerably depending on:
- The type/material.
- The quality of the cartridge.
- How often the record player is used.
- How often you clean it.
- Whether you use the needle correctly.
It’s important you replace your needle before it wears out completely, as this will damage your records.
Depending on how often you play records, you should regularly inspect your needle for signs of wear, such as dullness or hearing distortion that wasn’t there before.
So, how long can you play records before replacing the needle?
The table below shows how many days, weeks, months or years your needle will last before needing to replace it. This uses an average amount of playtime hours of 500 hours before most needles wear out. However, as explained above, this isn’t an exact science, so you should always inspect the needle manually.
|How Often Do You Use Your Record Player? (on average)||Days of Playtime||Weeks of Playtime||Months of Playtime||Years of Playtime|
|1 Hour a Week||3500||500||115||9-10|
|2 Hours a Week||1750||250||57||4-5|
|3 Hours a Week||1166||166||38||3-4|
|4 Hours a Week||875||125||28||2-3|
|5 Hours a Week||700||100||23||2|
|6 Hours a Week||583||83||19||1-2|
|7 Hours a Week/1 Hour a Day||500||71||16||1-1.5|
|Up to 2 Hours a Day||250||35||8||Up to 1 year|
|Up to 3 Hours a Day||166||23||5.5||Up to half a year|
|More Than 3 Hours a Day||125||17||4||Less than half a year|
It is worth noting, that if you are using your record player at least an hour a day, then you should consider purchasing a higher-end needle.
It will prevent you having to replace it every year as it will last up to 4x longer.
7. Should You Clean A Record Player Needle?
As a good rule of thumb, the average record player user should clean the needle every few weeks. If you play records every day, you should clean it before each use.
Over time, dust, dirt, hair and pet fur can stick to the needle, affecting it’s ability to track the grooves of a record accurately.
Without cleaning, you can cause issues like:
- Poor sound quality.
- Record skipping.
- Damage to the record.
To clean the needle, start by getting a soft, dry cloth or a special cleaning solution designed for record player needles.
Then simply wipe the needle, being careful not to touch the tip of the needle with your finger or the cloth.
This will remove any dirt, debris or oils and keep your records safe. Regular cleaning will also help your needle last longer too.
8. Are All Record Player Needles The Same?
Most record player needles are conical shaped and made from diamond, but not all needles are the same.
There are two main types, and three main materials that needles are made from:
|Needle Type||Needle Material|
|Elliptical (finer point)||Sapphire|
Elliptical needles are more expensive and viewed as superior amongst record player aficionados. Because they have a smaller surface area, they can pick up a smaller range of frequencies, limiting unnecessary noise and giving you superior sound quality.
However, it is very hard to hear the difference unless you have a trained ear!
When it comes to the material, almost every needle is made from diamond now. Only older record players use sapphire or ceramic needles but this is because it was cheaper and easier to source them at the time they were made.
It is worth knowing, that you can get needles made from a mix of different materials, such as diamond-tipped, sapphire crank needles.
These mix-material needles tend to be higher-end, harder to find and more expensive to buy because many record player experts believe they are sturdier, last longer and are less prone to wear and tear.
Ultimately, the type or material of your needle makes minimal difference to sound quality, with only frequent users with trained ears noticing the difference. The choice of needle is entirely up to your preferences and budget.
9. When (And How) To Replace A Record Player Needle
You should replace your record player needle as soon as it shows signs of wear, but ideally before.
Replacing your needle before it degrades will ensure your records are played safely and minimises the risk to them getting scratched.
To replace the needle, you can usually just
- Turn off and unplug your record player from all electrical sources and outputs.
- Unscrew the cartridge.
- Remove the needle.
- Install the new one.
It’s always a good idea to follow your manufacturers instructions though, as not to every needle or cartridge is the same!
Important: Make sure to replace the needle with the correct type for your cartridge to ensure it fits and plays properly.
The majority of record players under $500 can have replacement needles that cost less than $10, with lot’s of choices available online.
For midrange and high-end record players though, like a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon or an Audio-Technica AT-LP120, a replacement needle can cost up to $100.
- Record players needles and stylus’ are the same thing: the pointed tip that touches your record as it plays.
- The needle (stylus) vibrates along the grooves of your record, and sends this information to the cartridge it is encased in. The cartridge converts this signal into electrical signals for your speakers to play as audio.
- Most needles are made from diamond and are conical (round-edged). There is very minimal difference in sound quality in other types except for experts with trained ears.
- You shouldn’t touch a record player needle with your hands, because oils from your hands can cause issues such as skipping or scratching.
- Needles can scratch needles when they get old, or they are used improperly.
- Most needles will last an average of 500 hours, with high-end needles lasting up to 2000 hours of playtime.
- You should clean the needle using a dry cloth every few weeks, or more if you use it more regularly.
- Not all needles are the same, although there is minimal difference in sound quality between them.
- You should replace your needle when it shows signs of dullness or general wear and tear, to prevent it scratching your records. Fortunately, needles are usually cheap, quick and easy to buy and replace at home.