What is your Stylus ROI, and does it matter? 

Return on Investment (ROI) is a performance measure used to evaluate the efficiency of an investment and tries to directly measure the amount of return on a particular investment, relative to it’s cost.*

This may seem an odd question, but it matters if you love your vinyl collection. Why? Because vinyl LP’s are a unique analog format that require the use of a consumable component — a phono cartridge and stylus. Vinyl LP’s are also the most collectible of all audio media, so it is possible some of your albums may increase in value. While most of us don’t buy vinyl as a financial investment, consider the cost to replace albums damaged by a worn stylus. If you take care of your stylus, you will maximize the return on your investment. Or simply put, you’ll maximize the long-term pleasure you get from your vinyl collection.

So how do you know when your stylus becomes worn to the point of causing damage? It’s not a great idea to only depend on your ears to tell you when your stylus is bad. It really helps if you know the estimated lifespan of your stylus so you can track how many sides you’ve played. This way, you will know when to start doing regular examinations of your stylus under magnification.

Time for a story …

I have a Dynavector 10×5 moving coil cartridge that has been on the same AR XA turntable for 8 years. That table is highly modified with a Rega RB250 tonearm customized by Audio Origami. When I recently moved the 10×5 to my (just-finished) custom High Desert Goldring Lenco GL75 turntable with Rega 202 arm, I was underwhelmed. It didn’t make sense. Both tables have basically the same tonearms, yet the Mission 773MM that is now on the AR XA sounded almost as good. At this point, I did some research in my files to find out how old my Dynavector is, which got me wondering about stylus wear. So I sent the 10×5 to Joseph Long to examine. The feature image for this post (provided by Joseph Long), shows significant wear from too much anti-skate. After getting the stylus retipped, I can now begin to keep track of sides of play so that I won’t be caught off guard next time.

If you want to learn more about stylus wear, read “The Finish Line for Your Phonograph Stylus” by Mike Bodell on The Vinyl Press. In this article, you will see that it doesn’t matter who makes the cartridge/stylus or what type it is, there are accepted ranges of wear that are consistent along the lines of stylus tip shape and type (spherical/conical, elliptical, Shibata/line contact, micro-ridge). The hours of play increase with the advancement in tip style, and stated life in units of hours increases. As you spend more money for “better” cartridges, your stylus ROI improves, but at what cost, and is that cost acceptable to you. Where is the point of diminishing returns?

So many questions for another post … let’s focus on the two areas that impact stylus health and related wear-n-tear to your vinyl collection.

The first area to focus on is your stylus health. Consider that your stylus has a fine diamond tip riding through a valley of vinyl. On a microscopic level, friction creates heat that can be compounded by contaminants (from not cleaning or dusting) and improper setup of your tonearm and phono cartridge. It is important to make sure your tonearm and cartridge are setup properly. Otherwise, improper settings including stylus alignment, vertical tracking force (VTF), stylus rake angle (SRA), anti-skate and azimuth, can cause uneven and premature wear on the stylus and your vinyl.

The second area is properly cleaning your vinyl. There are a number of products on the market that range from affordable to museum quality cleaners. In my experience, learning the best way to clean my albums has been a journey. I began with the cheap methods of using a spray cleaner and microfiber cloth. Now I use a VPI 16.5 vacuum record cleaner with Disc Doctor brushes and chemicals. And the truth is that just having a good cleaning machine doesn’t mean you will use it. So I’m preaching to myself here when I strongly suggest you make it a priority to clean your albums before you play them. The need to follow vigilant stylus care before and after each side of play, as well as using a carbon fiber brush (or similar device) to remove dust on cleaned albums prior to each side of play, is vital for extending the life of your stylus.

I confess that I like to play used albums before cleaning them to decide what goes in the cleaning pile, and what I sell or give away. I call this my audition process where I determine what albums are worth keeping. The challenge for me is that it takes time to properly clean albums. If I’m honest, I don’t want to take the time and spend the money on solution to clean albums that I may not keep. My habit has become playing newly acquired vinyl on my secondary table with an affordable cartridge. This way, if I prematurely wear out that stylus, it won’t cost an arm and a leg to replace. However, since there is usually a large gap in time from when I audition an album to when I clean it, I use Vinyl Cleaning Notes to document spots on an album that may require special attention. I also use a vintage roots counter to track sides of play so I know when it’s time to start looking at my stylus tip under microscope or magnifier. One advantage of moving magnet cartridges is you can easily remove the stylus for examination.

The biggest way to take care of your vinyl is to take care of your stylus and understand that your stylus has a limited lifespan before you start damaging your records. Once you have properly setup your tonearm and phono cartridge, you can achieve this by establishing the following good habits:

  • Clean albums before playing
  • Store clean albums in new anti-static inner sleeves
  • Use some type of anti-static (brush) device before each side of play
  • Clean your stylus after each side of play with a stylus brush or my favorite, the Onzow Zerodust Stylus Cleaner
  • Know the estimated lifespan of your stylus and track with some kind of counting device

This article just scratches the surface. My intention is not to make you paranoid, but to get you thinking more about the importance of your stylus health and it’s impact on your vinyl collection. It is the most misunderstood part of our audio system, and the one thing we take for granted. If you aren’t sure about your stylus, and suspect it could be over the hill, stop using it until you can get it checked out by a reputable shop or tech that offers phono cartridge rebuilding and stylus retipping. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

* Definition from Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/articles/basics/10/guide-to-calculating-roi.asp