Does your turntable sound a little off? Well, that can happen due to many reasons. One of the most common reasons for this issue is that your cartridge is bad.

Your cartridge contains a small needle, which is called the stylus. This needle comes in contact with the top of the vinyl record and sits inside the grooves. It simply translates vibrations into music.

After a while, your stylus can wear out, and in some cases, it can get damaged. So, you should know how to tell if a turntable cartridge is bad and needs a change.

Look no further for the answer! In today’s article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the signs that your cartridge is bad and how often you should change it. Let’s dive in.

How To Tell If Turntable Cartridge Is Bad

Let’s check the most common signs that let you know your cartridge is bad and requires a change.

1. Changes in the Sound Quality

The first thing most people notice when the cartridge wears out is changes in the quality of the music you’re playing. You might notice that the sound became thin and fainted.

The audio coming out of your turntable with a bad cartridge can sound a lot like an AM radio. It’ll lack the dynamic range and the bass. It doesn’t need a trained ear to tell the difference.

Additionally, the music you play might sound muffled and distorted. You can also hear some static and hissing.

Other changes in the sound quality might include the following:

  • Missing details in the music
  • The sound isn’t punchy anymore
  • Scratch noises
  • Treble changes
  • Unclear audio

However, this can also happen due to a damaged record. So, you’ll need to check the record first before determining that your stylus is the cause of this issue.

If you overplay a record, you can notice that the grooves on it become wider and deeper. That can cause the same issue too. Unfortunately, in this case, you can kiss this record goodbye.

Closeup of Ortofon turntable cartridge.

2. The Stylus Is in Bad Condition

The stylus, otherwise known as the needle, is the most crucial part of your cartridge. It’s also the most delicate part of the entire record player. Therefore, any small misuse can cause a lot of damage to the stylus.

To examine the stylus condition, you’ll need a magnifying glass, as the needle is tiny. Thus, it’ll be hard to spot its condition with your eyes. 

Once you get the magnifying glass, you can use it to check the tip of the stylus.

The most crucial part of the stylus is its tip. If the tip is damaged, it can look dull or bent. Additionally, in some severe cases, a damaged stylus can sometimes jump out of the record’s grooves or skip forward.

These signs mean your stylus has worn out and requires a change.

Users also read: How To Replace Needle On Crosley Record Player?

How to Replace a Bad Cartridge or Stylus

If you have a moving magnet cartridge (MM) you can simply replace the damaged stylus without having to buy a new cartridge.

When you’re changing a stylus, you need to make sure that the stylus you’ll buy is compatible with the cartridge you own. Checking the user manual or the manufacturer’s instructions is a good idea to find suitable styli.

You can also check the cartridge model, which you can find written on it, to find a needle replacement online.

On the other hand, if you have an MC cartridge, you’ll need to replace the entire cartridge with a new one. In this case, you’ll need to check the compatibility of the cartridge with your turntable.

Either way, replacing the cartridge or the stylus requires steady hands and a lot of experience. It’s no secret that it’s a tough task. So, if you’re a beginner, you should find a professional to do it for you.

Additionally, this is a good chance for you to upgrade your cartridge, since you’ll be replacing the old one anyway.

How to Replace a Turntable Cartridge

In some turntable models, you can remove the headshell from the tonearm, which can make the process a lot easier. So, check the instructions manual to find out if your headshell is removable.

To replace your cartridge, you can proceed with the following steps:

  1. First, unplug your record player and unscrew the old cartridge from the headshell to remove it.
  2. Second, remove the connected wires using pliers.
  3. Then, connect the wires to the new cartridge.
  4. Next, secure the cartridge back onto the headshell.
  5. After that, attach the counterweight and set the tracking force as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
  6. Using a turntable alignment tool, make sure that the cartridge is correctly aligned.
  7. Finally, adjust the tracking force as per the manufacturer’s recommended tracking force.

How to Replace a Turntable Stylus

First, you’ll need to unplug your turntable and take out the cartridge. Then you can proceed with the following steps to replace the stylus:

  1. Carefully, remove the needle from the cartridge by bracing the headshell and sliding out the stylus.
  2. Then, make sure the new stylus is properly seated in its protector, then grab it with your thumb and forefinger.
  3. Alien the underside of the stylus with the cartridge.
  4. Finally, apply pressure gradually until the stylus clips into place.

How Often Should You Replace Your Cartridge

Most turntable manufacturers recommend replacing your stylus or cartridge after 1000 hours of playing time. However, many high-quality cartridges can last up to 2500 hours before starting to wear out.

It basically depends on the type of cartridge and stylus you’re using. Some cartridges last longer than others. That’s why you need to check the average playing time of a cartridge before buying it.

Another factor to consider is how well you maintain your cartridge. In any case, we understand that you won’t be counting the hours you play music on your turntable.

To keep things simple, if you use your turntable for around one hour per day, you can expect your cartridge to last around two to three years.

So, once you reach past the two-year point, you should keep an eye out for visible damage on the stylus or change in sound quality. Whenever you spot either of these signs, it probably means your cartridge needs a replacement.

How to Tell if a Used Turntable Cartridge Needs a Change

The only exception to the previous rule is when you buy a used record player. You shouldn’t get too excited and put on your favorite record.

The problem with used turntables is that there’s no way of telling the condition of their stylus if you don’t have a magnifying glass.

Even the past owner won’t probably be able to tell how much they’ve been using that stylus. Since a damaged stylus can ruin your record, it’s best if you assume that the stylus is bad and replace it right away.

Related: How To Change Needle On Audio Technica AT-LP60?

How to Increase the Lifespan of Your Cartridge

There are many things you can do to make sure your cartridge last longer. Regular maintenance and cleaning are the best way to do so. 

1. Clean Your Stylus Regularly

As you might know, the stylus inside your cartridge rests inside the grooves of the record. As a result, if there’s any dust or dirt in these grooves, they’ll end up on the stylus.

The dust and dirt can build up on the needle, causing damage to both the needle and the record that you play. Therefore, it’s crucial to clean the stylus regularly.

There are many ways to clean your stylus. The easiest and most popular way is by using a stylus brush. You simply brush your stylus with it, and it gets rid of all the dust that your stylus caught.

Ortofon: Stylus Brush

More importantly, you should always brush your stylus from back to front, and not the other way around, as this can damage the stylus.

You can also use any commercial stylus cleaner or gel cleaning solution. Many turntable enthusiasts recommend using the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to clean your stylus.

Mr. Clean Magic Eraser, Extra Durable, Shoe, Bathroom, and Shower Cleaner, Cleaning Pads with Durafoam, 10 Count

In any case, you should always check the manufacturer’s instructions on how to clean the cartridge and the stylus.

2. Avoid Using Dirty or Damaged Records

Cleaning your records isn’t just about keeping your collection in a good condition. In fact, a dirty record can have all kinds of dirt and dust built up in its grooves. These records can damage your stylus when you play them.

You might think that using a dirty record once or twice is okay. Sadly, your stylus can get damaged in no time. Not only that, but the record will get damaged too.

Therefore, it’s best if you clean your records before and after using them. Additionally, you should always keep your records in a clean place away from any dust or dirt.

Related: Best ultrasonic record cleaners on the market

3. Set Up Your Turntable Correctly

Setting up a turntable is a tough task for a beginner. Additionally, setting up your turntable the wrong way can cause a lot of damage to your stylus.

If you don’t configure the azimuth or the anti-skate correctly, it can cause your stylus to wear out faster. Moreover, an unbalanced cantilever can get out of line. As a result, this will put more pressure on the stylus, which can damage your stylus pretty easily.

Therefore, if you don’t have a lot of experience setting up turntables, you should seek the help of a professional to set it up for you.