A Running Experiment on Stylus Wear
The Finish Line article by Mike Bodell has generated a fair amount of attention on various audio chat boards, including the Hoffman forum where I posted the article. One outgrowth of that thread was Ray Parkhurst’s decision to do a bit of informal testing, using a fresh stylus and examining wear at different time intervals. (Ray, as you may remember, helped Mike with the macrophotography in his piece). Here’s where that part of the discussion and Ray’s reports begin: https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/the-finish-line-for-your-phono-cartridge-stylus-wear-by-mike-bodell.842572/page-17#post-21738520
For the purposes of Ray’s experiment, he’s using the following set up:
Empire 480LT Cartridge
0.2mil x 0.7mil Elliptical Stylus
Tracking force 1.25g
Technics SL-10 Turntable
Obviously, there are a number of factors at play. Tracking force is pretty light, at least compared to most of the cartridges I’ve been using in the last decade or so, which track a little above 1.8 grams. The stylus shape isn’t terribly exotic, nor is the turntable (which allows Ray to put it on repeat play). So far, with less than 1,000 hours of play as of this writing, Ray has noticed some wear, but nothing dramatic, and no apparent diminution in sound quality (though he wasn’t able to do sound captures from the beginning of the exercise to compare what the cartridge sounded like with a new stylus compared to its performance with some miles on it).
You may want to bookmark that thread and check it periodically.
I think most people accept that wear is inevitable; the question is when and how one determines it. One participant in that Hoffman thread, who had a good cartridge (a London Decca Reference, which is a cartridge I’d love to use in its modern incarnation) posted to say that he had years of play on his and hadn’t experienced any significant deterioration in sound quality. He did indicate that he was planning on sending the cartridge back to the manufacturer for an evaluation, which concluded that the stylus had worn significantly. The overhaul (which was pretty reasonable pricewise) made a dramatic difference in output, bass performance, dynamics and realism, according to that poster.
Judging stylus wear based on sound quality alone may not be a complete answer because our sonic “memory” (particularly long term) isn’t terribly reliable. I’ve found this to be true with tubes as well. You just don’t notice the gradual degradation over time. Short of sending the cartridge out for an expert evaluation, if you have the ability to record a “needle drop” when the cartridge is new, you might use that as a reality check after the cartridge has accumulated a lot of hours.