Stylus Wear And What to Do About It

Vinyl fans tend to be obsessive (no news here!). So when you properly install a new cartridge and after the initial break-in, there's a period of calm and satisfaction knowing the stylus is fresh, the sound is spectacular and your records will be well cared for.

But after a few months, especially after a few months of heavy listening, we all start to wonder if the stylus has started to wear and if so, by how much and when does the wear become dangerous to the records? But more usually we obsess over whether the sound has slowly, almost imperceptibly began to degrade. True, right?

Well, there are things you can do to preserve the life of your cartridge's stylus. First, clean it carefully after every record side played. A pain? Maybe, but well worth the effort. And don't be afraid to clean it vigorously but carefully, always brushing from back to front and never front to back.

If you don't clean religiously, here's what happens: any residual finger oil usually left on the lead in groove area immediately coats the stylus. Dust left in the groove, which there inevitably is, adheres to the stylus. As the stylus travels through the grooves, heat builds up. The heat causes the dust/oil mix to harden and adhere to the stylus.

The result? The stylus shape changes—and not in ways your records like to see. That causes more record wear than playing with a clean stylus. And the added friction creates more heat and uneven stylus wear. It is an ugly, but easily avoidable problem.

Alternate between a dry, stiff bristle brush and a liquid cleaner every side played, subject to the approval of a liquid by your cartridge manufacturer. Some styli are glued in place and some liquids contain a solvent that might dissolve the adhesive so be sure of the liquid's ingredients (I wish more companies would put that on the bottle) and how your stylus/cantilever is assembled.

The Onzow Zerodust is also recommended but only if you can prevent your platter from moving when you lower the stylus into the mound of gel, and only occasionally, unless you exercise extreme caution each and every time. It does a really great job, but if you're in a rush to get to side two, or are otherwise easily distracted, less often is fine, as long as you use something each side. Some turntable manufacturers recommend sandpaper. I think that's crazy, but if you are part of the Kult, don't let me stop you.

While you should proceed with caution, don't "baby" your stylus. I recently visited someone (name redacted to protect the guilty) who was so careful and cautious, when I put used the digital microscope to set SRA I found this: an encrusted stylus and a cantilever that looked like a caterpillar. No wonder the sound was hard and edgy!

Here's what it looked like before it was carefully cleaned.

And here is after

Once it was cleaned, the sound improved dramatically. So yes, every so often it's a good idea to very carefully clean off the cantilever too with an artist's brush and if necessary one that's slightly damp with stylus fluid (but do so very carefully!). The cleaner your records, the less likely it will be that you'll have this problem.

Even if you scrupulously follow this regimen and keep your records clean, the stylus will eventually wear and after around 1000 hours of play (yes, some obsessives do run a meter to mark the time during play) it's time to at least examine carefully the condition of the stylus, though if you start to hear distortion or records that the cartridge once tracking cleanly show signs of mis-tracking those are signs that it's time for a re-tip or a new cartridge. I recently reached that point on my Ortofon A90.

Can you use a digital microscope to assess the stylus's condition? My friend Wally Malewicz says it's not really possible, though I've yet to try it. I will soon. Of course you have to know what to look for. If you've taken good care of your records and kept your stylus clean, the wear should be smooth and benign so that no damage will come to records with continued plays. The stylus's tracing abilities will be diminished ("tracking" is the ability of the stylus to maintain good contact with the grooves, while "tracing" is the ability of the stylus to get into the "nooks and crannies" and reproduce all of the inner detail information contained within the grooves).

Which reminds me: do not fetish on light tracking. More damage is done by attempting to track too light than tracking at the upper limits of the manufacturer's recommended tracking force range. Years ago I foolishly ran a V-15 Type III at 3/4s of a gram (the lowest recommended tracking force) and damaged many records, leaving them with a crackling sound caused by the stylus bouncing from groove wall to groove wall. Yes, perhaps a top quality arm precisely set to 3/4s of a gram could have tracked fine, but I was using a Dual 1209SK and while it was a good changer, it was hardly "state of the art".

I recently reviewed the $15,000 Goldfinger Statement and its recommended tracking force is upward of 3 grams. I tracked it near there with no hesitation so don't be afraid of tracking near or at the top end of the recommended VTF (vertical tracking force), especially if you hear "issues" at a lower tracking force.

So what does stylus wear look like? The story's lead photo is of a new stylus (radius 7x30µm) with the yellow lines representing the groove. What's below is a stylus with some wear. You can see the beginnings of a sharpened edge on the right side. You'd want to replace the stylus before that edge becomes well-defined.

My Lyra Titan i has seen a lot of mileage. How worn is it? I'm going to attempt some close ups using the USB microscope and see if Wally is correct when he says the USB microscope can't get the job done. Wally is usually correct. He uses a special optical microscope/digital camera rig. I'll let you know what happens. Meanwhile, keep your stylus clean. 1000 hours of play is a fairly long time and that's just a rough estimate.

Slow Turtle's picture

Why is the Onzow Zerodust recommended only occasionally?  (I've been using one after every side for years now).

Michael Fremer's picture

I should have been clearer and I'll edit the piece: if you can use it conveniently and easily and your platter isn't prone to easily move, it's a great way to go if you are extremely careful, which you obviously are... I use it more than occasionally as well... and I'm sure you wash it when it starts getting speckled with dirt....

erlandsen's picture

A piece of advice: I have glued my Onzow Zerodust to a little box so that I can place it on the plinth next to the platter. Then I just lower the stylus into the gel by means of the lever that you normally use when you start playing a record. I move it up and down a couple of times, just to make sure. This seems to be working fine.

Wasatch's picture

Very helpful article, thanks.

morserotonin's picture

I have been wondering about this subject a lot lately. I really appreciate this site as I assume many people do. I am a newcomer to high end analog playback and while there is quite a lot to learn it is very rewarding when you hear something you never have before. Thank you.

moon unit's picture


Do you have any opinion on whether or not LAST stylus cleaner fluid contains any type of solvent that may dissolve the adhesive used on my Ortofon MC cart? I know it does not contain any alcohol, would that be the primary culprit?


Michael Fremer's picture

I've used LAST stylus cleaner (among others) over many years without any problems but to be sure you might want to check with Ortofon USA. By the way LAST stylus cleaner is <i>not</i> the same thing as StyLAST. That is a lubricant meant to extend stylus life that you carefully apply after using a stylus cleaner. However, I recommend against using it because unless you are extremely careful, StyLAST can "migrate" up the cantilever and into the suspension and motor where it can seriously gum up the works. One misapplication and you'll be sorry, so better safe than sorry, though others may disagree.

mauidj's picture

Another great read Michael!

Blue-tack and alcohol.....Sounds like an album title!

I have been using a Zerodust religously since I got my new Soundsmith StrainGuage cartridge. But it recently went back to Peter Lederman for repair (my bad!) and he just told me that there was a considerable build up of burnt residue on the stylus. Much like you discribed.

He recommended using blue-tack after every side and an alcohol dipped brush every few albums.

What are your thoughts?

I also fixate on the eternal question of "has my stylus worn out?" I was hoping that the digital microscope you recommended for set-up would help answer that question. Guess not eh!

Michael Fremer's picture

Blu-Tack (the brand name product) acts similarly to Zerodust but is probably somewhat "tackier." Did Peter tell you what strength alcohol to use? Certainly if its his cartridge, I'd rely on the advice as long as you do so with caution.

Rob's picture

Thanks for this article, Mickey!

In regards to brushing "vigorously" - what kind of brush do you use / recommend? By this, I mean particular type or brand?

Appreciate your assistance and advice, Sir.

Michael Fremer's picture

I use a combination of devices....I switch around between the  round hard bristle type brush similar to the old Discwasher stylus brush that Ortofon and others still supply with their cartridges, plus the Zerodust, plus Lyra's SPG fluid and Mo-Fi's LP#9. Be careful with liquids and give them a chance to evaporate. When I use a fluid to clean a stylus that appears dirty and crusted over through the USB microscope, I always find a blob of liquid clinging to it for some time after it's applied. By "vigorous" I don't mean "roughly", I just mean with sufficient vigor to clean the stylus without deflecting the cantilever upward in the process. 

Cardinals's picture

Thanks for the article Michael.  I have a Denon DL-110 cartridge and I use the white-bristled brush that came with it after each side (back to front).  After each record, I dip my stylus (straight down-straight up) into the Magic Eraser which removes any dust that the Denon brush will not.


But I don't think the Magic Eraser would remove any oil from my finger prints that originate from the edge of my records since it's a completely dry cleaner.  Do you think that's the case? Thanks.

madfloyd's picture

I've been using Magic Eraser exclusively now for a couple years.  I scrub the stylus with it (as opposed to simply dipping the stylus into it).  Once in a while I use Zerodust but since I do it by hand (raising the Zerodust up to the stylus) I don't too it too often for fear of a mishap.

I would like to know Michael's thoughts on Magic Eraser.   I have never used a liquid cleaner, sounds like I should consider that.

deckeda's picture

... that the Magic Eraser is a hook/loop surface and that even just dipping the stylus onto it (such as you would the ZeroDust) effects the hooks onto the stylus. Be careful actually brushing the stylus with it.

BarakaPDub's picture

Mr. Fremer,

First of all thanks for the great article.  I have always been concerned about stylus wear and doing damage to some of my precious LPs.  I am curious though, does your number account for pure 33 1/3 RPM play or a mix of both 45 and 33 1/3 RPM?   I am assuming if the decay of the stylus is somewhat linear and I am playing more of those beautifully pressed 45 RPM records from Chad Kassem's AP and ORG, that it may be good to replace or check my stylus at 740 hours.

While I have never used it, I am curious to get your opinion on the Gruv Glide product.  Would this help to preserve some of the stylus and LP life or does this just and to all of the gunk that is picked up by the stylus?   I am always a little but suspect of some products that are out on the market. 


detroitvinylrob's picture

The use of a USB microscope for the pursuit of chasing SRA alignment has been tedious but rewarding, what I never suspected was how nasty I would find my stylus. Here is an after cleaning shot with the before looking very similar to the one covered in your fine article Mikey. It took some doing, and I would not recommend what I did to finally get the top of the cantilever to not look like a garden for growing vegetation, needless to say, a HUGE difference in performance, simply stunning. I really kind of like the old school Disc Washer, wood handled, with concave mirror, horse hair (I think) brush from the 70's. Well, a happy stylus, is a clean stylus!!! Happy Listener! ;^)>

Norfolkbarry's picture

Very nice image quality! Would you please share which brand of USB microscope you used to take this image?

detroitvinylrob's picture

Sorry for taking so long to spot your inquiry, it is a DinoLite AM3013 with the clear guard ring removed and some auxiliary white LED lighting from the front of the tonearm and cartridge. There is a folded white business card as a back drop (camera opposite)  to reflect additional diffused light and placed on a set-up tracking gauge (first surface mirror, a CD would do fine). Focused at about 145x with the front edge of the USB camera body up tight to the headshell. It took some patience to stage the shot. Thanks Wally and Mikey for all the insight!

Steelhead's picture

First Mikey is the "Man" on analog.  No problems stating that as I believe him to be totally honest and a straight shooter.

However, I disagree on Stylast.  I find it to be a fantastic product and have used it for over 30 years on Shures, Orts, and Fidelity Research cartridges.  Never an issue with any of the above and I believe it works as stated.  

Have had numerous re-tips (both Van den Hul and Soundsmith - twice with both) and no issues ever came up other than replacement due to use and age.

Stylast is a fantastic product even if the "Man" does not use it.

Oksana's picture

Mine looks like the gunk caused from heat. I've tried the small round stylus brush with some Disc Doctor and an Onzow. How do I get this stuff off? By the way, how do I attach an image?