Help me love my decks
July 14, 2009 10:40 AM   Subscribe

Audiophile/DJ question - Will I be able to hear the difference between a generic Stanton AL500II copy stylus in my existing cartridge, an Ortofon Concord S Pro or Blue stylus/cartridge or a GRADO DJ200i? 0.18, 0.26 or 0.7mm (on the AT 544-7, which is probably not what I need) needles?

I have a pair of Technics 1210s with Stanton AL500II's on them. The cartridges are about 15 years old and I have never bought new needles for them. The decks have not been getting a lot of use! One of them has always had a bit of a buzz, which may be related to the headshell, grounding of the deck or otherwise. AL500II's are discontinued, but there are plenty of grey market substitute styluses.

Now I have the money and the inclination to pull out the old tunes, I want to buy them new styluses and (possibly) cartridges. I am hearing good things about the Ortofon range, although I am not interested in having an output of more than 5mV from the cartridge. I am also hearing good things about GRADO, although they do have a price tag to go with the reputation which probably prices them out of my league.

The GRADOs have elliptical shaped needles, whereas the others are all spherical. I will be (back) queueing records up and doing a little scratching, which damages the records more with a elliptical needle, according to folk lore.
posted by asok to Technology (4 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Since 500's are terrible, you will definitely notice a difference. I used those needles for about 10 years before switching to Shure M44s and the difference is huge.

However, backcueing is hard on records no matter what the stylus. Your best bet for alleviating this (if you really really care, some people don't) is to get needles that are "stickier" and can cue with less weight. I run my Shure's at 1.5g and they're fine and I could probably go down to 1g if I smoothed out my technique a bit, but since I had run my 500's at the heaviest possible setting (turning the weight around, etc.) for so long, I figure this is fine. I have a nicer deck in the front room with a fancy needle.

As for the buzz, try just removing the headshells and remounting them. Not the cartridges, mind you, just undo the collar and take them out and put them back in. I've had to give the headshells a knock to get the contacts line up more times than I can count. If that doesn't work, check the thin-wire leads between the headshell and cartridge. These can be replaced if they're worn or frayed. After that, buzzing commonly comes from the RCA cables, so if you notice a deck buzzing, give the wire a jiggle at each end (amp/receiver and deck) and see if there's any change in the buzz. 1200s (12x0s, I guess) are pretty simple, so once you get the lay of the land you should be able to figure out pretty quickly where things are going wrong. Oh, and if the RCA cables are the problem, take the deck to an actual repairperson unless you're comfortable soldering thick wires onto small circuit boards.
posted by rhizome at 11:35 AM on July 14, 2009

Elliptical styli vastly improve frequency response and phase accuracy, for better stereo effect and lower distortion. But because they concentrate vinyl contact on a much smaller area, you need to use them at much lower tracking forces (typically under 1.5 grams), and this means your tonearms must be low mass, and have accurate anti-skating force adjustment, and low bearing friction. Using a high quality elliptical cartridge in a lower quality tone arm, just mashes the stylus' compliance layer into the cartridge shell in short order, and you get a trashed stylus pretty quickly, even if you are trying to run at a low tracking force.

If you are going to be back queuing and scratching, stick with something rugged, reliable, and that uses round styli, like the Stanton 500.V3.
posted by paulsc at 12:23 PM on July 14, 2009

Not only are the 500s not that great, but I think a stylus that old is probably blunt and dirty and tearing up your records.

Ortofons track well, but I have heard that they can tear up records a bit. If you go the Ortofon route, I recommend getting the one that uses a normal headshell rather than the one that's a one-piece design, especially if you take the needles off / on frequently. Those ones always end up having problems with the contacts, and you have to replace the whole thing.

If you're doing back-cueing, I have heard that the Grados don't track well. I have an AT needle which is supposed to sound good and track better than the Grados, and even it doesn't track very well (forget the model number off the top of my head). If you're just trying to play records or record them, the Grados are probably top choice.

One last thing... remember to adjust the tonearm height properly for whatever cartridge you use. This is *very* important.
posted by PandaMcBoof at 12:33 PM on July 14, 2009

Thanks guys! Best answer awarded at random as they are all so good!

I was intrigued at the different stylus radius sizes. Allegedly, the 0.26mm needles were standard for mono records and the 0.18mm for stereo. 0.18mm needles 'cannot' be used for mono(?).

I was surprised that the new AT 544-7 had a 0.7mm needle, which goes against this trend, but I suppose this is just an issue of ruggedness for them. I assume a fatter needle is less likely to break and can take more weight. I am interested that they provide a good sound as they don't get into the groove (unlike Madonna) as far as a smaller radius needle surely must.

Some of my records have been pressed with bass grooves that will cause a normal hi-fi set-up deck to skip due to their amplitude. I have a nice AT cartridge on my hi-fi deck which I use for vinyl to computer recording. So fine tuning the weight, tracking/anti-skating on the 1210s may not be something I can spend too much time doing!
posted by asok at 3:38 AM on July 15, 2009

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