DJ Needles - The Essential Buyers Guide
What Are Needles?
In the DJ industry, the word 'needles' is often used to describe the needle itself, the head-shell, the cartridge and the stylus. All together these pieces join together and are attached to the end of the tone arm of a vinyl turntable. DJs are often required to take their own 'needles' when playing at gigs with turntables, so this guide is essential reading for all vinyl DJs.
All of these parts work together to read your records and are part of the mechanism that helps the turntable reproduce the sounds on the records.
If you want to learn how to DJ on digital and vinyl players CLICK HERE to check out our DJ courses page!
Click here to find out more about the Anatomy of the Turntable
Brief History of the Record Stylus
The invention of the stylus was was made in 1877 by Thomas Edison in Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta laboratories when he created his Phonograph, the first recording and playback device. The Phonograph device would use one needle to record the sounds by by etching its movements into a cylinder with tin foil called a ‘record’', then a second needle would be used for playback by tracing the groove causing a diaphragm to vibrate. The signal was very faint so to amplify this the diaphragm was attached to a horn, the same idea as putting your phone in a cup to make it seem louder. After a few of years of making improvements, along came the Gramophone, the refined version worked on by the team at Volta Laboratory. One of the biggest improvements was the use of wax instead of foil inside the recording cylinder increasing both the audio quality and durability dramatically. The flat disc format was introduced by inventor Emile Berliner in 1890, with a spiral groove running from the periphery to near the centre, coining the term gramophone for disc record players which is predominantly used in many languages. Emile went on to found The Gramophone Company Limited in London in 1897, the company that would go on to become His Masters Voice more popularly known as HMV. The flat disc format brought huge benefits to the manufacturing process as discs could be pressed for mass production while cylinders were unable to be duplicated with ease. Soon the technology become readily available with gramophones and phonographs then record players playing vinyl becoming common household items.
DJs often refer to vinyl records being superior in sound quality compared to digital formats, with many often talking about how 'warm' the sound is. It's difficult to compare analogue with digital formats but vinyl does generally have a great sound, and is still a DJ favourite to this day.
How Needles Work
A typical record player has a stylus similar to the one Edison used in his phonograph invention. The stylus is a very small and light weight tube of metal called the cantilever and a tiny crystal (diamond, ruby or sapphire) mounted at the end. The crystal sits in the grooves in the record and as the record rotates the crystal bounces around through the bumps in the groove causing the metal bar to vibrate and reproduce the sound.
The stylus is fitted to the cartridge which contains electrical coils and magnets, the tiny vibrations cause the metal bar to bounce and move the magnet up and down against the coils translating the vibrations into electrical energy. The electrical signal then travels down the cables through the tone arm and into the turntable, then out through the RCA connections and in to your amplifier or DJ mixer.
This video was made by the guy who made the super famous gif of a needle moving in the groove of a record while it’s playing. He goes into a lot of information about how he captured the image but also drops some interesting knowledge on how needles work!
For more information about how vinyl works click here.
Phono Cartridge The phono cartridge is the part that contains the coils and/or magnets that the stylus connects to. This is the part that does the job of transferring the vibrations into electrical signal. There are two main types of phono cartridge: moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC). Every DJ cartridge we mention in this blog is a moving magnet type design.
Not all styli can be used for DJing! The three main basic types are spherical (conical), biradial (elliptical) and hyper-elliptical (line contact, MicroLine, Shibata). Conical and Elliptical are both types that can be used by DJs as the design means you can move the record both forwards and backward to cue up your track, a technique used by DJs known as back-cueing to get your record started in time with the playing track.
Conical or Spherical stylus tips are the simplest and most common type of stylus. They are very durable, can withstand high tracking forces as well as heavy amounts of back-cueing and scratching, as well as being cheap and easy to produce making them ideal for DJs and turntablists alike. The majority of needles branded for DJs will use a conical tips.
Biradial or elliptical tips can also be used for back cueing and scratching, they are designed to offer higher fidelity with the longer side of the needle covering more surface area in the groove resulting in more detail being extracted. These are a lesson common stylus type for DJs as they are more expensive to manufacture, but some DJs who are more about providing top audio quality over turntable tricks and scratching will use these.
Hyper-elliptical type styli are a much more sophisticated design providing huge sonic benefits and lower contact pressure resulting in lower noise and less wear and tear to the needle and your records. Due to the complex shapes of these needles they are much trickier to produce making them a lot more expensive. They are also less durable and shouldn’t be used for back cuing. These types will mainly be found on high end HiFi systems.
Some cartridges such as the Shure M44-7 need to be mounted on a tone arm head shell. Others like the Ortofon Concorde’s are fitted with the SME connection to attach directly to the tone arm.
Different DJ Needle Brands
For decades the industry standard cartridge for DJs was the infamous Shure M44-7. Known for their impressive tracking, durability and decent sound quality the M44-7 cartridge and N44-7 stylus, Shure have built a reputation within the industry for providing the best product on the market for DJs to work with. The N44-7’s are a conical shaped stylus offering great sound quality with plenty of durability and good performance under heavier tracking weights making them ideal for DJs. Many DJs would also the M44-G and WHLP/ Whitelabel series.
In May 2018, Shure caused pandemonium in the industry upon them announcing that they would be ceasing production of their cartridges and needles. DJs rushing to buy remaining stock from their local shops and online stores. Quickly the N44-7 stylus (just the replacement tip with the needle) was sold out in stores resulting in eBay listings rocketing to prices of £150 and up for just one stylus which would have previously cost just £25-£30.
It didn’t take long for other companies to realise there was a gap in the market and jump on the opportunity by producing a third party replacement stylus to go with the sure cartridges. Before Shure ceased production there were already a number of replica needles available on the market, but the vast majority of these were nasty knock offs made from super cheap components that would ruin the sound of your cartridges and potentially be damaging to your records. Since then far more serious products have arrived on the market.
The most renowned third party producers of stylus to fit Shure cartridges are Jico, an independent Japanese company who’s products are all hand assembled in their factory. These guys have been producing needles for audio since 1949, they manufacture over 2000 different models of styli and are internationally renowned in the hifi world for their superb quality and excellent fidelity, so you can trust that they know what they are doing!
The next go to brand for replacement stylus alongside Shure or Jico are Tonar, these guys are a German company who have been producing and distributing audio parts since the mid 1950’s. Their replacement stylus for the M44 series is apparently Jico manufactured then branded as Tonar for distribution. Most online reviewers who have had the chance to compare two have said that they hear no difference between the two. Click here to buy the Tonar N447 from Juno Records.
Click here to buy the Tonar N447 from Juno Records.
As mentioned above in reference to their replacement stylus for the M44-7 cartridge, Tonar also supply a variety of equipment for turntables from tone arms to vinyl record cleaners! The popular cartridges from Tonar are the Tonar Banana Disco cartridges, these are the Tonar equivalent to the Ortofon Concordes. They are also very robust needles with that will withstand the wear and tear of DJing featuring a Conical diamond.
Ortofon also have a long history of audio equipment production having been the company to pioneer the use of moving coil technology in phonograph equipment.
Their Concorde design cartridges are the second most popular cartridge and stylus for DJs to use. They have super a sleek design and make use of eye catching colours to tell apart the different editions within their series which show up well in night clubs. They are Conical tipped making them very robust and ideal for scratching and back-cueing. DJs make up for more than 75% of the customer base for Ortofon styli with the other 25% going to hifi and consumer audio use which has lead to them becoming quite a specialist company focusing on the DJ side of their products. Ortofon are a great company who make it easy to find information about their products on their website including the correct tracking weight that should be applied. They are a relatively inexpensive option starting from around £135 for a pair and replacement needles costing around £25. We recommend going for the DJ edition pair which are a big step up in sound quality from their basic Concorde stylus.
Click here to buy the Ortofon Concorde MK2
Click here to view Ortofon's full range of DJ needles.
World renowned for their audiophile and hi-fi grade products, Audio Technica are another legendary manufacturer with a long history in producing high quality cartridges and styli, alongside producing other professional and consumer grade audio products from headphones and microphones to turntables for use with hifi and ones specially designed for DJs. Their cartridges such as the AT-VM95E and AT-XP7 are tailored to be used by DJs both utilising the elliptical tipped type of stylus. DJs who choose Audio Technica cartridges and styli do so because they prefer the quality of sound.
Maintaining your DJ Needles
Over time, your stylus will wear from use and will need replacing. DJs wear heavy on their needles as techniques such as back-cueing and scratching wear the stylus down faster in comparison to them just being used when for playing records at home. Most DJs will be working quickly to get their next record set up and in time. When you’re in a rush you often make mistakes like knocking the tone arm and not putting records away correctly, they are also likely to have a few scratches in their records and some beaten up old ones that get played. Worn or damaged stylus will loose definition, cause distortion and damage your records, and playing damaged records also damages your stylus, so it’s important to look after them well and regularly purchase replacements. Most manufacturers will offer advice on the lifetime of your needles, this is normally measured by the amount of playtime in hours, this is normally targeted towards hifi users not taking into consideration the ware that comes with DJing.
If you’re unsure of how long you have been using your needles for or what their expected lifespan is there are a few things you can look out for that would indicate you need to replace the stylus.
- The first would be look out for a dip in sound quality. The best way to test this is to put on a record you are very familiar with the sound of and see if you notice a change. Listen out carefully to the high frequencies and pay attention for any sound of distortion or hiss. The change in sound from a damaged needle would result in the playback being muffled or distorted and lacking information in the high end.
- If the needle isn’t tracking properly skipping and jumping over the grooves. Check that there are no obvious marks on your record that could be causing a problem. If it is a damaged stylus then stop using it immediately and get a replacement as this will definitely damage your records.
- If you have a decent magnifying glass or a zooming camera lens you can take a look to see if there is any damage to the tip of the stylus.
Advice from the Audio Technica website:
Every cartridge diamond stylus becomes worn after a period of play. Around 500 hours for a conical stylus, 300 hours for an Elliptical stylus, 1000 hours for a Microlinear stylus, and 800 hours for a Shibata stylus.
Ortofon advise that:
Concerning DJ systems used for "scratching" and "back cuing", we have experienced stylus lifetime to be substantially less because of their unique application. As a consequence DJ`s will have to consider about 500 hours at the most.
A video showing the wear of a record after 50 plays:
Cleaning your Stylus
Your stylus will pick up bits of dirt and dust from your records, some of which can cling to the tip and affect the quality of the sound and cause a small amount of damage to your records. You can clean the tip of your stylus using a small anti static brush such as this one from Ortofon. You should always use a brush to clean your stylus by moving in a forward direction from the cartridge towards the tip of the stylus and never in the other direction or from side to side.
Click here for the Ortofon Stylus Brush
You can also find a variety of stylus cleaning solutions available on the market. There are a lot of opinions for and against using alcohol based solutions or even just deionised water for cleaning your stylus with no definitive evidence, some people speculate that the use of solutions can weaken the glue used to place the diamond on the tip of the cantilever on the stylus. On this subject the Ortofon website quotes that ‘Ortofon does not recommend the use of solvents of any kind for cleaning of either the record surface or stylus.’
Ortofon tips come with stylus protection guards in the packaging when you purchase both the full set or just the replacement stylus, you can also order spares from their website.
Click here for the Ortofon Stylus Guard
The best way to clean your stylus by removing the use of any solutions and minimising the risk of damage from any motion is the innovative Zero Dust Stylus Cleaner from Onzow. This Japanese designed cleaner consists of a space-age polymer bubble allows you to simply lower your stylus onto its surface, then quickly lift the arm lever leaving any dirt behind stuck to the bubble. These aren’t cheap at around £40, but they will last forever and protect your kit! You can clean them off with a quick rinse under the tap and they’re good as new.
Click here for the Onzow Zero Dust Stylus Cleaner
There are a few things you can put into practice to make sure you get a long life out of your equipment and avoid damaging your needles and records.
- Never use household cleaning products or strong isopropyl alcohol to clean your stylus! You should also avoid using your fingers, cotton buds or tissue paper to remove dirt. Your fingers can actually make things worse by adding oils to the crystal making it easier for dirt to stick, so although it’s tempting you should try to use a correct cleaning device at all times.
- Clean your records before and after playing them using a fibre brush for record cleaning.
- Clean your stylus's before and after playing records.
- Set your tone arm up correctly using the proper tracking force and anti-skate settings. To make sure you are setting your tone arm up correctly check out our other blog post that goes into this in detail.
When purchasing your first set or upgrading your head-shells you should consider which ones will be the best suited to your style as a DJ. If your main reason to play records is the sound and you’re all about the quality of your audio you should go for a set that offers a higher audio fidelity, the compromise you often make is that the stylus will be less robust. For DJs who align with this I suggest the Audio Technica VM95E or the pricier but worth the pennies Audio Technica ATXP7.
Turntablists and scratch style DJs should go for the more robust stylus. Ortofon tend to be the most popular choice at the moment, they even have specialist scratch edition cartridges in their range designed specifically for turntablists to withstand heavy use and still offer good quality audio.
If you’re a scratch DJ or more of an all-round DJ I suggest the Ortofon Concorde MkII DJ or Concorde MkII Scratch.
If you’re starting out I recommend buying a set-up that you can purchase cheap (£25-£35 for a replacement styli) as you are likely to damage or break them when your practising and getting used to mixing. At the same time, you don’t want to go for the cheapest ones available as they won’t sound good at all, will be far less durable and more likely to damage your records!
Learn How to Mix on Vinyl (properly)
If you would like to learn how to mix on vinyl properly, beat-matching by ear get in touch! Our 1-2-1 DJ courses are perfect to teach you the fine art of DJing on turntables! You don't need your own records or turntables to enrol, simply use the decks in the studio! We also have turntables for hire in our DJ practice rooms. Click here for more information about our 1-2-1 DJ courses.