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How Clean is Your Stylus (part-1)

Galibier Design - Stylus PhotoAll too many stylus cleaning solutions do either nothing, or worse yet run the risk of damaging your cantilever assembly.

There’s a cleaning technique that’s been in use for nearly a decade (having a good track record), but I still find very few audiophiles using it.

Galibier Design - Stylus PhotoPeople underestimate the efficacy of regular cleaning (after every record side) with the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser.  Hopefully, these photos will serve to convince you. 

They were taken of a Dynavector XV-1s cartridge with well over 1,000 hours’ use.  This cartridge has never suffered the indignity of stylus cleaning fluid.  I think these photos speak for themselves.

The key is to clean after every record side you play.  It takes but two seconds. 

Every liquid cleaner I’ve used has produced a buildup of gunk on the cantilever, and if you’re not careful, it can migrate into the damper assembly.

Those gummy/sticky pads that are sold by many vendors serve only to remove dust.  The best that can be said about them is that used properly, they’ll do no harm to your stylus and they won’t gum up your cantilever and damper assembly. 

The Magic Eraser’s small microfiber structure actually scrubs off the baked-on liquefied vinyl that forms over time, and with regular cleaning, your stylus will remain as clear as the day you first installed it.

There are enough posts on various forums regarding techniques and such, so I won’t repeat that here (click this link for Doug Deacon’s write-up).  A couple of points of emphasis however …

  • Get the white Magic Eraser (there’s no soap in this version).
  • Cut a 1” x 1” square, about 1/8” thick.  A single edged razor works well for this purpose, and one Magic Eraser will last you a lifetime. 
  • Be gentle when cleaning (see next point).
  • Clean with your preamp un-muted so you get audible feedback if you’re not being gentle enough.  I find all too many audiophiles to take an ostrich, “head in sand” approach by muting their preamp.  Their logic is: “if I can’t hear it, I can’t be doing any damage”.

Reports of Detached Styli

I’ve heard reports of detached styli, but nothing to indicate it wasn’t a QC issue with either a particular brand (back in the latter part of the previous decade) or with a particular sample – nothing that anyone has proven to me that can be attributed to use of the Magic Eraser. 

Of course, damage is possible, but my take is that this is a problem with your manufacturer and they should make good on it.  Don’t blame the messenger for a manufacturing problem.

I’m working from an awareness of being able to hear distortion with a stylus that hasn’t been cleaned in a few record sides of play.  From this perspective, a dirty stylus has reduced the performance of your $5,000 wonder cartridge to that of a $1,000 one.

If you’re not cleaning your stylus for fear of damaging it, you should reduce your investment and purchase a more modest performer.  In the ski world, some of the best runs are in high, rocky places where skis frequently experience rock damage.  We have a saying:  “they’re tools – not jewels”.

I’m in no way arguing for abusing your cartridge, but rather in favor of recognizing that it’s a tool requiring care to keep it in optimum condition so that it can do its job.  If you don’t maintain it, you’re wasting your hard-earned money.

Reviving Old Cantilevers/Styli

On various forums, you’ll find instructions for cutting small, thin strips to form the equivalent of a sable hair brush.  Cut a thin wedge and “crazy glue” it to a toothpick (thick side of the wedge glued to the toothpick).  This “brush” should have the flexibility of a sable hair paint brush to ensure that you don’t overstress the suspension when cleaning.

You can use this “brush” to revive a cartridge that has suffered from stylus cleaning solutions.  You can’t reverse any possible damage to the damper assembly (from stylus cleaning fluid migration), but with careful persistence, you can restore the surface of the stylus and cantilever to near original state. 

An operation like this takes time, so it’s advisable to work with an unmounted cartridge on a tabletop with good lighting.  Some magnification also helps.