Sound is always subjective and often thrives on memories.
Often, people perceive the sound from old or budget-friendly turntable needles as ‘fresher’ or ‘brighter.’ But what is the reason for this?
Even when an older needle, due to wear and tear, exhibits distortions in high tones on the vinyl record, people often don’t regard these distortions as bothersome sound flaws. Instead, they experience them as an enhancement of brightness and brilliance in the music. This phenomenon is closely linked to human perception of timbre, or tonal color.
Moreover, the ‘familiar sound profile’ often embodies a certain ideal that listeners might seek to improve without altering the fundamental ideal. It’s important to understand, however, that any improvement inevitably entails a change. In this context, it’s crucial to break free from old listening habits and preconceptions and evaluate sound impartially to appreciate new tonal characteristics. A useful step in this transition is often listening to new and previously unheard vinyl records to gain a broader perspective.
The Role of Frequencies
It’s fascinating to note that our ears exhibit particular sensitivity to high frequencies, even as hearing ability in the higher frequency range tends to decline with age. When the needle generates distortions in higher frequencies, our hearing often reacts by accentuating that part of the sound spectrum. This reaction can lead to a perception where high notes are emphasized, making the sound seem brighter or more brilliant.
High-quality and nearly optimally tracking stylus shapes such as Shibata or SAS, therefore, do not sound brighter but cleaner and more detailed. At first glance, they may appear more restrained in the upper frequency range, which, however, is sonically more advantageous and also technically correct.
The Time Factor
New needles, especially those with elliptically ground diamond tips or spherical tips made from synthetic diamonds, often undergo a process of ‘polishing’ or ‘breaking in.’ This is necessary because the diamond tip may not be perfectly rounded at the beginning or may exhibit slight manufacturing roughness.
During the initial operational hours on the vinyl record, there is a gradual removal of material from the needle’s tip. This results in the diamond tip gradually becoming smoother and more precise over time, enabling better tracking of the grooves.
The Importance of the Damper
In addition, the rubber part in the turntable needle, often referred to as the damper or suspension, plays a crucial role. Initially, this rubber part may be stiffer, and the bore for the cantilever may not be precisely 100%. This can lead to a slight misalignment of the cantilever and result in channel imbalance during tracking.
Over time, especially during the break-in period, the rubber adapts to the vibrations, movements, and direction of pull. This makes the needle’s movement smoother, leading to more precise tracking of the grooves.
The Overall Combination
The combination of these factors, including the ‘polishing’ of the diamond tip and the adjustment of the rubber, significantly contributes to the improvement of sound quality and performance of a turntable needle. The precise duration of the break-in period may vary depending on the needle model, but typically, a period of 10 to 20 hours is recommended to ensure the needle achieves its optimal performance.
For further information and in-depth reading, I recommend the following sources:
- M. Richards, ‘The Audio Expert: Everything You Need to Know About Audio,’ Focal Press, 2012.
- D. E. Hall, ‘Musical Acoustics: An Introduction,’ Wadsworth Publishing, 2010.
- J. Eargle, ‘The Microphone Book: From Mono to Stereo to Surround – A Guide to Microphone Design and Application,’ Focal Press, 2012.
In conclusion, our ability to experience and evaluate sound is highly intricate and shaped by individual preferences and listening habits. Therefore, it’s possible that distortions, which may not be ideal from a technical perspective, are subjectively perceived as positive or pleasant because they lend a certain characteristic to the sound. Allow yourself and your new needle time, and explore new, previously unheard vinyl recordings.