How To Tell if a Turntable Needle or Cartridge is Bad

You can tell that a turntable needle is bad if you see any damage on it, your records don’t sound as good as they should, or you hear scratching noises. A cartridge rarely goes bad unless it is physically damaged somehow.

I’m Donovan, a music lover for life and a turntable enthusiast. I spend most of my days working on or writing about music and have an extensive record collection that keeps growing. I know through first-hand experience how to tell if a needle or cartridge is bad.

This post will show you how to tell if a turntable needle or cartridge is bad. I’ll provide you with some common signs of a worn-out needle and explain why cartridges don’t really wear out. I want to ensure you have a great listening experience with your records. 

Let’s dig in. 

Key Takeaways

  • Turntable needles wear out or go bad much more frequently than cartridges. 
  • Signs of a bad needle include poor sound, visible damage on the needle tip, grooves in a record, and scratching noises. 
  • Replacing a needle is relatively easy, but some people prefer to replace the entire cartridge rather than just the stylus. 
  • If a cartridge is bad, it’s likely caused by physical damage, and you probably won’t hear any sound coming from the turntable. 
  • A bad needle or cartridge should be replaced immediately so you don’t cause damage to your records. 

How To Tell if a Turntable Stylus is Bad

The needle or stylus on your turntable (same thing, different words) is an integral element in creating great sound. When a needle goes bad, it can drastically alter the sound and even damage your records. 

That’s why you need to know when it’s time for a new needle. Luckily, this is pretty easy to do when you know what to look and listen for. I’ll walk you through all the major signs that a needle is bad here, so you can get a damaged one replaced immediately. 

How to Tell if Stylus is Bent

The first way to check if a needle is bad is to simply look at it. The stylus should be straight up and down for optimal playback. It should be as straight as a needle, at least on the section that touches the record. 

If you see that the needle is bent, even if it’s only slightly bent, it will need to be replaced. You can’t really repair a bent needle, so the best course of action is to get a new one. It won’t function properly even if it’s only slightly bent. 

You’ll need to look at the needle closely to see if there is a slight bend. You can even use a magnifying glass for a closer inspection. Usually, you can quickly tell if the needle is bent just by looking at it closely. 

Some needles have a natural bend, and that’s part of the design. But this will look apparent and have a noticeable angle that is manufactured. It’s pretty easy to spot a stylus that is bent in a way that it isn’t supposed to be. 

Look for Damage

In addition to being bent, other signs of visible damage will also indicate that it’s time for a new needle. If you see any bends, breaks, or things that look out of place on the needle, it’s likely damaged. 

Looking at the very tip of the needle is a good starting point. If you see a dull or dirty tip here, it’s likely time for a replacement. If it’s just a little bit of dust, you can clean it off. But you’ll need a new one if the tip is heavily worn down or rounded. 

And if you see any black build-up on the needle, stop playing records and replace the needle immediately. This is a sign that the stylus is digging into your records, and that’s very bad. A worn needle can permanently damage your records!

Listen for Damage

Sometimes, the needle will be bad, but you won’t be able to tell by looking at it. This means you need to keep your ears open for signs of damage. If your records don’t sound as good as they typically do, a bad needle might be the problem. 

There are a few ways to go about listening for a bad needle. The first is to listen for any loud scratches, static, or pops. These are also signs that the needle or record should be cleaned. But if those are clean and you still hear odd noises, you should replace the needle. 

A proper turntable setup should produce really nice audio quality with clearly defined EQ on both ends. If your records start to sound out of whack, like with a lot of treble or tinny, your needle is likely going bad. 

These sounds might initially be subtle when your needle isn’t that bad. But they will worsen over time, and you don’t want to let that happen. Replace the stylus at the first signs of wear, and you’ll be happy you did. 

How to Replace Turntable Needle

Replacing a turntable needle is pretty straightforward. That link will take you to an entire post I wrote about doing this, which you should check out when it’s time.

Basically, you need to remove the cartridge from your turntable, remove the old needle, and replace it with a new one. You want to ensure you use the right needle because they aren’t universal.

You’ll need to pull out the wires from the back of the cartridge, so be careful and use small pliers if needed. But again, check out my link above for a step-by-step guide to replacing a turntable needle.   

How To Tell if a Turntable Cartridge is Bad

It’s pretty rare that a turntable cartridge goes bad. Needles have a lifespan and can wear out, but cartridges should last as long as your turntable does. Unless you actually drop something on your cartridge, it won’t typically go bad under everyday use. 

But if you see visible signs of damage on your cartridge, like broken or twisted parts, you should probably replace it. The wiring connection at the back of the cartridge can also wear out, so take a look at that as well. 

Any visible signs of damage to your cartridge will be easy to spot. If anything looks out of place or broken, it likely is. However, if there is something wrong internally with your cartridge, you probably won’t be able to see it.

If your record player doesn’t work correctly and everything looks normal, it could be your cartridge. While it is possible to repair a cartridge, buying a new one is usually just as easy and affordable. 

Always make sure you purchase a cartridge that will work with your turntable. You can use the same cartridge that came with the turntable or upgrade to a new one if you want to. Just ensure it will fit on your tonearm before purchasing. 

Many people will replace the entire cartridge on their turntable when the needle is bad. This is an easy approach, but it’s not necessary in most cases. You can simply replace the needle rather than the entire cartridge. 


Here are a few quick answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how to tell if a turntable needle or cartridge is bad. 

Should I replace a turntable needle or cartridge? 

Most of the time, you only need to replace the needle on your turntable if it goes bad or is worn out. But usually, people replace the entire cartridge rather than just the needle. Cartridges don’t go bad as often, so they rarely need to be replaced. 

What does a damaged stylus sound like? 

In short, a damaged stylus sounds bad. If you notice any scratching or popping that doesn’t go away when you clean the needle or record, the stylus could be bad. Other signs of damage include poor audio quality, such as a tinny sound upon playback. 

Can a bad needle ruin a record? 

A bad needle on your turntable can indeed ruin a record. Bad needles can wear down the grooves in your record, which will alter the sound and can’t be fixed. You always want to replace a bad or worn-out needle immediately to avoid this. 

How do you test a turntable cartridge? 

To test a turntable cartridge, you’ll need an ohmmeter, which is a tool used by electricians. You can check the wires running to the cartridge to ensure they are working correctly. Cartridges don’t go bad often, but this is how you know if it’s working. 

What does a worn stylus look like? 

Simply looking at the stylus of your turntable can reveal if the stylus is bad or worn out. If the end of the needle looks dull or gunked up, it’s likely bad. Or if you notice any bends or breaks in the needle, it will need to be replaced before playing any more records. 

What is the lifespan of a turntable cartridge? 

A turntable cartridge is designed to last as long as the turntable, so you don’t really need to worry about its lifespan. However, the stylus inside of the cartridge typically lasts for 500 to 1000 hours before it needs to be replaced. 

Can a phono cartridge be repaired? 

While it is possible to repair a damaged phono cartridge, buying a new one is usually cheaper and more practical. Some vinyl repair shops will happily work on your damaged cartridge but will likely charge you as much to fix it as a brand-new one would cost. 

Final Thoughts

Looking at your needle for visible damage and listening to records are the best ways to tell if it’s gone bad. If you notice any signs of damage or the sound just isn’t right, it’s time for you to replace the needle so you can enjoy your records and not ruin them. 

Cartridges, on the other hand, don’t need to be replaced as frequently, if at all. Needles wear out under regular use, but cartridges should last the lifetime of your turntable unless they get physically damaged or broken. 

Have you ever replaced a worn needle or cartridge on your turntable? What went wrong? Let me know in the comments below.

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