Prepared by Nathan Davis

This article first appeared in the Discographer Magazine – June 2015 (pp.6-11) – Copyrighted. (No reproduction permitted)

This short article provides an overview of styli types and sizes and a list of possible 78rpm styli types/sizes for use in the reproduction of 78rpm records.

The selection and use of the ‘correct’ stylus for the playback of a 78rpm is as important a consideration as is the correct playback speed. And since 78rpm recordings can require different shaped and sized styli across the same label or make, it’s any wonder that many novices and professionals find it difficult to select the correct styli to use for reproduction.

The Differences:

The main reason for using different styli in the reproduction of 78rpms is the lack of groove standardization during the early part of the 78rpm era. Standardization of groove width and playback speed varied greatly over the period of the 78rpm. Each recording innovation brought with it changes in the way records were manufactured, recorded and the way they were meant to be reproduced.

Typical groove widths on 78’s prior to the 1940’s range anywhere from 2.5mil to 4mil. There is an even wider variation with 78rpm recordings dating from the 1920’s and earlier.

The two most common types of 78rpm styli still commercially available is the conical, (with a spherical tip) and elliptical. There are other types of styli but this short article with deal with only these two common types.

The differences between the two relate to their shape and the area of contact in a record groove.

As a general rule, the elliptical stylus allows for more groove contact area which increases fidelity, whereas the conical/spherical styli makes less contact with the grove and generates less fidelity. [1]

The width of a stylus has to be precise in order to fit the groove of a recording, but how and where that stylus contacts the actual groove wall is where the fun begins. The “spherical” or “conical” stylus refers to the shape of the stylus head – for example, in the shape of a cone. This type of stylus is usually perfectly round on all sides so that it reaches into the record groove.

The other form of stylus is known as “elliptical”. It is shaped so that the part that touches the groove wall is narrower than the width, and hence can travers more of the groove area. What that does is to provide a smaller contact area that can then trace the variations in the groove wall (the recorded music information) much more accurately, at all frequencies, and therefore, fits itself into smaller and smaller variations of the groove wall (which gets smaller as the frequency goes higher), and thus extending the high frequency response.

The drawback to this is that the force exerted on the record is now focused on a smaller area, which can create more wear on the record as it is played.

The sound quality of the elliptical is often considered better, but depending on the quality of your playback equipment, a listener may not hear much difference between either of the two types. [2]

For shellac 78s, conical is generally preferred over elliptical.

The conical roundness rides above the grit/dirt/dust of a groove, whereas an elliptical stylus will engage the grit and other imperfections because of its slightly reduced surface contact area. In certain critical circumstances, particularly when playing very clean copies, an elliptical stylus will give a little better definition of the higher frequencies, but they can be quite unforgiving on scratched or worn records. Elliptical styli is sometimes preferred for vinyl and microgrove reproduction. [3]

Different technical sources will suggest different size styli for different 78rpm record makes, so to make the process of selection easier, we’ve compiled a table of styli sizes and shapes below that work best with the most common 78rpm makes and recording characteristics. The table is compiled based on feedback from collectors and professionals and is a guide only.

Naturally, experimentation and personal preference is the best judge here, and exercising caution when reproducing any type of 78rpm record on a ‘modern’ turntable is required, whether a recording is in ‘mint’ condition or badly damaged.

Therefore, proper reproduction of 78rpm records is dependent on the following factors:

  • Record label
  • Record format
  • Record composition
  • Record groove dimension
  • Record production date
  • Record condition

Regardless of any suggestion noted here, playback of worn or badly worn 78s require particular attention to the shape and size of a stylus used. Your ears are often the best judge when it comes to it ‘sounding right’! (Our list below, should be seen in this context…)

An internet search offers copious advice on correct size/shape of styli for 78rpm playback, but much of it is misleading, conflicting or downright incorrect, so it’s best to rely on experts in the field or from the general collecting fraternity who’ve tried and tested styli for best results. Our table below is based on their findings.

Modern 78rpm Styli: [4]

“…Most phonographs that are used today will have a Sapphire or Diamond tip styli. Both of these are comparable in sound reproduction. The differences follow…
A stylus with sapphire tip will generally last for 75-100 hours of play depending on the operator and record condition. A diamond stylus will last ten times longer than the sapphire needle but is more expensive.
The most popular and affordable replacement today will have a sapphire tip for 78 playback. Now the other important factor to consider when purchasing a new needle is the tip radius size. The needle tip size is cut by the maker according to the playing speed of the record that it will play. Most widely used is 2.5 and 3 mil for 78rpm records…”

Record Grooves:

In order to retrieve the best output from a 78rpm record groove, separate signals from each side of the groove for optimum monophonic signal, need a good fitting styli as it traverses the noise signal. A groove can be fitted or misfitted with a correct or incorrect stylus.

A Starting Point for Beginners:

A typical good starter, generic styli is a sapphire, 3mm stylus, but watch how many sides you play as the stylus does not last as long as a diamond one. Nauck, (of Nauck’s 78rpm Auctions – www.78rpm.com) agrees.. [5]

“…grooves vary in size and shape depending on the period of manufacture, type of record and label. So in order to get the very best sound from a record, the size and shape of the stylus should match the groove. Though most collectors will make do with … a generic 78 stylus, persons involved in broadcasting, archiving and transferring should have a range of styli to choose from.

Not only is groove configuration important, the degree and location of wear in the record groove will often cause one stylus to reproduce better than another. Generally speaking, a lateral recording with little or no wear will sound best when played with a Truncated Elliptical stylus, while vertical or well-played lateral records often sound better with a Truncated Conical stylus. And better results are often obtained with worn records when slightly larger styli sizes are used.” [6]

Being Adventurous:

As you train your ears, you begin to notice that some styli reproduce 78s better than others on the same record. This is the time to invest in a variety of styli of different sizes and shapes.

“…For those with larger budgets, a greater range of styli will be an advantage although the differences in many cases will not be great. For example, quite a few early G&Ts and some Fonotipia’s do best with much smaller styli such as .0018″ or .0021″. A number of Odeon’s from the early electrical era will give a lower surface noise with a .0030″ as compared with a .0028” [7]

Record Make

Date of Manufacture

Recommended Styli Size

Recommended Styli Shape

HMV’s / Victors

1905 – 1940

.0032mil

Conical

Victor (Vinyl – Red Seal 78rpms) + New repressings of 78rpms (e.g. Historic Masters)

Mid 1940 – 1950

2.5 – 2.7 mil 1

Conical

Columbia, Parlophone and Odeon

1905 – 1940

.0028mil

Conical

Pre-Revolutionary Russian HMV’s

.0028mil

Conical

Early G&T’s / Some Fonotipia’s

.0018” or .0021

Conical

Early electrical Odeon’s

1925 – 1930

3.0mil

Conical

Late “Augmented “Long Play/Extended” 78rpms (e.g. Radiola)

1950’s

1.5mil

Conical

Edison Diamond Discs

1920’s

3.0 – 3.5mil 2 3

Elliptical

Pathe

2.8.mil

Conical

Most 16” Transcriptions (Lateral)

1930’s – 1950’s

3.5mil

Elliptical

Transcriptions (Vertical cut)

All periods

2.5mil

Conical 4

Most Acoustic 78rpms

1900 – 1925

3.0mil 5

Elliptical

Most Late 78rpms

1940’s – end of format

2.5mil

Conical 6

Cylinders

1890’s – 1920’s

3.75mil

Lacquer / Home recorded discs

1940’s – end of format

1.5mil

Conical 7

Most ‘Flexi’ (78rpm) Discs

Various

1.8mil

Conical

Early aluminum / acetate transcriptions

Mostly all

1.8mil

Conical

Gennett’s (Acoustic)

Mostly all

1.8-2.0mil

Conical

OKeh’s / Truetone’s / Victor’s / English Columbia’s + Paramount’s

Pre 1925

2.4-2.5mil

Conical

Electric OKeh’s / Paramount’s / Richmond’s / Brunswick’s / US Decca’s / Parlophone / Black Swan / Cameo

Post 1925

2.8mil

Conical

Brunswick / Vocalion / English Columbia, HMV, Parlophone’s / some early US Columbia electrics, also some later Columbia electrics where the master has been heavily polished or high numbered stampers have been used Post 1925

3.2mil

Conical

Very early Victors (1901-06) / Acoustic Vocalion /Zonophone 1925-31 / Most QRS, Plaza group electrics / Most Electrobeam Gennett post-6400 issues

Various

3.5mil

Conical

Early electric Victors

1925-1926

4.0mil

Conical

TABLE NOTES:

  1. Be careful with Historic Master vinyls as release dates range from 1900-1950!
  2. Some sources suggest a range between 3.5 and 3.75 and 4.0mil
  3. The British National Sound Archive suggests a 3.0mil stylus (See ARSCLIST, Dec 2002)
  4. Some sources differ over the styli shape for vertical cut 78s.
  5. Some sources, (such as Nauck), suggest 2.5mil
  6. Most sources indicate a preference for conical (but the author’s preference is Elliptical)
  7. One source suggests conical varying in size anywhere from 4.0mil to 8.0mil (!)

Recommended Supplier of Styli and Cartridges:
Expert Stylus Co., PO Box 3, Ashtead, Surrey KT21 2QD, UK (Tel. +44 (0)1372 276604)

Notes:

  1. For a more detailed overview, see: http://www.rfwilmut.clara.net/repro78/stylus.html
  2. http://www.dbelectronics.com/phonoinfo.htm
  3. See http://www.vjm.biz/new_page_10.htm for additional information
  4. http://tinyurl.com/lxn7wsv
  5. Wilmut also agrees. “…a 3mil conical stylus … will play older records quite well, although end-of-side distortion is quite apparent; but it doesn’t cope well with latter-day pop records, particularly since these are usually recorded at a very high level.”http://www.rfwilmut.clara.net/repro78/repro.html
  6. http://www.78rpm.com/rescat/tech_info.htm
  7. http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/history/p20_4_6.html




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