Maintaining Your Phono Cartridge
Assuming that you've been successful in setting up your cartridge and turntable, your primary concern (besides listening) is to make sure that everything functions smoothly. In the case of the phono pick-up, there are only one or two points to keep in mind. First, from time to time you'll need to clean the stylus (the diamond tip that non-audiophiles call a "needle"). But please!... Avoid electronic stylus cleaners! Those
battery-powered gadgets which have a small vibrating pad can literally disconnect the minute wires that join the cantilever to the inner works!
While I used to recommend liquid cleaners, such as LAST #4 Stylus Cleaner, now I feel that's main use is for a one-time cleaning of a used cartridge whose stylus assembly may be covered with dust and grime. Remember to only draw the applicator brush towards you from back to front. After that, the regular use of a dip-and-clean gel or pad (below) is preferred.
An alternative to liquid cleaners which I've found to be very effective, is the gel based pad. Basically, you lower the stylus onto the pad, which is just sticky enough to pick-off any dirt without leaving a deposit on your stylus. Music Direct sells the Extreme Phono Solid State Stylus Cleaner for $29.99, which Acoustic Sounds sells the similar Zerodust for $69.00. Aside from $40, there doesn't seems to be any practical difference.
Still too rich for your wallet? Believe it or not, for about $4.00 the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser works wonders. It's what I use just before every play of every record in my personal collection. However, you must follow the instructions to the letter! Failure to do so can result in the stylus being ripped from the cantilever.
The second area of concern is degaussing or demagnetizing your moving coil cartridge. Moving magnets, including all Grado units, can be destroyed by this procedure. If you use a Grado, Shure, Stanton, Pickering, Goldring, Clearaudio Aurum or other moving magnet phono cartridge, skip the following section. But if you have a moving coil, you should be aware that a magnetic field may build up in the armature which can cast a veil over the sound over a period of time. On this subject, a correspondent was good enough to pass on the following post from the rec.audio.high-end newsgroup:
"I have posted this sort of thing before but the topic keeps coming up: The idea of the demagnetizers is to demagnetize the iron core armature that SOME moving coils are wound on. NB many are not wound on magnetic material and there is nothing to demagnetize. Find out from the manufacturer if it could be of benefit for the cartridge you have. Some Hi-Fi types like to
extrapolate beyond the data points and will tell you need one regardless. I have an Ortofon MC2000II and used to have an Ortofon MC3000. I wrote to Ortofon who said that the armature I had was wound on a carbon fibre material and there was nothing to get magnetized and to not bother with such gadgets. However they said other brands could be different. In particular high output moving coils are more likely to use magnetizable armature materials to get more output from the coil. The gadget applies a decaying AC current into the coil to demagnetize the core and work in an analogous fashion to tape head demagnetizers. This is achieved by passing a decaying AC signal in through the coil. In principle (I've heard) you could get the same result playing a very loud deep note which decays slowly to silence on a record but I am not sure about this. I'm told that MM cartridges can also benefit as the coils are often wound on magnetizable cores. However you should remove the stylus first to prevent the relatively delicate MM magnets from being damaged. This is not a problem with the more robust MC magnets. The iron core of a coil is analogous to the core of an inductor in a speaker crossover. It is there to get more inductance from a physically smaller coil. It has the potential problem however of not being a constant inductance if the current through the coil is sufficient to saturate the core. For this reason many quality crossovers use air core inductors. I have no idea whether core saturation is a problem in cartridges or a source of non-linearity but it may account for the preference for low output moving coils in spite of the obvious disadvantages."
In addition, well regarded cartridge designer and manufacturer A. J. Van den Hul considers demagnetization a futile effort for any cartridge. Read what he has to say on the subject and decide for yourself.
Should you feel the need to make a purchase, there are several components dedicated to this issue. The original is the Sumiko Fluxbuster. No longer manufactured, pre-owned ones may be found for $100-$150. In current production, however, is the Aesthetix Cartridge Demagnetizer which has a suggested retail price of $199. Available from Music Direct. By the way, the Cardas Sweep LP (also carried by Music Direct) claims to perform the same function for more affordable $15.99.
How often should you demagnetize? Again, at the beginning of every listening session is an easy habit, but others recommend doing it after every few sides or sometimes once every 40 hours or so. The truth is, you'll have to experiment. As noted above, some cartridges seem to be more sensitive to this phenomenon and, if you read Van den Hul on the subject, once you start the habit, it's one that you may have to perform with increasing regularity..