Using Macro Photography to Check Stylus Wear

A Shure* Fire Method to Check Your Stylus.

Shure, the famous cartridge maker, has a tried and tested method for checking stylus wear. This approach is much better than the many methods suggested on the web, such as recording how many albums you have played, or changing every X years. It ideally requires a microscope and two strong lights. I have tried two methods.

  1. Expensive option – DSLR with extension tubes and close up lenses and a couple of studio lights
  2. Cheap option – USB Microscope (£10-20) and light provided by two led torches – I used my iPad and iPhone but any LED torches will do.

 

Shure’s method reads as follows…

“Look directly down on the stylus tip. Illuminate the stylus from each side.  As the stylus wears, flat spots are created. These flat spots will reflect light up into the eyepiece. A worn stylus will look like two cat eyes staring at you. See the PDF document attached below.”

This is the result – Technics 310MC with “Cat’s Eyes” visible – a worn stylus, no surprise it is 35 years old!

Technics 310MC-30

Technics 310MC taken with DSLR

The shape of these two highlights varies according to wear and type of stylus. Shure’s handy guide has pictures showing how to compare your stylus with new, worn and very worn styii.

Shure Guide To Stylus Wear

The size of these highlights will of course increase as wear increases. It is somewhat subjective to decide what size of highlight from the flat spots means that they have reached a point where the record is being damaged! I decided to compare new somewhat used and worn styli.

Here are pictures of a very worn Technics 310MC and a Dynavector 10×5 High Output moving coil. Both are taken at the strongest magnification possible and focused  as best as possible on the light spots. Note that the 10×5 has a considerably thicker cantilever than the extraordinary boron tube Technics.

Technicsand Dynavector

Note the distance between the highlights is about the same (as you’d expect as that is determined by the record groove width) but the highlights on the Technics stylus are much larger than the Dynavector, which has seen little use

 

Setup 1 – DSLR, Extension tubes, Macro Lens and Closeup Filters.

The stylus is fixed via it’s screw hole with a cable tie to a stapler – Heavy, stable, and angled, idea for what I needed. Two strong lights are placed at either side. Two LED torches would suffice. In this case I have used studio lights with a grid. Ideally these would be identical, but I had a snoop and a larger grid, so that is what I used see below. The briefcase was used to give bring the stylus up to above the minimum height of the studio lights.

Stylus shoot setup-30

The camera, a full frame Canon 5D mk4 has 3x Kenko extension tubes and 3x SRB closeup lenses on a Canon L 100mm f2,8 Macro lens. The lens by itself provides no where near enough magnification. The tubes don’t effect image quality but the close up lenses certainly do! (reducing resolution significantly) Perhaps a bellows would be a better solution? (Clearly nobody would buy this setup for the purpose of checking styli as it’s over £3k for this kit – but I had this anyway so thought I might as well try it!)

Stylus shoot setup-30-2

 

A focusing rack makes like much easier. I focused with the rack rather than with the lens, I fixed the lens at it’s closest focussing distance and moved the camera back and forth to focus using the knurled wheel on the rack. I experimented with f8-f32, varying the strength of lighting for correct exposure, I found f22 to be optimum combination of sharpness and depth of field. The final image above in B&W is the result of three images focus stacked in Photoshop. The depth of field at this magnification appeared to be less than a mm.

Stylus shoot setup-31

I also tried reverse mounting a 50mm lens on the front of the 100mm Macro lens but this was worse than the closeup filters as the magnification was too low.

 

Setup 2 – USB Microscope Method

This is one of the cheapest USB microscopes you can find online. ( I found it for £11.99!) I downloaded “Digital Viewer” software – see screenshot. This camera only has a resolution of 640×480 or 0.3Mp (compared to 30MP of the Canon DSLR) but because it has massive magnification – up to 500x it is enough to show stylus wear very clearly. It took a few minutes to setup. It is tricky to align as the direction of movement on screen is opposite to how you move the scope. The best way I found was to move the microscope back and forth to focus – no luxury of a focussing rack here! I note that some of these types of USB microscope come with a table and rack – I’d recommend that, the stand on this is flimsy and once you loosen off the tension it flops in all directions making small adjustments very difficult and rather frustrating. The grey ribbed dial is magnification, not focus – you will find that small changes to the magnification result in the need to move back and forth through several iterations to find focus again.

USB Micro Setup

USB Microscope setup, on desk with white paper underneath and behind. Stapler used to support the cartridge. iPad and iPhone used as light sources

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-24 at 01.41.56

Screen shot of Digital Viewer software. Note – stills, time lapse and video too!

Here is the “Cat’s Eyes” image from the Microscope. – pretty clear, two tiny dots of light on each side of the stylus tip. Much easier to obtain than with the DSLR

SingleShot0071

At a lower level of magnification the “Cat’s Eyes are still clearly visible.

Technics 310 DigMicroscope

I decided to try some side images and see if I could highlight the oval shaped flat spot where the stylus has worn from the side. The combination of the USB Microscope and the strong LED, made it easy to find on both sides. I used the time lapse function so that I could keep my hands for holding the “torches”.

Looking at the sides of the Technics and moving the light around to highlight the flat spot gives a large area of wear.

Technics 310MC RHS

 

Technics 310MC Side

I couldn’t obtain any flat spot area on the Dynavector.

Dynavector 10x5 Side

 

Conclusion

Overall I am pleased with the images, though not the result, my Technics 310MC will need re-tipping!

The images from the Microscope are low resolution and very noisy but are still easily able to identify stylus wear for a very low cost. Highly recommended as a purchase to check your stylus – from £12, but I’d recommend one with a rack and stand like this…

Digital_Microscope_Pro

For the DSLR a bellows attachment is likely to provide sharper images with higher resolution, but a completely unnecessary expense for the purpose of this exercise, a USB microscope costs much less than a bellows attachment, even if you do already own a DSLR and macro lens.

I hope this is helpful.

 

Other images taken with DSLR camera setup.

Technics 310MC

Technics 310MC-30Technics 310MC-31Technics 310MC-32

 

Grado Gold V2

 

Grado Gold v2-30

Realistic Shure RXP3

Realistic-30

 

 

 

Musical Fidelity V-Link 192

If you have an older DAC or surround processor without USB, this product provides a low cost means to utilise the DACs inside your legacy device by converting USB to SPDIF Coax or Optical.

I have a Tag McLaren AV32 in my study, which has DACs able to deal with 24/96 over COAX or Optical. Inital tests using the optical out on my MacPro proved that these DACs were capable of good stereo sound, and able to extract abient surround information from the stereo hi-res files, WITHOUT affecting the stereo channels. (I have a 4.0 system in my study).

I chose the 192 version to give me some degree of future proofing, I may of course change the AV32 one day, and according to reports I have read sounds better than the V-Link 2 (96Khz versio).

Initial signs are very positive, fuller review to follow. While it is possible to buy a DAC for this price, my recent tests have shown that it will not sound as good as this setup, but of course it depends on your AV Processor – The Tag AV32 Dual Processor was £4500 in 2003.

There are many DACs available that can only process 92/24 over USB but 192/24 over Coax, so this small adapter gives that ability.


V-Link 192

Test report on the Chord QuteHD DSD DAC

The Chord QuteHD DSD is one of the very few DSD compatible DACs available. It uses the new standard known as “DoP” or DSD over PCM announced last year by the likes of dCS. This carries the DSD signal over a 176Khz PCM connection and includes tags to inform the DAC to treat the stream as DSD not PCM.

As I have a large collection of DSF filess, I was intrigued to find out if the sound was better than with a PCM conversion to 176Khz. I also wanted to compare it with the similarly priced Young M2 DAC that I have owned for well over a year, and can play resolutions up to 384Khz including DXD at 352Khz. The Young then can be fed a 352Khz file from Audirvana, converted on the fly from the DSF.
Full report here.

QuteHD DSD rear connections

Chord Qute sitting on a Young M2

Audiophile home cinema rack on show this weekend

Home Cinema equipment rack with integrated, but isolated centre speaker housing

I have designed a home cinema equipment rack to enable all my source components to be held conveniently with my home cinema pre-amp, and most importantly the centre speaker. The problem with centre speakers being positioned on the hi-fi rack is that the the speaker vibrates, and this will feedback to the components and cause a degradation in sound.

I therefore designed a rack, where the centre speaker is independently held up with a separate stand, but it appears to be integrated into the design of the hi-fi rack. I then commissioned a cabinet maker to build it in solid ash, with 10mm thick glass shelves, adjustable for height. The result you can see above.

More details…

Lossless??? An Introduction

Welcome to my new blog, dedicated to getting the most out of recorded music. I used the word “Lossless” in it’s widest sense, as I want to hear music with the least loss possible, from the original master tape. So I am focusing on hi-resolution audio to differentiate from “lossy” formats such as MP3, AAC and even CD’s which contain only around a third of the data of the master tape. I am going to cover all aspects of Hi-Fi that make a really BIG difference to the quality of sound, Room acoustics, High Resolution Sources, Equipment to play the music on. I have been listening and experimenting with Hi-Fi for 30 years, I hope you enjoy my articles! Please give me feedback.

1. Room setup including layout, treatments and the interaction between equipment and room, including lots of DIY tips.

I have spent, many years setting up hi-fi systems in different rooms, and have recently made over my house and included a dedicated listening room with a “live end / dead end” studio like setup. It sounds amazing, and will be sharing some of the things I have learned along the way, including layout, which speaker types work well with different rooms, DIY room treatments that make a staggering difference to sound for not much money, getting your equipment properly supported and how to avoid wasting £1000’s on useless accessories and expensive leads!

2. Obtaining and making the most of a high resolution source.

Hi resolution audio is hard to obtain on the hi street! But if you are not listening to a high resolution source, the rest of the system, no matter how expensive can never make up for this. Garbage in – garbage out! Seeking out hi-res sources is the first step to audio nirvana.

There are four sources of hi-res digital audio, SACD, DVD-A, Hi-Res downloads and Blu-Ray. I use all of them as not all content is available on all sources and they each have their strengths and weaknesses.
SACD – the best sound and often provides surround playback, low cost discs (cheaper than downloads), usually play on standard CD players too (e.g. in car) largest catalogue of content by an order of magnitude, lots of new discs coming out this year. Lots of SACD compatible devices eg. Oppo, Blu-ray players and many specialist devices from Marantz, Sony etc.Hard to copy the hi res files onto computer, it can be done with specialist equipment, but not for the feint hearted!
DVD-A – now a dead format, it competed with SACD and lost, the big advantage if you can get the discs (eg. on ebay) is that these discs can be easily ripped to get a 24bit /96Khz file to playback on your computer.
Hi_Res downloads are starting to appear up to 24bit 192Khz. These are expensive, possibly because they are so easy to copy, mostly stereo only, convenient, but no physical media. (This is the future though)
Blu-Ray could be the perfect hi-res audio carrier, 8 channels of 24bit 192Khz audio, and there are loads of players in the market. But there is almost no content. A handful of audio only discs, a good source though of live concert footage, operas and ballets. I don’t believe that this will become an audio only carrier to take over from CD.

3. Equipment to play back Hi-res audio and setup.

These fall into two categories, disc spinners, and computers.
There are now a number of universal disc players that will play ALL the above formats e.g. Oppo BD95
Computers cant play SACD’s but can play some or all of the other formats.

I use a dedicated SACD player – no universal can match it for sound, a computer for hi-res downloads and a Universal player for Blu-Ray and DVD-A. I’ll be explaining my rationale in a subsequent article.

Computer based audio is new, and thus we have much to learn. I have discovered recently for example that the USB cable type can make a clear sound quality difference, (as a computer guy I simply couldn’t believe this) but I’ll explain why. I’ve also found that .wavs, sound better than flacs! (they shouldn’t).

I hope you enjoy this musical and technology journey.