Want to clean your turntable’s stylus, effectively? So does Paul Rigby which is why he’s looking at the DS Audio ST-50
It’s a basic job. Many people do it badly. Before we talk about the ST-50, let me divert and talk about mucky stylus tips.
Keeping your stylus clean is the most important task in any turntable-based hi-fi chain. It doesn’t matter if your hi-fi costs £1,000 or £1,000,000, if the stylus is dirty that hi-fi chain will sound like a system costing somewhere in the region of £7.50, give or take.
As a stylus moves through the grooves of your vinyl, any resident muck in the groove can cake the stylus with fluff and sticky gunge. The resultant sound will quickly lose detail, dynamics and clarity. Allow the situation to continue and the lead singer of your favourite group will sound like he’s just drunk three bottles of gin with a whisky chaser. Ignore the situation even more and the fluff will actually lift the stylus from the grooves, forcing it to skate, Torvill & Dean-like, across the surface of your record.
All of this inter-groove activity is also bad news for the vinyl record and the stylus tip. A dirty stylus can cause groove damage because the dirt will force the stylus to move haphazardly. Of course, the stylus is not immune, this damage can also be encountered by the stylus itself.
“So,” you wearily sigh as you peer over the rim of your coffee cup, “keep the record clean then. Problem solved.”
Not really. Problem reduced, certainly. Problem minimised, absolutely. Yet the issue is still there for a number of reasons.
I clean my records with a very expensive ultrasonic vinyl cleaner from Audiodesk. Yet, even I have to use a stylus cleaner. Why? My room is pretty dust free yet there will still be a gradual and slow build up in the vinyl grooves from airborne dust and other particles. Sooner or later, that build up will hit the stylus because I often forget (or can’t be bothered) to take a note of when I last cleaned any one particular vinyl record. I also forget which record I’ve cleaned.
You might have noticed that I used an Emmylou Harris LP as a reference album on a bunch of reviews of late. When I first took that off the shelves I said to myself (I talk to myself a lot, incidentally), “Hmmph?” (translation: “Has this vinyl been cleaned?”) with the reply, “Nmmhm.” (translation: “Haven’t got time to find out, so let’s run with it”)
It hadn’t. What accumulated on my stylus wasn’t fluff, though, it was a weird sticky stuff. So, Ms Harris’ voice soon began to falter and distort but, at first glance, the stylus looked fine. Closer inspection revealed a knobbly gooey mess. After I cleaned the stylus, her dulcet tones returned. So, if your vinyl’s sound quality falters in the future and you see no fluffy build up on your stylus, don’t assume that the stylus is absolutely clean. Sticky residue might be the issue and the stylus might need a clean.
Cleaning the stylus can be done in many ways. There’s a host of ideas on the Internet, for example. Some of them are very scary indeed and include sandpaper but let’s not go there.
Despite the proliferation of suggestions the most popular methods can, I reckon, be reduced to two principle methods. Firstly, to use a short-haired brush to gently scrub the stylus (from rear to front) with or without liquid.
I used to use this system but I dropped it as my main, day to day, tool. Firstly because a dry brush was not very effective while the regular brushing motion increased the risk of accidental damage and it places stress on the stylus tip. Secondly, some accompanying liquids were alcohol based which could possibly rise into the cartridge body via capillary action to rust out the delicate innards. Thirdly, some cartridges can suffer as bonding material can be dissolved. I’ve actually read statements from cartridge outfits as diverse as Ortofon and Soundsmith that expressly advise against the use of liquid-based cleaning.
For regular stylus cleaning, I use a sticky pad. They are normally presented to you in a small handy container.
The idea of these gizmos is to place the exposed pad on the stationary turntable platter and then gently and carefully, while holding onto the tonearm’s finger lift, dip the stylus onto and hopefully into the pad (just a tiny bit). When the stylus is lifted from the pad, the muck remains on the pad and off the stylus. Repeat that two to three times in different parts of the pad to prevent recontamination and you’re sorted.
I’ve used several of these things over the years. The are plenty of design variants between them all but the main difference, apart from price, is the stickiness of each material and the amount of ‘give’ each one offers.
This is important. Firstly, if a pad is too sticky then it threatens to pull the dirt off the stylus but also the stylus off the cantilever. Not sticky enough and it won’t clean properly. If there’s not enough ‘give’ then it will only clean part of the stylus. Too much give and the cantilever will also sink into the pad, causing possible cantilever damage.
We’re talking fine lines here.
To give you a sense of what the ST-50 is all about, I’m going to bring in a value-based competitor from Vinyl Passion. It’s called the Dust Buster, it’s priced at a few pennies short of £21 and is readily available from Amazon.
The Dust Buster does the job described above. As does the DS Audio ST-50. Yet there’s a £55 difference or thereabouts in price. Why is that? Is the Dust Buster poor at cleaning your stylus? Not at all. I’ve been using it for years and highly recommend it. For the price, it offers tremendous service.
So why would you even consider spending around £55 more for a ST-50? You’ve gotta be crazy to even consider that, yes?
Well, there’s more to it than mere mental health, my friends.
The first consideration is important but rarely discussed or even admitted to. Aesthetics. Many of us like and prefer to spend money on beautiful things: cars, clothes, hand bags, books, furniture…you name it. The Dust Buster is not beautiful. It’s practical. The packaging has recently changed to a plastic container but my original arrives in a prosaic tin can that looks like a lady’s make-up accessory. It’s not pretty.
The DS Audio ST-50 arrives in an elegant little metal container, aluminium with nickel plating, that feels very expensive. Which is good…because it is, of course. But the point is this, it looks lovely, it feels lovely and it is lovely.
The ST-50 attends to details and, let’s not forget, that’s where the devil lives.
The base of the Dust Buster is shiny and metallic (or smooth and plastic-like in the new version). Although the chances are slim it is just possible that the container could possibly slip on certain types of platter, where the chassis will sit during use. The ST-50 has a tiny piece of non-slip leather attached underneath. A tiny detail but important.
My Dust Buster has a screw-top lid. The ST-50’s lid fits snugly to the base but the lid is not securely attached in any way. There’s no click-shut or screw thread here. This is a good thing because I often find that I want to clean my stylus now and not faff around unscrewing things before hand. I tend to have hold of the tonearm, looking closely at the stylus, when I realise that a stylus has to be cleaned so the design of the ST-50 allows me to use it one handed.
The alternative is to return the tonearm to its cradle, stand back, pick up the Dust Buster, unscrew the thing with two hands, store the lid, then place the Dust Buster on the platter for cleaning and then reach for the tonearm once more. The extra steps are not the end of the world, I know, and only take a few extra seconds but simplifying the use of the pad using the ST-50’s method feels much easier and natural. And when you’re in the thick out it and you just want to listen to your music, those extra few seconds product ‘Grrr’ moments. What I’m getting at is that there’s thought behind the ST-50 cleaning tool. It’s like a sculptured handle on a chisel, I suppose or even a wheelbarrow with an inflated (instead of solid) tyre. The little extras make all the difference and make the job ever so slightly easier.
Also, picking up the ST-50, you don’t hold the loosely applied lid at all, so the chassis won’t drop from your fingers. When you pick up the chassis, your fingers connect with the ST-50’s lower base which is wider than the lid.
The Dust Buster also uses a sticky pad rammed into an outer container. The lip of the pad is adjacent to and on the same level as the outer chassis. This brings up an issue. There is possibility – again slim but the threat exists – that you could possibly knock the stylus against its outer rim as you’re moving the stylus to and from the sticky pad causing potential stylus damage.
The ST-50 is different. I like the raised aspect of the pad, created from Urethane Resin. That is, the pad is elevated above the surrounding chassis. The rimless area around it prevents accidental stylus knocks.
When cleaning the ST-50, you peel the entire pad from the background chassis, clean it under a tap of warm running water and leave it to dry. Because the edge of the ST-50’s pad is thick and flat and sticky, I stand the pad on its end and let it air dry for 30 minutes. Then you reapply the pad to the chassis and you’re off again. It was at this point that I noticed that the pad itself has a DS Audio watermark running through it – very chic.
All in all, the ST-50 offers a simple and effective design and is the best I’ve seen, in its class. The above list is part of the reason for that extra £55. Here’s another reason.
Of course, I can’t tell you about the sound quality of the ST-50 itself because it doesn’t have one but I can tell you how it affected the stylus. Before I do that, please check out the video below. You’ll see more about the materials used in the ST-50’s construction, the pad in action and, even better, a close-up view of a stylus being cleaned by the ST-50.
In use, I looked at how the stylus sat in the pad. The Dust Buster’s sticky pad, because it is stuffed into a tight container, has a tendency to dip in the middle and then lift towards the edges. This effect is increasingly accentuated with use and I’ve been using my Dust Buster for quite a while now. It is akin to how water, because of surface tension, angles up to the rim of a glass. The Dust Buster’s pad looks very much like it.
The issue, during cleaning, is that the stylus enters into the Dust Buster’s sticky pad but, because the pad it not lying flat, the pad sits at an angle to the stylus. Thus, you can see that not all of the stylus is being cleaned, some of it remains exposed because of the pad’s angle of rest.
The ST-50 has no outer chassis acting upon it. There is no contact or pressure on the DS Audio’s sticky pad. There is no distortion or force acting upon it. This means that the pad sits isolated and is completely and totally flat.
According to my simple observations using close up lenses and computer software, the ST-50 appeared to allow the stylus to sit further into the pad than the competition, thus cleaning more of the stylus itself and, thus, being more efficient. You’re talking a tiny, tiny fraction but then the stylus is such a tiny, tiny object. The stylus, in the ST-50 also appeared to sit flatter. More top-down than at an angle which, again, allows a more even clean. Again, the angle is so, so small but then again, that might be important during play.
I returned to my Emmylou Harris LP and let the stylus run across the surface for 20 minutes. Sure enough, it picked up enough sticky mucky stuff to clog the stylus. This material was harder to shift than basic fluff because it was more securely fixed into position and blowing at the stylus only removed a small portion of it. After three dips into the ST-50’s pad, the stylus was clear and sounding as fresh as a daisy. Dynamic reach was fully restored, clarity was abundant and focus was pin sharp.
I then played a different LP, a mucky old Yes album which caked the stylus. I dipped the stylus into a Dust Buster cleaning pad three times to apparently remove all of the visible dirt. I then immediately dipped the stylus into the ST-50 and found a tiny, tiny dot visible on the ST-50’s pad. I can only surmise that this was dirt came from the upper area of the stylus which was covered by the ST-50 as the stylus tip sank slightly deeper and more evenly into its pad.
So, am I saying that the Dust Buster is poor and the ST-50 is great? Not at all. I heartily recommend the Dust Buster. For the price, it does a superb job and many people will be happy with it and will not need to move further than that.
There are other hi-fi enthusiasts, though who want the very best and are prepared to pay for the very best. And I would say that the DS Audio ST-50 is the very best stylus cleaner currently on the market. Firstly, the design is thoughtful, logical and brilliantly simple. Secondly, it cleans your stylus and cleans it perfectly. It also appears to clean more of it. Finally, it is the most elegant stylus cleaner I’ve ever seen. With a list like that, it deserves a high recommendation.
DS AUDIO ST-50 STYLUS CLEANER
Tel: 0118 981 4238
GOOD: chassis design, easy to use, cleaning action, easy to clean
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