While volumes can (and indeed have) been written on the topic, I'll state the basics. "Size is everything."
Yes, in this case, it is indeed true. For later
78s, say, from the 40s and 50s, you can get good results with a
"standard" 78 RPM stylus (these range from 2.7 to 3.0 mils). Some 78
styli are spherical while others are truncated spherical or truncated
elliptical. Truncated styli are usually the best since, if fitted properly, they
stay off the bottom of the groove and thus reproduce the music with less noise.
But even the spherical (sometimes called "conical") work pretty well.
For most acoustics and very early electrics, useful styli range from 3.3 mil up
to 4.0 mil. For 16-inch transcription discs, 2.5 mil was standard with
alternative standard at 2.0 mil.
Stylus sizing isn't an exact science and you'll need to
experiment for best results. Remember, groove depth and cross-section weren't
nearly as consistent in the 78 era as they've been during the microgroove era.
Also, popular 78s were available for years so it's not unusual to find a 78
reissue from the late 40s with a groove configuration common to discs made two
decades earlier -- or even a reissue with an early electrical from the late 20s
with a selection from the 40s on the flip side!
For playing 78s, I've always preferred Shure cartridges. In
particular, the rugged SC-35 was the best compromise between price and
performance -- plus with a tracking force of 4 to 6 grams, it could plow through
just about any 78 groove and still sound good. However, Shure discontinued 78
styli for the SC-35 a few years ago and has now discontinued the cartridge
itself (if you're very lucky, you
may find a store with one in stock). Shure also made a 78 stylus for the V-15
series. I have one and while it sounds superb on very clean discs, at 2.7 mils
it's too small and it tracks too lightly (1.25 grams when you take into account
the 0.5 gram upward force from the damping brush) to be really useful for most
78s. Shure's 78 styli for the M91 series cartridges were also problematical.
They were simply too delicate for most 78 use.
Now that Shure has discontinued their phono cartridges (sod to
say, they've been phasing out their 78 styli for several years now), the Stanton
500AL is pretty much your only choice. It's not the world's finest cartridge,
but it sounds pretty good and you can get aftermarket 78 styli for it.
For collectors, that's good news. Professional sound archives
and collectors have pretty much standardized on the Stanton 500AL for that very
reason (though some people feel the Stanton 680 series sounds better). I have
several Stanton 500Als in various SME headshells loaded with different-sized
Two sources for aftermarket styli for the Stanton 500AL are Esoteric Sound and Audio 78 Archival Supplies. Esoteric also used to offer aftermarket 78 styli for the Shure SC-35i they may still carry them. Keep in mind that both of these suppliers are quite cagey about revealing who makes their aftermarket styli.
I've heard that Stanton is one manufacturer, but I've had no
confirmation on that. Still, I've bought styli from both Esoteric and Audio 78
and have been very happy with all of them.