Listening to your favorite albums on vinyl is incredibly rewarding. In exchange for meticulous attention to your equipment setup, you get a listening experience that makes even the most devoted Spotify addicts melt with sonic envy.
But if you’re new to all this – and hey, we were all new once! – you’re probably wondering how to achieve the best possible sound from your equipment. From the stylus to your speakers, the following ten tips are designed to help you, the budding vinyl connoisseur, optimize your setup and enjoy music to its fullest.
We’ll show you the best ways to select and clean your records, too.
1. The better the setup, the better the sound.
There comes a point in every vinyl aspirant’s journey when cheap, all-in-one equipment just doesn’t sound good enough. Maybe you listened to an album through a friend’s more elegant setup and just couldn’t get over the improved fidelity and wide range of sound. Or maybe you remember listening to records through classic equipment when you were a kid.
Whatever the case, you know a better setup can give you the sound you crave from vinyl. But where do you start?
For under $300, the Pro-Ject Essential II is an excellent starter turntable! The Essential II offers great build quality, including a quiet motor and an Ortofon OM5e cartridge. If you're looking for excellent sound and performance at an affordable price, this is your turntable.
The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is another solid choice. At $399, this turntable boasts premium materials, including a carbon fiber tonearm and an enhanced motor suspension with ThermoPlastic Elastomer (TPE) damping. The Debut Carbon builds upon the achievements of Pro-Ject's Essential II, giving you even better build quality for just another $100 or so.
And if you're really ready to break into vinyl–and you've got larger gear budget–check out the VPI Scout Jr. Far more than just an "entry" turntable, the Scout Jr. comes with the excellent Ortofon 2M Red cartridge and a gimbaled-bearing tonearm for smoother operation and richer sound. You'll love your favorite records even more after hearing them through this turntable. The Scout Jr. starts at $1,600 with upgrades available and is made in the USA.
2. Optimize turntable placement.
Turntables are sensitive instruments, and your equipment was built to function on a level surface. The flatter the better, so take advantage of those adjustable turntable feet if you have them!
Proper placement also helps you avoid feedback. If you position your turntable too close to your speakers, you’re going to hear feedback. The same goes for subwoofers – position the turntable away from these system components. Larger speakers capable of really deep bass can cause real trouble if your table is too close as well. You will know it if you have feedback, though, so feel free to experiment with placement.
3. Make sure your cartridge is lined up
Every tone arm has some variance as to where the cartridge mounts to account for different types of cartridges. Your turntable will usually come with a setup gauge to help you get the stylus tip in just the right spot. This will track allow the cartridge to track in the grooves at the right angle.
This adjustment is both front to back and left to right. If your table came with a pre-mounted cartridge, you are probably ok. But if you change or upgrade, make sure you use the setup gauge or better yet, use a professional.
4. Tracking lightly doesn’t prevent record wear – it causes it.
Similar to the point above, the stylus needs to make appropriate contact with your records. For obvious reasons, it shouldn’t be too heavy. But it shouldn’t be too light either. If you’re tracking too lightly, the stylus is bouncing around in the grooves in odd ways. It’s not good.
You want to track at the top end of the recommended tracking force. That way, the stylus is always "seated" inside the grooves. Tracking lightly will wear out your records just as quickly as tracking too heavily.
5. Manual turntables usually sound better.
To produce an automatic turntable, manufacturers add a lot of extra components. The additional parts and gears control the motion of the tonearm and introduce points of failure that don’t exist in manual turntables. In some cases, they also impact sound quality – and not in a good way.
That doesn’t mean all automatic turntables are subject to sound deficiencies. It just means there’s greater potential for an automatic turntable to underperform. Manual turntables don’t have these issues, and they tend to sound better.
Think of it this way: If you're considering an automatic turntable, you're probably going to pay extra for a feature that doesn't improve sound in any way. Why not use that money for a manual turntable that does offer better sound?
6. Used records are usually ok.
Save some money – buy used! The big exception is records that have visible gouges or big scratches. If a record looks ok, it probably is.
Think of it this way: If you invest in a really nice cartridge, that stylus tip is going to contact the record in places that no stylus has ever ventured before. In all likelihood, you’ll crank more high fidelity sound out of that old record than the previous owner.
In this sense, most “used” records are only partially used.
7. Clean records are good. Dirty records are bad.
Hiss. Crackle. Pop. Many people think these sounds are a normal part of the vinyl experience. In reality, these sounds usually indicate that a record is dirty.
To avoid these sounds, clean your records regularly. The AudioQuest record brush is a great tool for periodic cleaning. It's made of thin carbon fibers that help get the gunk out of your record grooves without scratching anything. LAST cleaning products are a great investment, too. LAST Power cleaner, in particular, does a great job removing residues that stick to new records during the manufacturing process.
But if you really want your records to sound great, there's nothing quite like the VPI HW 16.5 Record Cleaner. It uses a special cleaning fluid and brush designed to get deep down into the grooves and leave you with pristinely clean vinyl. Your records will be bone dry in under a minute!
8. Cleaning the stylus is important, too.
A dirty record only affects the listening experience of that record. A dirty stylus, on the other hand, makes all of your records sound bad.
The solution? Clean the stylus! LAST Stylast Stylus Treatment comes with a stiff brush, which you can use to remove dirt that your stylus picks up from the record grooves. The brush alone is sufficient for everyday use, but be sure to apply cleaning fluid every now and then to be sure your stylus stays clean.
Your records might be dirtier than you think, and the stylus is dragging all kinds of gunk around inside the grooves. The longer you go without cleaning it, the more gunk sticks to it. Eventually, the dirty stylus has a negative impact on sound.
9. Be prepared to listen to a whole album.
There’s something about vinyl that makes you want to listen to an album from beginning to end. And it’s not even because changing tracks is more laborious than with iTunes, streaming services, or CD players. The sound from vinyl is so good, you just don't want to quit listening!
So be prepared to listen to an album from beginning to end. After all, it’s how most artists want you to experience their music. The magic of albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Willie Nelson’s Red-Headed Stranger lies in their unspoiled completeness. You’re supposed to enjoy them in their entirety, and vinyl helps you do just that.
10. The longer you listen to vinyl, the more you learn.
Wisdom accumulates as the years go by.
Over time, you’ll start to notice the different sounds you can achieve from different cartridges, speakers, and preamps. You’ll develop equipment preferences, make tweaks to hear music in new ways, and continuously “move up” to even better setup components.
To get started, invest in a quality turntable or go all in with a complete vinyl package! That way, you'll have everything you need to get the best possible sound from your favorite albums. Remember that it can take years to build a "perfect" vinyl setup. You'll always second guess your decisions and experiment with new equipment and techniques. Vinyl is a journey.
So sit back, listen closely, and enjoy the tunes! Getting started with vinyl is fun. The longer you listen, the better it gets.