There’s an indescribable, nearly magical quality to the sound of a record player. For one thing, it’s imperfect. In a digital world where every sound is free of muffled hums, crackles, and pops, records stand as a testament to the flawed nature of music. Or perhaps that’s just the musings of an audiophile.
Regardless of why record players have such an allure, you can admit that there is something unique about the sound quality of a classic vinyl collection. These players have been crafted through the ages, improving upon their sound, and making their way into homes. If you own one, then you know how tweaking each facet of the record player can bring subtle changes. To generate the best sound quality from your record player, here are ten things you can do.
1. Keep the Record Player Level
When playing a record, you’ll want it to lie flat against the turntable. To do this, make sure your record player is level with the floor. Keeping it off at a slight angle can cause the tracking force to fluctuate, potentially damaging or morphing the disc.
Most record players come with adjustable legs to help you find that perfect balance. Even if the surface appears flat, use a spirit level to be sure.
2. Place It Away From Speakers
Record players work by reading the microscopic ridges within the grooves of a record. As the stylus drags along the ridges, the vibrations shake a magnet within the cartridge, causing electrical signals to feed out along the wires in the arm. These electric signals are then boosted through an amplifier (either built-in or external) and transmuted into sound through the speakers.
Because sound consists of air molecules vibrating through space, you’ll want to keep the record player away from any large speakers. This will prevent trace amounts of feedback from distorting the original sound. Placing the record player on a heavy table behind or adjacent to the speakers is fine.
3. Clean the Records
Smudges, scratches, dust, dirt, and hand oils can all prevent a record from sounding its best. Practicing good record player care will not only improve the sound quality but will increase the vinyl’s longevity. To clean a record properly, do the following:
- Sweep the record with a vinyl record brush to remove any small dust and dirt particles.
- Use a cleaning solution or a record cleaner on any smudges or fingerprints.
- Wipe clean with a microfiber or cotton cloth.
- Rinse the record with water (avoiding the central label).
- Dry it off.
- Store properly in a sleeve.
4. Remove any Static
If you live in a cold, dry climate, you might want to consider purchasing an anti-static gun that removes any static charge from your vinyl records. Not sure if your vinyl is staticky? Place a regular piece of tissue paper on the record and hold it vertical. If the tissue sticks, you’ve got static.
To use an anti-static gun, place the record horizontally. Bring the anti-static gun a few inches above the vinyl ring. Slowly press down the trigger as you pull the anti-static gun away. Repeat this three times around the outer ring and once near the center. Then, use the tissue test once more to ensure that it falls off right away.
5. Use a Record Clamp
Not all records are born equal. Some are created with a slight curve; others naturally warp with age. Record clamps are handy tools that prevent any small deformity on your record from giving you that “wah” noise.
For the highest quality sound, aim to have the perfect amount of pressure between stylus and record. Too hard and the stylus won’t vibrate the finer details of the grooves. Too loose and the stylus won’t stick tight, scratching the walls. The record clamp produces a consistent pressure between the stylus and disc.
6. Adjust Tracking Force and Speed
The tracking force refers to how much pressure the stylus applies to the record. Check with the cartridge on your turntable to determine the appropriate range. If it suggests 1.5 to 2.0 grams, try to aim your counterweight for something in the middle like 1.7 or 1.8. How much force you apply changes the sound quality, so you might prefer it on the lighter end or heavier. Experiment to see which you enjoy best. Just make sure you stay in the suggested range.
Once the tracking force is set, you’ll also want to adjust the turntable speed. The revolutions per minute (rpm) refer to how quickly the record revolves. Different types of records are made for different rates.
- 78 rpm – This was the earliest “standard” speed for records. Adopted in the mid-1920s, records made for this speed soon fell out of fashion in favor of the two slower rpm. You’ll rarely encounter this speed nowadays.
- 45 rpm – For smaller seven-inch EPs and singles, 45 rpm is usually the best speed to play them on.
- 33 rpm – This is the standard full-length album speed. Most records you’ll encounter are going to be played at this speed.
The correct speed will usually appear on the vinyl. Although, you’ll probably recognize immediately if you’ve chosen the wrong speed as all the songs will be moving double-time or in slow motion.
7. Set Up Your Own Speaker System
Music is full of subtle details that are hard to recreate in recordings. This is why the live experience holds such a strong appeal. With massive stacks of speakers, every minute detail in the highs of the electric guitar to the lows of the bass drum can be registered given enough volume. However, the volume directly corresponds to the size of the speakers you're listening from.
Most record players come with built-in speakers. The size of the speaker is therefore limited by the record player itself. Which means if you want to bring out the subtle notes on the record, you’ll need an external speaker setup.
The world of speakers is vast and the limiting factor is usually your budget. If you want to have a high-performance setup in your home, consider buying a mixture of each type of speaker to experience the full range.
- Mid-range speakers – This is your standard speaker. While it doesn’t have the range to pick up the highest of high notes and lowest of low notes, having good mid-range speakers will give you a high-quality sound.
- Subwoofer – For low notes, subs help bring out the “oomph” in the music.
- Tweeters – If you want to feel all the sensations of the hi-hat, guitar solo, and crash symbols, you need a set of tweeters.
8. Replace the Stylus
When it comes to record player accessories, the stylus is key. The stylus tip of the record player is made of diamond—the hardest known material in the world. Despite its tough reputation, even diamond is subject to wear and tear. If the stylus is worn down, you’ll notice the “highs” start to disappear. You’ll want to replace it before it starts to damage the record’s grooves.
This process of degradation takes a long time. Meaning, if you hear a funny sound, there’s probably a few other things on the checklist to do before swapping out the stylus. However, eventually all styli need to be replaced.
To keep the stylus happy and healthy:
- Keep the records clean – Not only will it make the sound quality better (as mentioned above), but a clean record will keep the contact between groove and stylus friction free.
- Tracking force – Be sure the stylus isn’t pressing too hard into the record. This will cause the wear and tear to happen faster.
- Proper alignment – Correctly placing the needle in the groove will protect both the stylus and the disc from scratching. Placing the needle might take a while to get used to if you’re a beginner. But don’t worry, this skill will come with practice.
If you buy the record player secondhand, be sure to ask when the last time the stylus was replaced. This is an often forgotten repair, and it might be worth buying a new one right away.
9. External Amplifier
The amplifier takes an audio signal and ramps up the sound waves to a perceptible level. The goal is to increase volume without losing quality and without amplifying any feedback. Although, this balance between gain, distortion, and quality wasn’t always as accurate as amplifiers are today.
If you own an old record player, consider purchasing a newer external amplifier to increase the sound quality pushing through the speakers.
10. Protector Case
To keep your records sounding their best for a lifetime, be sure you take proper care of both the vinyl and turntable. This means buying a protector case that covers the record player to prevent dust and other dirt particles from building up on the surface. Plus, with a protector case, you can just turn it on and go. You won’t have to worry about cleaning for that proper sound.
Time to Experiment
Besides its unique sound, people love record players for their adjustable sound quality. From switching speeds to changing the tracking force, turntables offer audiophiles myriad ways to enjoy their favorite albums.
Always be sure to do your research before you start tweaking things. And try to habituate proper record player care to avoid any unnecessary damages to your record collection. Other than that, you’re free to experiment as you please.
How Stuff Works. How Record Players Work. https://electronics.howstuffworks.com/record-player2.htm
LA Times. Fans still prefer music live to digital, Nielsen Music 360 report finds. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-nielsen-360-music-survey-20160915-snap-story.html
Explain That Stuff. Amplifiers. https://www.explainthatstuff.com/amplifiers.html