How to Set Up Your Turntable for Optimal Sound Quality

Your new favorite LP just arrived in the mail! You place it on your turntable with anticipation, but the music is distorted — blips, pops, hissing, or skipping. What’s going on? Is this record defective?

While poor sound quality means something’s wrong, damage to the vinyl typically isn’t the culprit.

First try cleaning the record, even if it’s brand new. If that doesn’t fix the problem, and your record isn’t scratched or warped, then your player setup is the issue. No turntable (no matter how much you spent on it) can produce great sound if it’s not set up properly. 

Eliminate Vibrations

To hear vinyl the way it was intended — with all of its detail — the record player needle (called the stylus) needs to stay deeply in the grooves. Any vibrations, including those caused by the turntable or the speakers, can push the stylus out of place. Phono cartridges (the mechanism that holds the stylus) can even pick up your footsteps or the quiet buzz of electronic devices on the same shelf.

TIPS:

  • Move external speakers away from your turntable. Place them on a separate surface.
  • Remove the dust cover when your turntable is in use.
  • Reduce other sources of vibration in the room.

Make Sure Your Turntable Is Level

If you want skip-free sound, you can’t skip this step. Ensure your turntable is perfectly level, both horizontally and vertically.

TIPS:

  • Don’t eyeball it. Use a spirit level or a bubble level app on your cell phone.
  • Can you adjust the height of the turntable feet? If not, prop up one or two of the legs with cardboard or cardstock.

Balance the Tonearm, Headshell, and Cartridge

Calibrating and balancing your player’s mechanisms is another essential part of your turntable setup. You want the tonearm to float just above the record. The top of the headshell (the part that attaches the cartridge to the tonearm) must be parallel to the record. If these mechanisms are misaligned, they will not only cause skipping, they may also damage your records.

TIPS:

  • Follow the manufacturer instructions to balance the cartridge.
  • Suspend the arm by twisting the counterweight until the arm can float up.
  • The stylus pressure should be 0.
  • Adjust the stylus pressure to the setting that’s recommended by the manufacturer. This setting is specific to your player.
  • Set the anti-skating pressure to the same weight.

How’s the Stylus Pressure?

The stylus pressure is the force the needle puts on the vinyl. If the pressure is too low, a record can skip because the needle is skating along its surface but isn’t making strong and steady contact within the grooves. If the stylus pressure is too high, you’ll get distorted sound from the needle rubbing the grooves too much and creating vibrations. Too much pressure on the stylus can quickly cause the needle to wear and damage records.

TIPS:

  • Adjust the stylus pressure using the designated knob on your player.
  • Check the manufacturer’s recommendations on what this pressure should be.
  • It might recommend the highest pressure setting, but try experimenting with lower pressure.
  • Adjust the pressure in small increments, and listen to the differences in sound quality that your machine can produce.
  • Don’t set the stylus pressure higher than the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Check the Anti-Skating Mechanism

The anti-skating mechanism is specific to your record player. It’s typically a spring that uses tension to hold the tonearm in place. When the mechanism is too tight or too loose, you may hear skipping because it’s allowing the stylus to move out of the record grooves.

TIPS:

  • The tonearm should be angled outward toward the edge of the record.
  • Check the manufacturer’s recommendations before you adjust the anti-skating mechanism.
  • Each player model has a knob for this adjustment.

Is the Stylus in Good Shape?

An overly worn or damaged stylus can ruin your vinyl. Even if you rarely use your record player, the needle can harden and lose its flexibility in a few years. When this happens, it won’t be able to track properly. If you have a newer stylus and use your player frequently, you may need to replace the needle due to normal wear.

TIPS:

  • Unfortunately, this type of wear is difficult to see with the naked eye.
  • Use a good magnifying glass to examine your stylus. Your local record store may have one you can use. Or, try using the zoom function on your cell phone camera.
  • Look for dullness, jagged edges, uneven surface, and uneven wear to the needle.
  • A new stylus should give you at least 500 hours of quality play.
  • If you enjoy listening to your records every day for about four hours a day, consider upgrading to a more durable, long-lasting full diamond stylus.

Maintaining Your Investment

Whether you’re an audiophile, a record collector, or new to vinyl, you surely want to hear your music the way the artists and producers intended. That means you need to maintain your sound system, but that doesn’t necessarily mean buying new or expensive parts.

Take care of what you have. Keep your turntable and records clean and free of dust. Keep an eye on the needle pressure and placement. And don’t forget to cover your records and the player when they’re not in use.