The Ultimate Turntable Guide - How to shop for and set up a turntable
This is my definitive guide on how to shop for a turntable, whether you're looking for something new or vintage. I've also included plenty of advice on what to do with it once you get it home, so that you can enjoy it to the fullest.
TL;DR - If you want the best bang for your buck when buying a new turntable, get the Audio-Technica AT-LP120 for $250. It performs as good or better than more expensive turntables in the same class, according to recent technical tests. It comes with a built in phono pre-amp and allows you to upgrade the cartridge, so you won't need to buy a whole new turntable a few years down the road. It's a good investment.
If you want to know more, keep reading.
I've owned several turntables since I bought my first one in 2007, and while I am no expert, I've had a few people ask me what to look for when buying one. So if you are wondering "what is the best turntable to buy", "what to look for when shopping for a turntable", or even "how to set up a turntable", then this guide is for you!
I've read several "how to buy a turntable" guides, but they always seem a little bit lacking or they assume too much from the reader—and almost none of them consider buying vintage as an option. So consider this my definitive guide!
Table of Contents
- Turntable basics
- Buying a new turntable
- Buying a vintage turntable
- Buying a new cartridge & stylus (needle)
- Do I need a phono pre-amp? (yes you do)
- How to set up a turntable
- Caring for your records
- FAQ & Troubleshooting
First off, let's take a look at a turntable and define some common parts:
- Platter - The part that spins.
- Mat - Grips the record as it spins while providing a soft surface to rest on. Also designed to isolate vibrations from the turntable motor.
- Counterweight - An adjustable weight allowing you to finely tune the downward force that the needle applies to the record surface. Also known as the tracking force.
- Anti-skate - A spring mechanism which allows you to adjust how much horizontal force is to be applied to the tonearm. Used to counteract the centripetal force that is applied to the needle when the record is spinning. Reduces distortion during playback.
- Cueing mechanism - Lets you raise or lower the tonearm from the record surface. This is called "cueing".
- Arm rest - Lets you rest the tonearm securely when not in use.
- Tonearm - It's an arm! Some are straight and some are curved. It houses the wires which carry the signal from the needle into the base of the turntable, and eventually into your amp.
- Strobe light and pattern - The strobe light will flicker at either 60 Hz or 50 Hz, depending on which continent you live. The strobe pattern surrounding the platter should appear stationary if the platter is spinning at exactly 33 RPM or 45 RPM. Video example!
- Headshell - Connects the cartridge and stylus (needle) to the tonearm. The cartrige is mounted under the headshell, so you can't see it on this diagram. More on cartridges later!
- Pitch adjustment - If your strobe pattern does not appear stationary while the platter is spinning, you can fine tune the rotation speed using this dial. Most quartz lock turntables do not have this feature, as they do not require fine tuning at all (very nice).
- Speed switch - Some records are recorded at 33 RPM, and some are recorded at 45 RPM. You'll need to switch the speed here to accommodate. There are other speeds like 78 RPM and even 16 RPM, but they're both extremely uncommon unless you are specifically looking for those records (you probably won't be).
- Plinth (or base) - The plinth is designed to isolate the turntable from vibrations, so typically it's better if it's made out of a heavy material such as wood. They also come in plastic or other various composites.
- Spindle - Stick this through the hole in the middle of your record!
Not pictured: Vertical tracking angle (VTA) adjustment. This allows you to raise or lower the pivot point of the tonearm so that you can perfectly level the tonearm parallel to the platter surface.
You don't have to memorize all of that, but it can be used as a handy reference while you're reading the rest of this post, and while shopping around.
Pro tip: You might sometimes see the 33 RPM speed referred to as 33⅓ RPM. Tehnically the latter is correct, but they both refer to the same speed setting. You don't need to worry about adjusting your pitch another ⅓ faster if a record you own says 33⅓ on it. If you are unsure, just make sure your strobe pattern is locked on!
Belt Drive vs. Direct Drive
You'll hear these two terms tossed around quite a bit. Essentially, each term describes the method by which the motor turns the platter. With a belt drive turntable, the motor is isolated from the platter by a belt. Because of this, belt drive turntables are often preferred by enthusiasts as they can isolate motor vibration more effectively (and for less money).
Direct drive turntables have the platter in direct contact with the motor (there are rare exceptions to this), which results in more rumble being introduced into the audio signal. The main advantages of direct drives are that they have more torque, meaning the platter can maintain speed without being affected by outside forces as much (if you accidentally touched the platter as a record was playing, for example). They're also able to spin up faster than belt drives.
A third and less common option is an idler wheel—which is a little out of the scope of this blog post—but you can totally look it up yourself if you want!
As a beginner, you don't really have to worry too much about these choices. The added rumble of a direct drive will be extremely minor vs. that of a belt drive especially if you are in the entry level market. That said, once you start to spend a lot more on a direct drive, it's possible that they can outperform many belt driven turntables.
Manual vs. Automatic
This is the perfect spot for a lame car joke.
*Ahem* So. A manual turntable just means that you have to manually lift the tonearm (either by hand or with a cueing mechanism), rotate the arm above the record, then lower it onto the record surface.
An automatic turntable has a lot more mechanical parts which allows for automatic cueing of the tonearm, and automatic return to the arm rest. These are handy, especially if you are the type of person that falls asleep while music is playing and you don't like the idea of your needle wearing out in the run-off groove for several hours.
There are other semi-auto or auto-return models which rely on manual cueing, but automatically lift or return the tonearm to the arm rest when the record is finished.
Half-inch (Standard) mount vs. P-mount (T4p)
This refers to the type of cartridge accepted by your tonearm. I will go into more detail about the difference a bit later, but I'll just say that half-inch or standard mount is the preferred choice. Standard mount allows more fine adjustments, and offers a wider selection of cartridge upgrades, while p-mount cartridges are usually found on cheaper "plug and play" turntables.
Wow & Flutter and Rumble
You might see these terms when reading the technical specifications of turntables. Wow & flutter basically refers to how much the audio frequenices "wobble" during playback. It is caused by very small fluctuations in the speed of the platter. You can read some very technical information about it on Wikipedia if you're into that kind of thing, but all you need to remember is that a lower number is better.
Rumble refers to how much noise is transferred into the audio signal from the motor. It is measured in decibels (dB) and a higher number is actually better, since it is measured in negative decibels. You can read more about it on Wikipedia as well.
Buying a new turntable
Buying new is pretty straightforward, and a great way to get introduced to listening to vinyl. My first turntable was the cheapest one I could find, an $80 Sony PS-LX250H. It was easy to set up, didn't require additional components, and gave me a good reference point. Another obvious advantage to buying new is that you get a warranty.
The main disadvantage of going the cheap route is that it sounds worse. Upgrades are rarely possible, they're made of plastic and are highly sensitive to vibrations, and the needles are poor quality. All of those things add distortion to your music which sounds bad. Even worse, a cheap needle can slowly damage your records (though this takes quite a while).
Update: I've compiled a turntable comparison chart, featuring over 50 different brands and models of modern turntables. You can check it out here.
I don't want to spend a lot
If you want to go the new route without spending a lot of money, then you have a few limited options. A couple recommendations:
Those aren't the only options, of course, but it's a place to start. The advantage to these is that they have a built in phono pre-amp (more on these later), which means you can hook them up directly to your existing stereo or computer through the aux-in or line-in jacks without buying any extra equipment. They also come completely "fixed" by the manufacturer—you don't need to adjust the counterweight, anti-skate, or align the cartridge.
I should stress that you get what you pay for when it comes to these cheap turntables. They are great if you want to get introduced to the world of vinyl, but that's about it. I would only advocate getting one if you plan to listen to records on a casual basis—not if you plan to make a full conversion from digital to analog audio!
To put it into perspective, if you bought only four albums priced at $25 (new releases are often much more, especially if they are double LPs), you've already caught up to the price of your turntable. Listening to vinyl is a destructive process, so if you plan to buy more than a couple records in your lifetime, it's worth protecting that investment by using a better turntable.
There are a lot of cheapo turntables that have a USB feature. While this sounds exciting and convenient, it's often frowned upon by enthusiasts. The main point against these turntables is that the added electronic features only add more noise to the audio signal. The signal sent from the cartridge is extremely faint and needs to be amplified twice, both by a pre-amp and then again by a primary amplifier. Any noise introduced to the signal, especially before the pre-amp stage, will also get amplified by a significant amount.
These are geared towards people who want a quick and easy way to digitize their old vinyl collection. Avoid them.
I want something nicer
If you want to spend more money for a good turntable that will last you quite a while and allow you to make various upgrades down the road, you have quite a few more options to choose from. They also look a hell of a lot fancier! A few recommendations:
- Audio-Technica AT-LP120 - about $240
- Pro-Ject Essential - about $300
- Denon DP-300F - about $315
- Pro-Ject Debut Carbon - about $400
- Music Hall MMF 2.2 - about $450
- Rega RP1 - about $450
- Music Hall MMF 2.2LE - about $500
The main advantage to spending more money on a turntable comes down to the level of precision that can be attained. Turntables require high levels of precision in order to effectively track the grooves of a record, and a higher build quality ensures that you get more precision—which translates to better sound, and less damage to your record collection.
Buying a vintage turntable
If you aren't at all interested in tinkering, repairing, or maintaining a vintage turntable, then you should probably just skip this section. While it's possible to find vintage turntables that have been serviced recently, you really have no idea if something is going to break a month later—and you certainly won't get a warranty with one!
That said, shopping around for a vintage turntable can be extremely rewarding, and if you know what to look for, you can save a lot of money. There are a million options in this category, so all I can really do is offer some advice of what to look for and hope you come out okay in the end.
What to look for
- A heavy plinth - First and foremost, a heavy plinth indicates that the manufacturer cares about the build quality of the turntable. This is a general rule of thumb that I like to follow. A common material for a heavy plinth is wood, but be careful!—there are a lot of cheap turntables that have lightweight plywood plinths.
- Brands - There are a ton of brands to keep an eye out for, but some have had better manufacturing decades than others. You'll have to use your own judgement to decide what is good and what is cheap. In no particular order: Technics, Pioneer, Dual, Thorens, Garrard, JVC, Akai, Fisher, Luxman, Marantz, Philips, Hitachi, Yamaha. If I've left any brands out here, it's only because there are far too many to mention.
- Cartridge & Stylus - Does it come with one? How old is it? If the stylus is old, it's in your best interest to find a replacement for that cartridge or just buy a whole new cartridge and stylus altogether.
- A dustcover - Make sure it comes with one. Dust is bad!
Be careful with...
- Fully automatic turntables - I would avoid these simply because more moving parts means there's more chances for something to go wrong. Many of the mechanisms inside automatic turntables require specific types of lubrication to operate, and if they haven't been properly maintained, they could give you all sorts of issues. If the automatic cueing mechanism breaks, it may prevent you from operating the turntable manually unless it's repaired. This doesn't mean that it's impossible to find a properly maintained automatic turntable, just be sure to ask for a demo of all features before you buy anything!
- Linear tracking turntables - These are specially designed turntables intended to reduce distortion while the needle "tracks" the grooves in a record. Rather than using a tonearm that rotates on a pivot, linear tracking turntables have a tonearm that moves straight across the platter. They are effective to some degree, but introduced their own set of issues. While there are high end linear tracking turntables, it's best to avoid them unless you know exactly what you are looking for. Here's a video of one in action.
- Dual turntables - The Dual brand of turntables are known for their complex inner workings. A fully working and serviced Dual will function beautifully, but if you happen to have one that is broken or acting wonky, be prepared to spend a lot of hours and money trying to fix it. This isn't true for all Duals, so you'll need to do some research if you want to buy one.
The most important thing you can do when shopping for a vintage turntable is to ask for a demo. This isn't so much of a warning, as I've never been ripped off, but it's a good idea if you want to be confident in your purchase. Make sure it holds a steady speed, ask how old the stylus is, and listen for any hum or buzz in the audio (this could indicate a grounding issue, dirty contacts in the headshell, or something worse).
How do I know if I made a good choice?
First of all, if you received a demo and you were impressed with the sound, you made a good choice! Secondly: the internet is your friend. There are plenty of resources and forums available for all kinds of vintage stereo equipment questions. I typically just do a quick Google search for the specific brand and model, and I'll usually find somebody asking about the same thing on Audiokarma.org.
If you are looking for specific technical information about a turntable including user manuals, service manuals, and other guides, check out Vinyl Engine (the IMDb of turntables).
There's nothing good in my area
Have patience! Check local classifieds daily, and you'll be sure to find something nice eventually. I seem to have more luck in the spring and summer months, as more people are likely cleaning out their garages at this time.
Pro tip: You can set up custom searches on both Kijiji and Craigslist, and then save them as an RSS feed for hourly updates. I've snagged some good deals this way.
Buying a new cartridge & stylus (needle)
The cartridge is the little "brick" shaped assembly attached to the end of the tonearm, mounted under the headshell. It contains the mechanism by which the physical vibrations of the needle are translated into an audio signal. Attached to the cartridge is the cantilever, and on the tip of that, the stylus (or needle). The cantilever & stylus assembly is removable so that you can install a replacement, or so that you can perform fine adjustments without accidental damage to the delicate cantilever.
It is important to buy a new stylus for any vintage turntable since you really have no idea how worn out it might be. Using a worn stylus will sound awful, and worse, will damage your records. Many original manufacturers of old cartridges have stopped production for replacement styli, but you can find modern aftermarket equivalents if you do some searching. If you can't find a replacement stylus, you'll have to replace the whole cartridge as well. I actually recommend going this route, since it's not really much more expensive—unless you know for a fact that the original cartridge is of high quality and it's worth tracking down a replacement stylus.
Choosing the right cartridge can almost be as complicated as choosing the right turntable, as there's many different options to choose from. I'll go over some of the basics.
Half-inch (Standard) mount vs. P-mount (T4P) - continued
Like I mentioned earlier, the mounting type of a cartridge is dependent on your tonearm. It is generally recommended to go with standard mount so that you have a wider range of options and more control over the cartridge installation. P-mount cartridges are typically found on lower end turntables, and don't offer any kind of alignment adjustments. There are adapters to let you use a p-mount cartridge on a standard mount headshell, but typically these should be avoided—just get something that is standard mount.
Moving Magnet vs. Moving Coil
You'll often see these terms abbreviated as MM and MC. The difference between the two has to do with the internal mechanism that converts the vibrations of the needle into an audio signal. Without getting into too much technical detail, I'll tell you the basic difference. The internal parts of moving magnet cartridge are heavier than those in a moving coil. Because of this, moving coil cartridges are the preferred choice for enthusiasts as they are more sensitive to the higher frequencies in the record's surface.
Moving coil cartridges also produce a weaker audio signal, so their output voltage is lower. As a result, you need a special moving coil compatible phono pre-amp (again, more on these later!). If you have a favorite phono pre-amp, but it doesn't support moving coil cartridges, you will have to buy something called a step-up transformer (SUT). This gives the signal a little boost before it hits the phono pre-amp. This way, you can use a moving magnet pre-amp with a moving coil cartridge.
Despite moving coil cartridges being the better choice, they are actually less common and more expensive than moving magnet. For a novice, I would recommend starting with moving magnet. If you are dead set on moving coil, the Denon DL-110 is a respectable entry level moving coil cartridge at $140, and the DL-103R is considered the bees knees at $380.
Pro tip: Some moving coil cartridges such as the DL-110 are considered a "high output". This means you can get away with using a regular phono pre-amp with them.
Spherical (or conical) vs. Elliptical
These terms refer to the shape of the diamond tip of the stylus. Spherical styli have a round tip, and elliptical styli are oval shaped. The verdict here is that elliptical is far and beyond the right choice if you want better audio quality, due to the fact that is much more effective at tracking the grooves in a record. This isn't to say that spherical styli are bad, just that they're typically only found on less expensive cartridges (the under $40 range).
There's a pretty neat diagram illustrating the difference at Turntable Basics.
Shopping for a cartridge
When you buy a new cartridge, it's good to know that it comes with a stylus attached. This is something I didn't know when I first started out—I thought that I had to buy a cartridge and stylus separately.
Since cartridges are quite small, I recommend buying online as shipping won't be too expensive. Amazon has quite a large selection, but it's worth looking at specialty shops since they often have sales. I also recommend LP Gear or Needle Doctor. As for choosing a cartridge, your best bet is to find one with the best reviews in the price range you want. You can pay as little as $25 or as much as much as $15,000. A very respectable entry level cartridge that I see recommended quite often (which I own, and can verify is quite good) is the Shure M97xE for about $75. Audio-Technica also makes very good budget priced cartridges, such as the AT-120E for $115.
Installing a cartridge
Installing a cartridge can be frustrating times if you have big clumsy hands like me! Having the right tools can make it easier.
If your tonearm accepts p-mount cartridges, you only need to plug the cartridge in and fasten it with a single screw. If you have a standard mount cartridge, you'll need to fasten it under the headshell using two tiny screws (new cartridges should come with them). Then using a small set of pliers, attach each of the four headshell wires to the corresponding posts on the back of the cartridge. The two red and white wires are for the right and left channels, and the two blue and green wires are the ground wires for each channel. New cartridges should have color coded binding posts, along with instructions and diagrams.
Pro tip: Remove the needle from the cartridge while you do this, so it doesn't get damaged. Here's a good video tutorial.
How do I know if my stylus needs to be replaced?
If it gets really bad, you'll start to hear it. It will be subtle at first, but over time you'll start to hear more and more distortion. Playing records with a worn needle will also damage your records much quicker.
The cartridge manufacturer should tell you how many hours a new stylus is rated for—typically in the high hundreds or even into the thousands. If you keep your records clean, avoid playing overly damaged records, and you're careful when making adjustments, you shouldn't need to replace a new stylus for many years of casual listening.
Do I need to clean the stylus?
Sometimes! After a while, small pieces of dust will build up on your stylus which results in reduced audio quality. You can keep your stylus clean by using a stylus brush and optionally a cleaning solution. There are a couple different products available for this. If you want an inexpensive option, many people swear by Mr. Clean Magic Erasers.
Magic Erasers are sponges made up of a very fine abrasive mesh. To clean your stylus using one, simply dip the stylus into a small square of the sponge and raise it again, then repeat the process a few times using a clean spot on the sponge. Be very careful not to move the stylus side-to-side as you dip it into the sponge, or you might risk bending the cantilever. The easiest method is to place a small piece of sponge on your turntable plinth, then use the cueing lever to raise and lower the tonearm. This way you won't accidentally damage your stylus if you're prone to shaky hands!
Do I need a phono pre-amp?
Yes, absolutely. As I mentioned before, the audio signal from your turntable is very low. Before it can be passed to your stereo or computer, it needs to be amplified to "line level" first. However, this is only half of the job that a phono pre-amp accomplishes. The other half has to do with equalization curves. Now it's time for a very loose history lesson.
Almost 100 years ago (the 1920s), recording engineers figured out that if they applied an equalization curve to the recording before it was cut, it allowed them to achieve longer recording times and better audio reproduction when the record was played back. Specifically, they boosted the treble and reduced the bass. During playback, a phono pre-amp would apply the reverse equalization curve in order to return the audio signal to normal. By the 1940s, every recording company had their own version of an equalization curve and it was a huge mess.
Shortly after, the RIAA came along (this was before they were in the business of suing old ladies and college students) and decided there should be a standard. And so, they created the RIAA equalization curve. Almost every phonograph record since the 1950s has been pressed using this curve, and every phono pre-amp made since then has been designed to accommodate it.
Which phono pre-amp to buy
As I briefly mentioned earlier, you may not need to buy one. If you bought a modern cheapo turntable, there might be a built in phono pre-amp. In this case, you're done! It's worth noting that there should be a switch under the platter that allows you to turn the internal pre-amp on or off. In that case, you may choose to upgrade to an external one if you want.
Are you hooking your turntable up to a receiver? If so, it may have a built in phono pre-amp. Most receivers up to the 80s and even into the 90s had them. Look on the back for inputs labeled "phono".
If your receiver doesn't have phono inputs, or you are hooking your turntable up to your computer, you will need to buy an external phono pre-amp. You can spend as little as $15 in this department, or up into the thousands. Like cartridges, they are quite small and cheap to ship—Amazon has a large selection, so does LP Gear and Needle Doctor. One budget priced phono pre-amp that I often see recommended is the TCC TC-750 at $43.
The quality difference among the phono pre-amps in the ultra low-budget price range is going to be minor, but you don't need to spend much more to gain a significant improvement. It's definitely worth investing a little bit more here even if you are just starting out. The TC-750 mentioned above actually has significantly higher performance specs (frequency tolerance, specifically) than a $15 Pyle pre-amp, and the difference in price is relatively minor.
A couple more final things to note about phono pre-amps: You may see them referred to as simply a "pre-amp", which is not entirely correct. A pre-amp is an altogether different device and won't apply the RIAA equalization curve that you need. Secondly, if you use a moving coil cartridge, you need a phono pre-amp specifically designed for them. If it's not clear or they don't mention what type of phono pre-amp it is, assume it's a regular moving magnet type.
How to set up a turntable
Now I am assuming you have all of the components you need—a turntable, a phono pre-amp, and a receiver or amp with speakers. Since there is such a large combination of components you could possibly have, I'll avoid specific hook up instructions. Your turntable, pre-amp or receiver should have hook up diagrams that will offer some help. If not, feel free to ask in the comments section.
Now you can begin to make all of the fine adjustments to ensure you are getting the most out of your system!
Many of these adjustments can vary greatly depending on what kind of turntable you own. Some turntables may not have every option, but I'll try to give you the basic idea. Be sure to check out the articles section on Vinyl Engine, as they have many tutorials that go into much more depth than I will.
While searching for tutorial videos related to this section, I found a really great half hour video covering pretty much everything I mention below.
Balance the tonearm
To balance the tonearm, you should have your cartridge installed and a record on the platter. Set the anti-skate setting to zero, lower the cueing mechanism, and remove the arm from the arm rest. With one hand on the headshell, use your other hand to slowly rotate the counterweight. Very carefully, let go of the headshell to see if it wants to tilt up or down. The goal here is to have the tonearm balanced just perfectly, so that when you let go of the arm, the needle is floating ever so slightly above the record surface, but not resting on it. The closer you can get the needle to the record surface without it touching, the better. When you've achieved this, return the tonearm to the rest. Here's a great video tutorial.
Pro tip: If your turntable has a vertical tracking angle (VTA) adjustment, you should do that before balancing the tonearm (instructions are a few steps below), as it will have an effect on your tracking force.
Adjust the counterweight and anti-skate
With your tonearm balanced, you have to apply the correct tracking force specified by your cartridge. If you bought a new cartridge, it should tell you the tracking force in the instruction manual. If you have an older cartridge, you can look it up on Vinyl Engine's cartridge database. To apply the correct force, rotate the counterweight force dial (just the dial, not the counterweight, otherwise you'll mess up your balance) until the zero marker lines up with the indicator line. Now you just need to rotate the weight until the dial matches the specific tracking force required for your cartridge.
These instructions may not make sense when you read them for the first time, but it helps to know that the indicator dial can move independently from the weight. If you rotate the dial, the weight will not move with it, however if you rotate the weight, both the weight and dial move together.
Finally, set the anti-skate setting to approximately the same value. The video tutorial in the above balancing section covers these adjustments as well.
It's worth noting that you can buy fancy weight scales to accurately fine tune both the tracking force and anti-skate settings, but they are a little outside of the scope of this article. For a beginner, trusting the settings on your turntable's dials is good enough. If you really want accurate vertical tracking force, I recommend buying a jewelry scale for under $10 capable of accuracy down to a hundredth of a gram. For super precise anti-skate adjustments, you'll have to look into a specialized gauge.
Align the cartridge
This is probably the trickiest thing to get right. To align a cartridge, you have to move the cartridge forward or backward in the headshell, while also rotating it side-to-side to a precise angle. The general goal is to reduce inner groove distortion (IGD) as much as possible. Inner groove distortion occurs because the needle is tracking the record grooves much slower at the center of a record than at the outside edge, which makes it harder for the needle to reproduce accurate sound. A properly aligned cartridge also has more accurate channel separation.
There are three major alignment standards to consider: Löfgren, Baerwald (sometimes called Löfgren B), and Stevenson. Each have their pros and cons for minimizing distortion at the end of a record, or evening it out across the whole surface. The differences between each are extremely subtle, but I think Baerwald is the most common option, and it's what I use at home.
To achieve the proper alignment, you need a protractor. You can buy a fancy mirrored protractor which can make it a little easier for beginners, or you can print out a template. Templates can be generic, or they can be tailored to your specific turntable and tonearm. It's very confusing! I recommend starting out with a generic (or "stupid") protractor, which you can download for free from Vinyl Engine. Here's another video tutorial!
It's a good idea to double check your alignment every month or so, just to make sure it hasn't shifted.
Adjust the vertical tracking angle
Not all turntables have this feature, but for those that do, I'll explain what it does. It's a touchy subject that a lot of enthusiasts argue over—many say it's pointless, and others say it's vital.
The general idea is simple: If you adjust the height of the pivot point on your tonearm, you can get the needle to track the groove of a record at the exact angle that the cutting head used when the master was cut.
Like I said, many argue that it makes no difference, but if you have a VTA adjustment on your turntable, it doesn't hurt to set it up properly.
My basic approach is to rest the needle on a record while the turntable is off, then visually inspect the angle of the tonearm compared to the record surface. I return the arm to its rest and either raise or lower the tonearm pivot a little bit. I place the needle back on the record surface and check again. I repeat this process until the tonearm is parallel to the record surface.
After you adjust the VTA, you'll likely have to rebalance your tonearm.
Level your turntable
This is pretty easy to do. Most turntables have adjustable feet that let you correct imbalances. Use any old level from the hardware store and measure how level your platter is at the spindle. Adjust the feet as necessary.
Isolate your turntable
The less vibrations that reach your turntable, the better. If you can isolate your turntable as much as possible from footsteps and vibrations from your speakers, you'll get less needle skips and feedback. Rubber feet on your turntable and a big heavy stereo cabinet will go a long way. Also, keep your speakers at least a couple feet away from your turntable, and never place your speakers on the same surface as your turntable.
Caring for your records
Your records should be stacked vertically, never flat in a pile. When stacked vertically, it's important to have dividers approximately every foot. Keep them out of direct sunlight and never leave records in your car on a hot summer day. Put them in the trunk if you have to. If you keep your records in the basement, make sure they're in a water proof container, or at least elevated from the ground by several feet—you wouldn't want a flood to wipe out your entire collection.
Buy new sleeves
The most annoying thing when buying new records is the cheap paper sleeves they come in. They always have little bits of paper in them from the cutting machine, and they're often too tight. Every time you take a record out of those cheap sleeves, you are scuffing the record surface a tiny bit.
For inner sleeves, you'll want to get poly lined paper. For outer sleeves, just about any kind will do, but get acid free if you can. The only advantage to outer sleeves is that you avoid unnecessary wear to the album artwork.
Invest in cleaning equipment
Clean records are just as important—if not more—than a properly set up turntable. You'll never get a good sound if you play a dirty record, not to mention the wear and tear your needle will suffer.
If you only buy new records, you don't have to do very much. Buy a carbon fiber brush, a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and a lint-free microfiber cloth. You shouldn't need the alcohol and cloth very often, but I have bought a few records that had little bits of gunk embedded in the grooves before.
If you buy a lot of used records, a wet cleaning system is absolutely necessary. The end result is night and day. There are many wet cleaning options available: You can buy a Spin-Clean for $80, you can buy a Nitty Gritty for between $400 and $600, or a VPI for between $600 and $2,300! Or if you are like me and you'd rather invent your own solution, this is a very good DIY option. I built myself a modified version of that cleaner a few years ago, and it's amazing. That tutorial also has a very good recipe for a home made record cleaning fluid.
FAQ & Troubleshooting
If you have your turntable home, set up, but there's still problems, hopefully this can help. If your specific issue isn't listed here, remember that there are tons of places online where you can ask questions. My first stop whenever I have issues is the Audiokarma.org forums.
I hear a terrible hum or buzz
The most common cause of a hum or buzz is a grounding issue. Most older turntables came with a ground post on the back, which you're supposed to connect to the ground post on your receiver or external phono pre-amp. Make sure you've done that, and it's not loose. If you're wondering what kind of wire to use, you can just split a short length of speaker wire, and use that.
If there's still a hum or buzz, remove the headshell and clean the four headshell contacts with a plastic safe electronics contact cleaner to remove possible oxidation.
The volume is extremely low, and it sounds funny when I turn it up
It sounds like you don't have a phono pre-amp, or it's not hooked up properly. The correct method of hooking it up would depend if you have one built into your turntable, if you have an external one, or if it's integrated with your receiver.
The needle skips all the time
The most common cause of this is an improperly set tracking force and anti-skate. Be sure to double check the correct force required by the manufacturer of your cartridge. If you are certain that the tracking force and anti-skate are set properly, then confirm if the issue occurs on any record or just a specific one. Sometimes there's mistakes made at pressing plants, and records get pressed unevenly or have become warped in transit. There's not much you can do about this other than increase your tracking force above the manufacturers recommendation, but you risk damaging your needle. It's also not recommended to play a warped record, as the bouncing causes extra stress on the cantilever.
The last song on a record always sounds terrible
This is called inner groove distortion (IGD), and it's the bane of every vinyl lover's existence. It's virtually impossible to eliminate entirely, but you can do quite a bit to minimize it. Make sure you've leveled your turntable, and the cartridge is aligned properly. If you're still not happy with the amount of IGD, you can always throw money at the problem. Many of the high end elliptical stylus cartridges are much more effective at reducing IGD than any amount of tweaking will fix. The Audio-Technica AT440MLA is highly recommended for about $185.
I followed your instructions and I'm not impressed with the sound
That's a bummer! There could be many reasons, but the most obvious might the quality or condition of the records you are playing. With many new releases, not much attention or care is put into the mastering or pressing of vinyl records. Often the studio will ship the same master as the CD to be pressed onto vinyl, which doesn't really give you any advantage. The quality of the plastics used in the records themselves might also be an issue—sometimes there are impurities which will make a brand new record sound like crap (fuzziness, hiss, distortion or lots of pops and clicks). It's really unfortunate, but internet forums are a great way to find out ahead of time if new releases have been pressed with quality in mind.
If you are buying old records, even if a record looks clean and in good condition, there may be microscopic damage and wear inside the grooves which can't be fixed.
If you are certain that you've followed all of the set up steps carefully, and you know that the record you are playing is good quality, then you might have a defective piece of equipment somewhere in your system. Further troubleshooting will be necessary, and I recommend the pros at the audiokarma.org forums for help.
Does vinyl really sound better than CDs?
I'm not touching this question with a 40-foot pole. All I'll say is that if you are looking to get into vinyl because you think it's a better medium than digital, I think you're getting into it for the wrong reasons.
Why do some records have large holes in the middle?
These are typically only found on 7" singles (usually called 45s—because they spin at 45 RPM). You will need a little disc called a 45 RPM adapter, which gets placed on the spindle of your turntable. Pretty much all turntables should come with one, but it may have gotten lost over time if you bought a vintage turntable.
It's important to note that you don't need a 45 RPM adapter to play records at 45 RPM speed—you only need the adapter to play records with the large spindle hole. It's a confusing naming choice, I know! Also, only use the 45 RPM adapter with records that have the large spindle hole. Don't try to play a regular record using this adapter (it won't work, and you'll damage your records).
Why are some records 33 RPM and others 45 RPM?
In the past, 45 RPM records were limited to 7" singles, but lately there have been more full size 12" albums (LPs) cut at 45 RPM. Why? Some people say they sound better, that's all.
Why are some records advertised as 180g (or higher)?
This just refers to the mass of the record. More mass means the record is thicker and is less prone to warping. Some people say that the grooves in 180-200 gram records are cut deeper which results in better sound, but this is a myth—all records are cut at the same depth.
I found a bunch of weird lookin' old records in my grandparents attic. Can I play those?
You probably found some 78s. These predate the common vinyl record and they are made out of shellac instead, which makes them very hard and brittle. They are also usually mono instead of stereo.
In order to play them, you need a turntable capable of spinning at 78 RPM and you need a special stylus. The least expensive one I've found is the Shure M78S cartridge for about $55, but you can also check if they make a special 78 stylus for your existing cartridge. LP Gear has quite a few.
I've never seen any 78s in excellent condition, so it's my opinion that you shouldn't spend too much trying to play them. And never try playing 78s with a regular stylus, unless you want to ruin it. Alcohol based record cleaning fluids will also destroy shellac records!
Questions or comments?
That pretty much covers my entire knowledge of turntables. I learned most of it from trial and error, plus plenty of my own research. I wrote this guide with beginners in mind, and I hope that I didn't piss off too many people by recommending <$100 turntables, or by saying that linear tracking models are worthless.
I'm open to suggestions if you can think of any way I can improve this blog post—after all, I'm still learning too. Please let me know if I've made any glaring mistakes or told any outright lies.