Vinyl 101: Why Does My Record Player Sound Bad

Vinyl 101: Why Does My Record Player Sound Bad

The sound quality of a turntable in pristine shape is unbeatable. There’s something deeply grounding and all-consuming about listening to vinyl records and letting the noise wash over you. Between the phono stage and the physical act of lowering the tonearm onto a new record, an analog listening experience just hits differently. That is when your hi-fi setup is in good shape. Things are markedly different when you’re asking yourself “Why Does My Record Player Sound Bad?”

When a record player starts producing shoddy playback, it can be equal parts unpleasant and concerning. You may be wondering what the bad sound means, where it’s coming from, and how to fix it. Luckily, there are lots of simple actions you can take to pinpoint the source of the problem, and prevent it in the future.

So, let’s dive into all the possible causes of different record player sounds, and how to fix them.

Make sure your record player is level

This may sound deeply obvious, but a lot of subpar vinyl sound is simply caused by an uneven set-up. When a turntable is tilted, the needle drags on the inner walls of the record grooves and causes distortion. If you feel unsure about whether a surface is flat, using a level (like the Level It from Project) can make your troubleshooting easy as pie.

Check the speed

This one is super simple, but if you have a record player that plays both 33 RPM vinyl and 45 RPM vinyl, there’s always a possibility you accidentally have it on the wrong setting.

Check the record itself

A dirty record is one of the most common culprits for distorted sound. Check the surface of the record in direct light to see if you can spot any debris. Even if you don’t visibly spot grime, cleaning your record can produce better sound regardless. In fact, if you haven’t been cleaning your records with an anti-static brush after each listen (like the Brush It from Pro-ject), it’s ideal to start now. Even letting an album go a few plays without a cleaning can cause light dust build-up, which blocks the stylus from fully reading the record grooves, ending in distortion.

As obvious as it may sound, regularly deep cleaning your records is one of the best ways to both fix and prevent bad sound quality. If you decide to go for a high-quality record cleaning machine like the VC-E Compact Vinyl Record Cleaning Machine, you’ll be able to thoroughly clean them in minutes. 

Prioritizing this extra step to take care of your records is ultimately going to make your collection last longer, breathe new life into used vinyl, and adress a lot of sound issues. 

Check the stylus

The turntable stylus creates an electrical signal from the carvings on the record, and sends it out to your phono preamp to eventually blast through your speakers. So, when your record crackles, the stylus is one of the most common culprits. Much like the record itself, you’ll want to inspect the needle in direct light to see if there’s any dustballs or dirt on the needle causing distortion or crackle. If you spot dirt do NOT use your hands to take it off, this could easily damage it or spread new dirt to the stylus. It’s best to use a stylus cleaning brush while cleaning your stylus (like this Sumiko Anti-Static brush on Amazon). If you don’t already, you’ll want to start regularly cleaning your stylus to prevent build-up or damage to the needle.

If cleaning the stylus doesn’t change the sound, you’ll also want to check to see if the needle has become crooked or damaged. If it’s visibly damaged, that’s a surefire sign it’s been causing your sound issues. Using an old or damaged stylus too long can also cause damage to your records, so it’s best to buy a new stylus if you know it’s for sure the root. 

As a rule, if you purchase a used record player, it’s always recommended you buy a new stylus. This prevents you from wearing out your records without realizing it, and gives you the chance to keep track of what audio components are up to date. It’s generally recommended that you buy a new stylus after 1,000 hours of playback. So, if you listen an hour a day, that means roughly every three years you’ll want to replace your stylus. If you listen hours a day, you’ll want an annual tune-up (the type of turntable cartridge you have also affects this).

Make sure your cartridge is aligned

If the stylus and record itself aren’t causing your turntable sounds, it may be a misaligned cartridge. While a lot of new turntables come with pre-aligned cartridges, if you aligned the cartridge yourself or received it from a friend, it could be the culprit. If a cartridge is improperly aligned, it causes the stylus doesn’t track correctly in the groove, which causes distortion.

To pinpoint whether the phono cartridge is happily aligned, you’ll need to inspect the wiring and connection to the headshell pins. While it might sound intimidating, the process of aligning your cartridge is relatively straightforward. You’ll just need patience and two simple tools, a stylus force gauge (like the Measure It from Project USA), and the Align It

You’ll use the cartridge protractor to align the tonearm across the two null points where the stylus lines up perfectly with the linear cut record groove. Once this is completed, your sound will be back on track. If this doesn’t help, you may also want to check your tracking force and anti-skate settings. 

Check your belt (if you have one)

If your turntable uses a belt, you’ll want to make sure it hasn’t loosened over time. A turntable belt that has loosened over time will turn the platter at the wrong speed, which can cause wobbly or slow playback. If you’re unsure whether your turntable has a belt, you can either check the user manual, or look underneath the platter (this is where the belt drive is). Unfortunately, if the belt is loose, you’ll need to buy a replacement. The most efficient way to do this is to Google search the turntable name and model number alongside “belt.”  

Check if your turntable needs to be grounded

Moonstone on Debut Carbon EVO Turntable

Buzzing or humming sounds are often caused by a vintage turntable that needs to be grounded. Loose connections between the tonearm and cartridge can also cause hum, so you’ll want to check this first. 

If the wires connecting the tonearm and cartridge are secure, and the hum persists, then you’ll want to ground your turntable. In layman’s terms, a grounding wire is a single wire you can attach to your turntable chassis and amplifier to prevent ground loops and hum. The process of grounding a turntable is super simple, so you can easily fix this issue!

Check your phono input

A simple mismatch between your cable outputs and inputs can result in a bad sound record. You’ll either hear quiet tinny playback, or a major boost. If you have a built-in preamp, it should be set to “phono” with the RCA cables plugged into the “phono” input on your receiver. If you have RCA cables plugged into an Aux input, then you would put the built-in preamp on the “line” setting.

If your turntable doesn’t have a built-in phono stage, you’ll need a separate phono preamp (or a receiver/amplifier with a phono input) to correctly channel the signal.

Check your amplifier or speaker

It can be a little trickier to diagnose sound issues caused by amplifiers or speakers. A lot of amplifiers have built-in equalization, which can cause distortion if poorly set. To figure out whether your amplifier or speakers are causing the issue, plug a set of headphones into the amp and listen. If the sound is clean, then the speakers are the issue. If adjusting the equalization on your stereo system doesn’t help with sound, it’s also worth checking if you chose the right speaker and amp combo for your set up. Even the most scrupulous audiophile can overlook a basic compatibility issue, especially if you’re on a budget or buying components at separate times.

When to throw in the towel

If you feel like you’ve checked every box and can’t fix your sound, there’s also a chance it’s simply time for a new turntable. Even the best turntables have a shelf-life, particularly if multiple parts are damaged or need replacing. 

Investing in a high-quality but entry-level turntable like the Pro-ject Debut Carbon can simplify your set-up by giving you a full update. As with most things, when it comes to sound, you often get what you pay for. So, refreshing your equipment to enjoy a good record is sometimes the only way to go. And all it takes is one frustrating listen to a CD player before you remember why vinyl is worth it.


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