We all make mistakes, and considering the inherent sensitivity of record players and the black discs themselves, it isn't surprising that they're relatively common in the hobby of vinyl playback. We aren't here to point fingers – boy, we've all made them at some stage in our lives and hi-fi reviewing careers – but being aware of mistakes brings you one step closer to being able to fix them. We hope that surfacing these common errors with record player set-up and vinyl care will help ensure you're getting the best sound quality from your record collection, or at least provide some reassurance that you're doing it all properly.
If you're setting up your turntable from scratch, it's worth visiting our dedicated page on how to set up your turntable. But for everyone else, let's dive into those four common mistakes...
Your turntable isn't completely level
Your record player's placement and positioning is crucial and getting this wrong is one of the costliest mistakes you can make. Indeed, if yours is resting on an uneven desk or sits in close proximity to other electronics, you might want to rethink your setup.
Turntables are, by nature, finicky things, so the surface your record player sits on really ought to be perfectly level so that the stylus tip can sit properly in a record groove. You can use a spirit level to check this.
If your support is level, then your turntable should be too (often, the platter position is fixed relative to the plinth during manufacture and so should be parallel to start with). If you do need to make a correction, most turntables have adjustable feet in each corner to help.
As well as being level, the support you use for your record player should be low resonance (i.e. less susceptible to vibrations) and as far away from sources of vibration as possible – including other electronics and your speakers. As we've already mentioned, a record player is hugely sensitive to vibrations so the aim is to try to isolate it from the floor and speakers.
Most turntables have some sort of isolation built into their design. At its crudest, that could be rubber feet, whereas the most effective (and expensive) example is a fully suspended design. But even the latter benefits from a good isolation support that will eat up those external vibrations before they can get to the turntable. We'd suggest acoustic isolators (feet), a dedicated platform, or a sturdy shelf.
Your cartridge tracking weight is too high or low
The amount of force a cartridge (or specifically, a cartridge's stylus) puts on the groove of a record is known as the 'tracking weight' or 'tracking force'. If a cartridge's tracking weight is too high, not only can it cause the sound to be thick and slow, but it can also damage the record over time by putting too much pressure on its grooves. If it is too low, the sound will be thin and insubstantial and can even cause the stylus to jump and damage your records. So you want to get it right.
Presuming the cartridge on your turntable is pre-fitted, as is more often the case than not these days, all you need to do is set the tracking weight by turning the counter-weight at the rear of the turntable's tonearm and adjusting the 'bias' (essentially the sideways force) to compensate for the natural inward pull of the record groove.
The tracking weight should be set according to the manufacturer’s recommendation, which is nearly always found in the manual and commonly between 1.5 and 2.5g (unless it's a DJ deck – then it's often heavier). This could, for example, read '1.8g', giving you an exact figure to set it to, though if an ideal range is provided, such as '1.6 - 2g', go for the measurement in the middle to start with and see how that fares.
Arm counter-weights typically come with markings to help you turn it to the right number, but if they don't, or if you really want to be accurate, we would suggest buying a dedicated cartridge gauge. Resting the stylus on the gauge's measuring pad, itself placed on the turntable platter, will show you the cartridge's tracking weight.
Your vinyl records are dirty
What's the point in spending all that effort (and probably money) on your turntable if your records don't sound their best? To reiterate our how to clean your records advice, carelessness with handling and storing your records can lead to scratches that cause unwanted pops and crackles. While a few here and there may add to that analogue vinyl experience, you don’t want so many that your listening is hampered.
Firstly, you should avoid touching a record's playing surface by using the outer edges to remove a record from its sleeve. We'd also make sure that the open end of a vinyl album's inner protective sleeve is positioned inwards, inside the outer cover rather than open to the elements. And generally, they should be stored in an environment that isn't dusty.
Dust on the record surface isn’t as serious as contaminants from your fingers sitting in the groove, but it's still good practise to use a record cleaning brush to get rid of it – especially as you don’t want too much dust being collected by the stylus. If this happens you'll find that the sound will distort noticeably.
You're using a poor phono stage
The last thing you want to do is to hold your record player back from performing to its maximum potential, and the external component most likely to do that will be the phono stage.
A phono stage (or phono preamp) is necessary for vinyl playback as it gives a turntable's output the boost it needs to work with amplifiers while equalising the tonal balance. Some record players have built-in phono circuits, but it's usually worth upgrading as soon as you can by bypassing them in favour of an external box or an amplifier with a phono stage built-in. Of course, either option is necessary if a record player doesn't have a phono circuit.
In light of vinyl's regained popularity, the majority of stereo amplifiers these days integrate phono stages. But be aware that, in some instances, this has led to their inclusion being more about box-ticking than actually maximising turntable performance. We advise you read amplifier reviews and do your homework before buying, particularly if your turntable is a frequently used source in your set-up.