Get the best from your vinyl

How To

Get the best from your vinyl

Getting a turntable is the beginning of a beautiful journey into sound but like any other precision machine a turntable and the vinyl it plays benefit from careful treatment. Vinyl is a fabulous but fragile medium, one of the reasons that CD was able to change the music industry is that ill treated vinyl and poorly set up, inexpensive turntables made surface noise, pops and clicks loud and obtrusive. A well cared for vinyl record and a well set up, decent record player should not be noisy, it should be a portal to musical nirvana. The following products will help you achieve that goal.

Turntable set up

Getting the turntable level is the first stage of set up, choose a stiff but light shelf or table, or preferably an equipment support made for the purpose. We like the Quadraspire Q4 EVO Four Shelf Hi Fi Rack (£440) and Townshend’s fully isolating Seismic Stand, which if not the prettiest can transform any system and comes in a range of sizes (price on request). If budget is tight there is a surprisingly effective option at your local Scandinavian furniture store, the Ikea Lack was once a favourite among Linn LP12 users, which at £9 must make it something of a bargain.


Quadraspire Q4 EVO

Ikea Lack

Townshend Seismic Stand

If the stand can be adjusted level it using the feet, if not the turntable may have adjustable feet. To establish level you need a small, lightweight spirit level, the Ortofon Libelle (£6) is one of the least expensive options but one those that fit over the spindle in the middle of the platter make the job a lot easier, good examples are the Oyaide STB-EP (£35) or Blue Horizon ProLevel (£95).

Ortofon (left) and Blue Horizon bubble levels


If you have to the turntable on a heavy piece of furniture it pays to use a wall bracket like Custom Design’s WMB1 (£170) or Rega’s Turntable Wall Shelf (£99, Rega turntables only) or a platform such as the Townshend Sesimic Platform (£550), one of the very few that actually isolate the turntable from vibration.

Rega Wall Shelf

Townshend Seismic Platform

Alignment
Make sure your cartridge is aligned. If it was installed when you bought the turntable it should be OK but if you have had to replace it then it’s important that it’s at the right angle. If not it will wear the groove and make the vinyl noisy. There’s a video guide on cartridge installation and set up here. There is a number of alignment gauges on the market, ranging from the simple Polaris gauge (£9) to the comprehensive Clearaudio protractor (£185) and all points in between and beyond. You will need a 2mm allen key or perhaps a screw driver to adjust the bolts, if it’s the latter consider investing in stainless steel fixing bolts. They need to be tight and slot head screws are not so good for that.

 

Use the (correct) force
Make sure that the tracking force is correct for your cartridge by checking the information that came with it or looking it up online. If the tone arm has a calibrated downforce system you can use that by first balancing the cartridge so that it floats at approximately the height of the record and then dialling in the required downforce. If your arm doesn’t have a system for specifying downforce there are plenty of downforce gauges to choose from. The Shure SFG2 (£45) is the classic choice, alternatively digital gauges start at £58 with the Precision Digital model, as ever you can get carried away and if you want something a bit more serious check out the Rega Atlas (£175), a precision calibrated digital guage that was made for the job.

Shure SFG2

Rega Atlas

Mats
There is a range of aftermarket turntable mats on the market not including DJ slipmats. For my money it’s very hard to beat a felt mat, preferably one that’s 100% wool (keeps the vinyl warm!).  The Rega Felt Mat at £10 will improve most turntables that have a hard surface platter or even a rubber mat. Avoid piling one on top of the other however as that will throw vertical tracking angle out.

Keep it clean
Vinyl sounds best when it’s clean. Some are of the opinion that all you need to clean records is the needle in the groove, but it can pay to be a bit more fastidious than that. For a start it’s worth using anti-static inner sleeves that slip inside the paper sleeve that the vinyl comes in, Nagoaka No.102 (£30 for 50) are our choice. These reduce the tendency for dust to get into the groove in storage and as the name suggests minimise the tendency for static to act as a dust magnet. But these are only really appropriate for clean vinyl, new records or ones that have been cleaned.

With used vinyl it pays to clean before you play. A brush does this to an extent and anti-static brushes are better than most, we like the AM Clean Sound (£11.99) and Super Exstatic by Milty among others for around £20.  However, wet cleaning using a proprietary cleaning machine is a better approach. While some machines cost thousands of pounds there are some remarkably effective and affordable alternatives available. A favourite of mine is the Knosti Disco Antistat (£41), and not just because of the name. This is a simple, hand powered system of a bath for cleaning fluid with brushes in and a drying rack, unlike powered machines it doesn’t make a racket so you can listen while you clean, and it’s small and cheap.

If you want a serious clean prices start around £400 for the Okki Nokki that has a powered turntable, fluid, cleaning brushes and a vacuum system for removing the fluid. It’s a good device that doesn’t look too agricultural and isn’t too noisy. One of the best established brands in the vinyl cleaning business is Keith Monks, their machines have a thread that runs through a pivoting arm and sits in the groove, the thread slowly moving to take away the dirt that you loosen with fluid and a brush. Prices start at £1,795 for their entry level Discovery Microlight model.

Keith Monks Discovery One record cleaning machine

Hard core vinyl nuts might be tempted by a different type of machine that uses ultrasonic vibration to shake dirt out of the groove. The vinyl turns in a bath of cleaning fluid and the fluid itself is vibrated. This looks like a perfect solution as it avoids brushes that might scratch the vinyl, but naysayers dislike the fact that the dirt remains in the cleaning solution unless you change it for every record. But on paper this looks like the ultimate, mind you with prices starting at £2,295 for the Audio Desk version it would need to be.

Audio Desk Systeme record cleaner

Cleaning solutions
There are plenty of proprietary cleaning solutions on the market with prices that range from sensible to silly, our favourite is by Tonar and comes in at £16 for a litre. Alternatively Russ Andrews does a two part cleaning kit with brushes for £75.85. There are also a lot of home brew recipes available online, most require a combination of distilled water and isopropyl alchohol, the latter can be bought from chemists and the former is found in condenser tumble dryers. It can also be bought or made by collecting steam, see online for plenty of how tos. To make your own mix 800ml of distilled water with 200ml of isopropyl alchohol and 5ml of surfactant AKA photographic wetting agent such as Ilfotol and you will have just over a litre of record cleaning fluid. This can be used with one of the machines above or a simple record cleaning brush so long as you arrange some means for the vinyl to air dry.

Radial cleaners
The type that sit on the turntable and are put on the record at the same time it’s playing. In a word, no. They affect speed accuracy and end up distributing dust across a record that might have only been in one place.

Cables
Project turntables and a few others have sockets instead of a fixed cable coming from the arm. In these situations you can upgrade the interconnect cable and usually reap considerable benefits. There are a myriad cable options available but at the more affordable end of the market look at models from Chord Company (C-Line £35), Vertere (Dfi £160) and AudioQuest (Tower £23.50). The more expensive tonearms from SME and a few others have replaceable arm leads that require special plugs but again there are plenty of alternatives available. What you want in an arm cable is good shielding so that the tiny signal is not polluted, and alternative earthing arrangements so that hum problems can be addressed.

Chord Co Sarum tonearm cable

Power supplies
If you really want to get the best out of your vinyl then improving the quality of power supply to the turntable can work wonders. We like the Nottingham Analogue Wave Mechanic (£495), this sits between the incoming mains power and the turntable’s own power supply and cleans up the noise on the mains. It even includes a frequency adjuster that allows you to fine tune the speed of your turntable (not effective with all models of turntable).

Wave Mechanic power supply