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Best upgrades to improve the sound of your record player, starting at free

You've got the turntable. You've got some records. Now what?

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Ty Pendlebury
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1 of 21 Josh Miller/CNET

Make your records sound better than ever

To get the most out of your record collection, setting up and maintaining your turntable is simple, and it costs next to nothing! 

Here are some tools and techniques to get you started, as well as some additional equipment upgrades for when you're ready. 

Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the products featured on these pages.

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2 of 21 Josh Miller/CNET

Level your turntable

Price: Free and up

Ensuring your turntable is level is one of the most basic steps of setup. You can try doing it by eye, but a bubble level is much better. I've had limited success with the free apps available on the App Store and Google Play, and found "analog" is much better. For example, Amazon has a well-reviewed Diskeeper bullseye level for five bucks (plus shipping).

Just place the level on your platter and move the turntable so that it's horizontal. If it doesn't have adjustable feet, use coins or even a pad of post-it notes (!) to get it right.  

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3 of 21 Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Clean your records with soap and water

Price: Free

The easiest hack here is also the cheapest. Washing your records! All you need is warm water, a squirt of dish soap and a lint-free glasses cleaner or your fingers (wash your hands first). Avoid the label if you can, but the Audiophiliac says that he's never had a label fall off in the many years he's been doing it. Rinse with fresh water once you're done, then lean it somewhere clean to dry.

While you wouldn't want to clean your records on each play, it's worthwhile to do it every couple of years, and especially whenever you buy a second-hand record.

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4 of 21 Hudson Hi-Fi

Alignment protractor

Price: Free and up

An alignment protractor makes sure that the stylus inside your cartridge is aligned with the groove. Without it, you might experience inner groove distortion or a lopsided stereo image as the stylus favors one side over the the other. 

If your turntable has a fixed headshell that screws or plugs directly into your turntable's tonearm, you may be able to skip this step. Otherwise you'll need one of these. 

You can download free alignment protractors here and here, or pick up the cute turntable mat above for $18.

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5 of 21 Ikea

Furniture

Price: $10 and up

Still playing your turntable on the floor? Get a table! The Ikea Lack costs around 10 bucks, and it offers a sturdy (enough) base to put your player on.

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6 of 21 Amazon

Stylus gauge

Price: $12

You don't need to spend $100 or even $50 on a stylus gauge. Amazon has a whole slew of digital stylus gauges for around $12

Place the gauge on your turntable platter, put the stylus on the pad, then adjust the counterweight to dial in the correct weight. Your turntable's instruction manual should detail how much "tracking force" to apply (usually measured in grams).

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7 of 21 Audioquest

Record brush

Price: $10-$20 

One of the easiest and best ways to keep your records at their best is to buy a record-cleaning brush. The recently upgraded Audioquest Anti Static Brush ($20) spirits away dust via carbon fibers and static using gold contacts in the handle.

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8 of 21 Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Record clamp

Price: $30

Hands up if you have at least one warped record in your collection. The Clearaudio Clever Clamp uses friction to hold your record on the platter preventing it from slipping and producing that "wow" sound. And the clamp places no extra strain on your turntable's motor, unlike record weights. 

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9 of 21 Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Get those records off the floor

Price: $40

The Ikea Kallax offers four compartments that are perfectly sized to fit your vinyl records (it will hold roughly 200 albums). There's also space for a turntable on top.

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10 of 21 Spin Clean

Spin Clean LP washer

Price: $80

If you're buying used records or cherry-picking older relatives' LP collections, this record-cleaning machine would be a great option. 

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11 of 21 Ty Pendlebury/CNET

Replace the stylus (needle)

Price: varies

If your turntable is sounding a little dull with a lack of high-end (cymbals) in particular, it could either be that it's not set up properly, or maybe it needs a new stylus. 

Most turntables allow you to replace the needle without needing to return the whole unit. Check your manual for the name of the replacement part. Even if your turntable is really old, there are usually third-party options for the most popular models. Try LP Gear.

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12 of 21 Sarah Tew/CNET

Budget turntable

Price: $100 and up

Ready for a new turntable? A new model can not only give you better sound but usually better features, including a line-level out or maybe even USB connectivity. Forget Crosley -- the Audio Technica AT LP60 is our budget pick at $100.

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13 of 21 Sumiko

Upgrade your cartridge

Price: $100 and up

A different cartridge is a great way to try a new sound without having to buy a whole new table. But of all the tweaks it's also the one most fraught with peril: Headshell wires are delicate and it's easy to tear them off. Not confident? It's worth paying someone to do it for you. 

The Goldring E3 is the top of the company's entry-level series and offers a smooth, very balanced sound.

The Sumiko Olympia ($199) is part of a new range of cartridges for the company, and like the Goldring, it allows you to upgrade to a better stylus by simply removing the stylus assembly (the green part) -- no tools needed.  

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14 of 21 Cambridge Audio

Get a phono preamp

Price: $100 and up

It may not be obvious, but not all phono preamps are created equal. If your turntable has a switchable preamp input it's worth experimenting with a better one. 

We had good results with the $300 Cambridge Audio Alva Duo -- better dynamics and extended resolution over the phono input on our amplifier. While the headphone amp struggled driving our Sennheiser HD6xx, the unit might be worthwhile getting over the cheaper Alva Solo if you need a MC input.

Alternatively, the $129 Schiit Mani is an affordable, well-reviewed option. 

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15 of 21 Sarah Tew/CNET

Headphones

Price: $100 and up

New speakers or headphones are the biggest upgrades of all. There's so many different kinds that it can be overwhelming, so try CNET's best headphones lists first. 

For the money, our current go-to is the Sennheiser x Massdrop HD 6XX ($220) which offers a supremely realistic and musical soundstage. It's also great with TV.

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16 of 21 Lee Shelly

Headphone amp

Price: $100 and up

Stepping up to a dedicated headphone amp means everything inside the box is designed to make headphones sound better. The Schiit Magni 3 headphone amp-stereo preamplifier is a cute little critter, and we've heard it can drive headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 6xx without issue. 

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17 of 21 NAD

Upgrade your amp

Price: $150 and up

Getting a stereo amplifier enables you to connect hi-fi speakers, and this offers both better sound and true stereo separation. Most are fairly large but compact models can also be had.

The NAD D 3020 V2 seen here is an upgrade to our favorite compact digital amp, and it now includes a phono input! The flagship NAD M10 ($2,749) is even more fun, but you will need a phono amp for that.

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18 of 21 Sarah Tew/CNET

Upgrade your speakers

Price: $100 and up

The sky's the limit for how much you can spend on a pair of speakers. But if you're looking to make your records sound clearer, you might want to start with the $300 Elac Debut 2.0 B6s. Be aware, you'll need an amp or receiver to drive them. 

See CNET's best speakers for 2020.  

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19 of 21 Sarah Tew/CNET

Get a midrange 'table

Price: $300 and up

Getting a midrange turntable gives you better build quality, better sonics and the ability to upgrade components if you're looking to tweak. The $300 Fluance RT82 is a great turntable offering excellent features and sound quality for the money.

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20 of 21 Sarah Tew/CNET

Get a receiver

Price $400 and up

If your system pulls double duty for TV and music, then consider getting a receiver. It will let you connect other peripherals via HDMI and enable playback of the latest digital formats and multiroom streaming.

The Onkyo TX-NR696 has a phono preamp and sounds great. 

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21 of 21 Rega

High-end table

Price: $1,000 and up

Stepping up to a higher-quality turntable brings with it both improved sound and nicer aesthetics.  

Where does the "high-end" begin? Arguably it's at the $1K mark, and one of the best options at the price is the Rega Planar 3.

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