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.
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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 5 bucks.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 making that "wow" sound. And the clamp places no extra strain on your turntable's motor, unlike record weights.
If your turntable is sounding a little dull with a lack of high-end (cymbals) in particular, it could either be: 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 or Needle Doctor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting a midrange turntable gives you better build quality, better sonics and the ability to upgrade components if you're looking to tweak. The $399 Pro-Ject Debut Carbon is a great starter 'table, and upgrading the platter with a Acryl-It ($120) or a new cartridge will make it sound even better.
If your system pulls double-duty for TV and music, then consider getting a receiver. It will also let you connect other peripherals via HDMI and enable playback of the latest digital formats and multiroom streaming.