So you've got a turntable, and you've got some records to play. Now what? To get the most out of your collection, you'll need to set up and maintain your turntable as well as care for your precious vinyl.
Here are some tools and techniques to get you started, as well as some additional equipment upgrades for when you're ready.
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, who brings us this tip, says that he's never had a label fall off in the many years he's done it. Rinse with fresh water once you're done, and lean 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 when you next buy a second-hand record.
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.
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 favours one side over the the other.
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 which means it prevents the record slipping and making that "wow" sound. It also places no extra strain on your turntable's motor.
If your turntable is sounding a little dull, with a lack of high-end (cymbals) it could either be that it's not set up properly, or that it needs a new stylus. Most turntables enable you to replace the needle without needing to return it. 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.
Ready for a new turntable? Crosley makes some cute ones that look like suitcases, but most of them sound ordinary.
A new one will not only give you better sound but usually better features, including a line out or maybe even USB connectivity. The Audio Technica AT LP60 (seen here) is our budget pick at $100, and the choices get more expensive from there.
It may not be obvious but not all phono pre-amps 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 Duo -- better dynamics and extended resolution over the phono input on our amplifier. While the headphone amp was a let-down with our Sennheiser HD6xx, it might be worthwhile getting if you need a MC input.
Otherwise, the $129 Schiit Mani is a cheaper, but nevertheless very well-received option.
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.
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 Sumiko Olympia ($199) is part of a new range of cartridges for the company, and it allows you to upgrade to a better stylus by simply removing the stylus assembly (the green part) -- no tools needed.
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 $280 Elac Debut 2s. Be aware you'll need an amp or receiver to drive them.
Getting a mid-range 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 duties of TV and music, then consider getting a receiver. It will also let you connect other peripherals via HDMI and playback of the latest digital formats and multi-room streaming.