It eventually happens to all of us… We get bored with our setup. It’s not that it necessarily sounds bad; it’s just that it feels like you’ve been there and heard that.
Most of us tend to focus on our HiFi and turntable’s negatives over time. Surface noise, static, rounded-off highs and lows, and electrical interference are just some of the pet-peeves audiophiles deal with daily. However, minimizing and even eliminating these problems can be as easy as picking up a small add-on or upgrade.
Here’s a list of Herb n’ HiFi’s top 5 upgrades to help tighten up your turntable’s performance and sonic abilities.
**These upgrades focus more on standard turntables (low mass tonearm with counterweight, anti-skating, etc.), so if you are looking to upgrade an all in one like a Crosley Cruiser or an entry-level automatic TT like an AT-LP60, unfortunately, these upgrades won’t really work for those setups.
5. Upgrade your Cartridge
This might seem like a given, but I’ve discovered that many turntable owners (not audiophiles) don’t know that they could easily swap out their cartridge and/or stylus.
As your turntable’s “sound generator,” a new cart can dramatically change your deck’s sound signature. From adding more color to your sound to creating a flatter and more neutral soundstage, and everything in between, a cart upgrade, in my opinion, can serve as a complete turntable overhaul.
Taking it a step further, if you have a turntable with a standard (“S” shape bayonet) or a detachable headshell, you can easily cart swap by getting an extra headshell with your new cart. Personally, I swap between 4 different cartridges. That way, I can listen to specific genres with a dedicated cart, and I can switch it up when things start sounding a little too familiar.
If this is the first cartridge you’re swapping out, Herb n’ HiFi highly recommends the Ortofon 2M Red and Nagaoka MP-110 . They both retail for around $100 and are massive upgrades over standard entry-level cartridges.
4. Add a Weight or Clamp
I’ll admit, I was almost positive that weights and clamps were more snake oil than actual upgrades until I eventually tried one out for myself.
Both weights and clamps are intended to do the same thing, press the record down to the platter. The main difference between weights and clamps is that weights are heavier and are simply placed on top of the record, while clamps are lighter but screw on to the spindle to create a tight grip between the record and platter. There’s no real verdict as to which option is better, but from experience, I have a better listening experience from using weights as opposed to clamps.
Weights and clamps have a few advantages. Firstly, they help straighten out any slightly warped records. They won’t completely fix or flatten extreme warping, but they can help with minimal audible warps. Secondly, they add additional mass to the record, which creates the illusion of a heavier pressing and decreases resonance and helps with tracking (think heavy 180g audiophile pressings). Thirdly, since weights and clamps help with tracking and unwanted resonance, you get the added benefit of a tighter bass response.
When choosing between getting a clamp or a weight, I like to look at the turntable I’m planning on adding it to. If the turntable is a torquier direct-drive deck like an Audio Technica AT-LP120 or Technics SL-1200, I would suggest getting a record weight since DD motors can easily compensate for the added mass. Clamps are best for use with belt-drive turntables since their smaller motors tend to not have as much torque, so a heavy weight can slow it down, or worse, cause premature wear.
For weights, I use an Audio Technica AT618a Disc Stabilizer, that is used primarily on the Den’s SL-1200MK2. It has a rubber exterior that helps with any accidental bumps and adds around 600g or 1.3lbs of Weight. When it comes to clamps, I use a Record Doctor Record Clamp on my Fluance RT85. It’s made of injection-molded high-density plastic with a velvet ring to help protect the record label.
3. Switch up your mat
Today, most turntables come with either rubber or, worse, a felt platter mat, neither of which is optimal.
Rubber mats, while they help with dampening, resonance, and grip, can cause more static noise and are prone to embedded dust particles that can dirty and scratch your vinyl records. It’s better than felt options, but there are much better options out there for you to choose from.
Felt mats are, in my opinion, horrible! They are rough, can store a lot of static electricity, and can be abrasive. In short, they feel and behave like a Scotch Brite scrub sponge. A big pet-peeve of mine is seeing reputable brands like Rega, Pro-Ject, and Audio Technica packaging their turntables with basic, sub-par felt mats as standard. I understand that DJs need more slippage (they are commonly referred to as slip-mats), however, for in-home use, there aren’t really any advantages.
There are alternatives, and the aftermarket is flooded with excellent platter mat options. There’s cork, leather, acrylic, and even glass, and all of these options help with reducing static, dampening the platter, and are less abrasive than the standard felt and rubber mats.
Changing the mat also changes the sound, with cork and leather usually lending to fuller bass response while glass and acrylic tend to brighten up the highs and sound livelier.
For the past few years, I have been using a hybrid cork+rubber mat made by Tonar. The cork helps reduce static noises, and the added rubber bits provide a better grip on the record as opposed to a 100% cork mat. It also adds some weight and mass to the mat itself for better resonance dampening.
Overall, whichever material you choose, it will be a substantial upgrade over your base rubber or felt platter mats.
2. Antistatic Record Cleaning Arm
This one can seem like a stretch, but an antistatic record cleaning arm can be a pretty smart add-on to your turntable, especially if static buildup and dust are a constant problem for you.
It’s a pretty simple idea; a metal arm and counterweight with a brush on the tip that clears away any dust and discharges static electricity in real-time as the record is spinning. The arm comes with a grounding wire that you can bind next to your TT’s ground wire for optimal antistatic performance.
Back in the day, record cleaning arms were mostly made from horse and goat hair. Today they are 100% vegan and made out of the same plastic antistatic bristles found on handheld cleaning brushes.
Setup can be a little finicky, and overall esthetics are dependent on the turntable itself. I use a generic cleaning arm on my Technics SL-5200, and it works great at helping me get that “I can’t believe this is vinyl” listening experience, with minimal static and surface noise. However, when the time came to trick out the Den’s SL-1200MK2, I decided that the turntable’s design was too iconic to mess with and passed on the idea.
Before getting an antistatic record cleaning arm for yourself, make sure you have enough space on the top of your deck to fit it and that there is enough clearance to close the lid. YMMV.
1. Get a preamp/upgrade your phono preamp
Like the #1 spot on this list, this one might seem like a given to the more experienced turntablist. However, many turntable owners, especially modern turntable owners with decks equipped with onboard preamps, might not know how much an external phono preamp can change their vinyl records’ sound.
Until recently, I would refer to the built-in phono preamp on my receiver or integrated amplifier, but a Denon DL-103 moving coil (MC) cartridge forced me to look at other options since the MM only preamp in my Yamaha R-N303 Stereo Receiver wasn’t optimal. After some research, I found the Pro-Ject Phono Box, and I was very impressed by how it performed alongside the Denon. When I tried it on my Ortofon 2M Red MM cart, I was even more impressed since it elevated an already excellent sound signature that I was familiar with from my built-in preamp.
There are many preamp options out there at many different price points, ranging from $15 for a simple and basic preamp like the Pyle PP444, and can go up into the thousands of dollars for more high-end esoteric models. Personally, I think $80-$200 is a good price-point to start looking at for an at-home HiFi setup.
Recently I replaced the Phono Box with Pro-Ject’s Tube Box S2, which is a tube-based preamplifier. The Tube Box S2 sounds fantastic with that warm sound that only pure tube preamplification can provide. It is more on the pricey at around $450, but it goes to show you just how much a new preamp can drastically change your vinyl playback experiences.
There you have it. Herb n’ HiFi’s top 5 turntable upgrades to make your vinyl records sound better than ever.
Did we miss your favorite upgrade? Let us know what little tweaks and changes you made to your setup down in the comments below.
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