Record player lovers know the struggle of having to pinpoint the reason behind the sound quality drop. The reason could be anything, and even when you do find what you suspect is wrong and fix it, the bad quality persists as if it’s intentionally trying to annoy you!
I remember my confused panic when my turntable sounded strange for the first time. I kept cluelessly checking the internals, the speakers, and the records. Eventually, I got a friend to take care of it for me.
However, with time, I learned how to arrange my thoughts so I could quickly diagnose the core of the problem. So, if you’re googling “why does my record player sound bad,” you’ve come to the right place.
Record players sound bad for a variety of reasons. You could be having needle, cartridge, amplifier, or belt issues. Additionally, the problem could be as simple as a broken speaker or an improper placement of your record player.
So, Why Does My Record Player Sound Bad?
1. Needle Issues
Needle issues are the most common cause for a record player to sound bad. I ran into most of the problems in this list, but 7 out of 10 times, the problem was with the needle.
Here’s how your needle can mess up your sound experience:
Worn Out Needle
A worn-out needle is inevitable, especially if you tend to use your record player for extended periods. Needles are supposed to track the grooves on the record and then generate an electric signal that the amplifier uses to produce music.
Whether your needle is from high-quality materials like diamond or low-grade plastic, it will wear out with time.
I had an NP6 needle that was advertised to have a 1000-hour lifetime. However, my ears started to notice a sound quality reduction much earlier than the expected lifetime.
What I discovered later on, was that it’s not a problem with the NP6 needle itself. All needles should be replaced a bit earlier than the manufacturer suggests. That’s to preserve both the sound quality and the safety of your records.
How early you should replace the needle is a matter of preference. I change mine as soon as my ears start to notice a considerable quality difference. That was often around half the advertised period.
Related: How can I replace my NP6 Needle?
A broken needle will cause an unpleasant change in the sound quality of your record player.
Unlike a wearing needle, a broken needle won’t gradually change the quality. Instead, the sound will be so different that you’ll notice the difference instantly.
Broken needles often result from accidentally running your needle on the rubber platter mat without a record on it.
Sound quality shouldn’t be your only concern here. A broken needle will damage your record much more than a worn-out needle.
Fortunately, it’s also much easier to discover. A badly damaged needle will be blunt, and you may even notice that it’s bent or out of place. So as soon as you spot a broken needle, you should change it immediately.`
A dusty needle is an issue that goes unnoticed by most people. That happens because most dust accumulating on the needle is on a micro level that goes unnoticed.
A dusty needle will distort the sound and damage the needle and the vinyl itself. So it’s always worth cleaning your needle at least once a week.
There are dedicated cleaning solutions just for record player needles, but they could be too expensive for some people. Instead, I prefer using a soft brush and a detergent-free sponge to clean my needle.
Cleaning the needle is straightforward. All you have to do is to dip the needle a few times inside the sponge. You’d be surprised how much dust could have accumulated on your needs.
After dipping the needle, simply use the brush to give the needle that extra cleaning to ensure it’s ready for more music.
2. Incompatible cartridge
There are two types of cartridges for record players; moving magnet (MM) and moving coil (MC) cartridges.
Naturally, you will hear distortion if you use the wrong cartridge type, like an MC cartridge for an MM record player or vice versa.
MM cartridge are the most common, and most record players are compatible with them. Still, it’s always worth reading the user’s manual if you need to replace the cartridge for any reason.
3. Record Issues
Records are pieces of hardware, and, unfortunately, most pieces of hardware will experience some issues sooner or later.
There are two types of issues that could make your record itself sound bad.
Worn Out Records
A worn-out record is a painful realization for any vinyl lover. But unfortunately, the problem sometimes is that you have played your precious vinyl to the point where the record itself is no longer playable.
When I first got my turntable, I almost completely stopped listening to anything digital. Instead, I switched my entire experience to vinyl records, only to be slammed in the face when I wore out multiple records simultaneously.
Spotting a worn-out record isn’t difficult; you’ll notice how the needle slides out of the grooves from time to time. Additionally, if you compare a new record to a worn-out one, you’ll notice a much flatter surface on the worn-out record.
Unfortunately, the only solution to this was to buy new records. I recommend not overusing your vinyl. Digital music will do the trick most of the time.
Putting too much music into one record can come at the expense of the sound quality. Your record player is fine, and so is the tonearm and amplifier, but the sound quality is just too low.
That’s often the problem with the recording process itself. It’s easy to pinpoint the problem with a particular vinyl by just trying another one. If the sound quality comes back, then the problem is with the bad vinyl itself.
A dirty record is one of the sneakiest culprits of sound distortion. If your record is too dirty, your needle won’t read the grooves correctly, resulting in a bad sound.
To clean your record, use a soft brush and just let it run over the record as it spins. Never apply too much pressure to avoid damaging the vinyl.
As a general rule, you should clean your record every time you’re about to play it. If you don’t do that, more and more dust will accumulate on it.
Additionally, don’t hold your vinyl by placing your fingers on the playable surface. The oil on your fingers will stick the dust in the grooves and make cleaning them harder.
If your vinyl is too dirty for the brush cleaning to take care of it, you may need to use a cleaning solution and a soft piece of cloth for deeper cleaning.
Related: Do vinyl records scratch easily?
4. Record Player Belt Issues
Record players utilize belts to spin the records. These belts should be tight around the spinning shafts to keep your record playing at ideal speeds.
With time, the belts will loosen and won’t spin the shafts at the required speed. This will slow down the spinning of your platter and, in turn, the record spinning speed.
A slow spinning record will sound wobbly or strange, as if you have slightly slowed down a YouTube video.
Fortunately, belts are easy to buy and replace. You can get someone to install it for you or easily do it yourself.
All you have to do is remove the rubber layer and the platter. Then remove the old belt and install the new one.
5. Positioning Issues
Not having my record player on a level surface was one of the dumbest reasons I had for distorting sounds.
I often have many books lying around occasionally. Sometimes, I’d place my record player on one of the books only to notice a strange noise coming up. Thinking there was something loose in there, I picked up my record player and gave it a little shake near my ear.
I heard nothing, so I placed it on the table, only for the noise to disappear. That’s when my brain started to put things together.
I placed the player on the book again, and the noise returned. As simple as this sounds, an uneven surface will force your needle to incorrectly drag in the grooves of the vinyl, which, in turn, distorts the noise.
6. Speaker Issues
Speakers could break down at one point and make anything sound bad or distorted. Luckily, if they’re indeed the problem, they’re easy to pinpoint.
I had a sound problem with my speaker once, and I searched every inch of my record player for the issue with no success.
I phoned a friend who was in town, and he stopped by and showed me that the solution was right under my nose the whole time. All he did was try to play some music on my speaker using his phone, and to my surprise, the sound was still terrible.
He then pulled out a small set of speakers from his trunk and plugged it into my record player, and everything was fine.
Don’t forget to check your speakers if you can’t find an issue with your record player. Fixing a broken speaker generally requires some cost analysis. Then, depending on the damage, you should decide whether the speaker is worth repairing or if it’s time for an upgrade.
7. The Surface Noise
The surface noise isn’t actually a problem. Instead, it’s something that any record player will have to deal with, especially when the tonearm is close to the center of the vinyl.
I was pulling out an all-nighter once to finish all my procrastinated paperwork. Fueled by three cups of doubled coffee, all my senses were more alert than usual.
Towards the end of the night, I noticed that the sound quality had slightly reduced, not to the distorting point, but it still bothered me.
Thinking that maybe the current song was badly recorded, I just held the tone arm and took it away from the center of the vinyl. The sound quality instantly came back.
So, I just put the needle back on, which I thought was a badly recorded song, and slugged through it, only for my ears to notice that the quality was getting worse and worse.
With some reading, I figured out why.
Do you remember when I mentioned in the beginning that the needle tracks the grooves of the record to generate an electric signal?
It turns out that the closer the needle gets to the middle of the record, the shorter the wavelength of that electric signal gets. That, in turn, reduces the sound quality a little.
Don’t worry; the sound distortion isn’t that bad. It usually shouldn’t bother anyone. But the house was just too silent, and my caffeine-fueled ears were looking for any abnormal sound.
8. Preamp and Amplifier Issues
Preamp and amplifier issues could be a little tricky as you often realize them by the method of elimination. Since you can’t easily open your amplifier and fix it yourself, you should exclude every other reason on our list first before you accuse the amplifier of being the culprit.
That being said, amplifier capacitors can burn out with time. Additionally, dust can accumulate inside and mess up the sound production process.
At this point, the problem will either be in the amplifier, the preamplifier, or both. If you’re using an external preamp with a headphone jack, it will make detecting the problem much easier.
Simply plug in a set of headphones and see if the distortion goes away. If it does, then the problem is in the amplifier. If it doesn’t, then the problem could be in the preamplifier.
Unfortunately, if the preamp doesn’t have a headphone jack and you don’t have the necessary skills to open up your record player, you’ll have to take it to someone to fix it.