Why Do My Vinyl Records Sound Bad?

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Q I received an el-cheapo Victrola Vintage turntable for Father’s Day. Bypassing the built-in speakers, I eagerly connected the turntable’s RCA outputs to an auxiliary input on my Denon AVR X4200W receiver and played “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Queen’s Greatest Hits. I expected to be greeted by the warm, crackly sound of vinyl playing through my GoldenEar Technology Aon 3s (with help from a 12-inch JL Audio E-Sub), but instead heard a shrill, disappointing mess that lacked low-end and had virtually no stereo image. Comparing the vinyl to a Hi-Res digital recording I own of the same track, the vinyl sounded more like AM radio. Here’s my question: is vinyl all hype, or am I the victim of a low-end turntable? —Chris Wilson, Alpharetta, GA  

A First things first: You say that you connected the turntable’s RCA outputs to an auxiliary input on your Denon receiver, but did you maybe connect it to the receiver’s phono input instead? If the latter is the case, then it’s possible you are overloading the Denon’s phono preamp, which is designed to take a low-level signal generated by a pickup cartridge on turntable’s tonearm and amplify it to line-level. That mismatch could account for the shrill, disappointing sound you’re hearing when playing records, so check to see that the turntable really is connected to an auxiliary input and try playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” again.

As for your question about vinyl being all hype, the answer is no — records played on a good, properly set-up turntable can sound fantastic. Vinyl definitely is trendy, though. That’s why mall stores like Urban Outfitters now sell turntables and display racks of vinyl records. That said, some records do sound better than others, especially ones that are clean and in good condition (little or no scratches or surface scuffs).

The real possibility here is that you are the victim of a low-end turntable. Those cute, vintage-style “suitcase” record players that Urban Outfitters and other chain stores sell use cheap ceramic cartridges with a high tracking weight — typically much higher than the 1.5-2.5-gram range that’s standard for moving-magnet cartridges. Also, the tonearm doesn’t provide adjustments, and there’s no anti-skate mechanism — a feature that helps keep the cartridge’s needle situated in the center of the record groove. Lastly, the higher output provided by ceramic cartridges lets the manufacturer cut costs by skipping out on a built-in phono preamp, a feature that also provides RIAA equalization for accurate sound reproduction when playing LPs.

So, not only do el-cheapo turntables like the one you were gifted for father’s day generally sound bad, they can damage your records due to the cartridge applying excessive weight and uneven wear on an LP’s grooves. Got your gift receipt? Return the suitcase and buy a decent budget turntable like the Audio-Technica AT‑LP120‑USB . Your record collection will thank you.

Tommy Lee's picture

I think it's pretty clear that this guy just hooked up his turntable to the aux inputs, probably because his receiver doesn't have phono inputs. Anyone with a basic knowledge of vinyl realizes that you need a phono preamp to boost the signal from the cartridge to a usable level and apply the RIA equalization curve before feeding the signal to the amp. The bad sound he describes is exactly what you would hear without this processing.
You should have just told him to check for phono inputs on his receiver. Many receivers today don't have them. If there are none, and the turntable doesn't have a phono preamp built in, he will need to buy a separate phono preamp.

uavAVTheaterGuy's picture

This unit, the AVRX4200W is actually the first receiver in the DENON X200 series line-up to offer a PHONO input with Ground connection.

Tommy Lee's picture

...so Chris, just plug your turntable into the phono inputs and see what happens!