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How to set up your home turntable station for killer vinyl sound

A guide for making your records sound better than ever.

A record player Credit: Reviewed / Jackson Ruckar

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Setting up a turntable, or a record player, for the first time can seem daunting. Unlike so many of our music tech devices today, the process is much more involved than simply powering it on and syncing with Bluetooth. Whether you’re a first-time turntable owner or you’re making upgrades to your current system and need a refresher, we’re here to walk you through the process.

What you’ll need

To listen to your favorite records, you’ll need more than just a turntable. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll need a set of speakers.
However, the signal coming from your turntable is much too low to be heard through a pair of speakers on its own. The signal needs to be boosted—and sent to an amplifier—before you can hear it.

A phono preamplifier, commonly referred to as a preamp, is a small audio component that boosts the signal. Even once it’s boosted, it’s still not strong enough for a set of speakers to take over. The preamp has to connect to an amplifier, which does the job of strengthening the signal and making it speaker-ready. Finally, the speakers can convert this data into the sounds we can hear.

Determine what you have

The backside of a turntable
Credit: Rega

The Rega Planar 1 Plus (pictured here), comes with a built-in preamp, so all you need to do is connect speakers to the turntable. (Assuming your speakers have a built-in amp, that is.)

While it’s true that every turntable setup requires these four things, a turntable, a preamp, an amplifier, and a set of speakers, you may not need to make four separate purchases based on the turntable you have.

Some turntables, like the Rega Planar 1 Plus, come with a built-in preamp. When this is the case, you don’t need to buy an external one. Before you start setting up your turntable, read your owner’s manual to find out if your turntable already has a preamp.

Powered speakers, like the Kanto YU6, also have built-in amplifiers. Unless your speaker’s owner manual explicitly states that it has a built-in amplifier, you can assume they are passive speakers, not powered speakers, and that you will need an amplifier.

When a turntable has a built-in preamp and speakers have a built-in amplifier, setup becomes much easier. All you have to do is connect your turntable to your speakers! However, audiophiles prefer these devices to be separate, as it gives you much more control over your system’s sound.

Make sure your turntable is level

After you unbox your turntable and read the owner’s manual, it’s time to prep your turntable for use. One of the most helpful things you can do for your system’s sound is to make sure your turntable is level. If the table or media station you’ve chosen for your turntable isn’t level, sound accuracy will be compromised. Use a common torpedo level to check your surface. Then, check the turntable. Some turntables have adjustable feet which can help make it level if it’s not quite there yet.

Attach the turntable’s belt-drive

Most turntables built for at-home-listening have a belt drive. Belt drives are a pair of pulleys that create the spinning motion for your turntable’s platter, which is the platform where you place your records.

To start spinning records, you have to attach the belt drive. Lift the platter and flip it around so that you see its underside. The underside will have a ridge for the (included) ribbon-like belt to go around. Meanwhile, the base of the turntable will have a protruding motor pulley. Once the belt is attached to the platter, flip the platter back around and, before you place it down, loop the belt around the motor pulley.

Set up the turntable’s tonearm

A close up of a record player needle cartridge
Credit: Reviewed / Joanna Nelius

Keep the cartridge perfectly level with the turntable for the best sound.

You might already be familiar with a turntable’s tonearm even if you don’t know its given name. The tonearm is the adjustable wand that brings the needle into contact with the record you're playing. Depending on the turntable model you’ve bought, you may have to set up the tonearm yourself.

Setting up the tonearm is broken up into two tasks. First, you attach the cartridge,a small device containing the needle that translates the grooves of your record into an electrical signal, to the front-facing side of the wand. Installing the cartridge is easy; it should gently snap into place.

Next, you’ll have to balance the tonearm with the counterweight, a circular weight that slides onto the back end of the tonearm. To make sure the tonearm is balanced correctly, move the tonearm off its rest. When the counterweight is where it’s supposed to be, the tonearm will be horizontally balanced.

If the cartridge end of the tonearm is drooping down too low, you need to move the counterweight back a bit. However, if the cartridge end of the tonearm is pointing skyward, the counterweight needs to be moved forward. While this step can seem nit-picky, a balanced tonearm dramatically increases sound quality.

Connect the preamp and amplifier

Now that your turntable is established, it’s time to connect to your preamp and amplifier. Take the RCA cables that are attached to your turntable and plug them into the preamp’s input audio jacks. If your turntable has a grounding wire, connect that to your preamp as well. Then, with another set of cables, connect the preamp’s output to one of the amplifier’s inputs.

Set up your speakers

A stand-alone audio speaker next to a turntable
Credit: Kanto

Remember: Red connects to red, black connects to black.

Your speaker wires will look different than the RCA cables you used to set up your preamp. Speaker wires have bare wire exposed at their ends. Your speakers will have knobs on the back that untwist and give you a small opening to insert the bare wire.

To secure the wires, twist the knobs back in place. One knob will be red, with a positive sign, and the other knob will be black, with a negative sign. Pay attention to which wire you inserted in which knob because when you connect your speaker wires to the amplifier, positive has to match up with positive, and negative has to match up with negative.

Test your records

Each of these steps is designed so that, when you listen to your records, you are getting high-quality, accurate sound. The best turntable setups won’t fool your ears by making a poor-quality record sound good. Instead, they take the information from the record and reflect it to you, no matter what its integrity is.

To test your new turntable home audio system, pick out one of your most beat-up, low-quality records and one of your best ones. Play them both, and notice how they sound. If your setup was successful, the listening experience of each record should be quite different.

Turntables, and the equipment it takes to set them up, are sensitive. If something doesn’t sound right to you, keep tinkering. The goal is to fine-tune a system that sounds good to your ears.

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