Troubleshooting Vinyl Playback Issues
When we hear about playback issues the common theme always seems to be related to turntables with a lack of tonearm weight / tracking force adjustments. If you own an entry level turntable (something you bought off Amazon for a couple hundred dollars) it's likely your turntable doesn't have tonearm adjustments.
Not all turntables are created equally.
People seem to get defensive when you inform them that certain issues can be caused by their turntable. We have over 40,000 records in our possession, and spend 10 hrs+ a day playing vinyl, we have a certain level of experience and are simply trying to assist you in not only solving your problem but protecting the investment you've made in your record collection so far. While you may not experience these issues on every record you own that doesn't mean your turntable can properly play every record, or is properly calibrated to and that you won't run into playback problems. It also doesn't mean you aren't damaging the records you are having no issue playing. Records are not like CD's where you can buy the cheapest CD player and it will play anything without issue. And a quality turntable is not one you just pull out of the box and start using with zero calibration, this is why a turntable with, at the very least, tonearm adjustments is important.
Why is this important?
This is important because these entry level machines are manufactured with a set tracking force that is too heavy, the manufacturer does this in an attempt to provide better sound quality to compensate for the lower price tag and cheaper cartridge, but ultimately it's lessening the life of your record and in some cases will lead to issues like skipping.
Even on the best record player vinyl will slowly degrade over the amount of times played, as the needle passes through the grooves it slowly wears away at the walls and valleys that produced such a clear and crisp sound. You want to slow down this digression by making sure the tonearm of your turntable is calibrated correctly in both weight, height and what is call anti-skating. This helps the needle to glide through the grooves instead of digging through them. Combined with a higher quality cartridge you not only get superior sound quality but you are not butchering the grooves and you will rarely run into playback issues. Even average quality condition vinyl will play far better. If your turntable does not have the ability to make these adjustments then you've got a player that at the very least is lessening the life of your record and damaging the grooves.
Skipping typically occurs when the tonearm weight is too heavy. Remember modern turntables without weight adjustments are calibrated to play modern thicker 180 gram vinyl and to produce the best sound it can from what little it's working with, it's not ideal for playing thinner records pressed in the 1980's through early 2000's. You will more commonly run into skipping issues when attempting to play thinner vinyl on these turntables. It will not happen 100% of the time but if you have a large enough collection from these decades, or just "get lucky", you will run into this issue and it will commonly be on thinner vinyl. It's not a defect on the record, it's your tonearm weight, because when played on a properly calibrated turntable it will not skip.
Repeating is when a record gets stuck in a loop. This is typically due to something embedded in the grooves. This is not an issue you are likely to run into on the lower end turntables, because of how heavy they track they will clear anything blocking the path pretty easily. This is an issue you'll run into on other turntables if your tonearm weight is set too light. In these occasions most times slightly increasing your tonearm weight by putting something as light as a plastic 45 adapter on top of the cartridge and playing the spot were it repeats will dislodge whatever is creating the repeat. If you're worried about damaging your needle doing this, it's not a bad idea to have an older cheaper 70's turntable and set the tracking force a little higher. But from our experience it doesn't usually take much additional weight to fix a repeat.
How to measure tonearm weight
While there may be varying opinions on the perfect tone arm weight having played thousands of records over the years we've found 1.68 to 1.70 grams to be a pretty good spot and have had relatively few issues there. When we do have an issue it's typically repeating on late 90's to early 00's pressings which are pressings that are very finicky and often resolved by slightly increasing the tracking force. To measure your tonearm weight buy a Arm Load Meter or Turntable Stylus Force Scale. You can pick one up on Amazon for under $20.
Set the scale on your platter, lift your tonearm and place the needle in the center of the scale (if you use the height weight they give you make sure you zero out the scale with the weight on it). If you have a entry level non adjustable turntable you'll probably be shocked, chances are it won't even be able to measure it because the weight will be more than the scale can measure, which is 5 grams!
What turntable should I buy?
We are not "audiophiles" so we are not going to tell you that you should buy a insanely expensive turntable. But at minimum you should buy a turntable that has the ability to adjust tonearm weight.
On brand new turntables those probably start at $300+. We've used many turntables and currently use a Pro-Ject Audio Debut Carbon DC Esprit SB with 2M Red Cartridge, we've been using it for over five years with very few issues, testing thousands of records.
If you are on a tight budget then go vintage and get a older turntable from the 70's, just be aware that even that decade made a lot of "entry level" turntables with no weight adjustment either, and keep in mind working condition and the added expense of possibly needing a new cartridge.
In closing keep in mind the old adage you get what you pay for. Vinyl collecting is in no way a cheap hobby, especially if you are buying new or collectible records. Why would you spend hundreds - thousands of dollars on records only to play them on a $200 turntable with no standard weight adjustments? It makes no sense. And while you may not have issues on a lot of records you are definitely ruining the vinyl you are able to play due to the level of tracking force too that is set too high and is digging into the grooves. At minimum buy a scale, measure your tracking force weight. Compare it to our 1.7 gram weight and see how far off you are. Save your collection before you do any further damage.