(Why) are my vinyl records noisy?

Vinyl records are making an undeniable comeback, so much so that record production plants cannot keep up with demand. The cost of a vinyl record these days is more than a CD and equivalent to several months subscription to a high-resolution digital streaming channel. In spite of this, vinyl sales are booming and many hi-fi enthusiasts will claim that there is no substitute for a good analogue system based around a turntable.

There are many things that attract me to vinyl records. The impact of the artwork associated with vinyl record covers has never been matched by the smaller inlay leaflets found in CD cases or by the bright digital screens which often feature on digital streaming equipment such as the Naim Uniti Atom or the NAD M10. There is something of a performance about taking a vinyl record out of its sleeve placing it on the turntable and gently lowering the stylus.

The sound quality is remarkable from a good quality turntable given the vulnerability of the sound reproduction chain to external factors and vibration. However, the weak link for me has always been the presence of noise in the reproduced sound.

The noise is of two types, the first is the slight background noise which I had always believed was inevitable in the kind of systems that I could afford. The second are the clicks from slight scratches and other surface contaminants which seems almost impossible to eliminate completely.

I recently had something of an epiphany when I played a brand new vinyl copy of The Rising by Bruce Springsteen. I placed it on my turntable, lowered the stylus and prepared myself to listen through my esoteric system. At first, I thought I’d made a mistake because I was greeted with silence and then the music started. The lack of pops and clicks and entry groove noise may be put down to the fact that it was a pristine LP. However, it was the completely silent background that really took my breath away. It made me realise that over the years a lot of the noise that I had heard and had attributed to surface noise was in fact from the additional amplification in the photo stage required to amplify the relatively low level of signal emerging from the cartridge.

This was all the more remarkable because although I had read and been told much about the benefits of dedicated phono stages and even used a couple of well-regarded but budget examples, this silent amplification was achieved by the phono stage within my Auralic Polaris streaming amplifier.

The Auralic Polaris is a fine machine but playing analogue vinyl records is surely low on its list of priorities. In theory, an all-in-one box with lots of clever digital circuitry should be a noisy environment, particularly challenging to the requirements of an ultraquiet phono stage.

So what is the result of my epiphany? Am I a convert to the vinyl revival? I am happy to acknowledge that the sound I’m now able to achieve from my turntable is the best sound I’ve ever heard from a vinyl source. However, the convenience of streaming high-quality digital music is still extremely seductive. Comparisons within my system show that whilst vinyl and digital sound are different with different strengths and weaknesses I do not consistently prefer the sound of vinyl.

Given that I am prone to be a worrier, when I listen to a vinyl record I do tend to be waiting for the next pop or click and this detracts from my overall learning enjoyment. In fairness, I am sure that if I invested more in my turntable tonearm and cartridge I could improve the results, but this would require significant investment and would not overcome my anxieties or outdo the convenience of the alternative digital source.

On the other hand, I come from a generation that was brought up to believe that until you had owned an LP12 turntable you could not be taken seriously as a hi-fi enthusiast and it may yet happen that one day I may succumb to a second-hand example of this hi-fi icon if only to satisfy my curiosity and convince myself that I am a proper hi-fi enthusiast.

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