Arthur C. Clarke is credited with saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, but when it comes to music, the older gear is more miraculous--and mysterious--to me. MP3 players are just special-purpose hard drives or memory sticks, Pandora and other online radio services are just twists on the streaming audio sites that first emerged in the early Web days, and every online tool for musicians simply takes an old task--recording, CD manufacturing, distribution--and moves it to the Web, gaining various efficiencies along the way. Even digital audio workstations like ProTools and Cubase are somewhat intuitive to a longtime computer user.
But a turntable involves actual mechanical and electrical engineering, and, despite being a longtime vinyl buff, I find the technology remains an absolute mystery to me. A few weeks ago, the stylus on my 8-year-old turntable, a Music Hall MMF-5, was snapped off during a mad confabulation of 2 year olds. For the replacement, I upgraded from a Goldring 1012GX to a 1022GX. I also had the pretty nice folks at Hawthorne Stereo order a couple other replacement parts--an anti-skating weight that disappeared about two years ago, and the tiny metal handle used for moving the tone arm, which was snapped off by a belligerent stranger at a New Year's Party in 2003/4. (I still have a contract out on him.)
The new stylus seems to have fixed some records I thought were unplayable. The first, Do Make Say Think's "And Yet And Yet," had a persistent crackle in the left channel. The Hawthorne geniuses told me it was due to the fact that some idiot (me) played the record for the first time with the arm misaligned, which scratched out one side of the groove. I've played that record a bunch of times since, trying to adjust the weight and alignment of my old cartridge, and always got the same hiss. Not anymore. There's still the occasional crackle, but the sound quality is well within range of a typical used LP.
Then I went to play Roger Waters' "Amused to Death," a 1991 record that's too valuable to sell, but that I thought I had ruined with a water spill in 1993 or so. The first two sides have been filled with hiss and garbage noise ever since, on any turntable I've tried them on. Over the years, I've read and heard that the water probably loosened some fragments from the vinyl, which then got jammed into the grooves. I've cleaned it countless times, and gotten some relief from wet-playing, but the fundamental problem remained.
When I dropped the needle on it last night, my jaw almost hit the floor: it sounded fine, like a typical used record. No persistent hiss, just the very occasional crackle or pop. My guess is that the new 1022 has a much narrower or more precise point than the used 1012, so it's connecting with only the grooves in the record and not the residue lying slightly to either side of the groove.
The point: if you listen to vinyl on a quality turntable but are not perfectly satisfied with the sound you're getting, don't throw up your hands in frustration. Have it professionally set up and consider upgrading to a new stylus. And keep the drunks and 2 year olds away from it.