Need better sound from my records, where to start?

I'm disappointed with the sound quality I'm getting from my current analog setup, and would appreciate some input on where to start making it better. I currently have a Music Hall MMF-2 turntable with an ortofon om 3e cartridge. I have an NAD PP-1 phono pre-amp feeding into my main system. My listening is almost exclusively with headphones through a tube headphone amp. The majority of my albums are bought used, in moderate to good condition. The problems I'm having are with excessive surface noise, and a slight breaking up of high frequencies.

My feeling is that I should go to a better cartridge first, along with the proper set-up tools, and an allsop oribitrac cleaner. Does that make the most sense? I was thinking of either the Shure V15VxMR or a Dynavector 10x5, with the intention that a cartridge in this range could last me through a turntable upgrade, maybe in the next year. Thoughts? Should I go after something other than the cartridge? Spend less on a cartridge? Thanks!

You probably just need to save up enough to get a new turntable cartridge phono pre amp and record clean machine. Just depends on what your budget is for them, before any worthwhile recommendations can be given on equipment. You could first get the record cleaning machine, this will help with a lot of the surface noise, but of course a better rig will trace better and have less noise too.

You could also build your own machine here is a link

For record cleaning supplies I would recommend these

Good luck

Good general guidance from Ron.

I'd add this serious warning, that breakup you're getting on HF's is a result of a mistracing stylus. If it's on just a handful of records it's probably damage from a previous owner's rig. But if it's on many or most records than it's your rig and you should STOP PLAYING YOUR RECORDS. You're damaging them permanently.

Fixing that problem is job one. Record cleaning, stylus cleaning, higher VTF or a better cartridge are all possible fixes to explore.
Thanks for the responses. I haven't bought many records in a year or so now, but at the time I was buying them I had rigged my own vacuum cleaning system, that helped quite a bit. I have certainly considered the purchase of a record cleaning machine, but was under the impression that a better cartridge than my $30 one was more likely the source of the problem. Well, I was ready to spend $300-$400 on a cartridge, so Ron, you'd recommend spending that on a cleaner first, even with the extremely low budget cartridge I'm using? And from Doug's response, it sounds like I'd better get some better alignment equipment as well.
For that rig I would go with a Ortofon X5MC. It's a high output MC. Not the last word in anything but very good at everything and extermely well balanced. Nice cartridge, and if you shop they can usually be had for $150 new.


Jed, No it sounds like you have a good record cleaner, but do try the record cleaning supplies I recommended when you need some. You are correct; you need a new cartridge now.

I don't know if the Nad pp-1 has mc input? I know the NAD pp-2 does.
When I was in the $300-$500 budget area, Gerry Raskin of the Needle Doctor recommended to me the Audio-Technica oc9. At that time I was using an Ortofon mc20 super, more money that the Audio-Technica oc9.

The now AT-OC9ML/II @ $290.00 should work well on your arm. ItÂ’s a super tracker and quiet in the grove (from my experience). I loved this cartridge, when it was first reviewed, the reviewer said do not be put off by this cartridges low purchase price because it is in a difference league.

After this cartridge I used a Benz glider, when they first came out. I was happier with the oc9. To be fair I also bought a pair of Martin-Logon Speakers (at the same time as the cartridge purchase) that were more revealing of faults in my system, so this has something to do with my assessment of the glider.

A good dealer should be able to assist you in getting a good alignment tool.


I'm very interested in the Audio Technica OC9, however the pp-1 does not support MC. While my first preference would be to go with one that would work with my existing NAD phono stage, perhaps the Audio Technica paired with a Pro-ject phono box and some appropriate alignment tools would set me up for a good while. I couldn't find too much info about the Ortofon cartridges. Any further thoughts on those?
That's a very light arm on that thing. I don't think that a medium compliance or low compliance moving coil, such as the Dynavector or Ortofon will be an optimum match. Would suggest the less-expensive Shure M97xE for a warm sound, or the Audio-Technica AT440ml for something more spirtited. Both waaay under $100.00 Then start saving for that new record cleaning machine and table. A Rega P3, or P5, Technics 1200, Clearaudio or the like will still sound quite good with these cartridges and you can upgrade the cartridge at a later date. At least you will be protecting your investment for now.
The Shure M97xE "don't get no respect" because everyone focuses on the V15xMR. The M97 is no slouch, and real real cheap.
Yes EL, $65.00 or so, including shipping, from

To bad the old Nad pp-1 has no mc input.
So I agree wit Viridian go for the Audio-Technica AT440ml I was going to recommend it also, but thought the pp-1 had a mc input. The thing I like about the oc9 is it is much quieter than the Shure v15 in my experience.

You need to get a new cartridge to save your lp's from damage so 88 bucks for the Audio-Technica AT440ml is a good stop gate till you can save up to get a new rig, that would include a new phono that supports low output mc's.

This will be a sizable upgrade in the sound for you.
You will also need a cartridge on this turntable if you plan to sell it when and if you get something different.

Straight out of the box the 440 was great at tracking difficult passages clearly...There was none of the harshness or constrictedness usually associated with an unbroken-in moving coil cartridge. -Absolute Sound Sep/Oct 1994, Vol. 19, #98.

Hi-Fi World Aug 01
Bright, fast sounding and detailed, with fulsome bass.

List Price $219.99
Price: $88.29
Unless you plan to collect older records that are not on CD or have an existing collection, you'll be better off with a great digital setup. Why? Because you will not split your budget on two formats. Most of my collection is in vinyl (900 vs 300), so keeping a good TT is of primordial importance. In went with a modified quartz locked direct drive deck, which delivers proper speed/rotational stability, something most belt drives have real issues with. I had to go through certain mods and noise control measures in order to get my digital sounding right--and I did. Now my dgital and analog rigs sound close to each other.

I do own an Ortofon X5, it is an outstanding
and classic cartridge and can be had for ~$150 in Hong Kong...

Ok. Thanks for all the help. I've ordered the AT 440ml. I was going to order the Shure, but quieter tracking would make a world of difference to me. I played with cartridge alignment more last night, and got things quite a bit better, including reducing surface noise and high frequency breakup. However my alignment tools were a limiting factor, so I ordered a stylus pressure gauge, and the alignment protractor from, as well as a test record and some additional cleaning supplies. I'm hoping that this setup will improve things tremendously, and teach me a lot about setup so that I'm more prepared when I make the big jump to a better table and cartridge. Better to learn on the cheap stuff! Thanks again for everyone's help.
Thanks for the input Psychicanimal. I have a couple hundred albums already, and like to buy albums for a couple of dollars that I'd rather not spend 15 on for cd. At this point, I don't need top of the line for vinyl, because most of my records are in mediocre condition, I just want it to be musical and enjoyable. I might find that this setup is good enough for me for many years, and will have less than $500 into my vinyl setup, including tools and cleaning supplies.
Jed, I think that you misread Rocky's post. He said that the Audio-Technica ATOC9, a MC cartridge, is quieter than the Shure V15Vmr, a MM cartridge, not that the AT440ml is quieter than the Shure M97xE. Confusing world this analog stuff. I will tell you that you have chosen a marvelous cartridge. The line contact stylus does require very careful alignment. Do not judge it too quickly at all, it needs at least 60-80 hours of break-in time in my experience. Until then, it can sound bright, wan, and out of sorts. Do not give up, let it get on song. Please post back into this thread after you have sorted things out to give us your impressions.
Given your situation, here's what I would prescribe for maximum enjoyment with minimum expense:

1) Cryoe'd outlet for the system (cheap from Ven Haus Audio).

2) Used 3 ampere ONEAC isolation transformer/filter from eBay ($15-30) for the NAD ( everything inside cleaned w/ contact cleaner ).

3) DIY isolation base like this one:

4) Highwire Wirewrap for the NAD's power cord ($25).

5) Isolation cones under the NAD (small DH Cones come to mind).

If you do these steps in order you'll be able to hear better and better the improvements as they get subtler. I am working on the noise first so that you can experience what lowering the noise floor does. Then you move on to reducing vibration and you'll be able to hear *that*. Then again work on the electricity and on to vibration again. See the pattern?

The low output MC path is very expensive to implement correctly. I have stayed with moving magnets and high output moving coils. My moving magnet is a modified Stanton integrated headshell cartridge which happens to have the midrange of a $1500 moving coil! It can be done on a budget.

With psychic power and primal intensity,
let us know when you get your cartridge installed and how you like it
Well I had originally ordered a 440ml from the Needle Doctor, but after waiting a week without hearing anything from them, I called to find that it was on indefinite backorder. Some searching around yielded the same response from other retailers. I cancelled my order from them because I found the Shure v15mxr from for $210. I couldn't pass it up at that price. I also ordered an alignment protractor from turntable basics, and a stylus force gauge and some cleaning supplies from the Needle Doctor. (As an aside, I found that my previous cartridge, set with the built in gauge, was off by 3/4 of a gram!!) Anyhow, the results:

Wow! So THIS is why vinyl is still alive and well. Surface noise is all but eliminated on my best albums, and even those that were virtually unlistenable on my previous setup sound marvelous now. On many of my records, even though there are a fair number of pops and clicks still audible, there is just so much more MUSIC coming from the album that I hardly even notice the surface noise. I can't stop listening to vinyl now. I own just a couple of albums on both cd and vinyl, but even on this modest setup, the vinyl just wastes my NAD c542 cd player. Unfortunately for my wallet, this cartridge has already revealed the limitations of my turntable and arm. Motor and groove noise are now apparent between tracks or occasionally during soft passages. I guess a turntable upgrade may be in my future. But not before a lot more vinyl!