surface noise and cartridge/ phono pre questions

Ok, here it goes. I'm very green to analog but thanks to Agon, I have so far been lead in the right direction. I'll cut the bull and get to it.
I'm currently using a Music Hall 5.1se, AT140LC cart, Musical Suroundings Nova Phonomena phono pre with a DIY phono interconnect. I'm loading the cart at 50k, gain at 40db, going into a AE-3 pre. I've made many adjustments to VTA (SRA), VTF....etc. currently I'm at approx -2degrees on VTA and 1.46g on VTF. I also tried a Shure V15 IV w/ ed saunders stylus, never could get it to sound right to me.
I'm very happy with the sound now and I think it's really close to the proper set up. I have Alison Krauss "So Long So Wrong" last 2 tracks of side 2 sounding sweet!!! The problem....I seam to be getting surface noise and pops with recordings that I would think should be better.
My main question. I tried using a lower cart loading, (2k) obviously this is to low, sounds super clean, black and quiet. Again, obviously, the highs totally diminish. Any suggestions on a direction I should go to obtain this sort of quietness without losing my high end?
I'm very new to this and learning daily but if I'm chasing my tail with my phono pre, cart, tonearm compatibilty, I'm open for suggestions. The more I read on here, it's sounding like this could be the difference in a really good phono pre. I really like the sound of the AT140 and feel that it is a good match for my humble tonearm and system. I'm curious on what you guys think and suggest.
If this is not enough info, I'll try to give more.
Just a quick note, I just hooked up the AE-3 pre last night and It's really something else for such an inexpensive investment. Great match for my SET45.

Great post. It really helps when somebody provides a lot of pertinent information when seeking guidance. It also shows that you're thinking about as many things as you can!

First, attempting to address vinyl clicks and pops by adjusting cartridge loading (or any other setup parameter) is fundamentally unsound. The purpose of all these adjustments is to allow your system to reproduce whatever's on the LP as accurately as possible, not as a mask/band-aid to cover up noise.

With regard to clicks and pops, the obvious question is, have you wet-cleaned and vacuumed your LP's? If not, you must do so. In particular, I've found that enzyme-based cleaning solutions are most effective at eliminating the majority of intermittent clicks and pops. If you're playing LP's without thoroughly wet-cleaning them you're actually putting your expensive vinyl at risk for permanent damage. Dragging contaminants along a plastic groove with a very sharp, diamond knife is a great way to destroy the plastic.

Additionally, it's an unfortunate fact that inexpensive phono stages tend to exaggerate certain types of noise. Very sharp transients cause many phono stages to overshoot and go into ringing, which exaggerates the amplitude of the transient when the signal's sent on to the amplifier and speakers. This makes a record sound noisier than it actually is.

There's no adjustment for the second problem. The only "cure" is a better phono stage, which unfortunately means more money. I'm unfamiliar with your phono stage but of those I have used, the higher quality/more costly were almost invariably quieter when it came to the odd click or pop. Many noises and distortions that newbies attribute to mistracking, inner groove distortion, static or surface noise are greatly reduced or even eliminated by a really first class phono stage.

Stylus profile also influences how the cartrdige reacts to the odd bump in the road. Speaking generally, the finer contact surfaces of a fine-line or micro-ridge stylus ride much more quietly in the groove then larger, coarser elliptical or conical styli.

Of primary importance, however, is that your vinyl (and stylus) be made and kept scrupulously clean. This is critical if you're serious about LP replay, which it sounds like you are.


Thank you for this help. I had a pretty good idea that a new phono-pre was the next direction I would have to consider. As far as the record cleaning and care, I currently use a Spin Clean manual system and the Spin Clean solution. It for sure helps but I have a pretty good idea that it's not the most thorough. I've been in the market for a record cleaning machine. I've been looking at VPI and Nitty Gritty. I'm hoping to come across a used unit in the $500.00 range.
Any recommendations on a phono pre that won't break the bank and would be a compliment to my system? I'm guessing that my unit will sale for around $600.00ish. I'm thinking I could add another 1k and pick up something used, if I could spend less, that would help as well and put money towards record cleaning.Also, any thoughts on used cleaning machines? I'm thinking that the Spin Clean could still be used as a pre wash for the heavy stuff on used LP's then finish off with whatever machine I end up with.
Again, thank you for the detailed and thorough response!!
Any recommendations on a phono pre that won't break the bank and would be a compliment to my system?
Unfortunately I don't have much experience in your price range. While I've heard a few, here and there, my partner and I leapt from our old c-j PV11 preamp with phono ($1800 when new and a nice unit) directly to our Nick Doshi Alaap, which retails for $12K+. The Alaap betters anything we've heard at any price but that doesn't help you much. I'm sure there are many members here who could offer some useful experiences.

Vacuuming is critical. The Spin Clean is better than no drying at all but it's bound to leave some moisture deep in the grooves (where it matters most). When the last of that grungy fluid evaporates not only is the grunge left behind, it can in fact be even more difficult to remove, since it's been broken down into much finer particles. I do like your proposed use of the Spin Clean even after you acquire a RCM. That makes sense.

A VPI 16.5 would be my choice in the ~$500 price range. Equally important is the choice of fluids. As mentioned, an enzyme-based solution (which requires some soaking time to be effective) is best IME for reducing clicks/pops. My personal preference is for the fluids made by AIVS. I prefer them to the MoFi solutions and either one is better than the old Vinyl-Zyme stuff. Haven't tried the Walker fluids, which also have a respected following.
There is a very nice phono stage that is listed on the 'Gon. You should be able to pick it up for a number that is very close to your stated budget and for that price it is about as high a price/performance ratio as you're likely to find. I owned one and Dougdeacon and I and several others A/B'd it w his Alaap and it came held its own against some very very good stand along phono stages. It cannot quite keep up w an Alaap but its pretty darn close. Minimalist design, very Japanese, so not much techno-wow factor, but at teh listed price I think its a steal. No relation to seller, but he/she can p.m. me to get my address for the commission check ;-)

The only other thing I'll add to Doug's comments is that many of the current crop of vinyl issues/re-issues seem to be quite noisy w poor quality control in terms of clicks and pops and warps, unfortunately.
I agree with Doug's suggestions about the VP1 16.5 and AIVS fluids. Those should get the pops and clicks under control if you devote the necessary time to the cleaning regimen.

I have a Pass Labs Xono phono stage which can be found used for under $1800. It has something like 200 different load settings and is extremely quiet with a separate power supply. It is built to last, sounds excellent and IMO is an excellent value used. I have not heard a better SS phono for the price, though my experience is fairly limited.

I would also suggest trying some kind of vibration isolation platform under the turntable. You could find a used Towhshend Seismic Sink for under $300 and you would be astonished at how effective it is.

After proper cleaning and cartridge alignment, I have discovered that good isolation is critical to getting the most out of an analog front end.

Congratulations and it sounds as though you have the analog bug and are on the right track. Keep enjoying, earning and asking questions.
Have you tried the MINT cleaner? I got a sample when I got his alignment jig. I use it and then suck it off with a Nitty well.
I meant to write...enjoying, learning and asking questions.
"First, attempting to address vinyl clicks and pops by adjusting cartridge loading (or any other setup parameter) is fundamentally unsound."

If improper loading results in a high frequency resonance (for example loading a MM cart. with too much capacitance) then yes it can highlight surface noise through "ringing". Ultrasonic impulses will excite this resonance and the ringing will shift this noise down in frequency to that of the resonance. If this resonance is in the audible range then it will make a record sound more noisy. You might want to measure the capacitance of you phono cables and read Jim Hagerman"s paper on cart. loading for some guidance.
Hello Lgear, glad you are enjoying the 140LC. Since you got it from me, let me add that AT line contact and microline stylii really need to be perpendicular to the groove to produce best results. Even if the angle is slightly off, the surface noise tends to increase quite a bit. But once set up right, they are much quieter than elliptical stylii. If the azimuth is off, generally one channel is noisier than the other, sometimes the tweeter will sound spitty in that channel instead of just hearing the hiss. Like others have said, even new vinyl needs a good cleaning before play. I got good results using a steam cleaner from walgreens prior to the spin clean btw.
I want to thank you for all of the suggestions. The general consensus seams to be very clean vinyl is the foundation to start with in the chain.

I checked out the ZYX and I'm very interested in it for sure. Thanks for the hot tip!!

I think I've decided to get a cleaning machine, some recommended fluid and see how it goes with the Nova Phonomena. If Santa is good, maybe the ZYX will still be available and I can purchase it after Christmas.

In the mean time, I'm addicted to vinyl and am excited to keep improving my rig with the help that I get from all of you Agon'rs.

Happy Holidays to you all and again, thank you for all the help from everyone.

BTW Rotarius, you have helped my system more than you know!!!! Thanks again.
Doug is correct- the design of the phono section can influence ticks and pops and this has nothing to do with bandwidth.

I can take it a step further- if the phono section uses loop feedback for the RIAA curve, it will enhance ticks and pops. If the EQ is done by passive means and otherwise the phono section has no loop feedback, that will also have the least ticks and pops.
I'm going to blaspheme here, and say over the years I have heard LOTS of phono stages, from mega-bucks to budget, and ticks and pops are ticks and pops. Some make them a tad less audible, some sort of float them out in the soundstage, others put them at the speaker instead of out in the soundstage, so that you notice them less.

But ticks and pops simply are. And if they're there, you're going to hear them. Only question is where and how intrusive, which is more a function of the record, vinyl quality and cleanliness than anything else.

I'd explore various cleaning solutions, and go from there. It's a lot less expensive than buying a new phono stage, unless you just have a hankering for one.
Definitely not a hankering for spending 1.5-2k on a new phono stage at the moment. Now, with that said, my personality draws me in to needing to know. This goes for every hobby I'm involved in. Also, I really like knowing that I'm starting with good equipment and eliminating week links. When I decided on my current phono stage, I was really new to this game and knew I had to start somewhere. I went through a Bellari VP130 and a PS Audio GCPH. To my ears at the time and with my budget, I felt that the Nova Phonomena was the clear cut winner of the group. It was enough to get the addiction. Now that the addiction is there,the next step is making my rig sound as good to me as my ears and equipment allow. Based on the feedback I'm getting, before I go further on equipment I'm feeling the need to eliminate a very important week link and invest in a good cleaning system. It's time to search the forums and gather info. You have all given me some direction thus far but I'll always take more advice. As of right now, I'm looking for a used VPI 16.5 or possibly a Nitty Gritty record master2. As I said before, I have a spin clean that I could use first then vacuum and possibly try steam cleaning as well for a pre clean. Once I get this dialed in, maybe my Nova Phono will give me some more mileage. I do like the batteries and adjust-ability with this unit. The gain control was great with my PVC and the transparency was good with my sensitive speakers. As most of you can relate, the more I'm drawn to the vinyl, the less tolerable I've become of the pop's, click's and tick's.
I think the loading is high. I am sure a periphery ring would quiet things down. Also, the DIY phono cables should be replaced as well (iMHO). If you're local to Long Island, NY, I have a phonostage you can borrow as well as a pair of phono cables.
Well, just don't drive yourself nuts in your quest for knowledge. Cleaning will be the biggest thing you can do. Now that I've stopped buying vinyl, I just sold my VPI-17. It was a brilliant cleaning machine.

Know that even with cleaning (all-caps for emphasis) THERE WILL BE NO WAY TO ELIMINATE ALL TICS AND POPS.

There are a few reasons for them, but the two biggest ones are dirt, or damage. Dirt you can clean. Damage is forever. Sometimes, new albums come with tics and pops and often, you can't fix those, either. You could return the disc, and you will sometimes get one with a tic or pop in the exact same spot, or a different spot. Imperfections are part and parcel of vinyl's more enjoyable sound.

I have discs that could be mistaken for CDs, and I have discs that sound like somebody's making popcorn in the kitchen. All of them have great music on them that I love listening to, and that's what's most important.
As someone has already said, clicks and pops are a part of the vinyl experience, I try to think of them as simple ambient noise much like one hears in a live concert venue-people coughing, talking, and moving about. A well designed phono stage will help but will not completely eliminate these sounds.
Kevvwill, all I can say is that you have to try it to know. Its true that a tick or pop is part of the LP experience, but it is also true that electronics can ring at high frequencies due to stability issues in the design. This will exacerbate the tick or pop event to be both louder and longer in duration than the actual event on the LP surface.

I had this demonstrated in spades some years ago. A friend of mine bought a Mobile Fidelity UHQR pressing and he was quite excited to hear it. He brought it to my house to play (I think he paid $250 for this thing so he was concerned that it not be worn, and trusted my rig more than his own).

The LP played fine. But the next day he called me up- at his house it was loaded with ticks and pops! We had the same 'table, arm and cartridge. The difference was in our preamps. He was using a semiconductor based preamp that used active equalization in its feedback loop. My preamp was zero feedback with passive EQ. In addition, my preamp was vacuum tube, but on paper anyway had 2 more octaves of bandwidth compared to the solid state unit.

He brought his preamp over and we compared- sure enough, the solid state preamp had a presentation loaded with ticks and pops, while my preamp hardly had any. Since then I have seen this demonstrated over and over. And I can tell you that it has more to do with feedback (active EQ) than it does with tubes or transistors.

The bottom line is that the electronics make a difference in this area, IME as much or more than cleaning the LP.
I'm glad to here from Kevvwill and Nanbil that it's not going away completely on all vinyl. That really helps in knowing not to chase something that can't be reached. I know someone may chime in and say different and disagree with that. I've always second guessed it when some people say that their vinyl is as quiet as digital. I have realistic expectations. Bottom line is even when I listen to an album that sounds like a popcorn machine, if I like the music, I still listen to it and enjoy every minute of it!!!

Cerrot....That is a generous offer and I appreciate that. Unfortunately, I'm in California. Getting to demo different things in your own system is always a huge plus!!!
Atmasphere, maybe I've just been blessed with only hearing phono stages that get it right, so to speak, because that's an experience I have never encountered. As I said, I've had phono stages do different things with the surface noise, in terms of where it is in the soundspace, but that's about it.

Interesting. And admittedly, I wussed out by getting a Grado phono stage to go with my Grado Ref Sonata cartridge. Heaven!
Kevvwill, I have to admit I was quite surprised when I heard how dramatic this phenomena can be.

Turns out that it has to do with the propagation delay (the length of time it takes the signal to propagate from input to output, something that all audio circuits have) and how that interacts with feedback.

If there is a small tick at the input, it moves through the circuit with the rest of the signal, and at the output is fed back to the input, out of phase with the original. Problem is that by this time the tick, which is very short duration, has dropped in amplitude (signal level) and the 'fed back' signal may well be most of what remains. That then moves through the circuit again and the process repeats, with each iteration the tick loosing some amplitude and changing its phase. The effect is a ringing phenomena which lengthens the time duration although frequency is not affected.

Now if you have no feedback, the tick moves through the circuit without ringing. What you find out through comparison is that a lot of ticks are so small that they are not really noticed, but can be distorted by this ringing process to become quite audible.

IOW, cleaning is important but is not the whole story.

Thank you offering a better technical description of this phenomena. I described the effect as "ringing" but by explaining the mechanism that produces it you also better described its sound. A feedback loop extends the tick in time by means of linked, phase-shifted repetitions... that's EXACTLY what I've heard.

A tick heard through a zero-feedback preamp like mine or the ones you build sounds like a single pluck of an acoustic instrument with a minimal sound box, a small clavichord for example... plink. The same tick heard through another preamp will sound like a pluck of a heavily amped and reverbed electric guitar... PLONNNKKK!!!

I agree with these other points:
- cleaning is essential and in fact primary, since playing uncleaned records may permanently damage your vinyl
- great tip from Rotarius regarding getting VTA (SRA, actually) and azimuth right; doing this with a fine-line stylus will indeed reduce surface noise more than is possible with an eliptical one

It's certainly true that some LP surface noises simply cannot be eliminated (without using techniques that also mask the music) but these can be minimized both in number and in obtrusiveness.

As most of you can relate, the more I'm drawn to the vinyl, the less tolerable I've become of the pop's, click's and tick's.
The better you get at playing vinyl, the fewer of them you'll have to tolerate and the more tolerable the remaining ones will become. As you upgrade practices and equipment it gets better, not worse. :)
Have to agree...analogue surface noise comes with the territory...all things being is more dependent on quality of vinyl than associatted equipment...and if I have a noisey copy of something that infringes on my listening experience I simply buy another, hopefully improved copy...I don't bother with excessive cleaning methods...the effort and cost doesnt justify the means...just my experience...
Although I fully agree with Ralph's (and Doug's) observations that the phono stage has a significant impact on the perception of surface noise, I do not agree that the use of global NFB has any bearing on the outcome.

FWIW, I have used both Ralph's MP-1 phono preamp (zero NFB) and my own Connoisseur phono stage (uses global NFB, the amount of which has been dialed in by ear) in the same audio system, and I did not feel that there was any advantage to Ralph's design when it came to the reducing the sonic impact of surface noise.

I will acknowledge that Ralph's preamp sounded quite pleasing to the ear. Nice work!

My own findings are that the surface blemishes on an LP that cause the perception of surface noise exist in a frequency range that extends up to 150kHz~300kHz. Since these imperfections are not part of the intended manufacturing process of the LP, they are not subject to any amplitude limit, and therefore can be quite large in amplitude.

If the amplifier circuit was not designed to handle fast, high-amplitude impulses without clipping, distorting or ringing, the circuit will most likely require some time to settle down after it has been hit with a big, wide-band transient, and the longer the circuit settling time, the more likely it is that the ear will hear it.

I find that phono circuits that are tolerant of RF noise and don't change in sound much when the input load resistor is changed are usually good about keeping surface noise low.

In every case, what is needed is an amplifier circuit that can handle fast, high-amplitude signal energy without clipping, distorting or ringing (although the frequency bands for surface noise are different from those for RF energy or loading resonances). If your phono stage can cleanly amplify a 1+MHz square wave of decent amplitude, chances are that it won't have problems with RF, will be fairly insensitive to sonic changes with input loading resistances, and will also suppress LP surface noise rather well.

The performance of the circuit is far more of a concern than what technology it uses.

hth, jonathan carr

PS. It is not difficult to design an NFB circuit that continues to amplify linearly out to 100MHz and beyond.
Jonathon, I'm guessing that you've not heard one of our preamps in probably 15 years! Time to hear one again :)

I agree that its possible to use feedback without surface noise issues, but- its a lot harder to do. In addition, I have found that universally the use of feedback will cause the circuit to take on a hardness or brightness that is not part of the original signal. Of course there can be a lot of variables in any design; I am stating this out of working with many circuits over a period of decades- there are always circuits out there that are exceptional.

With regards to feedback I have yet to hear one that really does it right (no excess 'surface' noise, no compression of dynamics, no brightness), although IMO this is a subject for another thread.
Ralph: The last time I could do a one-on-one comparison was more like 5 years back. And since then, I have also learned how to get the perceived s/n ratio down by a clearly perceivable margin, through more work on power supplies, parasitics optimization, circuit stability, more comprehensive analyses and so on (smile).

>Time to hear one again :)

Probably true for both of us (smile).

>I have found that universally the use of feedback will cause the circuit to take on a hardness or brightness that is not part of the original signal.

My findings are different. My findings are that there is an appropriate amount of global NFB for a given circuit, and this amount of NFB is best dialed-in by listening. FWIW, I think that 0dB generally sounds OK, but increasing the NFB up to about 20dB does not sound so OK. With more NFB than 20dB, things start sounding OK again, but there will be a point above at which the sound starts worsening again. Your ears will tell you where that point is.

The general trend that I have found is that the more intrinsically linear and stable the circuit is, the more global NFB can applied without damaging the sound. Also, the parasitics arising from the physical construction of the circuit are just as important as the topology.

I should add that I do use non-NFB topologies for certain sections or functions in my designs, and these sections have a clear effect on the sound. It's not like I am anti-zero NFB (grin).

Rather, I don't have any particular feelings regarding NFB, either for or against. I consider it as just another tool. If global NFB makes sense in the context of the topology and it gives better results, I use it. If it doesn't, I don't.

I agree with you that it is easy to make a global NFB circuit that sounds hard, has an unnatural "sheen", polite dynamics, compressed front-to-back depth and so on.

But it doesn't need to be so.

Thank you for a polite, sensible discussion.

kind regards, jonathan
Static charge on records is also a very strong candidate, especially if your in house conditions include lack of humidity. First things first.
Jcarr, I think you may find this article by Nelson Pass to be interesting:

It seems to re-enforce some of your comments above. Norman Crowhurst wrote about some of this as well, although I'm don't have a link handy, I suspect I could find the article on Pete Millet's website given enough time :)

Essentially though, the issue as I see it is that as you add feedback, the problem/solution is in the way the 5th 7th and 9th harmonics are handled, but you also have concerns with intermodulation at the feedback node. This can result in a harmonic and *inharmonic* noise floor, with harmonics up to the 81st (although the circuit may lack the bandwidth for that).

The concern I have has to do with human hearing rules. The 5th, 7th and 9th are measured by the ear brain system to determine how loud the sound actually is; so if they are altered even in very tiny amounts the sound will be artificially louder and brighter than it really is.

There is also the issue of detail- due to the ear's masking rule, louder sounds can block the presence of quieter sounds. If the louder sounds are distortion then you will have less detail. It turns out that the one exception to the masking rule is the ability to hear into a noise floor composed of hiss; the ear can hear about 20 db into such a noise floor (something usually ignored by digital advocates). I suspect that this may be because analog hiss has a lot in common with wind noise, something with which our ear/brain system is very familiar. But if the noise floor is composed of harmonic and inharmonic noise, the detail below it will be lost as the ear cannot hear into that kind of noise floor.

If you want a link to Crowhurst's comments regarding this feedback phenomena, I can find it but may not be able to take the time until after CES.

Have a good show!
Ralph: I agree with everything that you have written above.

All distortion is not equal to the ears, and higher odd-order distortion sounds increasingly obnoxious.

Also, the character of the noise floor has a significant bearing on far into it the ear can hear. Completely random "soft" white noise, and the ear can hear deep into the noise floor. 20dB sounds about right, and correlates to what I have been told by Keith Johnson. But if there are harmonics, supply or signal-related rectification artifacts along for the ride, the ear's ability to hear into the noise floor stops much earlier.

If the designer doesn't pay attention to these areas, low-level detail is impaired while IMD or inharmonics typically creep into the noise and distortion products, and the result is a circuit that invariably does not sound natural or "believable".

Excellent post! And I hope that you have a good show, too.

kind regards, jonathan
not to change the subject too much , but in addition to ticka and pops whatwould cause those sharp "s" and "t" s too occur on some recordings . it can just appear on some recordings as it gets to the end of the record. is this a pre amp issue also ?
Panu21, it *can* be, but can also be a setup problem with the arm and cartridge. If the cartridge is not loaded properly, and is not set up correctly, it is conceivable that the additional RF energy that shows up at the end of the LP could bother some preamps.

However, it is far more likely to be an arm/cartridge setup issue.
can u advise on what part of the setup issue i should check? recalibrated the weight , antiskate and vta. anything else i should look at ? tks