Taking a Hammer to Your Turntable
I really did take a hammer to my turntable, but we’ll get to that.
I was really impressed with the Pro-Ject RPM-1.3 when I first got it. It quickly got close to the performance of my digital system that cost a lot more. Naturally, I was curious what I could do to improve things from there. High-end turntables have a nasty little cottage industry around upgradess and tweaks, so I figured it was worth a shot.
The Essential Upgrades
There are two excruciatingly irritating things about the stock RPM-1.3.
The first issue is that the RPM-1.3 comes with a felt mat. In low humidity, what a felt mat does is stick to records when you remove them. I haven’t the slightest what it does in terms of acoustics because I can’t even be bothered to care. Perhaps it’s not much of a surprise, then, that my first upgrade was a cork mat.
There was not a substantial audible difference in switching to a cork mat, but I would argue it was most definitely worth it with the stock platter. The stock platter isn’t entirely smooth and it’s covered in glossy paint. Left naked it’s really not great for much other than scratching vinyl.
For about $25, I would consider this an essential first purchase.
The second issue is that there’s a horrific amount of motor hum. It’s the first thing I heard. It’s there no matter how loud the music. Additionally, with the table sitting on a desk, every time I made a keystroke, that was transmitted to the stylus as well.
Thus, the second upgrade was a sheet of Sorbothane. I put a sheet of it under the motor. Then I put a small piece of it under a poker chip under each foot on the plinth.
I’m not going to pretend that this $25 hack is a panacea, but the improvement from this was certainly substantial. Motor hum is now largely inaudible. Vibrations from the desk (such as typing) are still audible, but far less pronounced. Doing something to isolate the plinth from the playing surface and the motor is critical.
The other essential upgrades aren’t changes to the turntable. The first is a good tracking force gauge. There are two reasons for this: First, the one included with the turntable is awful and unusable. Second, minor adjustments to the counterweight result in swings of half a gram or more in tracking force. Getting an accurate tracking force within a tenth of a gram requires a better solution. Don’t skimp.
Second, an alignment protractor is crucial. Out of the box, cartridge alignment, VTA, and azimuth looked pretty good. In reality, azimuth, VTA, and alignment were all screwed up. Fixing alignment without a protractor is virtually impossible. Again, the guide included in the box is completely useless. Factory alignment was off by more than 20 degrees! Azimuth and VTA can be corrected via less sophisticated methods.
Finally, record cleaning is crucial. This is just as true for brand new records as it is for vintage vinyl. This comes in two parts. A record washer is needed to remove release compounds, cardboard dust, and pieces of vinyl crap leftover from shitty production quality. The second part is cleaning the record before each playing to remove dust. I use a carbon brush sprayed with a 50:50 mix of distilled water and isopropyl alcohol. It doesn’t take a lot of money to keep records clean, but it does take some attention to detail. Not doing this leads to a dirty stylus, a dirty platter, and miserable sound quality. Clean records and brush them before playback or don’t bother.
There are a few other things I’ve done to varying degrees of success.
Motor control is a pretty obvious upgrade. Rather than just plugging a motor into a wall wart, might as well plug a motor into an oscillator into a wall wart! In addition to making the switch to 45RPM trivial, motor control resulted in more tonal stability, more control, and tighter bass. This provides an improvement to the stock table, but other measures yield similar results. Higher platter mass and better tolerance seems to go a lot further for the money for the initial investment here.
The RPM-1.3 comes with a Sumiko Pearl. While certainly not high-end, this is far from entry-level in the moving magnet arena. I swapped it out for an entry-level low-output moving coil cartridge. This upgrade is not without its quirks. While relatively low-compliance, the cartridge is heavier than the original. For whatever reason, this means that it has a nasty tendency to skip during the disc lead-in. Dropping the needle often results in a jump mid-track. Lowering the lever excruciatingly slowly seems to avoid this, but more aggressive damping on the tonearm lift (i.e. a better tonearm) would likely resolve the issue.
Secondly, the low-output cartridge has more surface noise and interference than the MM cartridge. When there’s no signal, it’s not quite as quiet.
Both quirks are a small price to pay. The improvements in dynamics and control are incredible. Mid-range and treble response especially is transformed. In many ways that are hard to describe, the music is more engaging and three-dimensional. This is a pricey upgrade but gives a taste of what’s possible with a turntable. I have a hard time recommending this to another RPM-1.3 owner, but it was definitely worth it for me. As an added benefit, this cartridge should perform well whenever I get around to upgrading to a new table.
That brings us to a new platter. The stock MDF platter is fine. It’s made of MDF, isn’t particularly uniform, and is relatively low mass. There’s a German company that machined me a far heavier and more uniform acrylic platter. Via an accurate caliper I measured my bearing at 15.99mm and the new platter had an internal diameter of 15.98mm. Thus, it took a substantial amount of force and effort (and a lot of banging with a hammer) to install the old bearing in the new platter. It’s not coming out without damage, but I manged to get it in place without deforming or cracking the new platter. Moral of the story: If you know how to use a good digital caliper, make it clear that you’re not padding the measurement, so the Germans don’t assume you’re an idiot and give you a new platter with a hole that’s too small.
The acrylic platter was a substantial upgrade. Tighter bass, better dynamics, and more pronounced treble were immediately apparent. The drive motor may be working a lot harder to keep the record spinning, but there’s no real evidence of that. Going straight to a higher-end turntable gets to this point more quickly, but this is a significant improvement to the stock platter.
A record clamp provides a less expensive upgrade with similar benefits. Nearly a pound of weight increases the mass of the platter and makes the record more flat during playback. Thin vintage records may experience some physical distortion as a result. For the most part this is a positive improvement. The most pronounced change is tighter bass. It also provides a convenient means of spinning up the platter manually while avoiding substantial belt slip.
Finally, upgrading my phono pre-amplifier made a huge improvement. Making a step up from an entry-level solid state phono pre to a moderate tube pre was a huge upgrade. Richness, depth, imaging, dynamics, control … all improved. There was virtually no downside. What I don’t know is how this compares to a similarly-priced solid state phono pre. Will find out at some point, but don’t underestimate the value of a good phono pre, even with a cheap table.
Upgrades I’m Still Considering
There are a couple more things to do. First off, isolation can be improved beyond the poker chip and Sorbothane efforts. Eliminating further typing noise mechanical interference can only improve things.
Secondly, I’d like to improve the connection between the table and the phono pre; the cables I’m using now are excruciatingly cheap. I’d like to get something with a little more shielding, if nothing else.
Upgrades I’m Not Pursuing
There are some things I’m not going to mess with. The first is further modification to the table. I’m not going to spend money or effort on upgrading the plinth, bearing, or motor. All of these would make a difference.
Further cartridge upgrades are also not going to happen. First off, investing in a cartridge that costs an order of magnitude more than the turntable is silly. There’s a bigger problem, however. High-compliance cartridges will not work with the dinky little tonearm and included counterweight.
Finally, tonearm upgrades aren’t an option. An 8.6” tonearm doesn’t leave a lot of options. Most of the good tonearms are 9-10” (if not 12”). Most good tonearms, again, cost more than this table. It just doesn’t make sense versus just going to a better overall turntable.