Why Do I Have No Bass Sound from My Turntable?
After 20 years of dominance, CDs went into decline after reaching their sales peak in 2000. For the past 15 years, vinyl record sales have moved in the opposite direction, with steady year-on-year growth. Some audiophiles argue that there is a direct correlation between the two, but we suspect the truth is more nuanced. It seems to us that what really hit the CD market hard is the rise of the MP3 player and streaming services. As CDs fell out of favor, enthusiasts who wanted to collect physical copies of their music often viewed streaming as nothing more than a convenience.
Older music buyers retained an affection for the large plastic discs of the past while younger consumers became intrigued by this iconic form of analog technology. Record companies saw an opportunity to monetize this renewed interest and began to market records as a specialist luxury format, with collectors’ editions, deluxe reissues and colored vinyl, one of the most pointless but aesthetically alluring inventions of the 1970s. Suddenly the vinyl record was retailing at two or three times the price of CDs, which was a reversal of the relationship that existed in the 1980s and 1990s.
To meet this burgeoning demand, hi-fi manufacturers increased the production of high quality equipment designed to give excellent turntable sounds while dialling down their commitment to CD players. However, vinyl is an entirely different medium than CDs and to get the best out of the analog format you often need something more sophisticated than an out-of-the-box solution. A common complaint from audiophiles is the lack of a good bass sound quality when they’re listening to vinyl. Clearly, this is something we need to address.
When someone asks ‘why do I have no bass sound from my turntable?’ they really mean ‘why is the bass not prominent?’. One of the strengths of CDs is that they are able to produce a really strong bass sound - so strong in fact that some audiophiles find it too dominant. There is far more to most music than the lower register and analog reproduction undoubtedly delivers a more balanced sound than its digital rival. People who have grown up with CDs can find it surprising when the bass sits back in the mix - often where the record producer intended it to be. In cases like this, the solution is as much about re-educating your ears as it is about technical adjustment.
Having said that, many things can influence the level of bass performance. One of them is as simple as the ambient acoustics. If the bass register sounds a bit timid, you can try moving the speakers to different positions - closer to the wall, away from the wall or further apart, for example. It’s possible the speakers you have are not well-suited to the room where you’ve set up your turntable. Sometimes it’s worth trying a different cartridge or tonearm and adjusting the tracking weight.
You may also find that an older vinyl record was mixed to suit the technology of the time, when going too heavy on the bass could cause the needle to jump. For a time in the 1970s, thanks to the worldwide oil crisis, there was even a shortage of vinyl so that many records of the time were pressed on even thinner discs than usual which exacerbated the situation. There isn’t the same problem with modern vinyl. 180gsm is now the standard weight of a vinyl record and pressing technology has more or less solved the problem of the bass jump.
Because vinyl uses the RIAA equalization curve and thereby reduces the bass while increasing the treble at the point of recording, you may need something to boost the bass on playback in order to restore the original balance. If you’re relying on a basic auxiliary input, you’re unlikely to get the required boost. A preamp, or phono stage with a decent phono input and a built-in equalizer is, therefore, a must.
There are several measures you can take to fix the problem of underwhelming bass turntable sounds and we’ll now look at them in a little more detail.
Stylus Tracking ForceA basic turntable is pretty inflexible. Everything is pre-set, including the vertical tracking force. The tracking force refers to the weight of the tonearm and stylus. Because the sound is pressed into the grooves of a vinyl record, the depth at which the stylus settles in those grooves will affect the sound you get out. If it’s too heavy, then it could damage the record, but if it’s too light, then it won’t reproduce all the detail because it isn’t making sufficient contact. Go back a few decades and you’d even find owners of cheap decks placing a coin on top of the cartridge to increase the tracking force. This was hardly scientific but sometimes it achieved the desired effect.
The ideal tracking weight for styluses and cartridges varies from model to model but is usually no more than 2 grams. If you want to get more bass from the record, you adjust the setting above this recommended weight although you need to be careful not to overdo it. An increase of about 20% over should be perfectly safe, so if the specification of your turntable is2 grams, you could take it up to 2.4 grams and see if it makes a difference. You may hear a corresponding decrease in the treble or the bass might start to err on the muddy side, so if you want to shift the balance a little then lessen the tracking force. At some point, you’ll achieve a sound you’re happy with. It’s a fairly minor corrective but it’s a simple first step.
We’ve already touched on this and it might sound a little far-fetched, but you’ll be surprised at the difference it can make. If you have bookshelf speakers, it probably won’t help much but if you use large floor standing speakers with bass reflex, it can be very effective. Move the speakers right up against the wall and the bass level will soar, but if you put them close, there’s a good chance of distortion and a loss of precision. Pull them forward a little and listen again. If it’s still not right, move them forward more until you hear the distortion fade, replaced by a sharper, punchier sound. The ideal placement by common consensus is not to close to a solid surface but it’s all a matter of personal preference and depends on what you listen to and how you want to hear it. Put on The Fall’s second album, ‘Dragnet’, and you might think the up-against-the-wall option gives it the best sound you’ve ever heard. It’s up to you, but it’s definitely worth experimenting.
PreampNow we’re getting to the more technical solutions and the ones that will cost money. Adding a preamp with tone control, or equalizer, enables you to make a significant increase in the bass sound since the equalizer can boost the lower frequencies. It’s a more subtle solution because you can make fine adjustments with the control dial.
There are preamps available at all price ranges and while purists who spend a small fortune on turntables and speakers would never consider a budget option, for the average listener, an entry-level preamp is a great choice. Many of the models on the market today have a phono input for turntables and a line input for CD players and tuners. You don’t need to buy a top of the range preamp or phono stage, but naturally, the more you spend, the better you’ll get.
Change the Cartridge
Not surprisingly, given its key position in the turntable set-up, the cartridge plays a part in determining sound quality. No two cartridges are exactly the same and there can be wide variations in the elements they emphasize. Some will prioritize the mid- and upper-ranges while others will work wonders in the bass register. The cartridge you’re using may have a bright, crisp sound that does a great job with orchestral or acoustic music while sacrificing some of the power of the bass. If your preference is for rock, soul, funk or reggae, then a cartridge that focuses on a warmer, richer sound will suit you better. This is one of the best solutions in terms of equipment upgrades.
Platter MatSince the performance of any turntable is affected by all kinds of physical and environmental conditions like the tracking weight and stylus wear, it shouldn’t be surprising that even the surface the vinyl record rests on can influence its sound. Platter mats are made from all sorts of materials, including silicon, cork and glass. If you want to enhance the bass sound you get from your turntable, then try replacing yours with a rubber felt mat. It may make only a small difference but many audiophiles have reported good results and if you do this in conjunction with some of the other fixes, the overall improvement could be significant.
New SpeakersLike the preamp solution, this is going to be one of the more expensive options. Most people agree that however good your turntable, if you have the wrong speakers, there’s only so much you can do to affect the sound quality. For example, as good as they are, a pair of bookshelf speakers will never be capable of a rich, deep bass sound simply because their size limits their acoustic power. For that, you need bigger speakers, even if they’re moderately priced. Obviously, the quality will make a difference so try to buy the best ones you can afford. That way, not only will you get bigger bass, but you’ll also get better bass.
SubwooferThis is a particularly versatile solution because you can use it only when you want to. When you need a bass boost just switch it on and the improvement will be considerable. If you’re listening to music in which the bass register needs to be under-stated then just switch it off. A subwoofer also comes with a power amplifier built in which is ideal for boosting the bass. It’s a cheaper alternative to buying a new set of speakers, because then you might also need to upgrade your amplifier to deliver sufficient power. A subwoofer is a flexible add-on which will do the job at a lower cost. It may not satisfy audiophile purists, but if your only concern is to get that good bass sound up where you want it, then it solves the problem.
So the question ‘why do I have no bass sound from my turntable?’ has a lot of possible answers. Maybe this all sounds like a lot of hard work and the way you deal with it depends on how dedicated you are. A lot of people are happy to accept their turntable’s sound as it is and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you just know there’s something missing when you’re listening to Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Sly & The Family Stone’s Larry Graham or Nile Rodgers in the heyday of Chic, then an underwhelming bass performance will probably be an endless frustration. Try any or all of these tips and do justice to your music.