What Is Surface Noise? – How Much Is Too Much?

What Is Surface Noise? – How Much Is Too Much?

You just bought a new turntable (or you’re brushing the dust off an older one) and you’re excited to start listening to your records. 

After you set the record down on the platter, drop the stylus, and let it spin – you could’ve sworn that your copy of Let It Bleed used to sound so much better. Now you’re wondering why it sounds so noisy – and what you can do to fix it. 

Chances are, you’re experiencing something that every turntable owner will encounter called surface noise. What is surface noise? It’s a term used to describe the pops, clicks, and hisses that might sound like they’re grossly out of place. You might be thinking “I feel pretty confident that these sounds weren’t purposely recorded in the studio. It’s becoming so distracting that I can’t even enjoy my records”. 

If you’re worried that your turntable might need to be replaced, read through our guide first to see some of the other possible causes and how to fix them

What Is Surface Noise - How Much Is Too Much?

What Is Surface Noise?

To start off, take a look at our list below to see the most common reasons for abnormal clicks, hisses, and pops:

  • Too much dust/debris is built up on your vinyl
  • Excessive dirt/dust is built up on your turntable’s stylus
  • Turntable quality wasn’t that good, to begin with
  • You’re playing old records that need a deep clean (as opposed to the standard quick brush)
  • Your stylus is damaged or broken 

In most cases, too much dust/debris build-up on your records or turntable stylus tends to be the main culprit. Keep reading below to see how to tell if what you’re hearing is normal (and what to do in case it’s not). 

Some Clicks and Pops Are Normal

Before we get into some of the most common reasons for excessive clicks, pops, and hisses you’ll want to know that you’re not alone. Anyone who’s ever owned a turntable will tell you that it’s completely normal to hear that crackle as the music slides into existence. It’s completely normal to hear the quiet noise during the short spaces in between tracks, no matter how new (or old) your vinyl is. 

Picture This Scenario

Here’s when it can become a problem:

Let’s say you just bought a brand new LP. You can’t contain your excitement to rush home and listen to the album all the way through. In your hurried excitement, you forget to take a few steps that would be wise to get in the habit of taking. 

You hurry over to your turntable, rip the plastic off the cardboard sleeve, and carefully wiggle the vinyl out of its case. You flip the dust cover up and set your record down. You wait excitedly for the music to start as the diamond tip stylus starts to drag across the surface of the grooves. 

Then, after all the build-up and anticipation you’re suddenly let down because it doesn’t sound as good as you thought it would. “Do I need a new stylus? Is this a defective record? Should I return it and get a replacement?” 

Make Sure Your Vinyl and Stylus Are Clean

In the real-life scenario above that most of us have experienced, it can be pretty easy to forget one simple step. Cleaning your record. Even when you buy a brand new album, using one of the basic cleaning methods is super important. 

Not only does it preserve the quality of your vinyl, but it will also help decrease surface noise. Doing a quick sweep across both sides with a quality anti-static brush is the fastest, most basic method. Learning how to clean vinyl records by hand will save you time and money in the long run. Plus, most importantly, your records will sound better and stay in pristine condition for a lot longer. 

Cleaning The Stylus

If your vinyl collection is spotless and you’re still having issues with excessive noise, the next thing you’ll want to check is your turntable’s stylus. As dust collects in the grooves of your LPs – over time, the constant dragging of a stylus across that debris will start to collect on the stylus itself. 

A stylus also deserves a good cleaning on a regular basis. There are a few easy ways you can do this.

  1. Use a specialized brush like the Diskeeper Stylus Brush
  2. Do-it-yourself with a Mr Clean Magic Eraser
  3. Try the Onzow: ZeroDust Stylus Cleaner (pictured below)
Onzow ZeroDust Stylus Cleaner - What Is Surface Noise?

Since it’s an integral piece of the turntable for producing music, keeping it clean and free from excessive build up should also become a regular habit. Those are two of the most common reasons why a turntable will start to produce unsatisfying, overwhelming clicks, pops, and hisses.

As you will see below, there are a few additional factors that can also affect the sound quality. 

Turntable Quality – Is There Less Surface Noise On High-End Turntables?

Much like the discussion among audiophiles about which headphone is the best and why the same type of subjective debate exists among vinyl enthusiasts. The main difference is that instead of arguing over headphones, there are varying opinions about high-end turntables vs. less-expensive models. 

Although it’s unlikely that the price tag on your turntable has a night and day impact on the level of surface noise you hear, it’s not impossible either. That being said, there are some pretty clear cut standards that most will agree with.

If you walk into a clothing store and see one of those trendy suitcase-turntable setups, keep walking. Don’t let the aroma of the store or the impulse of the moment allow you to grab one. (That is unless you want to try one just for fun or use it as a decorative piece in your apartment.) It might seem like a good idea to grab a $30 ‘table, but you’ll probably end up regretting it. 

This is where the price difference will play a role in the quality of sound that you can expect from a new turntable. The basic components will not only be constructed with cheaper materials, but it will greatly impact how your records sound (debris or no debris)

If you were to compare the Audio Technica LP60BT side-by-side with one of those suitcase-turntables, the difference in sound quality would become apparently clear. 

If All Else Fails and It Becomes Too Much Of a Distraction

In most cases, if you’ve made sure that your vinyl is as clean as possible and did the same for the stylus – your problem will be solved. In the case that you’ve tried both but the noise is still too distracting to ignore, it might be time to actually replace some parts

This could mean buying a new stylus or replacing your turntable altogether. (If you already own a suitcase-turntable and you found this page, that’s probably half of the issue, to begin with.) The Ion Audio Max LP and Audio Technica AT-LP60BK are both great entry-level turntables that are fairly inexpensive but not so much that the quality suffers. 

The external speakers that you’re using shouldn’t affect the amount of surface noise at all. They only amplify the output of the turntable so unless they’re crackling from listening to music at volumes past their limit (which is an entirely different issue) you should be fine. 

Here’s a great video to watch from Steven Guttenberg that echoes a lot of the information we’ve covered here while adding his own personal opinion:

Are you starting to see how important it is to regularly clean your vinyl and turntable?

All Things Considered – Are The Clicks, Pops, and Hisses Really a Bad Thing?

All things considered, keep in mind that regardless of how well you clean your vinyl, there will always be at least a faint hiss, click, or pop. As long as you follow the steps we just went over, you’ll be able to keep excessive noises to a minimum. What is surface noise? It’s a regular part of the vinyl experience for each and every turntable owner on the planet. 

It’s one of the most unique qualities of listening to music the “old fashioned way”. If this is your first rodeo you might even find yourself wanting to hear at least some of those pops and quiet hisses. It helps remind you that even in the digital age there’s still plenty of room for time-tested, nostalgia-producing technologies like the turntable. 

Again, getting into the habit of regularly cleaning your equipment helps more than you might think. It will start to become second nature (and won’t seem like a chore) as you start to remember these important steps. If it seems like too much to remember all at once, go ahead and bookmark this page to revisit later. 

What do you think? Are you a fan of the unique sounds that a stylus makes as it drags across a vinyl record? Does it bother you to the point where you might give it up entirely? Let me know what you think in the comment section below, I’d love to get your perspective!

Thanks for stopping by to find the answer to one of the most commonly-asked turntable questions – I hope you enjoyed! If you did, take a look at our Best Audiophile Albums list or these 20 Awesome Music Lovers Gifts You Can Give here. I hope to see you here again soon!

Sonic Elevation: Ride The Waves. 

6 thoughts on “What Is Surface Noise? – How Much Is Too Much?

    • Author gravatarAuthor gravatar

      I wonder whether cleaning liquids such as eye glass cleaners have any effect on the records? Are the problems related to cleaners the result of using alcohol? Are the clicks and hiss sounds different from what you might find on a CD where it can sometimes skip a step? I assume there are many styluses on the market and wonder whether the material of the stylus makes a difference?

      • Author gravatarAuthor gravatar

        Hey Elan, thanks for your questions. Using eye glass cleaner is not recommended at all for cleaning records. You can, on the other hand, use your eye glass cleaning cloth to give them a quick wipe down.

        You can use certain types of alcohol (such as isopropyl) mixed in with a few other ingredients without damaging your records. You’ll want to take a look at this instructional on How To Clean Vinyl Records By Hand for more detailed information. 

        Yes, the pops, clicks, and hisses sound quite a bit different than the sound a CD makes when it skips. (It sounds more like the crackle of a burning camp fire.) 

        The stylus on your turntable can make a difference – especially if it’s not regularly cleaned and has tons of dirt and dust collected around the tip. 

        The best way to avoid excessive surface noise is to make sure you vinyl and turntable components are regularly cleaned. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by and asking some great questions – I’m sure others will also benefit from your curiosity!

        Hope to see you here again!

    • Author gravatarAuthor gravatar

      This kind of article rubs me the wrong way. Surface noise from vinyl is very intrusive. Don’t downplay, tell the truth. I would not have spent several thousand dollars on vinyl playback knowing what I know now. Some of these so-called audiophiles have tin can ears. Vinyl is noisy and it is intrusive. Like it or not.

      • Author gravatarAuthor gravatar

        I definitely understand where you’re coming from Steve. I’m sure you understand as much as the next “music enthusiast” that music is a purely subjective art form. You may enjoy the overly distorted production style of shoegaze whereas I may be seeking the “flawless” and pristine production that most pop music has to offer.

        While surface noise is a pretty much unavoidable part of the vinyl experience, our individual opinions will vary from person to person. You might find it overly obtrusive and distracting (as you mentioned) while me or the next person may perceive it to be one of the nostalgic or endearing aspects that separates vinyl from other mediums.

        If you’re looking for the cleanest sound technologically possible, you probably wouldn’t want to invest very much time and money into amassing a huge vintage vinyl collection. For someone like me who didn’t grow up listening to vinyl, part of the appeal is not only collecting a physical piece of art, but rediscovering the roots which have ultimately branched out into the various ways most people consume their music today.

        Opening up Spotify or Tidal on your phone and having instant access to almost any song you can think of definitely has its place, but there’s a certain sense of satisfaction when you tear the saran wrap off of a brand new record and hear it crackle into existence for the first time. Both the digital and analog experience each have their own pros and cons but it will ultimately boil down to your own personal preference.

        I appreciate you sharing your experience and offering a different perspective, after all, there are always two sides to every story! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 🙂

    • Author gravatarAuthor gravatar

      My new records don’t have much surface noise, but the older ones or ones I’ve had for 15 or 20 years do have crackles in between tracks.

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