What Causes Sibilance In Phono Playback? A Comprehensive Guide

Vinyl records have made a comeback in recent years, with many music enthusiasts rediscovering the unique sound and experience of playing records on a turntable.

However, one issue that can arise during phono playback is sibilance – a hissing or whistling sound that can be distracting and take away from the overall listening experience.

In this article, we’ll explore the various causes of sibilance in phono playback, from faulty setup to dirty stylus, and provide tips on how to minimize or eliminate this issue.

So, whether you’re a seasoned vinyl collector or just starting out, read on to learn more about sibilance and how to tackle it.

What Causes Sibilance In Phono Playback

Sibilance in phono playback can be caused by a variety of factors, including faulty setup, damaged records, and dirty stylus.

One common cause of sibilance is mistracking due to a faulty setup. This can be caused by a misaligned cartridge or tonearm, or by using too little tracking force. If you’re using a P-mount turntable, there may not be much you can do to adjust the setup, but you can try adding more tracking force if your turntable supports it.

Another potential cause of sibilance is damaged records. If you’re experiencing sibilance on only a few recordings, it may be due to bad pressings or damaged records. In this case, there’s not much you can do other than replace the records.

A dirty stylus is another common cause of sibilance in phono playback. As the stylus travels across the record, it can pick up dirt and dust from the surface, which can hinder its ability to accurately trace the groove. Regularly cleaning your stylus with a stylus cleaning kit can help minimize this issue.

Understanding Sibilance In Phono Playback

Sibilance is a term used to describe the elongated “s” sounds that can occur in phono playback. It is important to note that sibilance is not always a problem, as it is a natural part of vocals and other audio recordings. However, sibilance distortion can occur when there is an over-emphasis or distortion of these sounds.

Sibilance distortion can be caused by a variety of factors, including mistracking, poor mastering, worn or dirty stylus, groove wear, or poor alignment. If the recording has intentional sibilance added for effect, it may not be considered a problem.

It’s important to note that sibilance is not related to vinyl specifically, as it can also occur in digital versions of recordings. However, poorly reproduced turntables or incorrect stylus rake angles can contribute to sibilance distortion.

Other factors outside of the turntable setup can also contribute to sibilance, such as speaker breakup, crossover issues, or power supply noise. It’s important to thoroughly troubleshoot your system and rule out any other potential sources of high frequency noise before assuming the issue is solely related to the turntable setup.

Causes Of Sibilance: Faulty Setup And Calibration

Faulty setup and calibration can also contribute to sibilance in phono playback. If your turntable is not properly calibrated, it may not be able to accurately reproduce the high-frequency sounds that contribute to sibilance. This can be caused by incorrect bias calibration, which can result in underbiased recordings that lack high-frequency detail.

Additionally, recording at too high of a level (over 0VU) can also cause sibilance distortion. This can happen if the recording equipment is not properly calibrated or if the recording level is set too high. If both of these conditions are present, it can result in a recording that is overly bright and harsh, with excessive sibilance.

If you’re experiencing sibilance in your phono playback, it’s important to check your setup and calibration to ensure that everything is working properly. This includes checking the alignment of your cartridge and tonearm, adjusting tracking force if necessary, and ensuring that your recording equipment is properly calibrated. By taking these steps, you can help minimize sibilance and enjoy clearer, more accurate phono playback.

Causes Of Sibilance: Dirty Stylus And Record Surface

One specific cause of sibilance that is related to a dirty stylus is the build-up of dust and grime on the stylus tip. This can happen over time as the stylus travels across the record surface, picking up dirt and dust along the way. This build-up can hinder the stylus’s ability to accurately trace the groove, leading to distorted sound.

This issue is particularly troublesome when playing older, used records, but it can still occur with new records as well. To minimize this issue, it’s important to invest in a stylus cleaning kit and use it regularly. Keeping your records clean can also help reduce the amount of cleaning required for your stylus.

It’s worth noting that some records may have sibilance built-in during the recording or pressing process. Listening to the CD version of the album can help determine if this is the case. Additionally, sibilance may be caused by damaged records or cartridge misalignment, so it’s important to rule out these potential causes before assuming that a dirty stylus is the culprit.

Causes Of Sibilance: Poorly Mastered Records

One often overlooked cause of sibilance in phono playback is poorly mastered records. This can occur when the recording is mixed or mastered in a way that emphasizes high-frequency sounds, particularly those in the 3-4 kHz range. Because our ears are highly sensitive to these frequencies, they can be perceived as harsh or sibilant.

In some cases, this issue can be mitigated by reducing the volume slightly or using a notch filter at 3500 Hz to reduce the emphasis on these frequencies. However, it’s important to note that this solution only addresses the symptom of the problem and not its root cause.

To avoid sibilance caused by poorly mastered records, it’s important to research and choose recordings that are known for their high-quality mastering. Additionally, investing in a high-quality turntable and cartridge can help minimize the impact of poorly mastered recordings by accurately tracking the groove and reproducing the sound as faithfully as possible.

Tips For Minimizing Sibilance In Phono Playback

If you’re experiencing sibilance in your phono playback and want to minimize it, here are some tips to try:

1. Check your cartridge setup: If you’re using a non-P-mount turntable, make sure your cartridge is properly aligned using an alignment protractor. If you’re using a P-mount turntable, try adding more tracking force if possible.

2. Use high-quality records: While damaged records can cause sibilance, using high-quality pressings can help minimize it. Look for records that are well-made and free from defects.

3. Clean your stylus regularly: As mentioned earlier, a dirty stylus can cause sibilance. Use a stylus cleaning kit to keep your stylus free from dirt and dust.

4. Adjust VTA by ear: Adjusting the vertical tracking angle (VTA) can help minimize sibilance. Start by adjusting VTA very slightly up or down and listen for changes in sound. Keep going until you find the sweet spot where the sound locks in and sounds balanced.

5. Position vocals further away from the microphone: If you’re recording vocals, positioning the vocalist two fist-lengths away from the microphone can help reduce sibilance overload caused by excessive levels of upper-mid “sibilant” frequencies.

By following these tips, you can help minimize sibilance in your phono playback and enjoy a clearer, more balanced sound.

Conclusion: Enjoying High-Quality Phono Playback Without Sibilance

To enjoy high-quality phono playback without sibilance, it’s important to address the root causes of the issue. First, make sure your setup is properly aligned and adjusted for optimal tracking force. If you’re using a P-mount turntable, consider adding more tracking force if possible. Additionally, be mindful of the condition of your records and replace any that are damaged or poorly pressed.

Regularly cleaning your stylus can also go a long way in minimizing sibilance. By keeping your stylus free of dirt and dust, it can more accurately trace the groove and reproduce the music as intended.

Finally, it’s worth noting that mastering EQ can also play a role in sibilance. Some recordings may have an excess of energy in the 3-4 kHz range, which can cause sibilance on any system. To combat this issue, some recording studios use a house curve with a dip in this frequency range. You can also try EQing this band down a bit to reduce sibilance, but be cautious not to overdo it and muffle the music.

By addressing these factors, you can enjoy high-quality phono playback without the distraction of sibilance.