You want to get a hold of a record washer. The difference is not subtle.
Nearly all my records are pretty well silent. I used for years an old radio station turntable, with no arm, to clean my records. It had what looked like a half horse motor under it and a clutch. You need a good fluid designed for flooding records and I built a vacuum deal out of a record cleaning pad with a shop vac attached.
You can really clean em' like this and depending on your stylus you can avoid most of the wear too. I run a knife like stylus and it reaches down into the groove avoiding the wear caused by round styluses which is only at the top of the groove. The downside is anything at the bottom of the groove now becomes a problem. Washing and vacuuming, as I described, gets pretty well everything. You will if your equipment is good enough notice a strengthening of the mid range as well.
I'll throw in a couple more things. If you think you need an equalizer you have a serious problem as all they do is screw up your signal.
As well never, never, ever play a record without at least an hours rest. The forces the stylus puts into the vinyl are not trivial and if you do not let the record return to it's normal state you will permanently harm it.
Respectfully, I'd like to counter a few of your points. My issues with vinyl are not with abused records on dirt-cheap playback equipment. I've listened in dealer's showrooms. I've listened in audiophile's homes. I know a fellow who has a $30,000 turntable (not that I think they need to be even remotely that expensive), and he takes pride in hosting listening parties monthly. He finds fantastic records, and often the ones he plays are the very first time each has been played. Maintenance of the record is not an issue.
However, I am extremely sensitive to crackles and pops. I've spent far too much time editing audio not to be. To me, a pop is caused by rack gear being powered on mid vocal take, and then the take needs to be done. Or bad fades during the editing, in which case the editing needs to be more carefully done. Or any number of things. I had an internship at a mastering studio, and part of my job was to perform quality control to the master copy before it went out to the replicators to listen for any crackles or pops. And sometimes I found them, and we had to take things back into mastering to fix. And I have practice fixing those too. There are some really cool things you can do with a spectrasonic editor. (And a shame they cost so much!) I am extremely sensitive to crackles and pops. It doesn't mean you are, but I am. To me, this is worse than the deficiencies of digital music, especially file-uncompressed dynamic digital music with no DSP introduced by the media player or sample rate conversion introduced by the OS, and played through a high quality, low-jitter DAC. Of course a 128 kbps mp3 stream of some hyper-compressed, distorted master of a pop star played from a $30 mp3 player sounds bad, especially when played over a high end system that can clearly show you those deficiencies. But that's not a fair comparison, and that's not the point of my opinion.
I respect that you prefer vinyl. And I'd like to purchase a decent turntable of my own next time I have some spare cash. I opted for a phono pre in the preamp I built last winter for a reason. Vinyl is fun, and it is engaging in a nostalgic way that digital music isn't. Yet for a sound that closer aligns with my preferences, I know high quality digital is for me.
As for an equalizer, just remember that it is a tool. A very valuable, very handy tool. Tone controls were often included on integrated amplifiers because they were needed for how much one record could differ in frequency response from another. (It used to be enormously difficult to anticipate the frequency response changes incurred during the cutting of a vinyl original with a lathe.) Tone controls were a tool in the consumer's toolbox to correct for wildly varying sonic signatures between records.
In present day, the consumer shouldn't need much if any EQ. EQ could be used to mask speaker or system deficiencies, but those deficiencies really should be handled with room treatment and/or different speakers. (Not that I expect a consumer to go this far.) Before the music gets in the hands of the consumer, however, EQ is invaluable. Extremely aggressive cuts and boosts are typical during recording in the studio. Elements are cut and boosted during mixing to diminish offending frequencies or to bring out the important frequencies, or to give each instrument sonic "space" by EQing instruments to not overlap as much. It works and it is effective. In fact, I'd say it's mandatory for a good mix, especially a good complex mix. EQ is also used to preserve the impactfulness of the low frequencies by maintaining a lack of it in instruments that don't deserve to fill that part of the spectrum. And of course in mastering, EQ is used for subtle tonal shift of the entire song, and to make up for deficiencies in the mix caused by deficiencies in the mixing engineer's speakers and room.
The equalizer is a valuable tool, and is used for far more than pumping up the bass to noise-pollution levels in your 2002 Grand Am. And I would sorely miss not being able to use an equalizer myself.
I feel this is all off-topic from what gear we own at home, but this is exactly the type of discussion I want to have, not just a list of items that used to be sold. Let's keep a healthy discussion going. I'm really enjoying tossing ideas back and forth with you guys. =]