suffering the itch to improve your system but can't find the
money, a possible solution is to spend some time fiddling
with your turntable. (If you've gone CD-only, you're out of
luck here.) Like everything else, the delicate mechanics of
turntables are subject to the laws of entropy and will gradually
drift out of tune, causing you too perhaps to gradually drift
away from listening. Returning every six months or so will
restore your faith (if it was flagging) in vinyl and perhaps
If you need a
demonstration of retuning's musical impact read this paragraph,
stop, and do the following. Pick about ten bars of a familiar
record and play it a few times. (use a record you don't like
if you're concerned that quick successive replays will hurt.)
Become familiar with the sound (female voice is best). Now
change the tracking force. No, don't get out the gauges' just
add or delete what might be a tenth or two of a gram. Hear
the difference,' whether for better or worse. That's one small
change in a series of small changes is available.
helps you get the most from your LPs because you're operating
on such a minute scale. The grooves of a record are a few
thousandths of an inch wide. Depending on the loudness at
which the system is being played, you can usually hear down
about 60 dB, which means you're hearing groove displacements
of the order of a few millionths. (That's like splitting a
hair into one thousand pieces.) Every bit of motion or vibration
allowed at this level can be heard through your speakers'
is a basic primer for table setup. To be more comprehensive
here is impractical, if not impossible ' spelling out how
to optimize one product alone would take up pages. Instead,
this gives the basic rationales for each procedure, along
with some guidance as to what to do in each case. It offers
a starting point for your own explorations or at least introduces
you to the essentials of setup and fine-tuning, which may
then encourage you to seek out someone familiar with the particularities
of your own table. If you feel you're a fumblefingers, don't
proceed. (You could cause some expensive damage.) Find instead
a local expert to perform the magic. (Just be sure this person
is an expert, is familiar with your particular table, and
has set them up before.) This primer does not supersede the
owner?s manual, which should be your primary guide.
to consider: If your cartridge is getting on in life, much
of the following may not have the sonic impact it should.
There is even a small chance that a worn stylus is damaging
your records. Cartridges are one of the most difficult (and
most expensive) purchasing decisions in hi-fi because it is
impossible to get them on loan. As an interim measure (before
chancing big money on a major "name" cartridge), you might
investigate one of the highly-rated inexpensive units. On
the other hand, don't get hooked into the cartridge-of-the-month
syndrome. Older, toprated cartridges with thousands of hours
use can sound nearly as good as the best of today.
At various steps
along the way in this retuning, your system may not sound
as sweetly musical as at other times. Beware of thinking you
have made the wrong adjustment. Many times, you will make
a technical improvement which will reveal a previously underlying
nasty sound. Try and fix the nasty sound, don't just go back
to the previous setup. If it sounds cleaner in the very bottom,
and less "wooly," you have probably improved things. On the
other hand, if nothing has changed except that it now sounds
"nasty," then you probably erred in the adjustment.
Turntable Adjustments and
Maintenance Support and Vibration
The first area
to examine is the foundation of the entire turntable system,
whether shelf or stand. No matter how good the table's suspension,
some vibration will get through and muddy the sound from the
bottom end to the midrange. Setting up the foundation to convey
as little vibration as possible will help minimize the muddying.
This is even more important for a turntable with no suspension.
If you can feel
any motion of the foundation by lightly touching it with your
finger tips while playing music, this is degrading your sound
dramatically. To get a hint of just how great the effect is,
listen to it through a stethoscope placed on the table or
on its support. Or place a glass of water on the support and
watch the water's surface while playing music or walking around
; this is a simple and graphic way to see how much acoustic
and mechanical vibration is reaching your system. Remember
that your hi-fi is trying to reproduce groove modulations
as small as a few millionths of an inch : about 1/1000th the
thickness of the hair on your head. Not an easy task within
this vibrating environment.
There are several
steps you can take to minimize motion induced by the playing
of the system as well as motion present in the environment.
The record player stand must be on a stable surface - flexing
floor boards do not make a secure base. If you have the option,
mount your table support on a masonry wall or floor - remember
the table can be either inside or outside your listening room.
If your floor is wood, perhaps you can stiffen it from beneath,
for example by bracing a strut between basement floor and
turntable stand. If you cannot cure floor-flex, mount your
table on a rigid wall.
Be aware that
moving your table to a more stable location may result in
an apparent decrease in bass. Since the more stable location
has less vibration, the support vibrates less and therefore
feeds less back into the system. This is not a mistake. You
have indeed improved matters; you've just altered the apparent
subjective frequency response. Don't reverse the move; correct
the balance. To rebalance the system, you can try moving the
speakers, or improve cartridge alignment, or play with room
changes or even component changes.
Next, turn your
attention to the stand or mount itself. All universal stands
have some flat plate or bars which form the top and on which
the turntable rests - this itself will vibrate harmfully (the
weak point of universal record player stands). The thicker
(read: stiffer) this is, and the more inert, the better the
sound ? and standard units are none too stiff. Don't wimp-out
on the replacement. Get something very heavy (at least 25
pounds, preferably much more) and thick (over three inches).
The stand should be spiked to the floor ? nearly all come
with the sonic differences of placing Sorbothane vs. spikes
between table and stand. The Sorbothane partly isolates, while
the spikes tighten the connection.)
More About Vibration
may loosen over time, allowing more parasitic resonances to
occur. Be aware that overtightening can warp the mating surfaces
and make matters worse. Then use your noodle, look at the
size of the screw, and snug it up. This goes for all screws
used to hold anything together, be it cartridge-to-arm, or
wire-to-box. A few tables are designed to need tuning of some
elements by fastener tightness; in these cases, follow the
adding damping material between two contacting pieces to dampen
vibration, especially over big flat areas. The idea is not
to have a squishy interface but to fill in the very small
gaps left through manufacturing tolerances. Take apart the
pieces, add a very very small amount of Blu-Tac [now available
here] or any other non-hardening putty, then reassemble and
tighten down until the parts are solidly back in contact.
Where there are accurately machined, ground, or lapped surfaces
in contact, use some sort of inert grease such as an industrial
When a turntable
goes out of level, generally the platter bearing's performance
and the arm's dynamics, specifically anti-skate, are negatively
affected. Because the platter bearing is round in a round
sleeve, unlevelness alters how the bearing floats the bushing
(except cases like the Well Tempered and the Versa Dynamics);
the better the bearing, the less the effect. Sonic problems
due to being out of level are greatest with a pivoting arm;
least with a linear tracking arm under motor control.
So be sure your
table's platter and tonearm mounting board are on the level.
Don't just eyeball it - use an accurate level. If the platter
is out of level, adjust the suspension (in the case of a suspended
subchassis design). If the arm board is not level (which means
the arm pivot is not vertical), either return it to your dealer
for repair or re-level it yourself by shimming between the
mounting board and its support.
About the only
thing you can do here is to replace (or top up) the bearing
oil. Follow the manufacturer's recommendation as to how often
and with what. Lift out the platter, sop up the old oil with
a lint-free cloth (or suck it out with a clean eyedropper
or syringe), then pour in the new, being careful not to make
a mess by overfilling the well. (The shaft of the bearing
takes up most of the room in the bearing well.)
(Tip: Most oil
bearings will be improved sonically by a stiffer [higher viscosity]
oil. However, if the motor drive system is not very robust,
this stiffer oil could slow the system down. Most manufacturers
sell their own high viscosity oil; on the other hand, experimentation
can be fun.)
Some belts are
meant to be talcum-powdered, some to be slick; some are meant
to be soft-faced (matte rather than shiny), some to be clean.
Check with the manufacturer about the need and method for
cleaning to maintain proper traction. Some tables, because
of their motors, require slippage to start up and slow down
smoothly so belts on these most likely are talced. Years of
slippage will wear the talc off and then start to buff the
belt shiny. In a case like that, replace the belt with a manufacturer?s
is sometimes controlled by what part of the pulley the belt
rides on, so be sure to get this right. Belts can be finicky
about just where they ride on platter and pulley - be patient.
Everything that is on the table when playing a record - platter,
mat, record, clamp - must also be on the table when you install
or adjust the belt on a suspended subchassis table. On a two-part
platter, place the outer ring upside down on the inner and
lay everything else on top. This will accurately weight the
suspension while allowing you to view the belt on the pulleys.
There's not much
you can do in the way of adjusting a non-suspension table,
except to regard its entire support system as being a part
of the table's suspension. Refer back to that section and
consider even more strongly how to improve the foundation's
are all a little different so to adjust your suspended table,
follow the manufacturer's instructions. As suggested earlier,
if you aren't familiar with working on your table, find someone
who is an expert at it. Tweaks peculiar to each record player
which can significantly benefit the sound are discovered by
users and fine-tuners over time.
If, you adjust
the springs, you need to gain access to the underside of the
table, raise it up on four soda cans. Everything that is on
the table when you play a record - platter, platter mat, record
clamp, and record (use one you don't care about) - must also
be on it when you tune the springs so the weight (and therefore
position) is accurate.
rotate the entire spring to adjust the suspension's up and
down motion, or rotate the nut at one end of the spring to
adjust height and levelness.
Make small incremental
alterations and check the results each time. The platter should
float exactly the same distance about the plinth all around
and the tonearm board must remain horizontal with the plinth.
Pushing at the center of gravity of the suspended part of
the table should, with most designs, cause the suspended part
to move straight up and down very freely and not transition
to sideways or rotational motion before the motion subsides.
Keep adjusting until you can achieve this condition.
The arm is pretty
much maintenance and adjustment-free. Snug up the arm mounting
screws. Check, on a typical pivoting arm, that the bearings
are sound: grasp the headshell and very, very gently attempt
to move the arm back and forth along the length of the tube
and rotationally. If you can feel any free play at the headshell,
you've got a serious problem - get it fixed or replaced. Exceptions
are the Well-Tempered or unipivot arms where by doing this
you are causing it to ride up off the pivot.
If you have a
viscous damping trough, be sure it contains the correct amount
of damping fluid; it doesn't evaporate but it does migrate.
If there is dust and lint in there, clean it out and refill
with the manufacturer's damping material. Also, in the case
of a variable paddle system like the SMEs, reassess whether
you are using the correct paddle. Too much damping will make
the sound tight, but will lose lots of fine detail; too little
and the sound will be open and relaxed but also more hazy
(Tip: To minimize
arm tube resonances [which can add much high frequency hardness
to the sound], damp the arm tube with a brushed-on coating
of liquid latex [thin cosmetic grade for theatrical use is
good], or heatshrink tubing, or a non-hardening putty like
to align the cartridge stylus with the record groove in as
close a replication as possible to how the cutting stylus
originally cut the record groove. You're trying to untrace
with your playback stylus what was traced with the cutting
stylus - the closer the alignment of the one mirrors the alignment
of the original, the more accurately it can read the grooves.
Alignment needs to be optimized in three different planes.
However, it cannot be equally perfect in each of the three,
so it must be optimized for an overall best balance or compromise.
Final adjustment must always be done by ear and over an extended
period of listening time. Just to add to the complexity, each
record is cut a little differently. Here again, optimize for
an overall balance of good sound over a wide range of records
(or adjust VTA for each record, which some people do if they
have an easy VTA adjustment on their arm).
The three alignment
planes are as follows. (Please note that it is the stylus,
not the cartridge, that is being aligned.) First, viewed from
above, the cartridge's arcing movement across the record must
maintain the stylus in the same relation to the groove as
that of the cutting stylus's straight-line tracking; this
is Lateral Tracking Angle, or Tangency. Viewed from head on,
the stylus must be perpendicular in the groove so as not to
favour one groove wall, and therefore one channel, over the
other wall/channel; this is Azimuth. Viewed from the side,
the stylus must sit correctly in the groove, at the same angle
as the original cutter; this is Vertical Tracking/Stylus Rake
Angle. (VTA, however, varies from record to record. Therefore,
this alignment must be set by ear, even more than is the case
with the other adjustments.)
that the distance from the center of the arm pillar (the upright
post) to the spindle (usually fixed by the arm mounting board)
is correct as this will affect the ability to achieve the
tangency adjustments. This "L dimension varies with every
pivoted arm - check your manual or with the manufacturer.
are an alignment gauge, a tracking force gauge, a record you
don't care about as accidents can happen, a strong light you
can focus where needed, and screwdriver. Small needle-nose
pliers and a magnifying glass or plastic magnifying card can
be handy. It's very difficult to make an accurate alignment
gauge (do not relay on the accuracy of the gauge that comes
with every arm), so get a good one. If it doesn't snugly fit
over the spindle, throw it out and get another.
Make sure that
the arm's wires, wire clips, and solder joints are in very
good condition. At minimum, clean the contact between cartridge
pins and wire clips by removing and replacing each clip. Holding
the clips with needle-nose pliers can make this easier, but
be careful that you don't strain the wires where they join
the clip. Check your cartridge mounting screws. Because these
must be snugged tight, plastic screws are no good. Aluminum,
brass, or stainless steel crews, provided they are new and
the threads aren?t distorted, are fine. Allen head screws
are great because the Allen wrenches used on them provide
excellent leverage. To exert sufficient tightening force on
a slotted head screw, you need a screwdriver with at least
a 3/4" diameter handle - jeweler's screwdrivers just don't
To Get Started
Tape the platter
securely to the plinth. If it can rotate during setup, your
alignment measurements won't be accurate. Just be sure taping
does not alter its height or levelness. If this is not already
done, mount the cartridge in the headshell and the headshell
on the tonearm. The headshell screws should be finger-tightened
just enough that the cartridge cannot fall off but is still
loose enough that the cartridge is easily moved around. Work
whenever possible with the stylus's safety cap in place.
force at nominal, then do the tangency alignment procedures,
then the azimuth. Do not deviate from this sequence as each
step affects the subsequent one - change the order and the
setup will be wrong.
on the tonearm counterbalances the weight of arm and cartridge.
At this point, use your tracking force gauge and setting tracking
force according to your cartridge instructions - final adjustment
will be done later by ear. If you do not have a tracking force
gauge, but the arm does have a calibrated counterweight, defeat
the arm's anti-skate mechanism or set it to zero. Set the
counterweight so the arm is level and balanced. Be very careful
of the unprotected stylus - you cannot do this with its safety
cap in place. Once the arm is balanced, lock it in its cradle
and, using the calibrated counterweight, set the tracking
force according to your cartridge's recommended weight.
Follow the instructions
in your owner's manual and those provided with your alignment
gauge - different gauges use slightly different methods. As
you square up the cartridge body with the gauge's markings,
be sure that the cartridge sides are square or your alignment
will be wrong. When all adjustments are correct, carefully
snug down the cartridge mounting screws. Keeping a firm grip
on cartridge and headshell together so nothing shifts, delicately
tighten each screw down a turn or so, then repeat until tight.
Snugging down one screw all the way before tightening the
others is almost certain to twist the cartridge out of alignment.
However careful you've been, always check the alignment again
The old mirror
alignment technique for azimuth may work fine for some cartridges,
but a hand-made moving coil cartridge cannot control this
alignment well enough. The stylus may be several degrees away
from perpendicular to the top of the cartridge.
moving coil cartridges maintain high precision standards;
Our cartridges' stylus azimuth error remains
There are two
accurate ways to adjust azimuth. One is using your ears for
the best sound. Rotate the cartridge in tiny, tiny increments,
in different directions, getting a feel for the area where
you get greatest stage width, depth, and so forth. The drawback
to this approach is that, until you develop a good deal of
experience with it, you can be confused by the changes in
sound, so be patient and work carefully ' it will give you
the best results. The only remaining foolproof method requires
using a voltmeter and a test record. Set the azimuth so that
crosstalk at 1,000 Hz is the same for both channels.
Vertical Tracking Angle
Unless your tonearm
has a special VTA adjuster, adjusting arm height can be a
major nuisance, and particularly so if the arm pillar is held
at a selected height only by a set screw. In these designs,
altering height means releasing the setscrew, which usually
results in the arm pillar dropping precipitously, leaving
you in the dark about the original point from which you are
now trying to add or decrease height. (I speak from bitter
experience.) Jam the gap between pillar neck and collar with
business cards so the pillar cannot fall when released or
find/make a block that fits between the arm mount and the
underside of the arm structure. See your tonearm manual for
its recommendations on adjusting arm pillar height.
The best approach
is to tune-in VTA gradually by listening to music. You know
the arm needs to be lowered at the arm pillar when the overall
sound is hard and bright, with thin bass or no deep bass,
edgy highs, and harsh midrange (of course, this could also
be tracking force which is too light). Distortion obscures
low level details between the musical; notes so dynamic range
is reduced. Transient attacks may be too sharp. Raise the
arm when the sound is dull and damped, the highs rolled off,
the lows muddy and lacking definition, and transient attacks
are dull. Mind you, this sounds an awful lot like the effects
of changes in tracking force (too light is edgy, too heavy
is heavy and dull). They are different sounding but hard to
Start with the
arm a little low and very gradually raise it, first to where
it is parallel to the record, and then so the back of the
cartridge is tilting up. Keep track of your settings so you
can return to the one you like best where everything snaps
into focus. The range of adjustments can be quite broad,
as much as 3/4" or even more (at the arm pivot). Play with
the full range so you know what it sounds like and don?t be
Antiskate Force (pivoting
an opposing, balancing force to the natural inward drag of
a pivoting arm while playing. Left uncontrolled, the stylus
would push up against the inner groove wall, causing distortion
both from mistracking and a cantilever skewed in relation
to the cartridge generator. To set, lower the stylus down
near the label of a record with a wide run-out to it. Increase
antiskate until the arm starts to slowly drift outward, away
from the label. Again, this should be finalized by ear as
you listen to music. If image placement is a little off-center,
or if things don?t seem to be locked in solidly, experiment
with antiskate. Also, watch the stylus when you set it into
a groove. Does it move to the right or left relative to the
cartridge body? This indicates too much or too little antiskating.
You've got three
adjustments roughed in at this point: tracking force, VTA,
and azimuth. It's a matter of reiteration to optimize the
sound. The change in sound with each of these individual adjustments
can be similar. It's therefore necessary, in optimizing all
three, to experimentally move from one type of adjustments
to the next, then to the next, in order to balance the optimization
for all three. Listen to female voice as you work; got for
the maximum vocal character and a tactile sense of a person.
You want to start
to deviate from the cartridge's recommended tracking force
by small increments. You are trying to put the electromagnetic
system in its most linear position. Too much tracking force
and you're moving the coils (or moving magnet) out of the
center position of their range. A tiny increment may be 100ths
of a gram or less; but try as much as 0.2 of a gram deviation
above and below the manufacturer's basic recommendation in
your experiments. Don't worry about record damage from heavy
tracking; most record damage is actually caused by mistracking
in the middle-to-high frequencies with too little tracking
force rather than with too heavy tracking. (Besides, 0.2 gram
over is not heavy tracking at all.) That?s providing that
the stylus is reasonably clean and in good condition. If you're
getting mistracking at the low (lightest) end of the range
and yet the low range is generally sounding the best (and
on moderate signals, not The 1812 Overture), then chances
are you have either a dirty stylus, a bad record, an accumulation
of crud in your cartridge, or a cartridge that?s getting old.
Changes in tracking
force can change how you want VTA and azimuth adjusted. If
azimuth was initially adjusted by ear, experiment with it.
However, if it was set with instrumentation, leave it be and
instead play around with VTA and tracking force. I sometimes
think of this process as being a little like tightening down
a series of screws - you do each a turn or two at a time and
keep going round and round until you've got them all evenly
snugged down and the surfaces mated without warping. Keep
on patiently adjusting until you recognize that the sound
is right and just locks into place.
(Tip: Some people
find that degaussing [Fluxbuster] of a moving coil cartridge
is recommended as often as every day, even if the cartridge
hasn?t been used.)
Regarding this subject, A.J.
van den Hul would like to stress the following:
Never use a cable
enhancer on a cartridge, because you will really burn the
cartridge's coils. I've had in many cartridges in which people
had used a cable enhancer to break-in the tonearm wires -
forgetting that the cartridge was still attached at the other
end of the arm. The coils were completely burned out - the
enhancer even heated them up so much that the rubber and everything
was melted together into a sticky paste. I'm not referring
to cartridge demagnetisers - I'm referring just to the regular
cable burners, to warn everyone. . .
contrary to the conventional wisdom, A.J. van den Hul sternly
advises against fluxbusting your moving coil cartridges. Van
den Hul avers that degaussing a cartridge reduces the number
of magnetic complexes in the magnet for all moving coil designs.
On one hand, fluxbusting helps realign the magnetic complexes
which become more disorganized over time. On the other hand,
the cure may be worse than the disease because fluxbusting
reduces the number of Weisz complexes and realigns the atoms
into larger, less refined aggregates. The end result according
to van den Hul is that you need to fluxbust your cartridge
more and more often ? with a gradual decrease in overall resolving
power. So, while a cartridge may sound better after each degaussing,
its resolving power will gradually decrease due to incrementally
coarser reorganizations of its magnetic complexes. Or as A.J.
would say - you will end up having to degauss your cartridge
after each Beethoven symphony.--A.J. van den Hul B.V.
OK, you're now
basically done. Final-most tuning will take days or weeks
and is a matter of listening to the system in a relaxed way.
Eventually little aspects of sound from one record to another
will begin to annoy out of the overall good sound. This may
range from too light tracking force to VTA. (Most good cartridges
are temperature sensitive (*). When too warm, they get muddy,
when too cold, they can get strident. Keep up with this as
the seasons change.) Excluding people who adjust VTA with
every record, most people will be very happy with a VTA position
which is a good overall compromise for the records that are
their favourites. So turn on the system, let it warm up, sit
back and relax, and enjoy listening to the music even as you
keep one ear peeled for further refinements.
(*): We regard
temperature independence to be an important quality aspect.
With our cartridge designs we therefore employ special materials
which minimize temperature effects. -A.J. van den Hul B.V.
One last, and
important, word on stylus cleaning. There are multiple recommended
stylus cleaning procedures, ranging from ultrasonics, manually
brushing, even using sandpaper, and with various solutions-anything
from the proprietary Freon-based solutions to just alcohol
or alcohol and water, as in record cleaning solutions. These
can have an effect on the shape and condition of contaminants
left on the stylus. With some modern cartridges with very
fine-line styli, it might be necessary to clean the stylus
once per LP side (*). Different methods of cleaning may result
in different sound a more or less frequent need for cleaning.
Experiment with different methods - some sort of cleaning
to what often has been claimed, the van den Hul fine-line
stylus is not more prone to accumulate dirt from a record
than common stylus shapes. -A.J. van den Hul B.V.
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