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Be your own Vinyl Guru

Be your own Vinyl Guru

After many years when only the hard-core vinyl enthusiasts were showing much interest, playing records and using turntables has suddenly become hot again. But this renewed interest brings with it a sticky problem. Thirty years ago, records were the music source of choice, and every audio retailer had an analogue setup guy, someone who could get your new rig tweaked and ready to go. Today most of those turntable gurus have moved on (or, sadly, passed on), and many new turntables are now sold through online outlets, leaving the end user to fend for him or herself.

The good news is that several turntable manufacturers have recognized this knowledge gap, so they ship lower cost models complete with a pre-installed cartridge and simple enough instructions to get the rest of the job done. But, if you have any plans to step up above the entry level, you may find that you’ll need to screw some of the bits together yourself.

Get yourself situated

Setting up a turntable requires a good amount of attention and focus, so pick a comfortable and well-lit spot to do the work. Some exotic turntables can only be assembled in their final location, but whenever it’s possible, I like to work at a large sturdy surface such as a kitchen table. Just be sure to pick a time when the kids aren’t going to be running around creating havoc.

Most of what we call turntable setup, is really centred around installing and adjusting the cartridge in the tonearm. Sorting out the rest of the turntable is typically quite straightforward. Just follow the instructions for your particular model showing how to attach the belt, install the platter and mat, and loosen any transit screws. With some designs you’ll need to add oil to the main platter bearing, while with others you may have to insert the tonearm into its mounting collar. If you’re resurrecting an old forgotten record player from the attic, check to see if you can find a scan of the original manual at Vinyl Engine, a great information resource for all things turntable related.

The one key tweak that applies to almost every turntable, is the importance of getting everything level. Put your spirit level directly on the platter, and adjust the feet or underlying shelf so that it reads perfectly true in every direction. An out of level turntable platter will create added friction and noise which will mask low level detail, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to dig from those grooves.

Once the basics are done, you can get down to the challenging, er, fun part, which involves installing and adjusting the phono cartridge. Nothing will spoil your new vinyl experience more quickly than trashing a brand new cartridge that you scrimped and saved for several weeks to afford, so give yourself plenty of time to proceed deliberately and carefully.

To help allay that fear, most new cartridges come with some kind of protective cover for the stylus assembly, and it makes sense to use this whenever possible during the setup. There will be a few points in the process where you’ll need to have the stylus naked and exposed, but at other times it’s a good idea to keep it covered up.

Making the connection

I always find that it’s easier to make the electrical connections first before physically mounting the cartridge on the tonearm, but others insist that you should do it the other way around. You can make your own call.

At the back of the cartridge you’ll find four pins where you need to attach the four colour-coded wires that exit from the business end of the tonearm. Normally the cartridge pins have some kind of colour coding that corresponds to the wire colours, although some manufacturers like to make it a bit more cryptic by marking the pins with R+, R-, L+, and L-. Basically, the standard colours for the left channel are white for the positive connection, and blue for the negative, while the right channel uses red for the positive and green for the negative. Some arm manufacturers like to complicate things by throwing a black or yellow wire into the mix, so check the manual if there’s any doubt.

Personally, I prefer to attach the wires without using any tools, by grasping the end of the wire between my bare fingers and pushing it directly onto the pin. I find that I can get a better feel for what’s happening, and when I try using needle nose pliers or tweezers there’s always a greater danger of bending the clip over. The pins themselves are supposed to be a standard diameter, but it seems that some cartridge manufacturers missed the pin size memo, so you may need to carefully adjust the tightness of the clip to get an good firm connection. If it’s too loose, try using needle nose pliers to very gently squeeze the clip together. Opening up an overly tight clip is a bit trickier, but pushing a toothpick into the clip – or opening it with a jeweller’s screwdriver – can help.

Mounting it up

Once your wires are snugly attached, you need to physically mount the cartridge on the arm. Almost every cartridge manufacturer now uses M2.5 metric thread mounting screws, and most manufacturers supply suitable screws with the cartridge. Many cartridges have blind threaded screw holes, making it a doddle to run the screws down from the top through the headshell and into the top of the cartridge. If you’re not so lucky and need to use separate nuts, it’s often simpler to run the screws up from underneath the cartridge, with the nuts positioned on the top of the headshell. Once you’ve figured out the best way, position the cartridge so it’s near the mid point of the slots in the headshell, then tighten up the screws until they are just barely starting to get snug.

Now you’re ready to fine-tune the alignment. But before you whip out your alignment protractor, you need to get the tracking force roughed in.

 

A weighty subject

Many tonearms have a built-in stylus pressure scale, and the most common type uses a small freely rotating ring on the front of the counterweight, with markings for the stylus pressure in grams. To use this properly, first you need to calibrate the position of the ring on the weight, then add the stylus pressure you want by rotating the entire weight. With the anti-skating set to zero, place the cartridge end of the arm just off the right of the edge of the platter, then rotate the counterweight until you find the point where the arm will ‘float’ at around the same height as a record sitting on the platter. At this point the cartridge would be applying zero grams of pressure if it was on the record, so you can calibrate the counterweight by turning just the little numbered ring, while keeping the weight itself still, so that the ‘0’ is at the top. Now apply the tracking force you want by turning the entire weight anti-clockwise until the required stylus pressure is showing at the top of the dial. Most cartridges come with a recommended tracking force, or a range that you want to be in. With new cartridges the best performance is often found near the top of the recommended range, but you may find that as the cartridge suspension beds in with use it helps to dial it back a bit.

If you need to use an external scale, the simple but excellent Shure SFG-2 has been getting the job done for decades. More recently it has been joined by various digital strain gauge scales, ranging from cheap Chinese made eBay specials that sell for just a few pounds, to purpose made devices like the Ortofon DS-1. Most of these digital gauges give very accurate readings, although you should avoid those where the measuring platform is at a significantly different height than a record sitting on the platter.

Covering all the angles

Now that the stylus pressure is in a safe range, it’s time to set the overhang and horizontal tracking angle, a.k.a. zenith. People have written books on the subject of overhang alignment, but for most users, the differences between the thoughts of guys like Mr. Baerwald, Mr. Loefgren and Mr. Stevenson really aren’t all that important. I normally recommend using the protractor and alignment that came with your arm whenever possible.

Universal protractors that will work with any arm typically come in two types. For many years, almost everyone used what’s known as a two point protractor, where you adjust the cartridge until you find the point where it will line up squarely on two different grids on a flat plate. While a two point protractor can be perfectly accurate, it’s accuracy depends on how precisely you can judge a tiny amount of visual misalignment. That’s often a tough call, so for many years the gold standard was a protractor called the Dennesen Soundtracktor. This used a gantry with a point that you would align with the pivot point of that arm, resulting in perfect alignment using a single point. Unfortunately Dennesen stopped making Soundtracktors decades ago, but more recently some of Mr. Dennesen’s patents have expired, and we now have a new flood of Dennesen-like devices such as the Feickert Analog NG, The Pro-Ject Align It, and for the truly obsessed, the costly Acoustical Systems SMARTractor. These all do a great job, with far greater precision than a basic two point plate protractor.

Vertical tracking angle or more accurately stylus rake angle, is another subject that can get analogue junkies worked up into a frenzy. This involves getting the tall and narrow stylus footprint on the sides of the groove wall to match the way the record was originally cut. Think of the vibrations embedded in the record as being like folds in a curtain, and the stylus is like a tall rod that you want to move across the curtain to read the folds. If the angle of the rod doesn’t perfectly match the folds, you’re going to get a less precise read of how the curtain looks. Most manufacturers design their cartridges so that when the arm is parallel with the record, the stylus rake angle will be correct, but that doesn’t mean that a little careful tweaking won’t yield an improvement. Some arms allow you to raise of lower the back of the arm to make subtle changes to VTA; others, most notably Rega, feel that the added rigidity of a nonadjustable mounting outweighs any possible benefit.

Azimuth adjustment is very similar to the stylus rake angle, only in this case you want the V shape of the stylus to fit the groove squarely when viewed from head on. A tool like the Musical Surroundings Fozgometer lets you adjust this by balancing the channel to channel crosstalk, but again, getting the cartridge so it’s perfectly square on the record is 95% of the battle. Most tonearms don’t allow for this adjustment at all.

 

Skating away

Anti-skate is the final thing you need to set, and it’s also perhaps the most contentious. This is an outward force applied by the tonearm, to counteract the inward skating force created by the friction of the stylus riding in the groove. Anti skating is always a compromise, as it will vary depending on how deep of a cut the record is, whether it’s a quiet passage or a loud one, and even whether you’re at the start or the end of the side. Peter Ledermann who has rebuilt thousands of cartridges for SoundSmith, says that most of the well-used stylii he sees show greater wear on the outside than on the inside, and this tells him that most people are using too much anti-skate. He suggests using a blank record, and setting the anti-skate so that the cartridge moves slowly inward as it rides on the blank surface.

This covers all of the points of a basic turntable setup, but some of these adjustments can affect each other. Therefore it’s always a good idea to go back and recheck your stylus pressure and other settings before snugging down all of the various fasteners and calling it a job well done.

Finding the sweet spot

Once your turntable is aligned to perfection, you need to find a suitable spot to locate it in your system. Far more than with other components, what you put your turntable on can make or break the performance you achieve. The turntable is trying to read the tiny little squiggles that form the groove in the record, so any unwanted external vibration getting into the system can mask the subtle low-level information that you’re trying to hear. There have been many schools of thought about what makes good turntable support, but everyone agrees that you need to keep the turntable away from sources of vibration. Don’t put the turntable in the same bookcase as your speakers, and certainly don’t do what I saw a few times back when I was a college student, and plonk it on top of the nice flat top surface of one of your speakers. If playing records makes you want to dance around the room, then a wall mounted shelf is often the best solution to avoid the dreaded skipping record.

While most audio components are pretty much plug and play today, a turntable requires a little more care and expertise to deliver a great analogue music experience. Analogue setup pros are pretty thin on the ground these days, but with just a little handy work you should be able to get your own rig back in the groove.

Useful Resources

Acoustical Systems: www.arche-headshell.de

Analogue Seduction: www.analogueseduction.net

Clearaudio: www.clearaudio.de

Dr. Feickert: www.feickert.de

Musical Surroundings: www.musicalsurroundings.com

Ortofon: ortofon.com

Pro-Ject: www.project-audio.com

Shure: www.shure.co.uk

Vinyl Engine: www.vinylengine.com (free registration required)

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