Turntable System Setup
When you're 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 your
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.
Being persnickety 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
What follows 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.
Another factor 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 hifi 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
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 this way.
(Tip: Experiment 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
Turntable screws 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 manufacturer's recommendations.
(Tip: Consider 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 vacuum grease.)
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
(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
Platter speed 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 vibration protection.
Suspension designs 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.
Generally, you 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
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 and
(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 Blu-Tac.)
You're trying 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 favor 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.)
Also confirm 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.
Essential tools are an alignment gauge, a tracking force guage, 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 do it.
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.
Set tracking 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.
This adjustment 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
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 after tightening.
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
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 explain.
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 diffident.
Antiskate Force (pivoting arms only)
This applies 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.)
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 favorites. 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.
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