The Vinyl Anachronist
Part XXII: Careful With That Cartridge, Eugene
by Marc Phillips (August 2000)
"Give the people what they want!"
That's Jason Gross, editor of PSF, doing his best Ray Davies impersonation after I told him that I've had a bigger response to my article "Pins And Needles" than to all of my other articles combined. Evidently everyone is pretty confused about phono cartridges, and my attempt to recommend turntable and cartridge combinations only scratched the surface. So I told Jason I was thinking about entering Cartridge 201 into the analog curriculum, and he responded accordingly.
Well over a hundred people have asked for specific turntable-cartridge recommendations alone. And to tell you the absolute truth, I haven't heard every turntable on the market, much less every cartridge, so many times I found myself flying by the seat of my pants in an effort to get someone on the road to analog heaven. (No, that doesn't mean YOU, dear reader. I knew exactly what I was talking about when I recommended that $10,500 Clearaudio Insider Reference cartridge for your twenty-year-old Pioneer direct-drive 'table!) But let's face facts. In my life, I've owned (working backwards) a Rega Planar 25, a Rega Planar 3, an AR ES-1, A Technics SLDL-1, a Dual 510, and a Soundesign all-in-one turntable and receiver. And I've owned maybe two or three more cartridges than turntables. So most of my recommendations are based upon hearing other analog set-ups briefly at hi-fi shoppes, at friends' houses, and by reading reading READING!
In other words, I can recommend cartridge and turntable combinations all the live long day, but that may be ignoring some deeper issues about this specific interface. For instance, is your VTA set correctly? Is the cartridge aligned correctly, using a proper protractor? Is your tracking force too heavy? Too light? How about anti-skating? Azimuth? Stylus overhang? Am I speaking Greek? Or Japanese? Or Swahili?
Some of the best turntable technicians (yes, there are such a thing) can get decent performance out of just about any cartridge, mated with just about any turntable. All it takes is the right tools, a keen eye, an understanding of basic engineering and physics, and a skill for jerryrigging that rivals that MacGyver fellow. (I must be getting older- that's the first time I've used the word 'fellow') When it comes right down to it, having your cartridge mounted properly may make an even bigger difference to the sound of your LPs than buying a whole new turntable set-up!
No, I'm not going to give step-by-step instructions on how to properly mount a cartridge. It differs from 'table to 'table, not to mention cartridge to cartridge. Like I've said countless times before, it pays to let the dealer do the work here. It's really a pain-in-the-ass to do this right. But many of the e-mails I've been getting indicate that most of you indulging in the riches of the Vinyl Renaissance are buying cartridges, not to mention turntables, through mail-order companies. Almost every time I recommend a specific dealer to someone, I sense hesitation, until that person breaks down and says, "Well, the guy at Analog.com recommends this...or that." Of course they do! They can recommend anything, because they're not the ones who have to deal with the nightmare of making the thing work! You do!
So you need some sort of alignment tool if you're Mr. Do-It-Yourself. These range from a simple piece of paper or cardboard that is usually included with the 'table or cartridge, to some fairly complex and expensive pieces of modern sculpture that scare the hell out of your children and your cats. Usually the piece of paper is pretty straightforward; it usually has a small hole cut into it that you place onto the spindle, and some sort of arc/graph drawn on it. The idea is to place the paper onto the spindle, and to move the cartridge around until the stylus tracks the arc ALL THE WAY ACROSS. You just can't line up the stylus at the beginning markings. That will ensure that every record you play will only sound good for the first three minutes. By the time the needle hits the inner groove, your hair will have fallen out, and your fingernails will have been bitten to the quick.
The paper/cardboard alignment gauges are simple, fairly effective, and cheap, if not altogether free. Unfortunately, this is a game of millimeters and microns, and those thick black lines scribbled on a piece of cardboard aren't the most exact indicators of proper cartridge alignment. That's where the protractors come in handy. Usually they're made out of clear plastic or plexiglass, and they're much easier to move around, and the markings are much more exact. DB Systems, for instance, sells an outstanding alignment protractor for about $35.
The ultimate tools for cartridge alignment, however, have to be the range of products from Wally Malewicz. The Wallytractor resembles no other cartridge aligning device around. It is that aforementioned piece of plexiglass sculpture which sets up vertically over your turntable and is so far the easiest, most thoughtful aid in proper turntable set-up ever invented. There are two drawbacks, however. First, the Wallytractor retails for $85. Before you balk at this price, however, remember what I said about a properly aligned cartridge sounding better than a much more expensive cartridge installed sloppily. Secondly, the Wallytractor and other turntable accessories are very hard to get. These products are so good that the demand far exceeds the supply, and apparently poor Wally is just some guy making these in his dining room after he gets home from his day job. You can only get these products by being referred by someone who already owns one. And no, I am not your referral. I've been trying to get one for almost a year now.
I'd also like to briefly comment about P-mount cartridges. In theory, the P-mount cartridge is a great idea, the very definition of plug-n-play. A friend of mine has a P-mount set-up on his 'table (again, a cheap, sonically inferior Technics monstrosity), and it is unbelievably simple to exchange cartridges with this technology. Unfortunately, this type of interface is woefully inadequate. The cartridge has too much play inside the tonearm, and we all know rigidity is the name of the game when it comes to turntables. And you simply cannot properly align it. You have one choice, their choice, and the best P-mount cartridge in the world cannot make up for it.
This stands for Vertical Tracking Angle (or Alignment, depending on who you talk to). VTA is a source of constant debate among vinylholics. Is setting the correct VTA necessary to get the best sound out of LPs? Is it anal-retentiveness gone insane?
Considering that I've owned Rega turntables, which have no provision for setting VTA unless you actually remove the tonearm and insert spacers under the base, I have no idea. But I've noticed that some records sound great on my Rega, and some don't even though they may have excellent reputations for superior sonics. This might be due to an incorrect VTA.
VTA basically has to do with the tonearm being parallel to the surface of the platter, or, more specifically, the surface of the LP as it is playing. If the body of a cartridge is too tall, or too shallow, then the VTA will be off. Also, the fact that most LPs have varying thicknesses will have an effect on VTA. Usually the VTA is adjusted through the tonearm. The finest tonearms (I'm talking $2000 and more, here) allow for VTA adjustment while the record is playing. People who own such tonearms say it is easy to know when VTA is correct, because the sound "locks in." Everything sounds okay, and then with a precise spin of a knob, it sounds spectacular. It's kind of like focusing the lens of a camera. When everything is crystal clear, you know it.
Some tonearms require that you stop playing the record first. It's harder to hear that focus snap to attention when you do it this way, but what are you going to do? You spend a measly $1500 on a tonearm, you can't expect everything. And then there's Rega, perhaps the most beloved and best-selling maker of tonearms and turntables today, and you cannot adjust VTA on any of ther products at all. Founder Roy Gandy simply doesn't believe in "correct" VTA. He also doesn't believe, as I have mentioned before, in cleaning your records. (Ignore that one.) His stuff sounds pretty good to me, however, considering I've had a Rega in my system since 1993. But am I missing out on something? Or am I simply drawing the line at this particular measure of fussiness? I'll let some other guy with a much fatter wallet discover this particular truth.
This one is easy, a no-brainer. Always go by the cartridge manufacturer's recommendations. Usually a cartridge puts between 1.5 and 2.5 grams of pressure on the record groove. Any more, and you'll be carving brand new grooves into your records. The saying, "Music will never sound the same" will take on a new meaning. On the other hand, go too lightly with the tracking force, and that needle will bounce and skip across your LP surface like a ballerina on crystal meth. Usually it's fairly easy to adjust tracking force. It varies from tonearm to tonearm, but usually you set the tracking force dial to zero and adjust the counterweight at the back end of the arm until the whole kit-and-kaboodle floats in mid-air. Then you simply set the dial to whatever is the recommended tracking force. It's simple to do, and if you value your record collection, it's very important.
I originally wanted to do a separate article just on tonearms, but then I realized it would make for a very short, not to mention dry, installment of "The Vinyl Anachronist." It's not that tonearms aren't important, because they are. They're just as important to the sound as the turntable and the cartridge. It's just that there isn't as much to talk about.
First of all, the idea of buying a separate tonearm is an expensive proposition. There are plenty of cheap cartridges and even cheap turntables flooding the marketplace. There are no cheap separate tonearms. The least expensive I can think of is the Rega RB250, and that sells for over $300. The Rega RB300, the best-selling separate tonearm ever, runs for $425, and is considered an outrageous bargain. More typical tonearm models and prices: Rega RB900 ($995), VPI JMW Memorial ($1400), Naim ARO ($2250), and what is considered by many to be the finest tonearm right now, the Graham 2.0 ($3000). So in other words, maybe you're better off with the tonearm that came with the 'table.
I mention this, however, because for every person that doesn't realize that phono cartridges are independent from the turntable, there are probably five that feel the same way about the tonearm. It is, in other words, worth considering if you are trying to extract the best sound possible from LPs, the kind of sound that clearly blows away anything available from digital formats. If you've been steadily upgrading cartridges over the years, eventually the time will come when you need to upgrade that tonearm if you want to make the next leap in performance.
As far as the different kinds of tonearms are concerned, I'm a bit ambivalent. Should the arm itself be straight, or S-shaped? Well, I've always been told that when it comes to tonearm design, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Then I ran into the Premier MMT, an S-shaped tonearm that was sold up until a few years ago, and it sounded great, and ran only a couple of hundred bucks! What about linear-tracking? Well, I owned a linear-tracking Technics briefly in the early 80s, and it sounded dreadful. The tonearm itself was plastic and was less than two inches long, which I'm sure contributed to the awful sound. But then recently I heard the Clearaudio/Souther linear-tracking arm on a turntable, and the sound was gorgeous! (This arm, however, costs a cool $2800.) How about unipivots vs. fixed point tonearms? Do you care? Point is, don't neglect the tonearm. Don't let it be the weak link in the analog chain.
Well, I await the new flood of e-mails (sent to, as always, firstname.lastname@example.org) about phono cartridges. I hope I can answer your questions adequately. Just remember, as you sit at your dining room table, your turntable lying in pieces amid the jeweler's screwdrivers and the tiny tiny cartridge screws, which you'll inevitably lose, that it's worth it to do it right. Years from now, as you try to recall which colored wire gets attached to which pin on the back of the cartridge as you weave baskets in the Happy Happy Ward of the local sanitarium, remember that I warned you. Bad mail order. Bad bad!
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