Unlike amplifiers and CD players, turntables need to be properly set up in order to get optimum results. Huw Price explains how to do it without getting in a spin…
Given the resurgence of interest in vinyl, and the subject matter of this magazine, no doubt some of you have been wondering how to get the best out of your turntable. If you’re new to this, all the dials, levers and weights on your turntable’s tonearm may seem mysterious and even intimidating.
Or maybe you’re a bit further along the vinyl line and considering a cartridge upgrade. If so, you should be aware you cannot simply remove the old cartridge and bolt on a new one. Instead, the cartridge needs to be carefully aligned and adjustments will have to be made to the tonearm.
The object of this article is to provide step-by-step instructions on how to set up your turntable, aligning the cartridge and adjusting the tonearm. We’ll also get onto tackling some of the potentially confusing jargon relating to turntable setup. If you follow the instructions carefully, you should be able to get the best possible sound from your turntable – and the wear and tear on your stylus and precious records will be kept to a minimum.
Ideally, your turntable should be placed on a solid surface that holds it rock-steady and isolates it from any potentially harmful vibrations. This is what high-quality hi-fi stands are intended to provide, although some people prefer to mount a turntable shelf onto a wall. If you want to try this with a very heavy turntable, you must ensure the shelf brackets and fixings are strong enough to be able to support the weight.
Once that’s sorted, the setup procedure begins with ensuring the turntable is absolutely level. You can use a spirit level from a hardware store or download a spirit-level app for your smartphone. The spirit level is placed on the turntable platter and you must take readings from side to side as well as front to back. Some turntables have adjustable feet, which makes this task easier. If your turntable has fixed feet, or none at all, place shims under the turntable or the turntable shelf. If the turntable is sitting atop a stand, the stand itself may have adjustable feet.
The final level reading should be taken in a straight line between the centre spindle and the cartridge at the end of the tonearm. Although this part of the procedure can be tedious and time-consuming, it’s important to get it done.
The grooves in a record can be likened to a bumpy and uneven road surface. As the stylus runs along the grooves in a record, it will move upwards in response to high spots in the grooves – but a downwards force must also be present for the stylus to move back to its default position. This is called the tracking force.
Downwards force is achieved by setting the weight at the back of the tonearm to tilt the balance towards the stylus. If the downward force is too low, the stylus will lose contact with the surface of the record, resulting in mistracking. You may even find the stylus jumping out of grooves, which is clearly undesirable. I recall people taping small coins to the headshells of their tonearms to prevent this, but it’s a guaranteed way to accelerate the wear on your stylus and your records.
There is a proper method for setting tracking force. Firstly, familiarise yourself with the setting procedures for your tonearm by consulting the manual or finding the specs online. Identify your anti-skating adjuster and set it to zero. Some tonearms have anti-skating weights instead, so simply remove them. We’ll get onto skating later.
Next, identify your tracking force control and set it to zero. If you have a stylus guard, remove it and take great care that you don’t damage your stylus. With the cue lever in the down position, lift the tonearm clear of its resting holder and adjust the weight at the back of the tonearm, so that the tonearm floats dead level.
If the tonearm shows a tendency to drop, move the weight backwards – or, if it’s displaying a tendency to rise upwards, move it forwards towards the cartridge. Take your time, because fractions of a millimetre in the position of the weight will make all the difference.
Once the tonearm is ‘floating’, secure it back in its holder and look up the recommended tracking force for your cartridge. If you don’t have a datasheet, you should be able to find the information you need on the manufacturer’s website. Set the tracking-force control to the recommended setting – or, if a tracking force range is provided,
set it bang in the middle.
If you want to be absolutely certain, consider buying a tracking-force gauge. Sophisticated digital gauges will cost £50 or more, but simple balance scales are available for less than £10. You may find that the tracking-force setting on the tonearm isn’t as accurate as it could be. You can try setting the tracking force a tiny bit lower to accentuate upper-midrange and treble detail, or set it a tad heavier to accentuate bass. However, stay close to the cartridge manufacturer’s specifications.
Although this might sound like the Daily Mail’s default position on the recreational activities of teenagers, it actually refers to a force applied to the cartridge to counteract the inward pull of a record’s spinning grooves. This inward pull increases stylus pressure on the inner side of the grooves, and you may hear it as distortion in the upper-mid and high frequencies. So listen out for sibilant vocals and harsh cymbals.
Most tonearm manufacturers recommend setting the anti-skate control to equal to the tracking force, but some techs prefer to go 0.5g or so higher or lower. So, for a 1.5g tracking force, you might set your anti-skate to 2g. However, if you haven’t got a vinyl test disc and an oscilloscope to assess the results, it’s best to play it by the book. There is another anti-skate setting method you can try if you have a blank CD you don’t mind sacrificing. Alternatively, you can go to a glass supplier and ask them to cut you a glass disc the same width as your platter, with a hole in the centre for the spindle. Just make sure they polish the edges.
Set your anti-skate control to match your tracking force, place your CD or glass disc over the platter, start the turntable running, then gently lower your stylus. If the stylus starts moving towards the centre of the disc, then lift the tonearm, turn up the anti-skate and try again. The object is for the stylus to remain static on the disc. If there’s too little anti-skate, the stylus will move inwards – and if there’s too much, it will move outwards.
With a bit of trial and error, you should be able to get the anti-skate set perfectly. Some audiophiles prefer glass platter mats to felt, cork or rubber, and will pay a lot of money for them. So, if you do get a glass disc cut for anti-skate testing, try playing your records on it, too.
Vinyl records are cut with parallel tracking cutters. This ensures that the cutter moves in a straight line, from the disc’s outer edge towards the centre. The angle of the cutting head relative to the groove remains constant. It would therefore make sense for turntable arms to operate in the same manner and, indeed, some do.
However, the vast majority of turntables are fitted with swinging arms, because they’re simpler and cheaper to manufacture. Rather than following a straight line across the disc, the stylus moves in an arc from the outer to inner grooves of the record. Therefore, the angle of the stylus relative to the grooves changes continually. The purpose of aligning the cartridge within the tonearm’s headshell is to try to maintain the best possible stylus-to-groove angle all across the arc of travel.
For this adjustment, you need a cartridge-alignment protractor, but they’re easy to find online. You can buy them for less than £15, or even download and print one off. Whichever you choose, they’re designed to fit over the centre spindle, so put the protractor in position and carefully place the stylus onto the exact centre point of the protractor grid. Most protractors have two grids, so take a sighting with the stylus at both centre points.
The front of the cartridge should line up exactly with the cross lines on the grids. If it doesn’t, you need to move the cartridge forwards or backwards. There will be two bolts holding the cartridge to the headshell. Use the appropriate tool to slacken the bolts very slightly so the cartridge can slide in the two runners without needing too much force, but will stay in position while you take your alignment readings.
The method should be immediately apparent as soon as you try this. The only things you need are a keen eye and lots of patience. Also, be extremely careful with your stylus, because it’s all too easy to damage if you drop the arm or try to move the platter with the stylus resting on a rough paper template.
Aligning the cartridge is vital to ensure that it tracks properly all across the surface of your records and, in particular, the inner grooves. If you notice distortion only when the stylus is operating in specific areas, it’s a telltale sign that your cartridge needs alignment. Remember if your cartridge does need to be moved, you will also have to check and possibly reset the tracking force, but it should be just
a minor tweak.
Whether you’ve bought a new or second-hand turntable, you must not presume that the cartridge and tonearm are set up correctly. Hopefully, this article will inspire you to try some hi-fi DIY – but do please be careful with your stylus!