How to adjust the VTA of a turntable

The VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) of a tone arm on a record player is a critical adjustment for good sound. Many people would encourage turntable owners to play with the angle until the vinyl sound right. We would agree. However, there is a bit more science to it than just listening.

VTA or vertical tracking angle is the angle the cantilever makes with the surface of the record. Typically in the range from 10 to 30 degrees for cartridges, this should be matched to the VTA of the cutter head cutting stylus’s pivot angle as it cuts the record, which can be likened to a defined length and pivot point, ala the phono cartridge.

Typically, there is an easy standardized method – that relates to the degree of angle used by almost all cutting masters. The Vertical Tracking Angle was not always standardized. But since the stereo disc was launched, the angle was defined at 15˚ and was changed in the nineteen seventies to 20˚. That is why the Ortofon SL-15 became SL-20.

To adjust your VTA properly, you need to find the adjustment on the base (post where the arm is mounted to the turntable) of your pickup arm that allows you to raise or lower the back (the end opposite of where your cartridge is) of your tonearm. Look at your owners manual (if you still have it), go to the audio dealer from whom you purchased it or contact the manufacturer for help in finding out how to make this adjustment. CAUTION: On most tonearms, you will NOT be able to adjust the VTA while playing a record or with the stylus even resting on a record (without destroying the record and/or cartridge cantilever or stylus). YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

For initial setup of your VTA, place a medium thickness album (no 180-gram reissues or flabby RCA Dyna-flex Red Seals) on the turntable and place the stylus on the record (do not have the turntable rotating for these adjustments). With the stylus resting on this medium thickness album, the bottom of the cartridge should be parallel to the album. By this, I mean the flat area near the front of the cartridge where the cantilever/stylus assembly protrudes from the bottom of the cartridge. CAUTION: Make all adjustments on the tonearm with it sitting on the tonearm rest. You now have a good starting point to find where the nominal VTA setting is located for your arm/cartridge combination. Select 3 records from your collection with which you are familiar. You will use them to find fine tune the nominal starting point for your VTA adjustment. One of them should be a normal thickness album (London CS 6xxx or STS 15xxx (orange silver label), RCA Shaded Dog, non 180 gm. Chesky, etc.). The next should be a thick album (Decca or EMI reissue, Mobile Fidelity 2-xxx series, etc.). The third album should be a thin album like an RCA Dyna-flab.

After setting the starting point of your VTA session using your eyesight, listen to a section of all 3 albums. What you want to listen for is the seniority of the strings, the air around the instruments and the width of the hall. If you set your VTA correctly for nominal thickness albums, you will hear the following:

VTA alignment

1.The medium thickness album will have extended stage width, a hint of air or rich harmonics around the individual instruments and singing in the upper strings without any stridency.

2.The thin album will have good stage width but the strings will sound unnatural, edgy and irritating.

3.The thick album will sound slightly muffled, with a lack of high frequencies and air around the instruments.

If this is not what you hear in your comparison, your VTA is not set properly for medium thickness albums. If the thin album sounds correct, the back or base of your tonearm needs to be raised about 0.010″ (0.4mm) (the thickness of a cover of Ultimate Audio) for medium thickness albums. If the thick album sounds correct, the base of your tonearm needs to be lowered about 0.010″ (250 micrometers) for medium thickness albums. A few passes at this and you will learn what to listen for when you adjust your Vertical Tracking Angle.

To reiterate, once you have found the correct VTA setting for a medium thickness album, you can use this starting point when you want to adjust your VTA for best sonics. For very thin albums (flabby Red Seal), or Angel and late Columbia, you will have to lower the back of the tonearm by as much as 0.005″. For very thick albums and many of the Decca, Classic or EMI reissues, you will have to raise the back of the tonearm by as much as 0.010″ or 0.015″. Also remember that during the course of the life of your cartridge, the nominal setting will change as the cantilever ages and flexes making it sound as if the back of the tonearm is too low. After a short period of time of focusing on the sound (and not the music), you will learn to identify when the VTA is adjusted properly. After this adjustment is correctly made, listen and enjoy the music.

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