Turntable setup

March 17, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Proper setup of a turntable’s arm and cartridge are more important to great performance than even the electronics it feeds.

Of course, it’s all a system and even the most accurate setup won’t sound great through a mediocre phono preamplifier but it’s equally true that the world’s best phono stage won’t be worth its cost without the proper arm and cartridge attention.

I wish I could impart an expert’s step-by-step instruction on how to set up your table, but the extent of my knowledge just dusts the surface. Sure, I’ve set up plenty of arms and tables in my day. Protractor and stylus gauge in hand, I’ve fumbled through the basics as most of us have and the results were often good. Time spent adjusting and tweaking always paid off in better performance and the freeing of music trapped in vinyl grooves.

Yet, a novice’s best efforts pale in comparison to an expert’s deft hand. Years ago I paid setup expert Brooks Berdan to tweak my table and upon its return I was floored with the improvements. Suddenly, two dimensions became three: surface noise and music were separated, highs and lows were balanced, and a musicality warmed the room like a fire in the hearth.

Though my readers know I prefer an optimized DSD based system to that of vinyl, there’s no disputing the magic that is trapped in those wiggly grooves.

I fear the skills needed to expertly set up a turntable have largely been lost as, sadly, experts are dying off. However, we do live in an age of recorded wisdom and that’s a good thing.

One of the best setup people still with us today is our good friend Michael Fremer and, guess what. Mikey has a setup DVD available for sale.

This video, followed closely, will bring as much improvement to your vinyl system as any new piece of gear. Maybe more.

Building a reference quality vinyl system takes work. But then, so too does any worthwhile adventure.

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34 comments on “Turntable setup”

  1. Four things are required:
    1. A turntable that is fundamentally straightforward
    2. A Dr Fiekert protractor
    3. An electronic balance
    4. Clear manufacturer instructions

    That counts out Linn LP12, which requires expert set-up.

    I have a very high quality turntable with two arms and it took about 2 hours.

    Remarkably, I could not get one arm to set up correctly using Dr Fiekert. It was a 12″ Origin Live Illustrious Mk3. I phoned up OL and told them the problem. It transpired the stated overhang was a printing error. Dr Fiekert therefore had done its job and with the correct overhang I was finished in a few minutes.

    It can be simple of complicated. It is a matter of choice.

    1. I totally agree.
      I still have my old Technics SP10 MkIII in use (because its 78rpm). It is built into a SAEC turntable base and I’ve three tonarms on it. An Infinity Black Widow with Shure V15 with Jico NeoSAS needle, a Grado Signature tonearm with Grado pickup and a SAEC WE-506 with Highphonic MC-D15 cartridge.
      I never needed to setup the turntable again after once done right using the kit that you’ve mentioned.
      BTW I wonder why MF didn’t publish on vinyl instead of DVD 😉

  2. If you prefer the comfort of an automatic set-up why not take a laser turntable from ELP Corp., Japan, Paul! The only effort required is to keep the vinyl surface dust free and scratch-free! 🙂

    1. Additional to the above I’ll also utilise test tones/etc vinyl plus a dual channel oscilloscope…(I like to sample both channels together).. or is that just me?

            1. Does the HiFi test record clean the stylus and demagnetize your system? The Cardas will do that plus much more. Check out the features it has in the link I sent below.

              It’s been said that you should never play a record soon after you just played it because it could damage the record.
              These test records are meant to play over and over while burning in a new cartridge. They must be made more durable then a convention record.

  3. Additional to the above I’ll also utilise test tones/etc vinyl plus a dual channel oscilloscope…(I like to sample both channels together).. or is that just me?

  4. The Linn LP12 and Technics SP10 MkIII turntables are based on four decade old designs. Without a doubt cartridge and preamp technology has advanced significantly over this period. But has there been any significant advances in turntable and tone are designs? Or are modern turntables and tone arms with billet machined parts the equivalent to more bling on a Harley motorcycle?

    1. Well my turntable is made mostly from a single piece of CNC machined aluminium and a similarly machined Acetal platter with electronic speed control. Manufactured to medical grade tolerances as the company is mainly involved in making medical and aerospace parts.

      Clearaudio are probably equally overengineered, but Origin Live, SME, Mitchell and Rega all make fine products at sensible prices.

    2. There are certainly a lot of ways to go about it, and a lot of materials to make them out of. VPI seemed to do well with their 3D Printed arm (seeing deals on it now – not sure if that’s because they can afford to sell it for less due to selling lots of them/costs going down, or they had to lower the price to move them). Though of course that is material rather than design.

      There seem to be a lot more aesthetic choices, if you mean that sort of “design” ; )

      Perhaps Mikey can weigh in on that subject – it’s an interesting question.

    3. Well, I doubt that the modern designs are so much better than the older ones, especially if you compare the prices. I think my SP10 does still play in the upper league and which cartridges are better that the old Shure V15 or the Highphonic MC-D15? Even in Tonearm design there is no significant progress from my point of view.

      1. Which cartridges are better? Maybe dollar to dollar the V15 is a good value. But beyond that I would say any cartridge that sells for over $400 is better.
        I owned a V15 II, III, and IV. My Dynavector 10×4 was better, my Dynavector DV-20xl which I bought before the price nearly doubled is much more refined.
        My Blue Point Special was better, and that was 20 years ago.
        The prices are all little nuts, but tonearms are more refined, offer more precise, some with repeatable, adjustments.
        Hopefully some our hardcore vinyl guys will back me up with more experience.
        I had a Thorens TD125 Mk2, with the Shure 3009 Type II Improved, I replaced it with a Rega RB300, no question it was a better arm.
        I have a Sota Sapphire with a Roksan Tabriz arm, the upgraded arm with the floating counter weight.
        Not trying to be mean, but at best, your setup in the lower 20% of what is available, and possible.
        Then you get in to phono preamps, and the quality of step up transformers. I tried a 2 or 3 vintage tranformers, then bought a K&K, which is on the bottom end of what is available.
        If you are willing to pay the cost, every aspect of vinyl playback has improved.
        Compared to what is possible, my vinyl rig is nothing special, but side by side, it is better.
        If money was no object, Swedish Audio Technology arm, Audio Union Dohmann Helix 1, with a Dynavector on the SAT, and a Lyra on the arm that comes with the table.

        1. Until you’ve heard the V15-NeoSAS on an Infinity Black Widow arm you do not know, how good this combi is – period!
          I had the DV 507/II with an DV DRT XV – 1S mounted on my SP10 but I like the SAEC-Highphonic combi more, indeed – much much more! Regarding the phono stage, well I’ve some really good transformers and pre-pres as well among them is the A & E Technical Research E-2000.
          I guess what comes next is that we have to wait until the new PS Audio phono stage is released. And this thread works into that direction. Well, we’ll see and hear.

  5. With great interest I read today’s post, and it is my aspiration that posts like this, are more frequent, after all, this is a site about audio, and by nature should be treated topics such as these that undeniably not only They have full justification in this site but they are also of singular utility for the great majority of subscribers.

    Other topics, such as the impedance match between components and others of a more technical nature, will be of great interest to the vast majority, rather than talking about wines and other mundane things that can scratch the clear nimity.

    If this is an audio site, let’s talk about audio!

    1. Audiomano, it is Paul who plants the seeds for the topic and tone of each day’s discussion.

      Some days the seeds are only remotely audio related, and some days not at all.

      Personally I enjoy Paul’s philosophical postings. There are countless audio topic sites available to discuss minutiae on capacitor tolerances. But only one where the moderator shares the wit, wisdom, and wild experiences like Paul.

      Besides, with a new topic every day, how many fresh audio only discussions are possible?

      1. I have nothing against you considering the moderator as your personal guru not only in audio but in things that do not even remotely touch these issues, as you state it.

        And of course being the owner of the site, he can expose the topics he wants.

        The point of mine is that there is an almost infinite number of topics extrictly related to pure audio, and that, if this forum is about audio, then they should deal with those points, including philosophical topics about the future of the audio itself, such as the utopia of want to play a concert live (not amplified) at home, as advocated by some manufacturers, or the anachronism in the use of passive Xovers in speakers with obscene prices, or the unlimited possibilities that the enthusiast has to design speaker systems having as a basis for this, the DSPs, things like that, which can set important guidelines and may not have a place in the other sites that you allude to, given that in this site, there are a handful of people with very enlightened knowledge about the theme of advanced audio.

        1. While I would not in any way label Paul as my spiritual counsler, his posts often give me a good chuckle and provoke consideration of new ideas.

          Keeping things cordial and productive, perhaps you could send Paul a list for future topics for discussion.

          Again, personally I enjoy the mix of topics Paul posts for discussion. I wouldn’t change a thing.

          BTW Still haven’t tried the vegetarian chicken soup recipe.

    2. Here’s an idea, start your own daily column. Then you can decide what topics are acceptable.
      As someone else said, Paul is not my guru, but I do consider him a friend.
      I think you should start a daily blog, just on crossovers. That way you figure out how many different ways that you can say the same thing.
      Maybe you can become the active crossover guru.

      1. When one person challenges another, asking them to do something, is that person can do it on their own, based on this premise that is general knowledge, means you can make your own blog, what do you expect to do?

        I did not say that Paul is your guru, so the subconscious has betrayed you.

        And since you have brought up the topic of the Xovers, however, you have been unable to refute with technical arguments or without them, what I have expressed against the anachronistic use of passive Xovers, I hope that someday you will make.

        Could it be that the gratuitous animosity of you against me is due to the fact that I refused to accede to your request made on this site for me to give you some amplifiers some time ago?

        1. No, do you seriously think I expected you to send me an amp, why you have that many amps is kind of amusing. If there is any animosity beyond you trying to control the topics, it was the time you based the capabilities of a used amp on the powercord included in the box. And I believe when I pointed out that the power supply itself would determine the amp’s capabilities. Your “no offense” but I know more than you was condescending.

          As to active crossovers, I have to keep thinking that when most speakers that were designed with no price constraints, and choose passive, your active crossover crusade may not be the better solution. I have to think a designer like David Wilson not choosing active for his last design, a speaker that costs over $600k, had to be for a very good reason. I have even considered that they could choose active, and defeat the majority of controls, but they don’t. Most speaker designers have a specific sound in mind, giving the dealer, and worse the average customer, all those options, there is more damage to be done, with benefit to only a few.
          If money was not an issue, the first speaker I would go listen to is the Sonus Faber SE, $250k, I believe there are 3 adjustments on the back, and none of them are changing the crossover settings.
          You have described some of your creations, and for you an active crossover makes sense. Could you even design a proper passive?

          And finally the guru comment, here what you posted to someone telling you basically the same thing, that we don’t have a problem with Paul writing about non audio topics –

          “I have nothing against you considering the moderator as your personal guru not only in audio but in things that do not even remotely touch these issues, as you state it.”

          You typed those words, nothing to do with my subconscious.

          1. Let’s just leave things there, because it is very difficult to make you understand that a passive Xover in a 600K speaker in practice works as an equalizer, the same one that is manipulated by the manufacturer to obtain the desired sound effect, the which is totally divorced from the original pure signal, which results from directly facing the output transistors with the voice coils, when it comes to tetra, or multiamplification.

            This is very difficult to understand for those who are in favor of the artificially achieved euphonic sound, but to the detriment of the pure audio signal.

            There is no point in preserving the pure signal at the source, when it is going to be perverted at the end when it is already amplified, through the use of a large number of passive components that prostitute the purity of the signal, as it has to pass through each one. from them.

            And yes, I have designed many passive Xovers, even using Mundorf Caps, which is why I detest them for altering the purity of the signal.

            Is this so hard to understand?

  6. Just remember as you continue the development of the new phono stage, that you must include the capacitance of the interconnects on the load of the input side, which means you should include cables of known capacitance.

  7. Hi everyone I have had my second turntable since 1986 a AR The Turntable I upgraded the Arm in the mid nineties with a Sumiko FT3 I am lucky to live close to excellent AR and Thornes Turntables Expert David At https://vinylnirvana.com/ he made a arm board and I got some stiffer spring I currently have a Nagaoka MP-110 cartridge

  8. The nice thing about turntables is that people tend to buy one and that’s it, no need to improve or upgrade. Vintage or modern, they are generally accepted to do the job. Electronics, meanwhile, are constantly being touted as improving.

      1. When we got back to playing records I bought a used Clearaudio deck. It did the job, but the Unify arm drifted a lot when lowering. A dealer wanted it, so I sold it for what I paid and bought my current deck. It has not crossed my mind to change anything, only expense has been a re-tip by VDH and two upgraded Rega belts.

      2. badbeef, that made me lol! Seriously though, the thought of upgrading your cart, tonearm, even platter mat has never occurred to you, Steven? I’m very happy with my set up now (nod to badbeef for the cart), but it’s considerably better than where I started from. That happened because I made the critical error of bringing my own records to a friend’s house and heard them sound completely different on his table. Once I heard what was possible, I couldn’t ever un-hear it. There’s a word for this phenomenon: Screwed.

  9. All turntables come with instructions on how to properly match and set up your headshell and cartridge to the tonearm. You got to have an overhang gauge and perhaps a stylus weight gauge to confirm your counterweight setting. Make sure your headshell cartridge is compatible to the tonearm. I prefer belt driven turntables. They just sound right. More transparent. Turntable seems to disappear better then direct drive.

    There are some pretty good p-mount turntables out there that make set up very easy but you’re limited in your selection of cartridges.

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