Tweaks by ear

May 30, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

There’s certainly a great deal of debate whether or not turntable setup is an art involving both measurement and listening.

There are those that will claim they can set up a table without ever listening to it, that their techniques and tools are so advanced as to be infallible. And, of course, the opposite opinions.

The best table setups I have heard were, as with most things audio, combinations of precision tools and tweaks by ear.

Most of us haven’t a problem relating to dialing in the VTA (Vertical Tracking Alignment) by ear. Tiny differences can have major impacts on imaging and tonality.

Few would argue that arm/headshell/cartridge combinations impact performance. After all, these are delicate mechanical systems we’re dealing with and at the end of the proverbial day, we have to rely on skill, judgment, and our ears to polish performance to a bright luster.

Tweaking by ear can be akin to stepping out on a ledge with a new idea or making a statement others may criticize.

Trusting our own senses can often be a challenge.

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21 comments on “Tweaks by ear”

  1. I have what might be the world’s easiest turntable to set up, one of the reasons I bought it. I’m not interested in devices that are finicky and temperamental. It was reviewed, after about a 3 month trial, by Jimmy Hughes and I went to speak to him about it before buying it. Jimmy is acknowledged as the master at setting up the Linn LP12, a very skilful task indeed. He wrote a very long guide a while back (brevity or cutting corners is not in his nature) and there is an abridged version available from Origin Live’s website, written by Mark Baker, who knows his onions. I have an Origin Live Illustrious arm on my turntable. Jimmy says it took him less than 2 hours to set up his turntable. Given the care he takes, the fact that it took me an hour makes me feel pedestrian.

    Ease of set up is part of good design. The LP12 was a very expensive unit in the 1970s, when things were not expected to be easy or work straight out of the box. It has multiple options and each one is effectively bespoke. Things have moved on and that should no longer be the case. Basic tools are needed – a circular spirit level, a micro level for the tonearm head, a Dr Fiekert tool for alignment, an electronic measure for tracking weight and a piece of card with horizontal lines for basic height setting. These add about $250. The Origin Live has VTA adjustment on the fly with a rotating wheel calibrated at 1 degree per full revolution.

    Mark Baker will happily advise on appropriate cartridges for the relative mass of his arms, and sell you one.

    So, like most things, it can be as easy or hard as you make it. I chose to make it easy, and it was.

  2. Seeing the most different designs of tonearms, cartridges and concepts for platter bearings and driving a platter there are countless combinations to optimize a turntables set-up. Not to forget the most sophisticated platforms, tonearm-cables and phono preamp and step-up transformers for the delicate signals. I guess here is the source of audiophile freakiness. Paul mentioned in an earlier post the simplicity of an all-in-one device, Edison‘s phonograph. A concept having a similar simplicity when it comes to setting up a turntable is offered by the laser turntable from ELP Corp., Japan. For those always searching for optimization the manufacturer offers a calibration record and the laser-beam unit automatically calibrates itself within 30 seconds. No fuss with azimuth, tracking force, VTA, resonance frequencies, needle replacement, platter weight and platter clamps. Even a CD player is demanding more attention requiring that the audiophile applys tweaks as cd-mats, non-magnetic pucks, coloring the inner and outer rim of the cd, etc, etc.. The laser turntable allows to fully focus on the music and the audiophile hasn’t to worry anymore about wearing of record grooves and cartridges.

    1. Unfortunately the laser turntable cannot play translucent vinyl, and it cannot distinguish between the smallest particle of dust and a major scratch across a groove, with the result that every speck of dust results in a major thump through the speakers, which is why the device has never really caught on with audiophiles; it’s a basic limitation of the design as normally the stylus would push the dust out of the way.

      1. That’s the job of a record cleaning machine solving the problem with dust! I strongly doubt that a stylus primarily should remove the dust from the grooves. If it really removes all dust without simultaneously creating unwanted noise from the groove, you could use your cartridge as a record cleaning device before putting the record on the laser turntable . 🙂

        1. It’s of course not the “job” of the stylus to push dust aside, but it is nevertheless what occurs and prevents it from being audible in most cases.

          You can clean your records all you want, but unless your environment is a clean room, dust on the record is an inevitability.

  3. Vinyl phonograph technology has many built in conceptual engineering weaknesses. Unless you have a radial tonearm, the left and right channels will never be in perfect synchronization in time except for two brief moments at best. Radial playback tone arms have their own problems. Every mechanical element and their combinations give rise to mechanical resonance problems. Harmonic distortion compared to almost any solid state amplifier is horrible. We know the problem of compression and limited dynamic range and tracking bass signals. A diamond, the hardest substance known is going to be following the grooves of a soft plastic with acceleration forces sometimes as high as 1,000 Gs. I has to do this faithfully without damaging it either by exceeding its elastic limit permanently deforming it, scraping parts of it off, or losing contact only to come crashing down exerting its force at a pinpoint. It’s a miracle its works at all. By far the most important characteristic of the cartridge/arm performance is their ability to track the record accurately without losing contact, at minimal force and with the lowest possible stress. High output reduces the need for additional stages of electronic amplification that are expensive if signal to noise ratio is going to be acceptably low. What happened to less is more? Insofar as resonances are concerned square wave response, impulse response, frequency response are revealing indicators of resonances. Once ubiquitous in the far better magazines of the past than we have today, these important measurements are never made and presented in magazine reviews anymore..

    Among the least important characteristics other than to indicate resonance peaks is the frequency response of a cartridge. The signal undergoes at least 5 equalizations before you get it and you will add a sixth. If it is Dolby A processed the total number will be at least 14. Yet while one additional graphic equalizer can change the tonal balance of a phonograph cartridge to almost anything you want it to be, audiophiles are convinced not to use them. Why? Because there is far more profit selling other products and most audiophiles do not have the skill to use them effectively. BTW, VTA is said to adjust bass response. The current crop of products are for me unacceptable. They have almost every flaw possible. Awful tracking ability due to high dynamic mass and low compliance, very low output resulting from their moving coil design, who knows what resonances, tonearms not dynamically balanced, and I suppose tone arms with needle bearings or steel ball bearings, not jeweled bearings. The results show it. Do you really need more proof than this?

      1. That’s not really the point. Of course a digital recording will be better than one carved out of plastic with a bit of rock, but playing old records not transferred properly to digital is preferable and an hour or two delving in record shops is a lot of fun. None of which is relevant to Paul’s rather odd analogy that setting up a turntable is as risky as designing something novel that will convince most people you are an idiot or mad, or both.

        1. I never said records aren’t fun. Of course they are. I’ve got over 3000 of them myself and quite a number of turntables I like, some of them to the degree that I’d never want to give them up. But as technology goes, they are stone age compared to RBCD. There is no setup. That’s one of countless assets of the concept. Plug and play where phonographs are plug and play around for hours at a time before you play. Empire was easy to set up. Adjust the overhang, the height, balance the arm, set the tracking and antiskating force and you’re ready. Shure even includes a fixture with V15 to be sure you have the cartridge aligned correctly. The cartridge fits into an exact mold of where it has to be on the turntable. When it matches and the overhang is correctly set per the arm manufacturer’s instructions, cartridge mounting is set. Various weights showed that the settings on the Empire arms matched the balance weights exactly. There are so many reasons why this is my favorite of all turntables. Still I listen almost exclusively to CDs.

          Paul, I’m now drinking 2016 Treana Paso Robles cabnernet sauvignon. Delicious.

  4. I have been a audiophile for over 40 years. I have setup countless tables.
    The relatively new setup software has taken performance and setup to a new level.
    The mostly ignored axis known as azimuth. I have found that this is arguably the most important part of the equation, yet is ignored by most users and shunned by manufacturers. My method of setup:
    Measure azimuth and set using phase angle, not crosstalk. Then adjust VTA until crosstalk numbers are optimized. Then reset ( if necessary) phase angle. By finding the best crosstalk numbers after setting azimuth is a indication of optimal tracking, and tracking is everything.
    I have used this method on many different arms and cartridges and it never fails. Soundstage is much wider and deeper. Groove noise is minimized and mistracking virtually eliminated.
    Of course this reduces stylus and record wear.
    The software that I use is the Feikert Adjust + package. There is a new product called Analog Magik that looks interesting.
    Given the price of moving coil cartridges today; the software is cheap and easily punches more sound performance than anything else that is comparable in price.

    1. Good point. I got rid of a Clearaudio Unipivot because it went all over the place. The Origin Live arms have a self-centering dual pivot so the Azimuth is factory set and never needs adjusting. So not only is it not ignored by this particular manufacturer, the design eliminates it as a problem that the user has to address. On the more expensive arms the instructions tell you how to adjust it but strongly advise you not too. The cheaper ones are factory set and not adjustable. The advice is to put a bit of tin foil between the cartridge and the head, but it’s not necessary.

    2. Exactly!
      I use the very same method and tool (Feickert) and I also always say that I’d never again use a tonearm without azimuth control option (underlying under the cartridge also works but it’s very hard to get it right and try forth and back). Needles/cartridges themselves are never aligned the same and most are not aligned exactly right.

      I talked to the Audio Magik guy at the last High End fair and he nicely explained his SW which does provide even quite more measuring options than the Feickert. It just comes at a price (700+ € or $). So at a fraction of the price, the Feickert stuff is fine for me for now.

    3. It’s important that the cartridge is accurately aligned on the headshell so the stylus is properly seated in the record groove. I’m pretty good at this without the need of any tools or alignment graphs. I just need an overhang gauge, a mini screwdriver, make sure the compliance of the cartridge matches my tonearm/headshell and I usually set the stylus pressure force in the middle of what’s recommended by the manufacturer and set the anti-skate the same. I can hear if I got it right.

      1. I wonder if conical/spherical stylus types are more forgiving of headshell cartridge alignment? Is it more important with elliptical/bi-radial, hyper-elliptical, shibata, or linear, micro-linear cut diamonds?

  5. The tracking angle and the delay of arrival between speaker drivers… I believe… can be better zeroed in on by ear. If there is a slight delay in the tweeter, adjusting the cartridge angle by ear may be detectable. Yet, put on a thicker or thinner record and there went your fine tuning. I am very happy with my hi-end DAC, thank you. The cheaper DACs made me wonder if the vinyl guys were right after all.

    I used to have a near state of the art TT. Grado Signature arm… Merrill Heirloom TT .

  6. There are too many variables for a cookie cutter approach. No two turntables of different make and model sound the same once one gets into better high end tables specially. The same applies to cartridges. MM and MC cartridges sound different and significantly so. Cheaper ones do not sound any where as good as the very expensive ones. Tone arms sound quite different. How sensitive the platform on which the turn table is placed is to the outside vibrations can make a big difference. So tweaking by ear is a must but once set up properly the sound is out of this world. So captivating so involving that one steps into a world all it’s own. And this is where experience comes in. The more experienced will achieve excellent results quickly because they are more familiar with good sounding setups. For the low fi and mid fi crowd most any turntable/ cartridge/ tone arm combination will suffice since such systems are comparatively low resolution ones. So the final arbiter is the ear not measurements since a lot of things cannot be measured. Regards.

  7. Tweaking by ear is the only way today to get anything like accuracy. One size does not fit all recordings or all rooms. How are you supposed to tweak for each recording if you have no controls to tweak with? Move your speakers around? Put reflectors, diffusers, and absorbers on the walls?

    Just today, one of my favorite recordings, Martha Argerich playing the Rachmaninoff piano concerto #3. 60 hz +1db, 5 khz -1.5 db, 12 khz + 1 db. Here it is again. Very highly recommended. Disc says the Ultimate Rachmaninoff #3. I agree, the best by far IMO. I bought it on the Philips label but it’s available on Decca.

    Recording of a New Years eve concert by the Berlin philharmonic, music from Beethoven’s Egmont, Leonore, and Fantasia for piano, chorus and Orchestra with Kissin on DG. Higly recommended. My settings need about a 100 to 200 millisecond increase for RT I think. Also highly recommended.

    I explained the other day what I listen for. When you can get it exactly the way you want it, there’s nothing else to do but enjoy it. The time for comparing equipment is over. That time should be spent instead listening to recordings.

  8. The only tools I ever needed were the overhang gauge and a mini screwdriver. The counterweight sets the tracking force to your cartridges recommendation and you set the anti skate the same as your tracking force. Just have to make sure the compliance of the cartridges are compatible with the tonearm and head-shell mass and make sure the cartridge is accurately aligned and tightened to the head-shell. Some tables don’t have a numbered counterweight so you do need a stylus pressure gauge. If you have a P=Mount plug and play or linear tracking table it’s even easier. My ears verify if I did it right or if I need further tweaking.

  9. My Thorens 70s era turntable of course came with the factory arm. Reviews I read at the time seem to regard that arm as pretty good, so I honestly never had a thought of changing it out. There have been a score of cartridges over the last 40 years, with the cartridges always mounted and set up by the selling dealer, but the arm stays in place! Perhaps I have missed a lot by staying stock, who’s to know.

  10. Jim Johnston who used to work at Bell Labs (and is the ultimate skeptic/objectivist) put it the best I’ve heard. No two things ever measure exactly the same and you never know if what you are measuring is the right thing. Certainly, measurements can be very meaningful but it isn’t nearly as simple a process as many would like to believe.

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