Begin­ner’s Guide to Turntable Setup

NOVO - - NEWS - by Dou­glas Brown

In 1982, the music in­dus­try launched the com­pact disc (CD) with the bold prom­ise that the new dig­i­tal for­mat would cre­ate “per­fect sound for­ever”. Since 2005, a sur­pris­ing resur­gence in sales of turnta­bles and vinyl records has oc­curred. And why has this hap­pened? Stated sim­ply, dig­i­tal sources avail­able even now in 2016 do not sound as much like real music as sim­i­larly priced turnta­bles do. And yet, im­prop­erly set-up ‘ta­bles, ton­earms, and car­tridges can son­i­cally suck as bad as a de­hy­drated camel slurp­ing luke­warm Le­banese canal wa­ter. In this ar­ti­cle on turntable set-up for be­gin­ners, I’ll ex­plain the ba­sics of di­al­ing-in turnta­bles with piv­ot­ing ton­earms.

The Turntable’s Base, Plinth, and Plat­ter

It’s easy to un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of a turntable’s base and plinth. The base needs to be a rigid struc­ture which pre­vents vi­bra­tions from trans­fer­ring through the ton­earm, drive mech­a­nism, and plinth into the car­tridge and the record’s grooves. Vi­bra­tions can en­ter a turntable through air­borne acous­ti­cal en­ergy (i.e. sound waves) and me­chan­i­cal vi­bra­tions which travel through the stand. Me­chan­i­cal res­o­nances cre­ated by the ta­ble’s plat­ter bear­ing, mo­tor, and drive mech­a­nism can also vi­brate through the plinth and plat­ter and cause sonic degra­da­tion. Groove mod­u­la­tion dis­tor­tions caused by the phys­i­cal move­ments of the ton­earm and car­tridge are yet an­other source of bad vi­bra­tions.

Car­tridges un­wit­tingly con­vert all of these vi­bra­tions into elec­tri­cal sig­nals which are heard as low-level dis­tor­tions, noise grunge, and a clouded haze which hangs over, and un­der­neath, the music.

To min­i­mize vi­bra­tions, place the turntable on a level, solid, and non-res­o­nant stand. A flimsy, poorly built rack that shakes like Elvis eat­ing a peanut-but­ter and fried ba­nana sand­wich in early 1977 will no­tice­ably de­grade the sound qual­ity of any record player. Once placed on a solid sur­face, use a bub­ble level to check that the ‘ta­ble is… in­deed… level.

If the turntable’s main bear­ing, sub­plat­ter, and spin­dle haven’t been lu­bri­cated within the past two years, fol­low the OEM’s di­rec­tions for re-lu­bri­cat­ing all of these parts with the ap­pro­pri­ate oil. It’s also crit­i­cal to dial-in the plat­ter’s 33.3 RPM and 45 RPM rotational speeds with a tachome­ter. If the plat­ter’s rotational speed is off, ad­just it via its elec­tronic speed reg­u­la­tor. If it’s a belt-driven turntable and the belt is old or worn, you’ll need to in­stall a new rub­ber belt.

Types of Ton­earms

A ton­earm’s pur­pose is to hold the car­tridge and al­low the sty­lus to smoothly trace the record’s grooves. There are two types of ton­earms: piv­oted and tan­gen­tial. Tan­gen­tial arms are also called lin­ear track­ing ton­earms. As tan­gen­tial ton­earms are more dif­fi­cult to suc­cess­fully en­gi­neer than a space shut­tle and more ex­pen­sive to man­u­fac­ture than a US Pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, most lin­ear track­ing arms come with breath­tak­ing 5-fig­ure price tags. Most turnta­bles use piv­oted ton­earms. Why? Sim­ply be­cause the man­u­fac­tur­ing costs for piv­oted arms are far cheaper than for tan­gen­tial arms. As the Gold Note B7 Ce­ramic piv­oted ton­earm pic­tured be­low shows, piv­oted

arms have a coun­ter­weight lo­cated at the back of the pivot point to ad­just the amount of down­ward force (i.e. the “weight”) which the car­tridge’s sty­lus ap­plies to the record’s sur­face.

Piv­oted arms have a bear­ing (or a set of bear­ings) which per­mits the arm to move in both the hor­i­zon­tal and ver­ti­cal plains to fol­low the record’s grooves. En­try-level arms have stain­less steel bear­ings. More exotic ton­earms have bear­ings made out of bronze, ce­ramic, ti­ta­nium, car­bon, and other es­o­teric hy­brid ma­te­ri­als. A ton­earm must also have a head­shell to hold the car­tridge in place with small screws and bolts.

Car­tridge Mount­ing, Align­ment, VTA, VTF, & Az­imuth

To mount the car­tridge to the ton­earm, first in­sert the screws and nuts through the head­shell to loosely hold the cart in place. Then at­tach the four tiny wires which come from the ton­earm to the cor­rect colour­coded ends on the car­tridge. BE­FORE tight­en­ing the mount­ing screws to the ton­earm’s head­shell, the car­tridge’s align­ment must be di­alled-in. Baer­wald, Feik­ert, and Mo­bile Fi­delity Sound Labs’ GeoDisc are some of the more fre­quently used align­ment gauges and pro­trac­tors. Pre­cisely set­ting the car­tridge’s align­ment will keep the nee­dle in the groove, min­i­mize track­ing er­rors, and cre­ate bet­ter sound. The Ver­ti­cal Track­ing An­gle (VTA) al­ters the an­gle at which the car­tridge’s sty­lus en­ters the record’s grooves.

The goal is to get the car­tridge’s body par­al­lel to the record’s sur­face when the sty­lus is in the groove. Most piv­oted ton­earms have a set screw lo­cated on the base of the pivot point which al­lows the arm to be raised or low­ered to ad­just the VTA. Get­ting the sty­lus’ rake an­gle di­aled-in will re­duce track­ing er­rors, groove mod­u­la­tion dis­tor­tion, and sur­face noise.

Some arms make VTA ad­just­ment more cum­ber­some than shift­ing a grand pi­ano up a flight of stairs on a hu­mid af­ter­noon. Rega’s ton­earms, for ex­am­ple, use spac­ers un­der­neath the main pivot point as­sem­bly to raise or lower the arm’s height by 2mm or 3mm heights.

The Ver­ti­cal Track­ing Force (VTF) refers to the amount of down­ward force that the car­tridge ex­erts. You will need a sty­lus force gauge to ac­cu­rately mea­sure the VTF.

Once you’ve di­aled-in the car­tridge’s align­ment and gen­tly tight­ened it to the head­shell, place the VTF gauge on the turntable’s plat­ter un­der­neath the sty­lus and mea­sure the “weight”. If the car­tridge man­u­fac­turer rec­om­mends a VTF of 1.8 grams, then slide the ton­earm’s coun­ter­weight along the arm to a po­si­tion where this weight is achieved.

Az­imuth refers to the per­pen­dic­u­lar­ity of the sty­lus in re­la­tion to the groove. Cor­rect az­imuth align­ment is needed to achieve an ac­cu­rate bal­ance be­tween the left and right chan­nels (i.e. stereo imag­ing) and the full size and po­ten­tial of the sound­stage. A prop­erly aligned az­imuth will form a 90 de­gree right an­gle with the record’s sur­face.

Re­mem­ber, it is the sty­lus’ az­imuth and not the car­tridge’s body that needs to be set at a 90 de­gree an­gle. If the sty­lus is bent, you’ll need an ex­pert to ex­am­ine and (hope­fully) re­pair it.

Mov­ing Mag­net (M/M) and Mov­ing Coil (M/C) Car­tridges

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween M/M and M/C car­tridges?

Mov­ing Mag­net (M/M) car­tridges em­ploy a tiny mag­net which is af­fixed to the can­tilever at the op­po­site side of sty­lus’ tip. As the sty­lus fol­lows the record’s grooves, the can­tilever’s side-to-side and up-and-down mo­tions phys­i­cally move the mag­net rel­a­tive to small sta­tion­ary coils of wire. These move­ments cre­ate tiny elec­tri­cal cur­rents which can then be sent to a phono pre-am­pli­fier.

In Mov­ing Coil (M/C) car­tridges, wire coils are af­fixed to the can­tilever. As the sty­lus moves, the coils move and cre­ate tiny elec­tri­cal sig­nals.

The coils in M/C carts are usu­ally lighter than the mag­nets and are, there­fore, far more re­spon­sive to tiny move­ments than heav­ier mag­nets. As such, M/C carts can trans­mit the mi­cro­scopic vi­bra­tions of the sty­lus in the groove with greater acu­ity. This height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity re­sults in in­creased dy­nam­ics, su­pe­rior har­monic ac­cu­racy, bet­ter res­o­lu­tion, faster tran­sients, and larger sound­stag­ing.

Why do M/C carts cost so much? M/C car­tridges must use ex­tremely fine wire in the coils. To

con­struct such mi­cro-sized coils re­quires pre­ci­sion man­u­fac­tur­ing and ex­per­tise in as­sem­bly. These fac­tors in­her­ently re­sult in a far higher re­tail cost for M/C carts.

As well, M/C car­tridges tend to gen­er­ate much weaker elec­tri­cal sig­nals and re­quire a higher level of ini­tial am­pli­fi­ca­tion to make their sig­nals us­able. Thus, phono pre-amps de­signed for M/C carts must min­i­mize noise while still cre­at­ing high-gain and a high out­put. Ger­mane to these pa­ram­e­ters, de­cent sound­ing M/C com­pat­i­ble phono stages are dif­fi­cult to de­sign and costly to man­u­fac­ture. Good sound­ing ones usu­ally carry hefty price tags that are far higher than M/M phono stages.


“Skat­ing” is unique to piv­oted ton­earms and refers to a fric­tional vec­tor force which pulls the ton­earm to­wards the cen­ter of the record. To counter-act this force, turnta­bles use weights with pul­leys, ad­justable ten­sioned springs, and me­chan­i­cal de­vices to cre­ate an equal but op­po­site force called anti-skat­ing.

Di­al­ing-in the anti-skate force al­lows the sty­lus to main­tain equal pres­sure against both sides of the record’s groove walls. A Foz­gome­ter and/or a test record are needed to ac­cu­rately set this force.

Car­tridge Load­ing

To min­i­mize sig­nal loss, the gen­eral ra­tio for car­tridge / phono-stage load­ing is to feed the out­put sig­nal into a load at least ten times greater than the source im­ped­ance. This may seem com­plex, but it re­ally isn’t. Most mod­ern M/C car­tridges have a source im­ped­ance of about 10 Ohms. Mul­ti­ply­ing this 10 Ohm source im­ped­ance by a fac­tor of ten, a load im­ped­ance of 100 Ohms will re­sult in less than 1dB of sig­nal loss. For M/C carts, any load im­ped­ance above 100 ohms (such as 470 Ohms) is ac­cept­able and will not sig­nif­i­cantly al­ter the sound of the car­tridge. Car­tridge man­u­fac­tur­ers tend be non-spe­cific about load im­ped­ances and usu­ally rec­om­mend a wide range or sim­ply any­thing above a min­i­mum im­ped­ance. Most M/M car­tridges use a 47 kOhm im­ped­ance load set­ting. Does the car­tridge’s tonal bal­ance change with load im­ped­ance? Yes… if it’s an M/M car­tridge. In terms of tone, low out­put M/C car­tridges are much less sen­si­tive to changes in the load im­ped­ance. The ex­act value is not crit­i­cal as long as it is well above the car­tridge’s source im­ped­ance. One thing is cer­tain: the load im­ped­ance must not be equal to the car­tridge’s source im­ped­ance. When source and load im­ped­ances are equal, the sig­nal loss is 6dB; which is con­sid­er­able.


Mea­sured in dB, gain refers to the amount of am­pli­fi­ca­tion that’s ap­plied to the out­put sig­nal of any M/M or M/C car­tridge. Too lit­tle gain will leave you with no vol­ume. Too much gain can be over-pow­er­ing and even deaf­en­ing. Ide­ally, a phono-stage should cre­ate enough gain to pro­vide a sat­is­fac­tory amount of vol­ume to a lis­tener.

Phono Out­put In­terCon­nects (ICs)

If your TT’s equipped with a male 5-pin DIN out­put jack, an enor­mous im­prove­ment in sound qual­ity can be achieved by up­grad­ing the stock phono out­put IC which came with the ‘ta­ble to a higher qual­ity one.

Turntable Mats, Plat­ter Weights, and Clean­ing Tips

Dif­fer­ent plat­ter mats made of sor­both­ane, cork, felt, car­bon-fi­bre, and rub­ber will cre­ate dif­fer­ent sounds. Sim­i­larly, dif­fer­ent TT plat­ter weights can also help min­i­mize vi­bra­tions and de­liver more music. It’s best to fol­low the rec­om­men­da­tions of your turntable’s maker for both mats and weights.

Keep­ing your records and the sty­lus’ tip clean will also bring a much qui­eter sound. A sty­lus brush and clean­ing fluid are a small investment.

Clean­ing vinyl by hand with clean cheese­cloth strips and record clean­ing so­lu­tion is fast and cheap. If you have a size­able record col­lec­tion and/or buy a lot of used vinyl, a vacuum suc­tion RCM (Record Clean­ing Ma­chine) can pro­vide pro­fes­sional qual­ity re­sults. Thrifty ones start at around $200 and climb sky­ward from there.

This image from www.col­ored­vinyl­ shows the dif­fer­ence be­tween a Mov­ing Mag­net car­tridge and a Mov­ing Coil car­tridge.

Top: The Geo-Disc Phono Car­tridge Align­ment Tool is used to ac­cu­rately po­si­tion the car­tridge in re­la­tion to the plat­ter. Bot­tom: A sty­lus force gauge is used to mea­sure the Ver­ti­cal Track­ing Force (VTF).

Gold Note B7 Ce­ramic piv­oted ton­earm

This Au­dio-Tech­nica car­tridge clearly shows the colour­coded ends which con­nect to the ton­earm.

Pic­tured above: Brys­ton BLP-1 Turntable + BTP-1 Power Sup­ply

There’s noth­ing like a great mug to show your love for vinyl! Avail­able from www.needle­

The pop­u­lar Spin Clean record clean­ing ma­chine widely avail­able from lo­cal stores and on­line re­tail­ers.

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