Turntable Tweaking Advice – Try This at Home, It Worked for Us

Turntable Tweaking Advice

Try This at Home, It Worked for Us

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The Mapleshade website has a piece of audio advice that caught the eye of one our customers, who sent me the excerpt below.  

Like most advice, especially Audio Advice, we find that some of it accords well with our own experience and some of it clearly does not. The relationship of good to bad is hard to determine without making a more careful study, but let’s just say that there is plenty of both and leave it at that. That being the case, we thought it would be of service to our customers to break it down in more detail, separating the wheat from the chaff so to speak.

More Audio Advice

We’ve also added a customer’s letter at the end of the commentary.

Here is the complete quote:

To get first rate sound and to get your money’s worth from any expensive cartridge, you MUST meticulously adjust VTA or tracking force every 3-4 months — that’s because stylus suspensions always sag with use. This lowers VTA and seriously kills dynamics and treble sparkle. Lots of people misinterpret this as a worn-out cartridge, an expensive error. Instead, raise VTA or lighten tracking force until your test record’s treble sounds too harsh, then drop VTA or lighten tracking force a hair. Your test record must not be thicker or thinner than the bulk of your record collection. Adjusting tracking force yields slightly better sonic results and longer cartridge life than adjusting VTA — and adjusting tracking force on most arms is WAY easier than adjusting VTA.

The basic idea here is that your cartridge sags over time, causing the VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) to change, which results in less dynamics and “treble sparkle” (a term you will never read on this site; treble should never “sparkle”, but we get the point).

So, with this idea in mind, after doing a serious shootout with Revolver and hearing a Triple Plus side one with amazing bass and energy, we decided to reduce the tracking weight on our Triplanar arm a tiny, tiny, practically non-existent amount, something in the range of 1/100th of a gram perhaps (we do not use gauges of any kind for setup as they cannot be trusted; they have all proven to be much too crude relative to what our ears tell us).
 

Taxman

Cueing up Taxman, we immediately we’re knocked out by the amazing bass line that came jumping out of the left speaker. It was bigger and punchier than we had ever heard it! Wow — who knew? I thought it was amazing before. Hell, it was amazing before, the best I had ever heard it, all of ten minutes ago.

And when the vocals came in, they were even smoother, even more natural. I thought they were already pretty darn smooth and natural, but here they were sounding less strained, and more full-bodied. From a reduction of 1/100th of a gram of tracking weight.

As is always the case, once we are on to something, we need to find out what the limits are. (A man’s got to know his limits.) We know to keep doing it until we’re overdoing it, and overdoing it came pretty quickly. No matter how little tracking weight we lightened it, the sound got worse. We went back and forth again and again, but the truth was incontrovertible: the tiniest amount was the correct amount.

This is as it should be. We are as careful as is humanly possible with our setup. We hadn’t arrived at that original tracking weight by luck or chance, we had worked on it for as long as it took. We kept going up and down again and again until we had complete confidence that the weight was right.

The cantilever of our 17D3 may have been just six weeks old at this point but it had already been dropped onto a record more than a thousand times, perhaps closer to two thousand, and that’s hard on a delicate instrument like a modern moving coil. Our 17D3s take a lot of abuse here at Better Records. It’s why they regularly wear out after three to four months.

Good News and Bad

So that’s the good news. That part of the advice worked. Mapleshade, we thank you.

Here’s what’s missing or wrong.

VTA
We adjust our VTA for practically every record we play and you should too. The smallest change in VTA — on our system anyway — can make a huge difference in our ability to play the record back properly. If we’re going to do a shootout for Revolver, we’re going to make sure Revolver sounds right before we commit the next three or four hours of our lives to playing it.

And if I personally were going to sit and listen to Revolver all the way through as a piece of music, even though it would only take forty minutes or so, I would still want to hear it at its best, and that means a quick back and forth with the VTA until it does sound its best.  (The Triplanar makes this easy to do; adjusting other arms can be much more problematical, a very good reason not to own those arms. The Classic II is the far better choice over the Classic I for this very reason.)

Azimuth
For some reason azimuth gets no mention whatsoever, and for the life of me I cannot imagine why. It’s every bit as important as tracking weight and VTA, and it too changes with time.

I cannot remember the last cartridge I owned that did not eventually end up with a crooked cantilever. The Dynavectors we use and sell always do, and when the cantilever is not perfectly perpendicular to the record, the sound is negatively affected, sometimes drastically.

Our experience has been that as the cantilever shifts to one side or the other, changing the headshell’s azimuth is the only thing that will restore true fidelity to the sound. Dynamics and bass and freedom from distortion are the main areas where improvement will be heard.

Keep in mind that what looks right — perpendicular by eye — is not always the best sound. This must be done carefully by ear. Go too far, then come back, then go too far again and come back until you know exactly what the trade-offs are and can hit the sweet spot. This process must be carried out by ear only. There is no test equipment that is sensitive enough for this purpose, none that we’ve tried anyway, and we’ve tried the most famous and expensive one (no names please).

VTA Part 2
Mapleshade presents a very crude approach to VTA adjustment: “…[R]aise VTA or lighten tracking force until your test record’s treble sounds too harsh, then drop VTA or lighten tracking force a hair.”

It’s unbelievably more complicated than that.

First off you must use records you know well, records that you know to be well-recorded, and you must listen for changes throughout the frequency range. VTA is about a lot more than treble response. Anyone who’s been in audio for any length of time should know that.

For the purpose of mounting new carts our favorite track is The Song of the Volga Boatman on Bob and Ray Throw a Stereo Spectacular (LSP 1773). It’s by far the most difficult record we know of to get to sound right. There are about twenty places in the music that we have learned to test with, and the right setting is the one that gets the most of them to sound their best. With every change some of the twenty will sound better and some will sound worse. Recognizing when the sound is the biggest, clearest, and most balanced from top to bottom is a skill that has taken me twenty years to acquire. It’s a lot harder than it looks. The longer you have been in audio the more complicated it seems, which may seem counterintuitive but comports well with our day to day experience over the years.

All our room treatments and tweaks must pass The Bob and Ray Test as well. It’s the one record we have relied on more than any other over the course of the last year or two.

Presenting as it does a huge studio full of brass players, no record we know of is more dynamic or more natural sounding — when the system is working right. When it’s not working right the first thirty seconds is all it takes to show you the trouble you are in. If you don’t have a record like that in your collection it would behoove you to find one. It will be invaluable in the long run. The copy we have is so good (White Hot, the best we have ever played), and so important to our operation here, that it would not be for sale at any (almost) price.

The Bob and Ray Trombone / Trumpet Test
One of the key tests on Bob and Ray that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the duet between the trombone and the trumpet about half way through The Song of the Volga Boatman. I have never heard a small speaker reproduce a trombone properly, and when tweaking the system, when the trombone has more of the heft and solidity of the real instrument, that is a tweak we want to pursue. The trumpet interweaving with it in the right rear corner of the studio tests the transients and high frequency harmonics in the same section. With any change to the stereo, both of those instruments are going to sound better. For a change to be positive they must both sound better.

Blue
In another section on their site Mapleshade recommends a female vocal for turntable setup and mentions Blue by name.

How much deep punchy bass is there on Blue? Barely a trace in the piano, that’s it. Blue is a good record for testing some sonic qualities, not at all good for testing others. Our advice: do not limit yourself to a female vocal recording.

We use Bob and Ray because it is BIG. How big is Blue? How big is it supposed to be? It’s simply not a good test for size, power, weight or energy. These things are very important to us — we talk about them in almost every Hot Stamper listing we write — and if you are not the kind of audiophile dweeb whose collection is full of Sarah McLachlan and Patricia Barber “vinyls” they should be every bit as important to you as they are to us.

They are what make music fun and exciting. Don’t you want your music to be fun and exciting? We sure do. It’s practically a three word definition for Hot Stampers.

For this same reason female vocals should not be used exclusively when judging turntables. Cheap tables — you know the ones — with no real energy or weight can still sound good on female vocals. Not so good on Revolver, Back in Black, 88 Basie Street or Scheherazade.

How Many Years?
And in still another place on their site they say that by following their turntable setup guidance you should expect to get five to ten years of use out of your cartridge.

This is arrant nonsense. I have never owned a cartridge (in modern times; twenty years ago I didn’t have the skills to know what the hell I was doing) that did not sound noticeably more tired after a year or two than it did when new. And that’s before we were doing daily shootouts.

Maybe I put two or three times as many hours on my cart as most audiophiles would in a year, but it has always seemed to me that some of the life force was lost over time whether the cartridge was playing records or sitting in a drawer. This is especially true now. Even after three or four months, putting in a new cartridge immediately impresses us with its openness, freedom from harshness, dynamic energy and power.

I have related that story to many of our customers, and some of them have taken the time to write back that they were shocked at how much more life there was in their new system compared to the old one. Since most of you don’t own Dynavectors please don’t see this as some kind of sales pitch. If your cartridge is older get a rebuild or a new one. You may well be shocked at the difference it can make. And that means your Hot Stampers will sound even better!

Moving coil cartridges get old, they go bad, they wear out. They don’t last five or ten years. (Cheap moving magnets might last that long but who in his right mind wants to listen to a cheap moving magnet?)

Anyway, that’s all for now. Try backing off your tracking weight a hair and see what happens And try all the other stuff we talked about too. Most of your sound is not the equipment you own. It’s how it’s working.

Back to Mapleshade

Much of the advice in their catalog I found eminently sensible. If I had more time I would talk more about it, but we have to spend our days playing and writing about records, not some company’s catalog, so that will probably never come to pass.

Let me leave you with these two thoughts.

There is some real nutty stereo advice in there, so take whatever you read with a sizable grain of salt.

And, secondly, it seems that everywhere you turn it is unequivocally declared that one tweak or another always results in this or that improvement.

Again, this does not comport with my experience, nor the experience of anyone I know well. The vast majority of tweaks do not work the same way in every system. They are almost always system-dependent.

Of the four we recommend the most: Aurios, the Talisman, Hallographs and Magic Pillows, I have never heard a system not benefit from the first three. There may be such a system but I have never heard it, and we get virtually no returns on any of them. Magic Pillows don’t always work under CD players but I have never heard them not work under phono stages. So, mostly they always work.



A Customer’s Letter

Hi Tom,

Just wanted to give you a big thank you for the commentary on turntable tweaking. I constantly learn important advice on the audiophile subject from your website. I check it everyday.

Lately I have been thinking my audio sound was lacking. It didn’t sound as good as I remember it. After reading the turntable tweaking advice I reset up the tonearm. VTF, VTA, and azimuth. I have “magic” in my sound now.

Listened to some Neil Young, [Ten Years After] A Space in Time. Very Tubey. Listened to my Miles Davis Kind of Blue. It sounded better than I ever heard it. I’m sitting in shock!

The killer was Chicago 2. I love 25-6-to4 so I was blown away and normally I’m not interested in the rest of that side of the album but I sat through the rest of it and was enthralled by the vocals. Memories of Love is one track I was never interested in but it sounded so good I loved it. When you want to listen to every record in your collection you know you’ve done something right.

Anyway I want you to know we audiophiles appreciate the time you take to put up your advice and commentaries. I just got a huge upgrade and it didn’t cost me a cent. Only some time and I learned a little more.

Thanks a bunch, 
Steve E.



Further Reading

…along these lines can be found below.

We have 50+ Audio Exercises you can try at home for fun and profit.

We have a section for Audio Advice of all kinds.

And finally we’ll throw in this old warhorse discussing How to Become an Expert Listener, subtitled Hard Work and Challenges Can Really Pay Off.

Because in audio, much like the rest of life, hard work and challenges really do pay off.