AT-ART9 cartridge on Marantz TT-15s1 - I don't think I'm getting the performance I should

Some time ago, frustrated with what was likely cartridge alignment issues coupled with worn LPs, I upgraded my cart and sold my VPI Scout turntable and now have an AT-ART9 on a Marantz TT-15s1.  That turntable was recommended to me because of its relative simplicity in cartridge alignment.  I've been really enjoying the fullness and clarity of the AT-ART9 on some LPs.  By "some" I've found that I mean records without obvious wear and that are cut on the quiet side. 

What's bugging me is that I feel l am getting far from the best out of this cart.  I have read that it is REALLY finicky to dial in for best tracking results, and my cart doesn't appear to be tracking a lot of records well at all.   I started buying a lot of vintage sealed records to eliminate groove damage from being the issue.  But I've noticed that almost every album that's cut on the "hot" side plagues me with distortion that gets worse as the stylus gets nearer to the inner grooves.   For example, I've played a lot of '80s hard rock and metal, and I can almost count on any album from that era cut on the Atlantic label in these subgenres to give me distortion that's clearly due to mistracking. 

What may set me apart from others on this forum is that I don't have buddies with comparable systems in driving distance from me where I can bring my records to hear on their systems, so I really have absolutely no basis for comparison.  I have just read people say that they have never heard IGD with this cart, whereas I hear it on many 75% of my LPs.  I don't have any problems with known audiophile pressings though, like new stuff cut by Chris Bellman, Kevin Gray, on the Classic Records label, etc. 

I used to have my cart professionally set up, but after finding that my dealer totally bungled the setup on my VPI the last time, I decided to learn how to do it myself.   I got myself several Stevenson protractors and a 3x magnifier so that I could see what I was doing, and it absolutely looks to me like I've got my cart aligned as perfectly as one can get it using the null points on the protractor.  

I *do* however think anti-skate is causing me problems with my configuration.  I did have it set too high and that absolutely caused me more distortion in the inner grooves as well as a large number of records "sticking" (i.e. repeating instead of skipping forward).   But even after adjusting this heavily, I still find that in the rare case that I have a used record that skips, the tonearm "sticks".   That, to me, suggests too much antiskate, but I have set the antiskate to be almost as minimal as possible from the best that I can tell. 

Absent of a local dealer that I've yet to find who I can trust to identify and fix this issue (especially since the nut used for setting antiskate on the Marantz is so loose that it would easily change while driving my TT back home), I'm at a loss having done everything I can do to possibly fix the problem. 

Based on what I'm saying here and your experiences, am I most likely missing out on the supreme tracking abilities of this cart, or is there just a lot of really bad pressings and damaged used vinyl out there?   And if it's the former as I suspect, is there anything about the Marantz's tone arm that suggests it's not up to the task of supporting this cart?  

"I have read that it is REALLY finicky to dial in for best tracking results, and my cart doesn't appear to be tracking a lot of records well at all."

I've used the ART9 for 5 years.  Great cart in it's price point. IME, it isn't unique or finicky as far as setting up. Something else may be going on? Did you confirm the platter is level?

YMMV, but I hear it performing best with the tail slighty up, 2 grams tracking force. 
The ART9 sounds the same with or without antiskate on my VPI.

Sometimes, a dirty stylus can do weird SQ problems. 
Not directly related,  but are you using the best phonostage you can afford to allow the ART9 to shine? If not, you're not hearing what it's capable of.
Thanks for responding.  Yes, I did confirm that the platter is absolutely level.  I should have noted that.

I also had better results with the VTA tail slightly up, so that's how I have it now.   2 grams tracking force??  I kept reading people say 1.7 - 1.8, so I have been really hesitant to try it above 1.9.   Maybe I'll give that a go.  I

I use the Onzow Zerodust now to clean the stylus.  Unless there's something on there that it can't catch, I don't think that's my issue, though I absolutely have heard distortion caused by a dirty stylus.

As for the phono stage, I have a vintage, rebuilt Sansui 9090 receiver (it sounds lovely) and a Consonance PM-6 phono preamp.  That preamp was sold to me as a decent enough MM/MC preamp that would make connectivity easy, but I have no clue how this preamp would compare with another.   I don't know how I'd audition a new one with my setup short of just buying one with good reviews and seeing if I notice a big difference.  That's in my eventual plan, but I want to solve or at least identify the tracking issue first because it's really making a lot of my vinyl listening less than enjoyable.  Even though as I say, good records sound great, so you got me!
You have to buy Hi-Fi NEWS TEST LP and CARDAS FREQUENCY SWEEP LP. Both records will help you to test your cartridge properly, you will see what is the resonance frequency of your arm/cart, you can check and adjust anti-skating, there is a good test for tracking ... Read about those LPs, many great features on them. 

"I kept reading people say 1.7 - 1.8, so I have been really hesitant to try it above 1.9."

Audio Technica specs per website:1.6-2.0 (1.8 standard)

I owned a Marantz like yours and was underwhelmed. I compared it directly against my old REGA RB 300 equipped AR turntable that the Marantz was supposed to replace. The Sam Tellig special complete with the Shure Ultra 500 for good measure. The AR had something going on below 120 Hertz. The Marantz was completely lacking in the lower mid range and bass department. It is time for a better turntable. A Michell with a rewired REGA or a Michell Tecnoarm would work well. It sounds like you and modest unipivot tonearms are not compatible.

There are some great deals on Michell tables lately(no I am not selling mine or shilling for anyone). Keep the cartridge, it is a dandy. Just my .02$.
I urge you to carefully speak to azimuth.   I use the Foz, with its accompanying record.   I've heard the a/t many times, and it tracks and sounds very should not be disappointed.
some cartridges just do not track as well as others IME.  I am not sure about the ART 9.

Try leveling the table.  A level table can make a big difference.
A few thoughts:

Buy something like this so you can really see if your stylus is clean

The recommendation for test records is a plus so you can check the tracking and improve the alignment

What alignment are you using? Some are less favorable to inner groves tracking

The cartridge may not be a good match for your arm, but even so is should track better than you indicate, so I would increase the tracking force to 2 grams and try it
... my cart doesn't appear to be tracking a lot of records well at all ... I've played a lot of '80s hard rock and metal, and I can almost count on any album from that era cut on the Atlantic label in these subgenres to give me distortion that's clearly due to mistracking ...
"Tracking" and "mistracking" are words that are commonly misused on the forum. How can you be so sure that the root cause of the distortion you're hearing is "mistracking?" Are you saying that the root cause of this distortion is the cartridge's inherent inability to track the LP grooves? Or is it possible that the cause of the distortion isn't really "mistracking," but is caused by misalignment?
I have just read people say that they have never heard IGD with this cart, whereas I hear it on many 75% of my LPs. 
That suggests possible misalignment.
I got myself several Stevenson protractors and a 3x magnifier so that I could see what I was doing, and it absolutely looks to me like I've got my cart aligned as perfectly as one can get it using the null points on the protractor.   
That's good, but setting overhang to the null points is just one aspect of phono cartridge alignment.
I *do* however think anti-skate is causing me problems ... even after adjusting this heavily, I still find that in the rare case that I have a used record that skips, the tonearm "sticks".   That, to me, suggests too much antiskate ...
It's more likely that it's a damaged or dirty record causing that problem, especially because it happens with used records. What are you using to clean these records before playing them?

But your other problems suggest alignment issues. That your stylus will sit at the null point does not alone ensure that you've achieved the proper HTA. That is an often overlooked aspect of phono cartridge alignment and it's one of the advantages of using a proper mirrored gauge for alignment rather than a paper gauge. Such a gauge can also be also useful for setting azimuth.

Agree. Likely alignment issues. The arm is spec'd (most closely) for DIN Baerwald so aligning to Stevenson would seem counter intuitive and the cartridge would have to be jammed up against the rear of the headshell and angled slightly to achieve proper Stevenson alignment. 

My suggestion would be to print off a DIN/Baerwald protractor using Conrad Hoffman's software, have it laminated and re-align. At least as a starting point. 
Thanks for all of the responses!   I'm embarrassed to have to make one correction - it was the Baerwald alignment I did go with, not the Stevenson as I incorrectly said. 

I am going to definitely focus on setting azimuth which I previously did not, because quite simply, the manual that came with the Marantz gave no indication on how to adjust this.  That manual focuses more on the quick and easy alignment of the cart that it shipped with, which I found to track well but offered a completely unengaging sound on the best recordings.  As much as it hurts to have to pay another $300 for a fozgometer, I suppose it is a relatively small price to pay given what I've already invested into this system.

I found on another forum a link to the manual for the Clearaudio Satisfy Kardan tone arm which appears to be the same as or at least incredibly similar to the Clearaudio-produced tonearm that ships with the Marantz.  This provides an indicator on how to adjust the azimuth and even points out a simple error I made in setting antiskate.   So I will work on these and hopefully report success soon!
That manual focuses more on the quick and easy alignment of the cart that it shipped with, which I found to track well but offered a completely unengaging sound on the best recordings ...
If you found the sound "un-engaging" perhaps the cartridge was not tracking nearly as well as you thought.

Some users think if a cartridge doesn't skip or get stuck in locked grooves, that it "tracks well." But if you accept the common definition of good tracking - the ability to accurately trace a groove with minimal wear - you'll see it differently.

For example, look at the popular Shure SC35C cart, which uses a spherical stylus that tracks around 5 grams. I guarantee you that this cartridge will rarely fail to stay in the groove; skipping or getting stuck is extremely unlikely - that's part of why DJs liked them so much. But with a 5 gram VTF, it's going to put a lot of wear on your LPs. Its spherical stylus is physically incapable of tracing high frequencies - the fat stylus simply can't trace grooves that small - and even at low frequencies, it's likely to struggle with high amplitude grooves. So we can say that the Shure SC35C is not a "good tracker," unless your only criteria is that the stylus stays in the groove.

You really need a test record to verify a cartridge's tracking ability.
I played a few more old but sealed LPs today and heard IGD on every one of them, so it's clear that something is very wrong with my setup.

I got the Fozgometer and the Analog Productions Ultimate Analogue Test LP and checked the reading only to find that my azimuth was way off.  Great!   I was getting a much higher reading from the right channel than the left - it wasn't close.  So this felt promising.  I made the adjustments - took me a few tries to get it closer - but I quickly noticed something is very wrong.  The only way I was able to achieve a reasonably close reading between the left and right channel was to tilt the cartridge ridiculously to the right.  I don't mean just a little, I mean a lot - so I couldn't possibly achieve the correct overhang and azimuth at the same time.  

It would seem logical to replace the RCA cables from the turntable to the fozgometer as a test, but those are not removable from the tonearm.  So I'm not sure if I have some other problem that's causing the signal to lean heavily towards the right or what's going on here.  

I welcome any thoughts, but I am also going to see if I can get a local dealer to check it out.  Unfortunately the one I used to go to steered me wrong in a previous setup by rushing through it, so I have no faith they will get it right.  I really wanted to be able to do this myself, but I don't know what else I can do from here.

Very rarely will a dealer take the time and effort needed to check, recheck, move it a little this way, that, etc. Have you visually checked that the stylus is centered and that it looks correct?? where do you live? The cartridge is a good one if not damaged.  Too little/too much a/s is not the problem
Drat, having an "expert" take a look at it feels like my only hope.   I live in Thorndale, Pennsylvania not too far from Philadelphia.  I'd gladly drive a few hours to find the right person, but Google isn't helping me here unfortunately, and I imagine COVID is hurting my chances of finding someone even more.

Yes, by eyeballing it, it certainly doesn't look like the cantilever is bent or anything weird like that.  And as for the cartridge (or stylus/cantilever) being damaged, anything is possible, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how that could be.   I probably only have 100 hours on the cart at most?  It was purchased new in December 2019.

Unfortunately I can't be 100% sure of this because I didn't take many notes nor do I make needledrops that I can refer to, but I believe this cartridge performed much better when I first set it up.   It struck me that *maybe* around the break-in period, I started noticing more problems.  It definitely wasn't a situation where I woke up one day and everything was off.  But when I first got the cart, I played a few records and made detailed notes which included that all of them had no perceived tracking issues whatsoever.  So then I stopped making notes.  :-)  The sound in general was an improvement over the AT33PTG/II cart that I previously had on my VPI Scout.  But after a while, I found I'd go back to records I noted were totally NM previously and now I'd be hearing distortion that sounded like groove wear.   I re-aligned, changed VTA, antiskate and tracking force and never solved the problem.  On anything that was cut even remotely hot, I'd hear IGD.   This new development with the Fozgometer seems like it should be exposing the problem, but with my luck, I can't help but wonder if it's not a different problem.
When things aren’t working go back to the beginning (sorry).
Check aligment (again). What is the protractor you are using?
Ditto vtfFind best vta/sraDitto azimuthCheck vtf again
Was the ART9 NIB when you got it?

Btw congrats on learning to setup your own carts...this could be part of your master class ;)

Yes, I'm going to start from scratch indeed.  And I really should also RTFM, because I realized I didn't calibrate the Fozgometer before use - I just went off of a YouTube video on its use.  Oops.  Of course, for $400, I would have thought that might have been done, but I'll start there, re-align and give this another go tomorrow.  
Something is amiss there....

RTFM....we're guys! We don't need directions or manuals.

While I'm sure sure the Foz is a great tool, any cart can be adjusted by ear to get an acceptable performance.

According the designers, the stylus mounting isn't always precise, so a little tilt one way isn't unusual. Did it sound better with the Foz adjustment?

I would revisit all the basic adjustments, if that doesn't solve the problem, time to have someone take a look at it.
Based on your results with the Fozgmeter, I’m guessing that you have a damaged cartridge. You should not have to tilt the cartridge that much to achieve correct azimuth. I have an ART9, it was simple to set up, and has taken the sound quality of my system to a new high.
A somewhat surprising (to me anyway) update.  I calibrated the Fozgometer and realigned the cart.  It took some fiddling as one might expect, but I kept adjusting until I had the overhang and azimuth very close based on the Fozgometer reading.  I played Track 1 on the Analog Productions Test LP through the Fozgometer and it confirmed a perfect mono signal.  

At that point, I felt confident enough to play an LP that I wouldn't be too worried about damaging.  And frankly, I was floored.  Gone was any of the distortion I was hearing, but what shocked me was the increased clarity over all.   I played several records and heard IGD on none of them.  I even played some worn records, and while distortion on those was noticeable in the highs, it was clearly minimized from what I heard before.  

I've now played maybe 10 records and it is obvious to me that there has been a massive improvement.  So I thank those who pointed out an incorrect azimuth setting as being my problem.

That said, the cartridge absolutely is noticeably titled.  If one were to look at it straight on (can I post pics here??), you'd certainly assume that the azimuth is off.   But the Fozgometer and my ears completely disagree.  The sound is exactly what I hoped/expected it should be.

So the theory would be that my cartridge is damaged, but this is rather strange, isn't it?   It would seem to me that the cantilever would have to be bent for this to occur, but I've never had the cart sounding like this except for MAYBE the day I first installed it (my notes tell me every record I played sounded perfect on that day).  And wouldn't you think that if the cart was damaged, sound would be affected negatively and noticeably?   I know you readers don't know me, but trust me, my ears are kinda picky.  I can't say that it looks like the cantilever is bent when I was looking at the cart as it was mounted previously, but now it sure looks like it's sitting in the grooves straight on from the best that I can see.

If we assume the cantilever is bent, what is the most likely reason for this?  I've never had it any heavier than the recommended 2.0 grams (it was usually closer to 1.7 or 1.8), I only clean it carefully and as needed with the Onzow Zerodust or an appropriate brush, and it probably only has 100 or so hours on it (it's really tough to estimate).  

In any case, I'm curious to hear others' thoughts here.  
Lots of good advise posted.  I have had two ART 9's in service.  Replaced one with ART 9XA.  Have ART 9XI on order.

I would recommend to make VTA or SRA adjustments.  Level the cartridge, go up till it gets worse, then go down till it gets worse, then back up till you find your sound quality.
The tonearm is the only one that can be used with the Marantz TT-15S1 (the entire thing was actually made by ClearAudio for Marantz).  
izgoblin, I'm late to the discussion but if I read this correctly when set up with the Foz the cartridge is noticeably tilted. This is not something you would ordinarily see with an AudioTechnica cartridge unless their QC has really fallen off that badly. Do this if you would. Place a pocket mirror on the platter. Defeat your anti skate and place the stylus down on the mirror. Give yourself good lighting and look at the stylus dead on. The stylus and it's reflection should make a perfectly symmetrical "hourglass." You can use magnification if you have it. If the hourglass is symmetrical this means the cantilever and moving system was incorrectly mounted in the cartridge body. This is just a cosmetic problem, sloppy but cosmetic. If the image is bent to one side (stylus is correctly perpendicular to the cartridge body) than the internal mechanism was not mounted correctly. Situation #2 is much worse as your stylus is now cocked in the groove and you are increasing record and stylus wear as well as tracking and other issues. I would definitely send it back as defective. 

As an aside, that is a pretty light arm and a cartridge of medium compliance. I would bet your bass and tracking will improve with the addition of mass. Chakster recommended the Hi Fi News Analog Test LP which has great horizontal and vertical resonance tracks. You add mass until you get down between 8 and 10 Hz.
Thanks, mijostyn!  You understand correctly - things seem to sound great and the tracking is clearly far better, but the visible tilt freaks me out.  Your suggestions are very helpful, and I will update the thread when I have gone through them.
I didn't read every word but could your tracking force gauge be bad. You could try to float the arm and set counterweight to zero then set counterweight to 1.5 - 1.8 and see if you gauge is close. Sounds like it could be a bad cartridge. Could anti skate be broken? Set anti skate to zero or half of tracking force recommendation. Try just a basic protractor for your arm printed off vinyl engine. 
Have you tried turning off the anti-skate to see if that is the problem?  
Have you used a bubble level on the flat part of the tonearm headshell?  
The ART9 is sensitive to VTA.  
Level the platter with the bubble level and then check the level of the headshell when the cartridge is in the groove of an LP, obviously tracking force adjusted to account for the weight of the level. 
Once you level the headshell relative to the platter, you are at "0" and a great place to evaluate the cartridge's performance.  
Didn't you get a protractor with the turntable?  Use that one for now and check the alignment.  
If you have to adjust alignment then re-adjust VTF.  VTF for the ART9 (for me) was 1.85G.  
Sounds like something fundamentally off in the alignment.  Your tonearm is optimized for the ART9 and it is capable of sounding as smooth and clean as anything.  
The '9 does tend to sound warmer and bassier on belt drives and tables with acrylic platters (which are not good IMHO) .  However you have work to do before you get there.  
Thanks, avanti1960.  I've got anti-skate at a minimum based on the results from both the HiFi News and Analog Productions test LPs.  And you bet I've used a protractor and gone over the alignment probably 10 or 15 times at this point. 

I've read that VTA for the ART-9 is best at slightly tail-up from various sources.  If I read you correctly, you're suggesting to level it off?   

Anyway, a few posts ago I mentioned that I had solved the sound issue by using the Fozgometer and tilting the cartridge at an angle that really *shouldn't* be correct.   I played several records and they all tracked perfectly well, and I was paying REALLY close attention. 

But now already something seems wrong again.  I made NO changes whatsoever, and even though the IGD is still gone, I'm clearly getting distortion on clean records again, which is totally the sound of misalignment.  So I'm going to do a few more tests before I (hopefully) draw a conclusion.

Unfortunately, things are starting to point towards a damaged or defective cartridge.
Have you done the mirror test as described by Mijostyn? When you do, let us know your result. If, with the mirror test and the cartridge body visibly tilted in the headshell, the stylus tip is not sitting Square in the groove, then I would ignore the fozgometer completely. I would then reset azimuth so that the stylus sits Square in the groove regardless of anything else. Then see how it sounds. What the other guy was suggesting as regards VTA, is to Start with the head shell parallel to the LP surface and then move the pivot up or down to find your happy place. Other people with experience using the ART9 have already mentioned they prefer the pivot slightly up or down, can’t remember. But that is your choice ultimately. Any test LP that asks for the listener to look for a mono signal from a stereo cartridge in order to set azimuth is not doing it the right way.
If you're willing to drive 3-4 hours my dealer, Deja Vu Audio in Vienna VA are analog specialists they will set that table and cartridge up right. Also they are a  Clearaudio dealer, amongst other brands, and your table is made by Clearaudio.
I will tell you, the issue is not with anti-skate...even if adjusted poorly, the cartridge should sing.
Just wanted to bring this thread to a (temporary) conclusion.  I tried mijostyn's suggestion of checking the stylus with a pocket mirror (I actually used a mirrored protractor) and it seemed to me that the stylus (as best as I could see it anyway) was cocked to one side.  Frankly, I am confused as to how I got such consistently better results for a couple of days and then things started sounding bad again after that without my changing anything.  However, the posts here have really helped me a) investigate how to properly and fully align a cartridge on my own, and b) understand that if this cart doesn't seem to be tracking well, there is something wrong.

So basically I decided that life is too short to keep spending more time dealing with this problem than just sitting back and enjoying my music.  I'm going to mount another cartridge for now and work on sending this one in to Audio-Technica.   Hopefully they will be able to determine if the thing was defective from the beginning, if I damaged it somehow, or strangely if it looks perfectly fine to them.   In the meantime, I can at least play records without worrying about damaging them further.

I appreciate the helpful responses in this thread.