Maybe your turntable setup is actually okay . . .

One of the most oft-repeated bits of advice I read on these forums is to "check your turntable setup" . . . to the point of being a blanket cure-all for any manner of dissatisfaction with one's turntable. Add to this that there seems to be no limit to the required obsessive details about various protractors, geometries, mirrors, jigs, etc. that need to be discussed, and their associated belief-systems that need to be adhered to . . .

Well, it actually IS possible that a turntable has a PERFECT setup, but still has performance and tracking problems. So if you're still frustrated after dorking around with your turntable ad infinitum, you might consider the following:

1. Many cartridges (especially MCs) have distortion mechanisms that are completely independent of the tracking performance - that is, distortion can still occur even with absolutely zero mistracking. I find it plainly audible with trackability test records - as modulation is increased, there are sometimes one or two different-sounding distortions that are heard before the unmistakable onset of mistracking. These are frequently caused by dried-out cartridge suspension, or are peculiar to the cartridge design itself. When listening to music, it's REALLY tough to differentiate between cartridge distortion and mistracking.

2. The concept of whether to align to the cartridge body or the cantilever is ridiculous. They SHOULD be one and the same. I verify this under a microscope BEFORE beginning mounting the cartridge . . . I can't imagine doing it any other way. If it isn't, repair or replace the cartridge.

3. The diamond stylus itself should be mounted squarely to the cantilever, and the cantilever should not be twisted. Again, a microscope is necessary to make sure. Again, if it's not right . . . repair or replace the cartridge.

4. The mass/compliance relationship between the tonearm and the cartridge must be correct - around 10-15Hz resonant frequency on both the vertical and the horizontal planes. If this isn't correct, then the stylus simply won't track correctly. Usually the mistake is so the resonant frequency is too low, which causes the stylus-to-record contact force to vary wildly with tiny warps, footfalls, and record eccentricities.

5. Damping troughs, gooey goo, and headshell weights, while helpful for some situations . . . cannot compensate for poor tonearm/cartridge matching. The fundamental mechanism is still the cartridge compliance and the tonearm mass.

6. If the tracking problems increase as the tonearm approaches the inside of the record, this does NOT necessarily mean that the change in tonearm/record geometry has anything at all to do with the tracking problem. The inner grooves simply exert greater forces against the stylus to acheive the same amount of velocity, hence modulation, as the outer grooves. So even if the tracking ability of the cartridge is perfectly constant across the record, it can frequently be sufficient at the outer grooves, but not the inner ones.

7. Many cartridges are simply not very good when it comes to tracking ability. Maybe they have other virtues, and are worth owning in spite of this. I know, I know . . . "my spherical-stylus Ortofon SPU can track the Telarc 1812 Overture disc with zero distortion!! Your setup must be off!!!" That is, quite simply, a load of crap. You don't buy an SET amp for the efficiency, you don't buy a Jaguar E-type for the heater, and some audiophile cartridges should NOT be counted on for their tracking ability. Decide what's important to you before you spend your money.

If it seems like I always blame the cartridge for inexplicable tracking problems . . . well, this isn't too far from the truth. In my experience, quality control for phono cartridges is much worse than for most other parts of the audio chain, regardless of cost or manufacturer reputation (with maybe one exception, but they don't make cartridges anymore). This is simply because so much of the poor workmanship or damage requires a microscope to see, or can't be seen at all, and even if it's perfectly made . . . these things go through many people before they reach your tonearm. When I buy a cartridge (formerly as a dealer, now as a consumer) I make sure that if I'm not happy with it after a visual microscope inspection, setup, and testing, I can send it back for another one, until I'm happy. I've sent back LOTS of cartridges and ticked off lots of distributors to this end. The tradeoff is that I simply can't consider brands where I don't have a good relationship to the dealer, and I probably pay more than many people on Audiogon.

I sent back two Linn Klydes to get the one I have now -- one had the diamond mounted a degree or two off, and the other had an intermittently open channel. I'm not bashing Linn . . . I've set up a good handfull of their cartridges, and overall, I'd consider them above average. But I can't count how many cartridges I've sent back over the years, and what pains me is that some of my Audiogon brethren probably have my rejects on their tonearms - after all, I'm pretty sure that they weren't all simply thrown away.
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Viridian, I don't quite understand your answer . . . but with any craft, one of the best tests of workmanship is when the job is "done", and something clearly, obviously still isn't right. A craftsman's response is usually one of three responses:

1. "Well, I've done all I can . . . so I now have to convince others that it's right."

2. "Well, it's me doing the work, and I'm kick-ass. Therefore, the work is kick-ass, and if nobody else can see that . . . it's their problem."

3. "I'm not done until it's clearly, obviously, right. Crap. It's time to get back to work."

I obviously value response 3 the most.
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Oh well, Viridian. The only thing I got was reference to pornography and a guy named Mikey (whom I don't know), and some comparison between turntable setup and one's virility. Either you think I'm wrong about something and won't share it . . . or feel I can't possibly have the requisite credibility to discuss the matter. Either way, no offense taken.

Dan_ed, I agree with you about Linnies, they are True Believers. Personally, while I have enjoyed an AR or a Linn as my main turntable for a couple of decades, I don't subscribe to the Gospel of Ivor, and I don't think the Linn Way is the True Way. But Linn's manufacturing is in general absolutely top-notch . . . and having good relationships with a couple of wonderful, understanding, patient Linn dealers has had a huge influence on my decision to keep it and upgrade it over the years.
Dear Kirkus: IMHO there are more +++" you might consider the following:" ++++, but that is for other thread.

What is very interesting and really critical are your: 2- and 3- arguments/points ( where I totaly agree ) while many of us don't do nothing about.
Maybe we are paying a lot of money in several top cartridges for a not so good build quality. Yes, like you I think that we have to make something about because if we fix it those two subjects certainly the quality performance of some cartridges will improve.

Kirkus very good points, thank you to share with us.

Hi Kirkus

Yes, I would agree with Raul on #2 and #3. As to #4 I would personally prefer to be a few cycles lower than 15Hz. ;-)

I only made the "Linnie" out of respect for the history behind Linn and McIntosh dealers. But you lost me below #4. From there, I get the impression that you vented all that pent up dissatisfaction built up over the years. :-) Hey. I love Ford trucks, but they do have their issues. I hope that helps explain myself.
I will concede that maybe I'm coming off as a bit preachy . . . but it seems obvious to me that people are spending a LOT of money on their turntable systems, and our recommendations on the Audiogon forums are one of several places people turn to for buying advice.

From many recent threads, it seems that more than a few people also come (back?) to these forums, trying to figure out why they have purchased high-quality, well-regarded components, and they're still not happy with the way it works. And the majority of responses we (as a community) give seem to blame turntable owners for their own problems - couched in the never-ending discussion "proper setup". I didn't make up the example about the Ortofon SPU . . . I read it right here.

The owner of a brand-new, fine automobile should not experience engine misfiring. If he/she does . . . then it's a huge insult (and likely inaccurate) to jump to the conclusion that the problem is the way they're driving, because after all . . . I have the same car and it drives beautifully!

I actually agree with you Cerrot, this is supposed to be fun. But endlessly diddling with a turntable you're not happy with (especially if you've just spent a wad of cash) doesn't sound like much fun to me. I just think that we should communicate unambiguously to those in this position that they are most likely NOT idiots, and that they deserve to get their money's worth out of their audio purchases.
Maybe this thread should be required reading for the budding vinylphile with high expectations and a plug and play mentality. But with a caveat that it doesn't hardly begin to cover all of the 'issues' involved in getting high quality playback.

Actually, I think the new vinylphile who is going to enjoy vinyl the most is the one with a medium resolution system, only moderately critical 'audio' listening skills, and an intense curiosity about and enjoyment of music. What a great opportunity.

But, for the guy just signing on for the 'ultimate' audio experience, wow!, is he in for a surprise! And it may be neither fun, quick, nor cheap.

Sorry for being OT, I just couldn't resist.
kirkus like the way you are driving hard the issue of high end expensive phono equipment that could have manufacturing quality build defects. and I for one appreciate you're bringing this up. by my read here it seems some think different and there wrong. man can't build perfection in his products just thinks he can then believes it. this is a fact proven every day for all to see.

Great and relevant thread.

I posted a thread on AA a little while back - I have a Benz L2 which sounds great in many ways, but does not seem to be the best tracker out there.

If there is any semblance of distortion, mistracking etc, I pick up on it immediately, and it ruins the experience for me.

In your experience, what MC cartridges best address #6 and #7 in your list?
I don't miss the endless diddling now that I own a Beogram 4500. In fact spinning records hasn't been this much fun (or easy) since I bought my first turn table in 1978.
ECTS (Excessive Compulsive Turntable Syndrome).

Its on the rise again now that vinyl is somewhat back in.

The cure: lighten up or steer clear of vinyl!

Go to digital or tape (8-track, cassette, reel to reel, others).

Actually, tapes rip, jam etc. so you are at risk of stressing out there to.

Just go to digital and filter out all the annoying stuff. Its very stress free that way!
RE: Kirkus post. Very good points. Not sure how anyone can address #1 other than by process of elimination. If the stylus is square and you align to the cantilever w a good mirrored arc tractor you can address slight mis-alignments in the cantilever. I totally agree that the stylus must be square and the cantilever cannot be twisted. Shame on anyone who ships a high end cart w those problems. I can't imagine that these are being produced in such volume that each one cannot be individually inspected prior to shipping. If you have a sharp mind, excellent listening skills, a good understanding of the physics, geometry and engineering issues involved, nimble fingers, and lots of patience (I do not), you can assemble an analog system that addresses 4, 5, 6, and 7. I have not heard more than a few high end analog rigs, but I can tell you that the ZYX Universe tracks extremely well in a Tri-P arm and sounds fantastic in a highly resolving system. Those w ECTS can adjust VTF and VTA precisely and repeatedly w the current versions of that arm. BTW, my own set-up does occasionally exhibit trackability issues. Newbee is correct, IME, about the problems you can experience w a highly resolving system. Since I do not have ECTS or great patience, I use digital as my primary source, but still get great pleasure from my analog rig. But the again I don't think I have ECAS (excessive compulsive audiophile syndrome) either.
Goatwuss, I generally don't like to speak ill of people or companies (points of view are fair game!) . . . but after my diatribe above, maybe I could stand to be specific. Please understand that most of my experience is from 10-15 years ago, when part of my living was made by selling cartridges and setting up turntables. In the past decade, I probably set up two or three a year . . . as a favor to friends, and they select the cartridge themselves.

'Back in the day', I generally liked to sell and set up Ortofons, with the exception of their bottom-of-the-line or DJ offerings. While the tonal balance isn't necessarily to everybody's taste (and not always completely to mine), Ortofon consistently had above-average manufacturing consistency, a very complete range of offerings, and good, complete, accurate technical information. I also had an Ortofon TC3000 cartridge analyzer with about 100 of the matching test records - in addition to a couple of other testing methodologies. This allowed me to make sure that the measured data fit what the cartridge specs indicated it should do. Back then, the profit margins for most cartridges, including Ortofon, were very high . . . meaning that I could afford to swap out a defect even if I wasn't sure the distributor wouldn't back me up.

Ortofon has now changed ownership, but they still seem to be a very solid company, and if you want an MC with good tracking ability, then it's hard to go wrong with their modern-style offerings with a nude fine-line or better stylus - the Kontrapunkt series and Jubilee deliver in spades. The older, more modest range like the MC20FL were also good, but I haven't any experience with the Rondos and such. And while I've used the SPU series as an example of poor tracking performance, I don't think it's a bad product . . . just one for very specialized tastes and applications.

I've set up two Lyra Helikons, neither had defects. Not quite as precise as the high-end Ortofons in the tracking department, but still very good. I've liked the Linn cartridges, too . . . they seem a bit overpriced but if you have a Linn tonearm, they're a guaranteed perfect match, and that's worth something. I would describe my Klyde's tracking performance as "better than what's necessary, but not by a whole lot."

I have mixed feelings on Benz -- they seem to be very finely crafted cartridges and have a nice tone . . . but the handful I've set up didn't seem to work quite 'right'. I remember two with questionable workmanship/condition on the stylus, and in both cases, the owners wanted them mounted anyway . . . but both were changing cartridges within six months. Benz' choice of output level and impedance also leaves me scratching my head . . . it's as if they don't care about making the cartridge-to-preamp interaction at all predictable.

The AT-OC9 has a good reputation, and that's probably generally true. I did have an incident many years ago where the distributor agreed before I bought it that I could send it back if it didn't pass my inspection, and then the cartridge I got was horrible -- a badly mis-mounted diamond, with a twisted cantilever. I sent it back, and they proceeded to send me the exact same cartridge again in a different box. I sent it back too, and the third one was gorgeous . . . tracked well and sounded beautiful. The distributor probably just thought I was being an ass . . . and he probably wasn't completely wrong.

I don't like Grados. Consistent maybe, but consistently hummy and noisy and poor tracking. The big disappointment was Shure - they had some nice designs with horrible manufacturing. I had customers waiting months before I could get a useable V-15-V - and I frequently had to raid the replacement stylii to put on a brand-new cartridge. This is in such marked contrast to their professional microphones and other products . . . I really hope they've improved since I sold them.

But the very best (that I alluded to earlier), in terms of consistent high quality diamonds perfectly mounted . . . was Bang & Olufsen. I've seen at least a hundered under the microscope, and their workmanship even on the cheaper cartridges was spot-on, every time. Some of the cartridges from the 1970s (i.e. MMC4000, MMC6000) have problems with dried-out suspension . . . I always thought the MMC3 was a weak point in their line . . . and they did have a problem with open connections at the very end (early-1990s). I'm not saying that B&O tables and cartridges are the absolutely last word in performance . . . but they make good on what they promise, and for the setup-averse vinyl newbie, there's no better. The Soundsmith cartridges are also excellent, and a worthy successor to the B&O tradition.

You have to respect the Danes . . . a very small country with an amazing legacy in audio manufacturing.
Couldn't have said it better on the B&O's. I lucked out on my Beogram 4500 as it was new in the box and this particular table has a built in RIAA equalizer. No need for a phono stage, just plug it into a line input. Peter at Soundsmith had positive comments on the RIAA equalizer in the table which was initially a concern for me. Paired up with an MMC-2 cartridge (I have two that were also new in the box), this table reproduces sound in a way that you'd hardly think was possible just by looking at it. IMO better than the two SOTA set-ups I owned.
Kirkus, appreciate your response. Here's where I am coming from. I greatly enjoy the practice (and pursuit) of all points of all my hobbies. I'm into photography and mastering my camera, light, exposure, etc., have been paramount. Same for audio-I need to know why, how it works and be able to (either my myself and self education, or hiring someone) to get the absolute max from my gear. My bicycle is tweaked to the hilt (by a pro-wrench as I don' have the time to learn or knowledge to do). It actually bothers me that others may not need to study all and learn as much as they can of their particular passion.
My point is that there would be no way possible for me to sit back and have something I spent money on not blow my mind, and work better than it is supposed to. I think that's a quality of an audioplile and would just doubt any true audiophile would just sit back and listen to something that they felt wasn't as special as it possibly could be. It wasn't fun when I just broke my $2,000 blanced cable - but it will be fun seeing my dealer tomorrow, talking fi and sending it back to the mgf and, while I'm at it, getting the upgrade-now, thats fun.
Just my thoughts, no disrespect intended.
Kirkus, this is a hobby...people's lives don't depend on what I'm doing. My vinyl addiction is ever evolving and a great way to clear my mind from the stresses of life, not to add to it.
I've owned more tables than I can count and liked most while hated very few. Even my BIC fully auto with a stacker was great in some ways. When I feel lazy, I go to cd. Yeh, I do have some nice digital toys that I'm always pushing too.
You analogy to cars is way off in my book. I can't equate my table to buying a new BMW 750 that I expect the most out of (I can't buy a 750). It is more like my 10 year love affair with restoring a Hurst/Olds W-30. Always making it faster, handle better and look better. Hell, I spent several years on the sound system in there too. I did get the horsepower well over 400 in the Hurst and blew by everything on the road until I tore the frame up from too much torque. Same goes for my 15 year old Sota-I'll push it as far as I like but only for fun. SMILE
Born to suffer
High end is a special chapter. You will find everything, from a complete brain free zone to outstanding results. That's the difference to automobiles, there are engineers and lots of real tests, here we have "reviewers" who get paid from the ads, sell the "test units" and are still in the job. It must be frustrating to those, who do a REAL good job.
Well, I think, real good components sounds always good, no matter in which area, even when not 100% calibrated. I never had the result with listening to a average unit or cartridge which changed completely from average to outstanding after proper alignment,
All I can add is to agree that new does not equal good.

A Rega cartridge I bought recently was so very obviously flawed that no microscope was needed to see that the cantilever was misaligned in two axes. There is no possibility that anyone (sober) wearing a QC badge looked at it before it left the factory.
Elevick, your W-30 story does make me smile . . . I too had a hotrod Olds when I was younger. But let's say you built your engine around an expensive billet crankshaft, and it turned out that this particular crank was mis-balanced, and was machined with the wrong fillet radius on the rod journals. Your engine then of course has a vibration problem and some inexplicable, strange wear on the rod bearings . . . so you go to internet forums to help you figure out the problem -- and the overwhelming number of responses you receive (from other Oldsmobile engine fans) basically blame the problem on your poor engine-building skills. Had this been your experience . . . then I'm betting you might not have such fond memories of your W-30.

The fact that this is a hobby does not mean that when we purchase high-end products manufactured in the 21st-century, we shouldn't expect high-end 21st-century quality control. When I read some of the other threads on i.e. the poor quality of modern vinyl records . . . it's obvious to me that the audiophile community represented here expects to get their money's worth. The reason I started this thread was to bring up the general discussion that maybe we should expect the same from our phono cartridges.

And for all the "turntable setup" threads . . . setting up a high-performance turntable perfectly isn't NEARLY as difficult as building a high-performance automotive engine. I'd say it's about the same difficulty as setting tile -- your first attempt won't be perfect, but with patience, practice, and an eye for detail, something that most mechanically competent people can do.
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Can you recommend an affordable and capable microscope that is good for inspecting cartridges?

Based on the knowledge in this thread, I would like to get a clear look at mine.
Dear Kirkus: +++++ " and that they deserve to get their money's worth out of their audio purchases. " +++++

IMHO your approach to say TT set-up like a whole analog rig seems to me that makes things a little complex because the today TT can comes with or with out tonearm and cartridge is almost a separate item.

I already posted somewhere that IMHO ( till today ) I don't know any single TT ( vintage or today one ) that is a " finish " product: almost all of them needs a special platform, a different mat, a different clamp, peripheric ring, different belt build material, rim drive, new PS, different arm board, etc, etc, etc,, and this is not only because it is not a true/universal " finish " products but many times because we like to tweak everywhere and sometimes it does nt matters why.

Do you already take in count how many additional " business " exist/create around to tweak a TT?, even from the same TT builder.
So if we don't receive a " finish " product ( it does not matters how high was the price we pay for it ) then we have to finish it.
The sole TT subject is really complex and not easy to fix for everyone because any single up-date to the stock TT ( mat, clamp, arm board, platform, etc, etc ) change the performance.

I can go on talking about the tonearm, the cartridge, the tonearm/cartridge, the tonearm/cartridge/TT, tube electronics, speakers cables and almost every single link in the audio chain.

IMHO there is no simple and absolute answers about and that's why exist the forums like this one.

The TT/tonearm/cartridge relationship is so complex and so many " things " happen at levels that we can't hear ( the cartridge is a so sensitive micro ) and not only that but at relationship levels that we can't even imagine or understand about that is almost imposible to have the right answer for everyone.

So, exist the perfect/universal set-up?, obviously no what exist is or at least we are looking for is a TT/tonearm/cartridge set-up that can be nearest to our each person music/sound priorities.

I don't know but if there were no posibilities to tweak the analog rig maybe part of the " magic " can/could disappear for many people.

I wish I could/can have a plug and play analog rig, sometimes I'm tired and loosing my time on the set-up/tweaks instead to simple enjoy the music that is the subject I say :the most important subject of why we are here.

Regards and enjoy the music.
Can you recommend an affordable and capable microscope that is good for inspecting cartridges?
Kirkus, I'm also interested in a microscope recommendation. What magnification is needed to look at the tip and cantilever?
The microscope setup I use is based on a configuration that was developed by McIntosh specifically for inspecting stylii, and offered to their dealers as a package back around 1980 or so. It was a Wild-Heerbrug stereo microscope with a maximum magnification of 50x, and a pretty specific arrangement for lighting and holding the cartridge.

When I bought my own setup, I got it from an independent scientific-instruments rep, and he assembled the parts to make it all work. Mine is I think a Bausch & Lomb "Stereozoom 7", and with 10x eyepieces, gets me 70x. The same exact unit is now sold under the Leica brand. The extra bit of magnification makes a HUGE differnce for smaller stylus profiles, and my microscope in general (maybe cleaner/better condition?) absolutely smokes the old Heerbrug in image clarity.

I paid about $1500 for the whole setup. At the time, I could have chosen a new Russian-made 'scope for about half the price, that had similar performance to what I recall out of the Heerbrug. Or I could have paid (at least) double for a new Nikon.

If I get a chance in the next couple of weeks, I'll create a System profile with photos of how it's set up. Unfortunately, I don't have a camera attachment to post the actual images.