Parallel? How do you set the VTA?

Silly question, but how do you guys determine whether your tonearm is parallel to the record surface? I had my tonearm set up happily for months, but recently started messing around with the cartridge alignment and the VTA, and I'll be damned, but the folded index card method gets me nowhere now. Even with adjustments I keep getting the same visual effect. Happily my ear tells me when the setting is off, but as a base, how do you determine conclusively your tonearm is parallel? For reference, I have a VPI Classic. Thanks.
I use a deck of playing cards.
I check if my tonearm is level by eyeball. I set my VTA by ear. Normally, my arm is not parallel. Parallel usually doesn't sound right to me.
This is a very good question. You simply cannot adjust it with the eyeball method.... The playing card method might be good but only providing your arm has absolutely no taper to it. The only arm that I have used that makes this adjustment easy is the SME...with a horizontal line printed on its side..however adjusting its VTA is more difficult than others. In the end..the ear is the final arbiter, however I think tonearm setup is unduly difficult. Each arm has its own tricks, but I don't think any of them is easy.
Thanks Stringreen. I forgot to mention the deck of playing cards does not work very well on a tapered arm. On a non-tapered arm it gets you very close and you can adjust by ear after that. I think parallel is a good place to start.
I agree with John(McGrogan)and Stringreen. The most important thing is setting by ear, not by looks. Parallelability is only a stating point. Try raising or lowering the arm at the rear(pivot)in small bits at a time. After each movement, listen to the sound until you hear the best sense of clarity, detail, air and overall balance. In other words, there's a point at which you will detect a sense of rightness or that everything has fallen into place. Once you've arrived there, try in some way to make a mark or measurement(as to where the tonearm sits on its post)enabling you to return to that "magical" point without difficulty in case things go awry. I assume you already realize if you're using a new cartridge, that after the its suspension has become more flexible and settled in after hours of use, you will probably need to readjust the tonearm to its best position. Good luck!
I agree with Stringreen. The eyeball method can be quite misleading and unreliable, even if the tonearm is not tapered like the Classic wand. What prompted this post was the discovery that as I kept changing the VTA, the index card seemed to show hardly any change. I found it rather confusing, and wondered whether there was a more reliable method to ensure the tonearm is parallel as a base from which to make adjustments. I suppose a tiny bubble level could be a way to go, but affixing anything to the tonearm will then affect the VTA so it needs to be taken into consideration.
I eyeball it and sometimes I will use a ruler but that is only a start, listening is how I ultimately decide. My suggestion do not get hung up on methodology and trust your ears.
Well I actually do own a small bubble level that is designed for photography. However, I don't use it much anymore, as it helped me realize that my eyeballing is good enough for VTA. That must be one plus from all of the mechanical work I've done over the last few decades. I still use a digital scale, but my blinded touch usually puts me within 0.2-0.3 grams of the target VTF. Once I was as close as 0.04 grams just by touch. Certainly not good enough to rely on to set VTF, but it does impress the ladies. LOL!
I use a tiny level that comes with Van den Hull cartridges. I then added a few more lines with a magic marker so I can have finer measurements. I place the level on the headshell to check VTA and azimuth. Does the trick.
Don't use the armwand, use the headshell to determine level. Level is just the starting point, adjust by ear.

The headshell is parallel to the armwand on the Classic tonearm, which is not tapered. I found the headshell to be too small to accurately determine whether it's parallel to the record surface. Plus, it has two mounting screws sticking out, which makes it even more difficult to read its position. I guess a tiny level could be used, but I've never seen a level small enough available commercially that would fit on top of the headshell behind the screws.

Also, I realize ultimately the setting should be done by ear, but the Delos was designed to sound best with the tonearm parallel to the record surface as that's when the coils are apparently aligned optimally. So I would very much like to be able to tell objectively whether the wand is parallel, and take it from there.


How does the stack of cards method work? It's the first time I've heard of it. Thanks.
Use your computer word processor and print out a series of closely spaced lines (similar to an indexed card but more refined). Cut the paper to a manageable size and fold in the middle along one of the lines to create a 90 degree fold. Place the “L” shaped lined guide on the platter. Lower the tone arm onto the horizontal fold and align the head shell with the lines on the vertical plane. Since the cartridge is affixed to the head shell, you want to make sure the head shell is level. It does not matter if your arm tube is tapered or not. Once level, adjust by ear.
Happily my ear tells me when the setting is off, but as a base, how do you determine conclusively your tonearm is parallel?
Why should I want to? You said it yourself, this parameter is best adjusted by ear. Visual settings like "tonearm parallel" are mere approximations, someplace to begin the listening from.

With respect, a quest to "determine" the position of a mere approximation "conclusively" is nonsensical. I can level a cartridge or tonearm by eye in about 15 seconds. Then, whilst you're fussing with spirit levels, printed cards, magnifiers and other distractions, I'll have dialed in the optimal SRA by ear and be enjoying the music.
I set my arm initially with a bubble level on the headshell. If it sounds bloated, I raise the rear. If it sounds too shrill, I lower the rear. Level is usually pretty close to the final result though.
Also a good starting point for Azmith, although I use a Fozgometer for final adjustment, and then my ear.
Was it you who posted a link to a very small bubble level a while ago in a different post? The one Jmcgrogan linked to is way too heavy at over 6 grams.

This conversation reminds me of the discussion we had a while ago about setting the VTF for the Delos at 1.75 g. Yes, my ear has doubtless become more sophisticated and discerning after I got into analog a few years ago, and as I've upgraded to a more resolving equipment, but some of us just don't have the same acute hearing that you do. It makes me feel better knowing that at least I can start my adjustments with a base reading recommended by the designer. If I'm lost in messing with the VTA, VTF, and overhang using different protractors in search of the optimal sound, I'd be reassured to be able to go back to the base settings. Just for that it is worth for me to be able to set up my tonearm parallel to the record surface, just like it is to set the VTF to 1.75g for my cartridge. It might be non-sensical to a seasoned audiophile like yourself, but it makes sense to me, a relative novice compared to many here.
Actusreus, you start with a new deck of cards and insert as many as necessary on top of the record so they stack up and are close to the arm. A bit easier to see if you are parallel to the bottom of the arm when the distance between the top card and bottom of the arm is small. My eyes and distance judgment is not as good as some responding so this additional aid gives me a better estimation of parallel for the starting point. After that I adjust by ear as and if necessary.
"...some of us just don't have the same acute hearing that you do."

But, Actusreus, read your own OP (that I quoted). You've already said that you DO hear the difference.

You don't need more acute hearing, you've already got it. You just need the self confidence to trust it. More time listening, less time measuring. :-)
Thanks! That's what I thought it was.

I'm working on it...:) Good advice, as always.
A search for "tonearm spirit level" on ebay will likely provide you with what you are looking for. However, keep in mind that more often than not, a level is not level, and the spirit levels I am referring to on ebay have no means for adjustment except for sanding the bottom edge to true it up, whih I have not yet done on the one I recently received. I have been using woodworking brass gauge blocks with good success, although the card trick works as well.
I always have a business card and credit card, I pull one out and run it vertical, cue down on the inner grooves, look which letter aligns to top of armtube near the headshell, do same at outer grooves, easy way to measure.

This is precisely what I've been looking for! Thank you very much for this tip.
The top of the cartridge needs to be parallel to the record surface, not necessarily the tonearm wand.
Fortunately, the top of my cartridge is perpendicular to its' face. I used a small square block of wood (similar to dice) as a square and adjusted the VTA till the front was square to the record surface.
Millenium makes a gridded, transparent acrylic block for this purpose. It's admittedly expensive at $85 but remarkably convenient for establishing what's parallel and perpendicular to the record surface, with more precision than mere eyeballing. I use mine all the time; it's one of my favorite audio tools.

Here's a link: VTA block

I set the headshell parallel to the record using the block, establishing a frame of reference, then adjust by ear. My tonearms all have calibrated VTA adjustment, so standardizing the preferred setting above or below horizontal for each cartridge is pretty easy. If things get out of whack, I can quickly go back to horizontal and readjust by the predetermined amount. Good for azimuth, too.

Stacked business cards, etc., also work but they're seldom perfectly flat.
Dear Actusreus: IMHO in many ways and due what you posted this thread have no sense to me. I agree totally with both Dougdeacon posts and I can add something.

You say that you need your Delos parallel because it is the way coils are centered. Lyra is the one that can or not confirm about. Normally all cartridge manufacturers give the advise for a VTF range and this VTF range is taking in count ( between other things ) that coild be centered.

Now, why that VTF range and not an specifiv value?, one of the reasons is that there are different LP weights that have different thickness and in the other side all LPs comes with surface irregualaritis/waves that impede your cartridge stay parallel all the time.

For all that that's why the thread has no sense to me. If what you want it was to know where to find out that level7spirit: why not asked?, simple as that.

Anyway, only an opinions. As always I respect you and all other persons here.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Every cartridge I have requires a different vta to sound best and, as Raul mentioned, records are all different in thickness which changes the vta.
Dougdeacon is the only other post that makes any sense to me because first, most tables are not 'dead nuts' level so using a bubble only compounds the error. Bubble levels are not very accurate to begin with. Parallel to the record surface is a starting point and we can all get there by eye quicker than with levels, cards, graphs etc. From there it becomes listening by trial and error to find the sweet spot.

"Parallel to the record surface is a starting point" you said. What then in this thread does not make sense to you?

I think we all agree that final adjustments should be done by ear, but starting with a tonearm parallel to the surface makes total sense to me as a reference. Ballparking it by eye does not work for me. So what's nonsensical about it? What does not make sense to me is going blind back and forth not knowing whether tail up or down sounds best to your ears.


I think you, just like Zenblaster, missed the point of my original post. Knowing if your tonearm is parallel to the record surface is a point of reference, not an end goal. It might or might not end up sounding best with a given cartridge and set-up. If it does not make sense to you, then please don't waste your time and move on to other posts that do make sense to you. You're acting as if I asked what the best DJ turntable to scratch my records with a Lyra Atlas was.
You said in op "silly question", I want to agree with you.

You asked "how to detirmine conclusively if arm is parallel"
VTA is a "moving target" that changes everytime you change records.

So, it can't be detirmined conclusively.

Therefore, charts, levels, cards etc. seem like a waste of time/effort to me or "doesn't make sense to me"

Nothing personal, I was just sharing my experience with vta.
Actusreus, we flawed creatures without mystical audio powers like objective, repeatable, accurate frames of reference. The block works.

Good to know there are other flawed creatures without mystical audio powers out there. I was about to commit myself to an audio asylum for VTA challenged individuals.
..another way is to take a lined index card, fold it in half like a tent with the blue lines horizontal.... This tent can be propped up against a straight arm like the VPI and if you site it properly, you can get an idea where horizontal is. The VPI arm is especially easy to adjust VTA, but this will give you a beginning ref. point.

Thank you and all others who provided great advice and tips in response to a simple question without pontificating.
I am surprised no one has yet pointed out one of the most obvious considerations: having the tonearm parallel to the record surface tells you very little as far as wether the STYLUS is resting in the groove at the most desirable angle. As has been pointed out, attention needs to be paid to alignment/centering of the cartridge's coils; but, that does not necessarily guarantee that in that position the stylus will, likewise, be in the ideal position. Bottom line? It's a balancing act of various parameters, each of which will affect the resulting sound differently. So, experiment, experiment, experiment!
VTA is incorrect. It is SRA that you should be adjusting for. VTA is just a gross estimation of a starting point using the armwand as a guide, but the stylus rake angle is the rake of the stylus in the groove so the sides of the stylus that interact with the record groove are optomized for the angle of the waves cut into the vinyl by the cutting head when it was made.

Think of it this way, with a fine line or Shibata stylus the edges of the stylus are sharply pointed. The high pitched tinkly sounds are also highly pointed waveforms cut into the vinyl. You want to align the angle of the stylus fine edge with the tinkly waves so they are the same. Sonically it means that those tinkly tings are sharp and distinct without fuzz or sibilance. If they are aligned correctly then the bass and mids should also. Hard to describe, but easy to visualize with a simple picture. Think of the box in this picture as the small peak wave of the vinyl groove, and the blue oval as the edge of the stylus. I think you'll get it then.

Fremer has come up with 92 degrees being optimal, but you need a super microscope to come close to even seeing that.

200x usb microscopes with a focusing rail can be bought on ebay for less than $100. It takes some practice to get a serviceable image with a horizontal reference, but once obtained, you then overlay the image with protractor software to measure the stylus rack angle. Adjust the sra at the pivot point to obtain the recommended 92 degree sra. If you change the VTF, you will need to adjust the sra as the cantilever will flex thus changing the angle.
How does this paradigm deal with the different thickness of records? Within each record the stylus will rise and drop, how should we account for this change in sra?

We will never agree on a solution until we agree on what the target is. More complicating, a moving target everytime we change records.
Dear Frogman: Of course and agree with you: what will define where the tonearm will be parallel or not is at wich VTA/SRA the cartridge signal quality performance is the " best ".

Now, due that the analog medium/LP is so imperfect that VTA/SRA is changing every groove on playback as is changing VTF and overhang too.

That Fremer 92 degrees could means almost nothing because that could be only in theory but on playback always is changing. Ok, could be a point to start but nothing to " die for ".

My advise is to have 6-7 differnt LPs that we know in deep and that can help us as a testing tools to the cartridge/tonearm overall set up. These works have to be make it by ears. At the end our cartridge SRA set up can coincide with those 92 degrees but it is not important that that happen but that what we are hearing LP after LP has the best quality performance we can achieve in our audio system.

Unfortunatelly because the whole analog imperfections medium many subjects that gives us the theory can't be achieved during LP playback.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Get a Graham Phantom Supreme and your worries about consistently setting the correct VTA in seconds for every record thickness is over. The bubble level built into the pivot tower makes all the difference. Too bad other tonearm manufacturers don't get with the program by incorporating a level in their designs.
+1 Rockitman. I've thought the same thing ever since the Graham hit the market.
Brf, the USB microscope is a great tool as well for sure, and is on my to-buy list. I like some of the DinoLite models with measuring software, but they are around $300 so the purchase will have to wait.
I have a screw gauge that slips under the arm lift.
1/4 turn of the screw equates to 1/1000 of an inch.
I can hear 1/1000 of an inch like night and day.
In reality you are only getting near the zone with bubble levels.

But then what about the cutterhead angle, which varies by record.
So the only way is to listen and dial in each record and using dial calipers to measure and record the height for each record.

Any takers ?
Zenblaster, it is all about the “best” compromise. You set the 92 degree sra for an average thickness, etc. Variance in record thickness, difference in cutting head angles, will affect the sra but not to the extent that it will significantly change the tonal balance of the cartridge. I would hazard a guess and say that 99% of all audiophiles do not adjust VTA to compensate for record variances. Also, some stylus tip are more sensitive to sra than others.

I've been doing exactly that for 10 years, except that I've no need for calipers. The height adjustment scale on my tonearm provides precisely repeatable settings.

The optimal arm height for each LP is recorded on a sticky note on the record jacket (and updated if I change cartridges). Setting arm height for a re-play takes only seconds.

Set and forget? Nope. Set and remember works better for me.
I don't change VTA when changing records -- that would require not only repeatable settings, it would really require listening and finding the ideal setting for each particular record. That would be a lifetime project.

I can hear the difference when I make surprisingly small changes in VTA by moving the arm up or down at its base. Whether this is really attributable entirely to a VTA change, or whether a small change in tracking force is also involved, is really an academic issue -- I hear a change regardless of the actual cause. But, I cannot see it being worth the effort to optimize VTA each time I play a record.

If differences in record thickness, and the resulting effect on sound, is that big a deal to someone, perhaps that person is a candidate for a longer arm -- the length will reduce the VTA change for any given change in height of the record surface.
Thanks for all the good ideas. I have to admit that after initial set-up I only change vta when something doesn't sound right. The arm on the Traveler is very easy to adjust on the fly but I never seem to change unless something is wrong. I listen to albums that I am very familiar with every day or two, it lets me know if things are dialed in to my liking.
At least we all agree that when it's right we can tell because nothing makes that music sound as good as stylus on vinyl.
Dear Brf: +++++ " it is all about the “best” compromise. " +++++

agree " the best compromise ". I only made what Dougdeacon posted when I', testing/comparing audio items and I need not the " best compromise " but the right setting.

I was at Dougdeacon 's place and he is extremely " dedicated " to that VTA/SRA setting but his overall process is not so dificult as we can think because as he said in each one LP he has " notes " to remember him the right VTA/SRA to each LP and he do this very fast.
Even that I normally for day by day listening I prefer " the best compromise " but the Dougdeacon " process " is not only an alternative but IMHO the right one.

Regards and enjoy the music,
I can’t see adjusting VTA for every album either. What happens if you change your cartridge? You’ve got to start all over with each album. Not criticizing those who do adjust for each album…it’s just not for me
The beauty of the ET2 linear tracking, air bearing tonearm (along with other beauties): easy (takes seconds), repeatable, VTA/SRA adjustments; WHILE THE RECORD IS PLAYING!
The magic 92 degree SRA number is only a starting point. From the original paper by Risch and Meier cited by Fremer:

"SRA, however, is generally 91 to 95 degrees relative to the record surface in order to facilitate lacquer "chip" (cutawaystrand) removal. Proper hi-fi set-up should therefore concentrate on cartridge' adjustment that has the tip of the stylus pointed "back" toward the tonearm pivot, and the top of the. stylus tipped "forward" so that the contact SRA face is 92 degrees between the stylus and the record surface.Such alignment will at least approximate correct SRA".

People will defend their favored methodology to the death. I generally agree with the OP; it's important to have a starting/anchoring point. However, it doesn't really matter how you start; it is only important to find a method that works for you to reach the happy end point. If you find comfort in measurements, arm yourself with a digital microscope. Others trust their hearing. As with most things in high end audio, there are precious few absolutes, only what works best for you.
I have a screw gauge that slips under the arm lift.
1/4 turn of the screw equates to 1/1000 of an inch.
I can hear 1/1000 of an inch like night and day.

Apparently, it takes a 4mm change in the VTA to change the SRA by 1 degree on a 9-inch tonearm, even more on a longer arm. If you can hear a change of 1/1000 of an inch in the VTA, that means that you can hear a change of 0.00635 degrees in SRA, even less if you have a longer arm. You surely are jesting, Dover!

The issue I have with adjusting the VTA for every record and writing it down like Doug and Dover do is that you might very well not have the same setting the next time you listen to that same record even without touching the tonearm. Ambient temperatures will affect the VTF, which in turn will affect the SRA. To illustrate with an extreme example, if Dover can hear a change of 0.00635 degrees in the SRA, a change of a fraction of degree in the ambient temperature would result in a change in the sound that he could hear. I suppose you could account for that by ensuring that the VTF is the same, but that's a lot of work every time you put on a new record, in addition to cleaning the stylus, de-staticking the record and removing any residual dust particles, removing and putting the clamp and the periphery ring back on! Unless you have a listening room that is perfectly air conditioned 24/7...
Parallel is a good place to start but it's were you finish that counts. The angle that the stylus is mounted on the cantilever will determine where the VTA will end up. With the carts I have had somewhere around 92 deg SRA is best.

Gluing styli to cantilevers is a tricky business. Very difficult to get the angle the same every time. Press fit styli are more consistent IME. The two carts I am using now are polar opposites as far as VTA settings go. One requires tail high and the other tail low to get the same SRA. In some cases using a shim under the front or back of the cartridge may be required if you run out of travel on your VTA adjustment.

Just remember that if you set your overhang before you finalized your SRA you should reset the overhang as a last step. Especially if you had to move the VTA allot to get proper SRA. This is because moving the VTA up from parallel will pull the stylus back towards the pivot a little. Same thing happens when you lower the tonearm from parallel. Unless you have an ET2 with a curved VTA adjustment. ;)
The only way I could see myself doing album-by-album VTA adjustment would require ownership of a rare Air Tangent arm that allowed for motorized VTA adjustment by remote control. That way, one could actually hear the change occurring on the fly. I don't see listening, getting up to do an adjustment, then sitting down to listen to be enjoyable, reliable, etc.