Table/Cart Set Up - By Ear or Test Record?

Been on Audiogon for years and love the interaction amongst members - its both entertaining and educational.

Several threads have discussed how to set up various aspects of a table - isolation, VTF, VTA/SRA, azimuth, anti-skate, etc.

I have all the bells ans whistles - two test records, Fozgometer, Mint protrator, Feickert protractor, etc.

Over the last week, I set up my table by both using standard measurements via Feickert (spindle to pivot distance) and Mint (overhang,arc). Then set up cart using test records and Fozgometer. I then waited a week and reset everything else up again after Feickert/Mint by ear alone. Here is what I found:

By test records / Fozgo: quicker, less hassle, good sound

By ear: slower, meticulous, learned more, great sound.

For learning analogholics, I would recommened, time permitting, that you try both set up strategies and learn from them. I'm glad I did, but after this exercice, I will definitely agree with Doug Deacon and others, setting up by ear is the most sastisfying, educational, and will give you the best sound.
I agree. Proper analog set up is both an art and a science. The science can get you close, but the ear (art) gets you all the way. There are so many variables and each makes a big difference. I can see how it could take a lifetime to really get the feel for it.
It's better when the technical method correlates well with the ear. Less guesswork and time, and unanimous glowing testimonials.
I use both. Pivot to spindle, overhang and offset require precision tools like the MintLP. VTF, VTA and azimuth are set by ear.
To me adjusting by ear means adjusting to suit your own personal and subjective tastes, nothing more. When you say you obtained "great sound" by setting up by ear, what does that really mean? Only that you found the sound preferable. But another person might find the sound obtained by setting up with a test record and other tools more preferable. Is there a sound that is "right" or "correct" regardless of listeners' tastes and preferences?

If you find the sound better by adjusting by ear, that's great, but all you're doing is tweaking the setup to suit your personal and subjective perception better, not that you actually improved anything in an objective sense. Doug Deacon would most likely come and re-tweak your setup differently yet. So all this discussion tells me nothing about superiority, accurateness, or correctness of either method in an absolute sense. It might be interesting as a discussion topic in an academic sense, but from the practical standpoint it has very little value.

I use the tools to set-up my tonearm geometry and the test record to set the anti-skating. But after all that, I tweak in the Horizontal Tracking Angle, vertical tracking force and anti-skate by ear. If the cartridge sounds too bright or dull, I adjust the VTA and start the entire process over. The final fine adjusting has to be done by ear. I cannot visually set everything perfectly. I listen for clarity out of both channels and typically hear mistracking in the right channel first which tells me I need to adjust the anti-skating. I also clean the stylus every play with a wetted stylus brush. Currently, I experience clean clear sound from beginning to end of a record. That takes some patience to get it all dialed in just right.
I agree that tuning by ear sets a system up to one's personal auditory preferences. It is YOUR system and one that you will be listening too independently probably 90% of the time.

That being said, I should have elaborated more on the congruence of test record vs ear. Of course, arc, overhang, and spindle to pivot distance were all completed the same for both. Here were the differences:

VTA/SRA: Fremer and others have stated that SRA should be at a desired 92 degrees mimiking the cutting of the record during pressing. I used a USB microscope and dialed in VTA to achieve an SRA of 92 degrees. I simply didn't like the sound. It was a little strident and bright sounding. Using my ear, I dialed in the SRA by adjusting VTA to around 90.5 degrees. This gave me the best harmonics, extended upper end without brightness. During this process I adjusted the overhang with the Mint and maintained the same VTF as constants.

Azimuth: Using the Fozgo and my eyes versus using my ears and eyes - my results were quite similar. The Fozgo is easy and quick - adjusting azimuth by eyes and ears is painstakingly long. However, I felt my lateral imaging and center imaging was more solid and airy using my ears, but again, the results were quite similar to the Fozgo.

Anti-Skate: Here is where there was a huge difference in results. Using a test record to achieve none or minimal distortion in the channels, I had to turn the anti-skating up signficantly. When I did this, it dramtically affected rhythm and pace and tactility of the bass. The pace was diminished and bass became ill defined and muddy. Conversely when setting anti-skate by ear, I used much less, almost none. Pace was great and bass was tactile and firm. I could hear no mistracking or distortion while playing music in either channel.

VTF: Using tracking challenges on test records I set VTF to just above where mistracking would occur. I found the VTF to be much higher with test record calibration than when I would set it by ear (For Dyna XV-1s: test record 2.125 grams; for ear 1.935 grams). By my ears, I had no mistracking at 1.935 grams and more air and three-dimensional sound compared to the higher VTF that test record results would suggest.

Again, at the end of the day I agree - the sound we get and the gear we purchase all comes down to personal preference. I simply wanted to post this as I found the results interesting as a slightly beyond neophyte analog guy. I was a great learning experience and helped me better understand turntable set up and what affects each factor has independently on sound and how each affects the other too. Bottom line though is trust your ears - they are a pretty good tool to use too.
Hey, Phil. Thanks for the props, lol. I guess I agree with you (duh!).

When learning it is helpful to see hard metrics provided by various tools. For azimuth I was once part-owner of a Wally Analog Shop, which measures crosstalk. It worked and the measurements demonstrated with numbers what each adjustment did.

A fellow Wally co-owner (a veteran A'goner now long absent, "4yanx") told me he didn't bother with the Wally any longer because he could do it by ear just as well. Sure enough, once I tried... so could I. Thus was born a proselytizer. :-)

VTF was easier. I happen to have a hyper-responisive cartridge and differences of .01g are audible even to people who aren't familiar with our system. Raul once paid us a visit. When I moved one O-ring on my Triplanar by less than its own thickness he nearly jumped off the sofa from the change in dynamics.

VTA/SRA was easiest. Paul can hear those changes from two rooms away. If I get it wrong he yells at me. ;-)


By ear: slower, meticulous, learned more, great sound.
As your ears and brain gain experience you'll find it goes faster. That's the cool part about learning.

Of course sometimes we forget. Dan_Ed and I once stuggled with magnifiers and lights for 45 minutes trying to visually set SRA on an Ortofon A-90. Good luck seeing the contact line on that stylus! I gave up, threw the tools aside and just stood by the TT adjusting by ear. In under 3 minutes we nailed it to the satisfaction of four experienced listeners, including my never satisfied partner. Kicked myself around the room for wasting 45 minutes of listening time.

Always learning!
Using a test record to achieve none or minimal distortion in the channels, I had to turn the anti-skating up signficantly. When I did this, it dramtically affected rhythm and pace and tactility of the bass. The pace was diminished and bass became ill defined and muddy. Conversely when setting anti-skate by ear, I used much less, almost none. Pace was great and bass was tactile and firm.
Bingo. Note, excessive A/S sounds a lot like excessive VTF.

VTF: Using tracking challenges on test records I set VTF to just above where mistracking would occur. I found the VTF to be much higher with test record calibration than when I would set it by ear (For Dyna XV-1s: test record 2.125 grams; for ear 1.935 grams). By my ears, I had no mistracking at 1.935 grams and more air and three-dimensional sound compared to the higher VTF that test record results would suggest.
Bingo again. Next challenge, try tweaking VTF for different LP's. Easier to track passages should be playable with lower VTFs than hard to track passages. You may find you get even more microdynamics, air and dimensionality with lower settings, until you go so low that bass solidity and dynamics suffer (or mistracking occurs). Borderline settings may not be useable on your tougher tracking records but they may bring additional life to the easy ones.

Actusreus has a point of course. OTOH, I'm acutely conscious of specific sonic parameters when making adjustments. I don't recall ever posting that VTF, SRA, anti-skating, etc. should be adjusted based on what I or anyone "likes". Nor have I ever posted that I adjust anything based on how "bright" or "dark" or (gack!) "musical" it sounds. Those terms don't begin to describe what I hear.

Example: some people describe SRA too high as sounding "too bright". Not I. I hear harmonics occuring too early relative to their fundamental. Paul hears a non-congruence of the various frequencies which make up a sound, causing temporal displacements and diminished dynamics - which is saying much the same thing. Frank Schroeder describes the same thing I do. None of us would use a wishy-washy, subjective term like "bright" to describe such a detailed sonic event.

I think it was Fremer, or one of those guys who suggest setting antiskate by watching what the needle does when you set it down on the album. You want no movement either way when it sets down. Works for me. Thanks for the write-up. Nothing like real experience.
Dougdeacon, I have been considering your statement about hearing what I would call phase coherence, ie. hearing the harmonics early compared to the fundamental frequency. I find that remarkable and am still wondering what that would sound like. I'm trying to picture how the stylus position moving a couple of degrees one way or the other would affect frequency vs. phase angle. Have you ever seen a plot of data like that? I'm not disputing it, maybe I am not sensitive enough to notice or maybe if I had the chance to hear the difference it would be a learning experience for me.
btw- brightness is a term listed in Audiophile glossary of terms. Dull can also be found in those glossaries. Here is an exerpt from Stereophile's list of definitions:
"bright, brilliant The most often misused terms in audio, these describe the degree to which reproduced sound has a hard, crisp edge to it. Brightness relates to the energy content in the 4kHz-8kHz band. It is not related to output in the extreme-high-frequency range. All live sound has brightness; it is a problem only when it is excessive. "
Maybe what I consider bright is the SRA such that the sound is thin due to reduced bass and then too much SRA the other way makes the sound dull. I have also experienced a sibilance when SRA is off which I considered as being much too bright. Perhaps that is not the correct description. And perhaps that is the phase coherence that I never considered before.
Align it with test record, protractor, whatever to begin with and then adjust to taste. I don't claim to be an expert but have been doing it 50 years now. Experts differ on just about every aspect of alignment. SRA for example; some say the arm should always be level, Van den Hul recommends the arm be higher at the pivot, some of us like it lower at the pivot. In any case the cartridge is only one element of the system and will interact in a different manner with different gear so absolute prescriptions seem a waste of time to me.

There was a recent thread on the forum where many claims were made that when you adjust the VTA, you also affect the overhang. As someone who adjusts the VTA for each record, I'm just curious what your opinion on the matter is and, if it's true, whether you realign your cartridge to maintain the overhang when you adjust the VTA.

Setting by ear means you change(incrementally)settings until you hear what that(VTA, anti-skating, VTF, etc.) parameter does. It is at that point that you understand what you are doing. It is important that you don't use objective things(like channel balance, etc.)to determine the proper setting(an example of why the objective thing would be wrong is that each speaker is different. Would you use anti-skate, for instance, to balance your 2 speakers?).
It does require gear at a certain level to hear SRA changes as affecting phase coherence. Lower resolution cartridges mounted on lower resolution rigs (like my old Shelter 901/OL Silver combo for instance) are too muddy to hear this clearly, at least for me. Still, even on such gear, my partner's better ears do hear proper SRA as maximizing the amplitude of lower frequency notes... a function of phase coherence. It wouldn't be wrong to describe inaccurate SRA as "bright" or "dark" on such gear. If waveforms are muddied what's heard earliest may leave the strongest impression.

With resolving gear however, like my own UNIverse/TriPlanar to pick one example of many, I have always heard the phase coherence differential I described... long before I developed the vocabulary to describe it in fact. Frank Schroeder hears this and described it before I was able to. It was a chat with him that gave me the conceptual language to describe what my ears already knew. This is why I can now walk up to an unfamiliar cartridge/arm (like a friend's A-90/Kuzma Airline for example) and dial in SRA in a few seconds. It's pretty easy when you know what to listen for.

I don't dispute that "brightness" is in some audio glossary. It just isn't a detailed enough term to describe what I hear. Appeals to authority carry no weight with me, I listen and draw my own conclusions. :-)

Try visualizing a knife re-tracing a modulated groove cut along a stick of butter. If the knife (stylus) is raked backwards (SRA too low) it will respond to lower frequencies before the narrower tip sees higher frequency harmonics. If the stylus is raked forwards (SRA too high) the opposite occurs. This is a good visual analogy for what I hear.
There's no question that altering arm height on a straight vertical axis alters overhang at the stylus. This isn't a matter of opinion, it's proveable by the principles of geometry. It could only be otherwise if an arm height adjustment operated on a curved path to keep the stylus tip immobile on the record... a theoretical improvement that doesn't exist on any tonearm I've seen.

Do I adust overhang for each change in SRA? No. I actually do have a life. ;-)

FWIW, tracking angle distortions sound utterly unlike changes in SRA, so while the adjustments are interrelated their sonic effects are quite different.
I'm not sure whether I agree with your assertion since you're actually adjusting the VTA tower, which might as well keep the stylus immobile and the back of the tonearm traveling along an arch, albeit a very small one. That said, I'm not a mathematician so I might be misinterpreting what actually occurs in the process. However, if it's true, I'm curious where this leaves the whole discussion about the importance of the precise alignment with protractors such as the Mint. You spend two hrs trying to get the overhang perfect with a magnifying glass only to have it altered at the first VTA adjustment. Yet it is that precise alignment that is behind the claim of the Mint's superiority over less accurate tools. I wonder then whether the obsessive focus on the accuracy of the Mint or similar instruments is misplaced. At least for those who have the ability to adjust the VTA and do take advantage if it.
Actusreus, Nice post. You make the point that I tried to make in my earlier thread on the VTA/HTA topic, only you articulate it much better than I did. I use a MINT protractor and now can adjust overhang in about 15 minutes when changing cartridges, but still, I do obsess over it and get it to match the arc exactly. I find the Zenith alignment at the null points most helpful on the Mint. It is obvious that VTA adjustments alter overhang. I suppose those who adjust VTA on a regular basis feel that the sonic benefits of proper SRA outweigh the penalty of a slightly off overhang.
Actusreus, on any tonearm I know of the VTA tower is designed to move straight up and down, subject only to random variations in the threads. I'm unaware of any tonearm with a VTA tower designed to move on an arc with a radius matching the arm's eff. length. That would be technically correct and I presume it could be done using computer-controlled machine tools, but it would probably be very costly.

Nice summary Peter.

I suppose those who adjust VTA on a regular basis feel that the sonic benefits of proper SRA outweigh the penalty of a slightly off overhang.
They do for us.

That said, the sonic benefits of aligning zenith and overhang with the Mint are also very easy to hear.

I haven't checked visually with my Mint, but my suspicion is that the amount we alter arm height from one LP to another has only a trifling effect on overhang, possibly within the margin of setup error even when using a Mint. That would merely shift the null points slightly, which might actually be superior for some LP's, depending on the diameter of the innermost music groove.

Let's not forget that any chosen alignment scheme (Baerwald, Loefgren, whatever) is a compromise. Only a perfectly set up tangential tracking arm can achieve zero tracking error across the entire LP. On all pivoting arms we're simply choosing between compromises. Such is not the case with SRA. There is an absolute best for that parameter.

I haven't posted in ages, but I couldn't resist this one, especially since I'm in the process of setting up a new cartridge.

This cartridge calls for a tracking force of 1.5 grams; not 1.00 gram, not 2.00 grams, but 1.5 grams.

These people have been manufacturing cartridges longer than I've been buying them, they should at least know what tracking force works best for their cartridge.

There are many things I do by ear, but TT's is not one of them; there is far too much minutiae. I do everything by the book, as close to the book as I can manage, and forget about it.
You all talk about what a compromise the pivot style tonearm is to playing records. I don't get it. My turntable, tonearm and cartridge set up sounds great from beginning to end. All I could ask for is less crackle and pop from my aging collection. Do you not think that the cartridge designers know that the pivoting tonearm has only two tangency points? Look at the stylus designs. The have curved faces to allow for the changing angle through the arc of the pivot. I don't see a pivoting tonearm as a compromise. The tonearm and cartridge are designed as a system working to each other's strengths and weaknesses. Besides, if it were such a compromise, engineers would have come up with a better music medium like CDs or downloadable files. (Tongue in cheek comment).
Somebody in the other thread said that the ET-2 has a curved VTA adjustment. I found that interesting. This works well when you are adjusting for SRA on the same height record. If you are adjusting VTA for different height records then you need a straight VTA post to keep alignment steady. They also said that the ET-2 arm can do that as well but not as easily. I wonder how much distortion there is if your linear tracking arm is off a little bit? I suppose the zenith would be a little off all the way through the record.
Doug, When I did move my arm base up vertically 2 mm at the pivot, I checked my overhang alignment on the MINT. I have a 12" arm, but I'm surprised by how much my HTA moved - well beyond my margin of error in set-up. I'm sure you and Doug don't adjust VTA by that much with your 9" arm. It was especially off the arc at the outer (lead in groove) edge. I start by lining up the inner part of the arc near the spindle. Then I check the outer part near the edge of the platter. If it looks spot on at the inside, it can be off at the outside by as much as 2-3 mm. This, IMO, is what is frustrating and takes time with the MINT.

My point is that I wish a slight change in overhane were just a matter of the stylus being off the arc uniformly by a small amount, but in fact, it is off by a varying degree along the length of the arc, and much more at the outside edge. How this actually affects the null points, I'm not sure.

I do, however, know that in a highly resolving system, slight changes to any of these parameters are clearly audible. Some more so than others. I agree with you that proper SRA is critical and then I would list VTF, then Zenith, then anti-skate, and finally HTA. I can't really adjust for azimuth with my arm, but I find my cartridge to not be that sensitive to that, or the stylus/cantilever is pretty accurately mounted.

I use the manufacturer recommended settings as a good starting point, and then make all final adjustments by ear.
Maybe this is rehashing old verbage, but it is becoming clear here that the experienced people use the tools for the initial set-up and then tweak or trim things in by ear. Listening is the final step of the process. Part of the reason why is simply the tolerances and accuracy of the tools we use. e.g. the stylus force gage. Unless your stylus force gage is calibrated and traceable back to the National Bureau of Standards, don't count on accuracy better than +/-10-15%. So if you are setting your VTF to 1.5 grams, the actual could range from 1.35-1.65 grams. The same with the protractors if you think about the accuracy of the printing on them as well as the accuracy of adjusting overhang and VTA by eye.
Do you not think that the cartridge designers know that the pivoting tonearm has only two tangency points? Look at the stylus designs. The have curved faces to allow for the changing angle through the arc of the pivot. I don't see a pivoting tonearm as a compromise.
That's because you're misinterpreting tracking angle distortion.

Tracking angle distortion does not result from the interface of ONE stylus face with ONE groove wall. It results when the TWO contact edges of a playback stylus hit the opposing groovewalls at DIFFERENT times then the two contact edges of the original cutting stylus... ie, when they're out of synch.

Imagine an LP groove with an identical sound cut onto both walls (a perfectly centered image on a stereo LP or any mono LP). The two groovewalls are mirror images of each other, right?

Now imagine playing that groove with a line contact or other modern stylus. If this stylus is not angled exactly the same as the (even sharper) cutting stylus, one contact edge will encounter the (supposedly identical) sound before the other contact edge. This puts the two channels out of phase and that muddies the sound. TA-DA!... tracking angle distortion.

A conical (aka, spherical) stylus will be less distorting (in this respect) than the radical, modern styli. Modern contact radii are much smaller and thus emphasize any errors in timing between the two groovewalls. This is why many mono catridges are fitted with conical styli. The reduction in tracking angle distortion somewhat compensates for the loss of HF extension that's inherent in styli with larger contact radii.

Peter - thanks for checking... I think! lol. FWIW, I never move my arm anywhere near 2mm. My entire record collection falls in a range of a couple rotations of the VTA tower dial. Most fall in a much tighter range than that.

Tonywinsc, I think your last post summarized it well. Trust tools to do the limited things they can do. Train your ears to do the fine tuning.

Listening is not only the final step of the process, it's the purpose for which we go through the process at all.
When do you listen to music, or do you test by ear with music. When I test by ear, I use test frequencies. This test by ear conversation in regard to TT's sounds good but it won't fly. There's too much subjective excrement flying around.
By rights you can use an oscilloscope to dial in all of the varibles of your turntable such as platter speed, tonearm and cartridge set up for complete piece of mind. But if you can't trust your own ears, what can you trust?

"But if you can't trust your ears, what can you trust"?

How do you adjust all the parameters of a TT and listen at the same time? Let's take the easiest adjustment, which isn't too easy on my TT bacause of the arm; but tracking force for example. Do you try it at 1 gram, sit down and listen, then 1.5, followed by 2 grams, and what are you listening to; what kind of music? Which music sounds best at what tracking force? What do the specs that came with the cartridge call for? As you stated, you can't even trust the accuracy of most gauges, so you're really using "Kentucky windage" at best, according to you; but you stop when and where it sounds best. I must admit, all of that "sounds" real good.
The whole process takes several weeks for me. I set it up and listen for a while, then experiment with the settings and after several listening sessions I was finally satisfied. I will admit, that using an o-scope would certainly shorten the process time considerably. I think that would be a must if I were setting up a table for someone besides myself. It also took me over a year to get my speaker position dialed in just right. You said it- mood, source material and especially varying room conditions such as temperature and Relative Humidity can impact how we hear on a certain day. But in the end, it is still going to be a personal judgement- unless you are the set it and forget it type. I wish I could be like that sometimes- so does my wife :).

I spent three days setting up this cartridge, and I thought that was a long time; but, for the first time I'm experiencing what the "analoger's" have been raving about. Until now, I always took the digital side of the argument, and still do when you throw in the cost factor.

This new cartridge busted my budget, and the wife will never find out how much it cost, but it's worth every penny. I'm not going to give the name of this cartridge; however, I will say that the best cartridge for you depends on the music you like best. Read reviews where the reviewer is using music you like, and raving about the cartridge as well, is a good place to start. I bounced around for a long time before I got the best cartridge for me.

Enjoy the music.
I listen to records I am really familiar with for the final tweaking. In my case, I don't have very expensive tools or a sophisticated arm that can be adjusted accurately (Audioquest PT-6), so it seems pointless to completely rely on measurements. I get better results anyway by making slight adjustments by ear. My current arm/cart combination sounds best with slightly greater VTF than the cartridge recommendation and very low anti-skate.
But for sure this stuff can drive you crazy.

I place a portion of an index card on a record and visually compare the armtube angle to the index-card lines to set VTA to level as my starting point.

For VTF, I use a precision stylus force gauge SFG-2 by SHURE. I'm sure it's not that expensive. I think it's important to know "quite accurately" what ever your adjustments are, for reference.

Music is too subjective, and I listen to so many different kinds of music that it couldn't possibly serve as a reference, although I have test records for frequency, but if it works for you and your music, it sounds good to me.

Music is indeed subjective. From the same performance you may get a boogie while I get a blah, or vice-versa. ;-)

It does indeed follow that adjusting a vinyl rig to make music sound "better" would be highly idiosyncratic, perhaps not even repeatable by the same listener if his mood changed from one session to the next. I believe that's your argument, right?

Many posters on many forums seem to do exactly what you denigrate but I do not and neither does my partner. We adjust WHILE listening to music but we do not adjust BY listening to music.

With native ability and/or practice, one can listen to and analyze sounds strictly as sounds, seperately from experiencing them as music. Read my posts going back many years. When discussing adjustments I never mention "musicality", "prat" or emotional/musical content of any sort. I discuss only sonic attributes like the shape, timing, amplitude and interactions of waveforms.

There's no knob on my tonearm to make anything more or less musical. There are several knobs that affect rise times, amplitudes, decays, sound floor, phase coherence, crosstalk, etc. It is these sonic attributes - not musical niceties - that I adjust for.

When I'm done optimizing the sound I may turn off my analytical brain and enjoy the music, though in fact I generally hear both simultaneously. I realize that some people do not, though from my own experience I believe that many people could.

Example: if I played an LP groove consisting of one well-recorded tap on a snare drum few people would call it music (apologies to John Cage). Yet I could optimize VTF and SRA for that LP by listening to that tap. It's no different when I'm listening to Brubeck's 'Time Out' or Stravinsky's 'Petrushka'. I can pick out and focus on snare drum taps for tweaking even as I enjoy the whole musical presentation as a seperate aspect of the same experience. I don't believe this is very different from musicians who often tune or tweak their instrument in the middle of a performance. They're feeling the music but they're also hearing the sound.

Hope that clears up more than it confuses!