Turntable sibilance

First of two queries by me today....

I have a VPI Classic 3 with Soundsmith Zephyr (original) cartridge and MMMicroOne speakers (just upgraded significantly (I hope!) to Sonus Faber Olympica III’s, which I received today but haven’t yet plugged in). While listening last night, I noticed some audible sibilance (hissy S’es) on vocals. Never noticed that before. If it had been occurring before, I probably would have noticed: turns out I’m fairly sensitive to sibilance, I guess...

I noticed it when listening to multiple "reference" records, all of which are well cared for and good pressings. It’s still minor, but is noticeable. It is not limited to the inner grooves.

From reviewing various past threads here, I gather there could be several culprits: a worn stylus, or incorrect VTF or VTA. As to the latter two: Can those "drift" over time on a VPI Classic 3? I ask because if the problem was the VTF or VTA, the sibilance would not have appeared spontaneously last night, but would have been there from setup. Once I initially set VTF and VTF, I have not changed them and the screws are locked down tight. I do not have any anti-skate on, per VPI’s recommendation (I realize that many disagree with that recommendation, but it’s been working fine for me til now; in addition, as noted above, the sibilance is not limited to the inner grooves.

As to the former: I bought the cartridge used here on Audiogon, but it had had a "complete rebuild" by Soundsmith. I bought it about 18 months ago, but have only put about 1000 hours on it. (If I’m lucky, I get to listen about an hour or two per day. Taking 2 hours daily 7 days a week for 18 months = 1095 hours at the absolute most, and realistically, it’s probably less than that since I don’t always get two hours of listening every single day). I’ve read that a good cartridge should go about 2000 hours before any noticeable wear.

I realize that the easy solution is to dismount the cartridge and send it to Soundsmith to check. Before doing so, I will re-check VTA and VTF. Any other advice is appreciated. I’d hate to have the cartridge out of service for several weeks, having just gotten new speakers.


If you know of a turntable/cartridge set-up specialist (has quality diagnostic equipment/experience) in your area, I would get in touch with him/her.  I purchased a new Dynavector moving coil cart. to replace my worn copy and did so from a guy who has the right set-up equipment and experience with analog gear.  Although he said my set-up of the old cartridge was quite good, he was able to set-up the new cartridge and check all parameters of set-up to ensure that the new cartridge's performance was optimized.  No surprise that my vinyl has never sounded better!

Just combining a little info here, am I correct that you've had the 'table set up (without touching any adjustments) for over 18 months? If so, I'd go back and recheck *everything*, as in that amount of time a LOT of things can change.  I'd start by re-checking the level of the 'table.  Floors move, footers can become more/less compliant and change height, racks can settle, etc etc.  Then I'd check VTF.  Vibrations can alter the settings, even atmospheric changes can affect it.  Check the azimuth.  Check the VTA -- while the setting may not have moved mechanically, the cartridge's suspension has likely changed at least a little.  Clean the electrical connections (ie: rca jacks/plugs, DIN) -- sometimes a dirty contact will manifest itself most in that sibilance frequency range.  I won't mention antiskate -- if you haven't been using it all along and had no sibilance issues, continuing to *not* use it didn't suddenly cause the sibilance to appear. :)  Finally, although I'm sure you clean your stylus on a regular basis, are you sure it's really clean, and there's not some impacted or baked on crud that you can't see?  If you don't have a jeweler's loupe (40x or higher), I'd highly recommend you get one.  Not expensive, and chump change compared to what you've invested in your 'table and cartridge.

I don't get the opportunity for as many playing hours as you do, but I normally go through my whole setup every 6 months or so regardless of the play time.  And I have yet to go through that ritual without finding something that needed an adjustment.  Nothing ever extreme, but the higher the performance level of your setup (and yours is on up there), the more significant even minor setup disparities become audibly.

I would be glad to respond regarding the Sibilance; There are MANY things that can contribute to causing such; two of the glaring issues that come out of your post (immediately) are the wear (1000 hours is MAXIMUM) and lack of proper Anti-skating.
As the wear increases on a stylus, not only does it track high frequencies far more poorly, BUT the anti-skating become more critical as the force per unit area on the stylus contact area goes DOWN. The VPI Anti-skating can be tricky - there is specific and general information on the below page as well to help with your VPI arm as well as other non-unipivot arms. . 

 I would STRONGLY suggest you send the cartridge in for examination. A worn stylus will cause sibilant DAMAGE on ONE play.  We can rebuild any Soundsmith cartridge fully for 20% - multiple times. I would also read many of the sections (including the one on sibilance)  on our website: http://www.sound-smith.com/faq

Peter Ledermann/President/Soundsmith

Thanks for all the responses!

Will start today by checking VTF, VTA, etc.  If the issue persists, I'll likely then send it in for examination. 

Peter: as a general proposition, I thought the consensus was that *2000* hours was the expected maximum useful life of a cartridge (although it may start to exhibit wear and other minor changes as early as 1000)?  Has that not been your experience?

i realize these are all approximations, but still: your maximum estimate of 1000 hours is half of what (I thought) the conventional wisdom holds.  
Here's another thought.....your new speakers may very well have a brighter/more extended treble response than did your previous ones.  If the sibilance you're hearing is not mistraking (a breaking up kind of distortion) it could be that you're just not used to your cartridge.  I find the zephyr's sound as you describe....a brighter than "normal" sound.  The idea that your anti-skate is off doesn't compute to me.  I am now using an Ortofon, have used Benz's, Koetsu, Lyra, etc, and have not used antiskate at all and still have had great performance with no sibilant issues.

Thanks, but I noticed the sibilance with the old speakers, before I installed the new ones (also, I never found the zephyr to be bright, with either the old or the new speakers).

Update: I checked VTA. I had originally set it at 2.0 grams, which is right in the middle of the recommended range for this cart of 1.8-2.2.  When I check it today, it was *2.4*!!! It's odd to me that it could drift that much.  In any event: I adjusted the counterweight to get it back to 2.0.  The sibilance is indeed lessened, but not gone, so VTA doesn't appear to be the entirety of the problem.  

As a side note: setting the VTA back to the correct amount significantly improved the bass on the new speakers.  I'm still getting them dialed in: the initial sound was pretty good even in just a plug n play configuration, but everything is getting more impressive as I get the toe-in, distance from walls, (and now, VTA) set right...
Checking VTA via a weight measurement?

Checking VTF via a calibrated digital scale. If I said VTA earlier, that was a typo. But you probably already knew that.  So I don't know why you felt the need to comment.  
I think you should listen to Peter....
Not only is he one of the world’s leading experts in cartridges....it’s his damn cartridge FFS.....🙈
You’re an optimist to consider 2000 hours the norm for a stylus life expectancy. 1000 hours (as Peter says) is industry standard with some manufacturers recommending as low as 500 hours‼️
If you’ve been playing for 1000 hours without proper antiskate, and you have no idea how many additional hours the previous owner put on it....it’s a safe bet that your stylus is damaged/worn and the sibilance is telling you this.
If this is the case, you could well be causing permanent damage to the walls of your record grooves..😱

I suggest you stop playing that damn cartridge immediately ! Send it to Peter. Even if in some cases 1000 hours is not maximum, Peter must know what he is saying. In any case, the number of hours is very high. You may be damaging your records already. Why would you want to gamble with this ?
No anti-skate is another interesting  point.
Guys: thanks for the concern, but message received.  I've already removed the cartridge, so no risk of record damage.  

The question now is whether I send it in for the exam and rebuild for $250 or just invest that $250 toward a new cart.