VTF and VTA- Constant or not?


I was wondering lately about the following questions:
What's your best, quickest method to prove that VTF and VTA/SRA have been set up correctly or close to ideal?
What tools do you need to have in measurements?

More important, I am pretty interested in knowing your invaluable experience:
Is it possible to have them "set and forget"(i.e. constant)?
If not, how frequent will you have your routine checking with the carts you have come across?

Any thoughts are welcome...
Thanks in advance.
Dan
danwkw
In an ideal world there would be an ideal setting but in this one there is not. The lack of standards in the recording industry still amazes me after almost 50 years of listening. The question you ask revolves around the degree of trouble you want to take. Some arms have calibrated height adjustment that can be altered while playing ; it is therefor possible to get an ideal setting for THAT record and write it on the cover. WAY too much trouble for me, I have used such arms and will sometimes alter the setting if a record sounds bad but have a default setting I return to after playing. The instruments used in setting up the arm are already in your possession, your ears. Get a setting that sounds right to you on most of your records and don't worry about it. Why isn't there a more scientific method? Records are cut in different labs, cartridges have their styluses at different angles, we all hear differently. Use a good alignment tool, track at the top of the recommended range and adjust the arm height to a good compromise and you will be fine. In general raising the arm at the pivot increases treble and lowers bass , lowering it has the opposite effect. I myself as well as several others I have talked to usually have the arm lower at the pivot end than the stylus end as we find it gives the best balance, but that is for you to determine. There is more lit on these questions than you would ever want to read, sites like Vinyl Engine will cover everything in great detail. I am just giving my own experience. If you had a well equipped lab it would of course be possible to arrive at an ideal setting for any particular record, but there would be no guarantee that it would be ideal for the next record. Get it to where you like it and then , as Raul says, "Relax and enjoy the music".
Agreed that everything we try to improve is for the sake of our own ears. My query was in fact triggered off when I played my old DGG Karajan's Beethoven Symphony No.5 and some of my beloved records. They used to be sounding very good and lively but they all failed this time. In short, I had to check the VTF and VTA/SRA all over again.

My 1st point: As cartridge ages and requests fine-tuning, so will the optimum VTF and VTA/SRA. Factory recommendations are only for reference and binding when the carts are still young and with original parts(i.e. not rebuilt by a third party).

My 2nd point: "Set and forget" won't be able to optimize the performance of a cart for a longer period of time. To me, it's not hassle, it's fun and challenge. Once succeeded in optimizing a cart, it gives satisfactions and enjoyments. That may be what this hobby is all about. In fact, "everything may change" means everyday could be a whole new experience! It's not boring, and a cart become more like an organic life form.

I had come across some tonearms with VTA on the fly. In brief, they couldn't satisfy me with "ultimate rigidity" and are more prone to "resonances" which are quite serious in my tiny listening room:)

best regards
Dan
What's your best, quickest method to prove that VTF and VTA/SRA have been set up correctly or close to ideal?
"Prove"? Hmmm, I doubt the concept of proof is practical in this context. One could prove these things with lab equipment and a frequency analyzer, but since the optimum settings vary with each record you'd spend your whole life proving and no time listening.

That said, my partner and I are pickier than many, even amongst A'goners. Here's what we do:
1. We know our rig and system's sound really well. We understand what each adjustment does (at the stylus/groovewall level) and precisely how it effects the sound.
2. We listen to music we enjoy, alot.
3. We adjust while listening to optimize the sonic performance of each parameter.
4. The only "proof" we require is that instruments and voices sound as real as possible. (We once fussed with electronic measurements to optimize azimuth, but found we could adjust by ear as accurately and faster.)

One or both of us generally knows after a few seconds of listening which adjustments are out of whack and what direction they need to go. That comes from experience, there's no shortcut for trained ears (though research and guidance is helpful of course).

What tools do you need to have in measurements?
For VTF
We tweak VTF every single day, sometimes even for different LP's, but for that our only tool is our ears. A scale is only useful when you set up a cartridge and occasionally if the suspension relaxes so that a different VTF base point needs to be identified. I haven't unpacked ours in months.

For VTA (SRA actually, VTA is a misnomer)
1. My eyeballs, to level the cartridge (just a rough starting point, which is all we need initially for the reasons Stanwal explained; since very LP is different, there's little point obsessing over the initial setting IMO)
2. My ears. (We adjust SRA for each record. No exceptions. Most others do less, to each his own.)
3. Post-it notes and a pencil. (To record arm height settings on each LP jacket so we can quickly dial in for replays.)
Thanks to good record-keeping this actually takes very little time, and no playing time is lost since we adjust SRA on the fly.

Is it possible to have them "set and forget"(i.e. constant)?
Is it possible? Of course. Is it optimal. No.

If you value set and forget and also value optimal performance, go to live concerts or play from digital sources. Reproduction from vinyl records is too complex and the components involved (including the media itself) contain too many variables for set and forget to be optimal. Your choice.

If not, how frequent will you have your routine checking with the carts you have come across?
In our case, with every LP as I said. This has been so with every cartridge we've used, but we don't "check" our setups by dragging out a scale, a magnifier or other tools. We play music and adjust as required. I don't need a scale or a magnifier to know when my cartridge's VTF or SRA is optimal. The sonics tell me.

Doug

P.S. In 2004 I understood very little of this. It took about 3 years to get reasonably competent.
Hi, Doug,
The only "proof" we require is that instruments and voices sound as real as possible.

Very good point. We can only be sure when a piano sounds like a piano, a cymbal sounds like a cymbal, and vocals sounds like somebody is singing live in front of you. Our musical perception should be established with our experience with live (esp.classical) concerts with mainly acoustic instruments, instead of based upon someone's top-notch audio system. Live performance always come first, audio system second or third. Life without live (concerts) could be a big mistake for any serious audiophile.

If you value set and forget and also value optimal performance, go to live concerts or play from digital sources.

The digital sources that could satisfy me are far too expensive than the vinyl setup!!! It seems I have to at least spend 3-5 times more...Esoteric? No way! dCS? Maybe...sorry, I'd rather buy an Audi A4 Quattro S-tronics and a couple of nice MC carts;)

Is ZYX UNIverse really that good, Doug? So many A'goners have one or two in their system. Is the Copper version(ending with "-X") the best? I just saw your article on fine-tuning ZYX's cart. It is really interesting...

Dan

Doug,
What would happen to the data on your post-it notes if you changed arm, cartridge, or table?
This thought has always kept me from adopting a similar system.

Cheers.

Tom
It's unlikely any "topnotch" audio system could come close to live, acoustic instruments, so I agree that would be a poor yardstick. I haven't personally heard any digital that matches our vinyl, though to be fair our vinyl front end cost more than those digital rigs you mentioned. There's no way to do what you described on the cheap. :-(

To our ears the UNIverse is still the most invisible cartridge we've never heard, though also the most finicky. It will play like a Strad, but only if you know how to let it. Its sweet spots are 10X smaller than any other cartridge I've used and the falloff in performance is rapid if you miss anything. If you want fun, this is it. ;-)

We haven't heard all the contenders of course, but we've not heard more lifelike reproduction from any other cart. See the review by my signature, several years old but we wouldn't change much if anything, except to add to the list of carts that can't touch it. Too bad it's discontinued and the remaining stock dwindling. Transfiguration Orpheus LO and Dyna XV-1S are pretty good too, and more easily available.

The copper coil, low output version is definitely the UNIverse to have (true of any ZYX). Other versions give up speed and dynamics or impose a Koetsu-like smoothation on the music, and we don't want to hear that. If I hear a component altering waveforms then it's unacceptable no matter how "musical" somebody thinks it sounds.

Similarly, fellow A'goner Mothra once said our preamp (which he now also has) is the only preamp he's never heard. That was lofty praise from a professional recording engineer and musician who's owned 20+ other good preamps and dumped them all. He defined what we're after in every component: nothing. So did the preamp's designer, Nick Doshi, whose signature phrase is "Enjoy music, tolerate equipment". Not bad for an engineer!

We're also classical listeners. Our acid test recordings are mostly our 100's of original/authentic instrument LP's by the likes of Hogwood, Harnoncourt, Scimone, etc. Harnoncourt's 70 LP survey of the Bach cantatas is particularly unforgiving of system eccentricities. Those records go from a glorious and intimate humanity to fingernails-on-slate in a heartbeat if a system isn't just right. They've embarassed some very pricey components visiting our home. I played one in another guy's system just once. He said it was the worst recording he'd ever heard. Little does he know that his system, which cost 3X what ours does, is just screwed up. ;-)

Doug
Dougdeacon already covered the set-up details extensively, but let me add that the correct VTF in a given cartridge defines the correct position of the cantilever (= the coils in the magnetic field) towards the magnet(s) and that the correct SRA/VTA is always a matter of the position of the polished area of the stylus towards the grooved wall.
That means ultimately that the VTA/SRA has to be groove-compliant - its a direct result of the cutting angle of the respective record. So it should be set with each record independently.
Painstaking sometimes.
What would happen to the data on your post-it notes if you changed arm, cartridge, or table?
This thought has always kept me from adopting a similar system.
Quite right, Tom. Each data point is rendered obsolete by such changes, and by some others too. Our belt and battery improvements also resulted in small arm height changes, which of course I've recorded. The post-it notes on the LP's with the lengthiest data trails have about a dozen height numbers (and counting!).

However, and importantly, "obsolete" does not imply "useless". Such changes in optimal arm height are:
1) accurately cumulative with each other, and
2) consistent across all LP's.
IOW, if a new cart needs the TriPlanar's height to be 2.57 turns higher, and a subsequent change needs the arm .10 lower, I can play an LP that was last played before those two changes by moving the arm 2.57 - .10 = 2.47 higher than the last data point on that LP. All I need is a master list of height changes and an identifier next to the last data point on the LP note, so I know the currency of its last data point. Once I dial it in precisely (by listening) I record an updated point on that LP.

Even if I bring out an LP I haven't played for several years (and multiple equipment changes ago) I just add up the height adjustments since the last data point on that LP. Voila! I've just dialed in arm height on an LP last played several "systems" ago. This typically gets us within .05 or .10 on the TP's height scale, in mere seconds. Fine-tuning the precise new setting (which we record to the nearest ~.01) can be done whilst enjoying the music.

Record keeping sounds boring, but it eases the optimization of our playing and listening experience so much that I wouldn't give it up. Paul is fantastically sensitive to this adjustment (among others) so "close counts" is not an option for us. We actually chose the TP over a Schroeder Ref in 2004 primarily because we foresaw the value of this and the Schroeder lacks a height scale. (The TP was also $2K cheaper, but I've probably spent that in post-it notes - LOL.)

I'm sure it sounds uber-OCD, but Dan_Ed, Swampwalker, Nick Doshi, Raul and others have watched me do it and heard the results. I think they'd attest to how simple and effective it is. Of course they still don't bother with it themselves, so take that FWIW! ;-)

***

Relative to what Dertonarm just (correctly) posted, all the above is contingent on playing your cartridge at absolutely optimal VTF (to the nearest .01g at least, we adjust much more finely than that - every day). Most cartridge suspensions soften with age and use, so VTF needs to be reduced accordingly. When our current UNIverse was new it needed ~1.70g. Today (2+ years later) it plays optimally (better in fact) at ~1.20g. That is not a typo.

If you don't do this, everything I wrote about arm height/SRA optimization is useless.

Plug 'n' play? Not quite!

Back in the late 1980ies and early 1990ies the collectors of vintage original vinyl (most notably the RCA LSC, Mercury SR, DECCA SXL and HMV ASD and SAX series) from a loose "circle" (most of them US-based). These gentlemen (and one lady...) did fairly early discover that there is a certain "angle" with the cutting laces in the various record companies. So there was something like a "chart" - were you could literally read down the VTA settings for a SXL, LSC, SR, ASD etc.
It eased up things quite a bit. The relative settings always were the same - no matter whether you use a 9" or 12" tonearm - just the relative distances changed according to the effective length of the specific tonearm.
I do not want to go into detail with this, but I can give you the two cornerstones of the chart: - Ortofon/OPUS3 have the highest required setting - i.e. the tonearm almost horizontal. Mercury SR is the deepest. About 14 mm down with the tail with a 10" tonearm.
Everything else (read: all other record companies LPs between 1958 and 1984) fall between these two extremes.
Give it a try.
...the correct VTF in a given cartridge defines the correct position of the cantilever (= the coils in the magnetic field) towards the magnet(s) and that the correct SRA/VTA is always a matter of the position of the polished area of the stylus towards the grooved wall.

Dertonarm, your description is simple but precise!

Ortofon/OPUS3 have the highest required setting - i.e. the tonearm almost horizontal. Mercury SR is the deepest. About 14 mm down with the tail with a 10" tonearm.
Everything else (read: all other record companies LPs between 1958 and 1984) fall between these two extremes.

Dertonarm, according to these findings, do you imply in most cases the optimum range for a tonearm could be from perfect horizontal up to 14mm tail-down?

Most cartridge suspensions soften with age and use, so VTF needs to be reduced accordingly. When our current UNIverse was new it needed ~1.70g. Today (2+ years later) it plays optimally (better in fact) at ~1.20g. That is not a typo.

Doug, exactly! When my MY Sonic Lab Ultra Eminent BC was new, it sounded best at ~2.1g. After 1.5 yr until now, the best VTF is somewhere at 1.6-1.7g. Not all cartridges behave this way, though.

Dan
Dan,

Since record company cutting head VTA's are known to have varied from a low of around 15 degrees to 20 or even 22 degrees, Dertonarm's suggested range seems reasonable.

I haven't gone that far myself, but I can confirm that there is great consistency within each record label, especially with records from the same plant.

Our first data point for every LP, recorded when it's cleaned, is the LP's weight in grams (a proxy for thickness). The LP's never been played by me so choosing an initial arm height might be a guess, except that I probably have a similar weight LP on the same label somewhere (I also have a list like Dertonarm's, though self generated and a bit half-assed). It's quick and easy to find a similar LP and calculate a starting arm height, adjusting as necessary if the new one is heavier or lighter.

This usually (90%) gets us VERY close to the optimal height for the new LP on the first spin. A little more record keeping, a lot more time saved.

Agree not all carts soften, it depends on the elastomers of course. Consult your favorite chemical scientist for details. ;-)

Doug
Dan, yes - horizontal level and from that point up to 14 mm down. With a 10" tonearm. Its slightly less with a 9" and a bit more (which isn'T possible with all cartridges/12" tonearms, since under certain conditions (small cartridge body, little height of cartridge body) the armtube touches the platter when you go that far down.
I mentioned this as a general "guideline" only.
Everyone will find his/her own "chart".
VTA on the fly makes this nor really a joy to find out, but eases things considerably. The change in effective length due to change of tonearm height is neglected here (never thought I would use the phrase ever regarding tonearm geometry ...) - it is too small to be corrected by hand at all. Much more important to the sound performance is to have the VTA groove-compliant.
And yes - some suspension do give in with age - some never.
My 28 year old FR-7fsp. still works with the very same VTF as in 1982. Fitted with its 5th stylus now, but same compliance. 80+ ┬Ám trackability with its lower limit optimum VTF set.
Certainly not the rule but maybe one of the very few exceptions in high-end cartridge history.
Cheers,
D.
When our current UNIverse was new it needed ~1.70g. Today (2+ years later) it plays optimally (better in fact) at ~1.20g. That is not a typo.
Doug!!! 1.2gm for the Universe?
I seem to remember a post of yours saying anyone brave enough to go below 1.7gm is on his own?

OK...I'm going to adjust my DaVinci/Universe to negative VTA and 1.5gm to see if I agree?

Regards
Henry
Henry,

Most people believe I'm very much on my own. Why disappoint them? ;-)

Do remember that our cartridge reached this stage in small steps. We did not wake up one morning and ask, "What would happen if we dropped VTF from 1.70 to 1.20?".

Of course there's no reason to believe 1.50g or any other randomly selected number will be optimal. That's neither science nor craft nor even art, its guessing.

IME with 10-12 UNIverses, each one's VTF is best adjusted using the protocol I've posted before: find its mistracking point on very dynamic passages, work very slightly upwards from there by listening.

Have fun!
Doug

BTW, if you can play a UNIverse (or any cartridge) with "negative VTA", we'd all like to see photos. ;-)
Every other record I've purchased since I got into analog heavily about half a year ago has been visibly warped. (I returned first few but soon gave up since it seems to be the norm, not the exception, sadly. At least for jazz records. But that's a topic for another thread already discussed here.) Doubtless, warpage affects VTA/SRA setting even for the same record making any valid comparison very difficult and probably not very meaningful. So unless all of your records are perfectly flat, I'd question the benefit of recording settings for every LP and advocate for a setting that seems to work for most records, just to retain my sanity. But then again, I have neither Doug's or Paul's ears, nor their equipment, so I can only speak for myself.
Doug,

I lowered the VTF to 1.5gm and TRIED to get "negative VTA :-)" but with the DaVinci 12" it is very difficult (as Dertonarm stated).
Nevertheless, with the DaVinci parallel the "magic" of the Universe returned to its former domain.
As you have indicated, it must be a slow process of the suspension lowering that requires a keen ear on things at all times?

I will now attempt your 1.2gm benchmark and work up as you suggest but now as I sit blissfully listening to the Universe in full flight, I look at my wife and say....."damn, I bet Doug could get it better than this!?" :-(
I also have a list like Dertonarm's, though self generated and a bit half-assed.

To me, Doug, absolutely "Not". You are a real vinyl enthusiast! And it's nothing to do with how high pricey your equipments are.

I will try to experiment your "mistracking point" method to reset the VTF and report back later;)

Best regards
Dan