What's Wrong With My Cartridge/Setup?

Please help this newbie sort out a problem with my cartridge, tonearm or installation.

Here's my system: Shure V15VxMR Cartridge mounted on an older Rega Planar 2 Turntable with glass platter into either an Audio Experience Concerto Tube Phono Preamp or a Conrad Johnson SC-22P SS FET Phono Preamp (in a homebrew box) into a CJ Preamp and Anthem Amp-1 tube amp. This system is new to me (most parts are used with the exception of the cartridge which was bought with 'only a few hours use' and the phono preamp (which I ran for 30 hours burn-in).

So here's the problem: My LPs sound like crap. The highs are badly attenuated, the lows are a weak and the entire sound lacks punch. The sound field is totally flat. I've compared a number of vinyl LPs to CD releases of the same material played on my Music Hall CD-25 and the CDs sound considerably better than the vinyl.

I've played with some of the mechanical parameters of the cartridge (tracking alignment, VTA, weight, anti-skating) using a test LP and a scope (as well as my ears). The changes generally have a audible effect but are small compared to the magnitude of the problem. The loading the cartridge is 'seeing' was measured to be very close to the spec of 47K ohms and 250 pF. The two phono preamps I've tried sound pretty similar, so the problem would appear to be with the cartridge/turntable/tonearm setup.

Any ideas? Could cartridge break-in account for such a major sonic impact? Is it fair to compare an LP to a CD of the same material? Help!!!

.... Brian
I would reccomend you have a local dealer set it up for you, that way you know for sure it's setup correctly. I had a really hard time myself. Others will be able to help you more I'm sure.

Good Luck
The LP should sound as good or better than the CD.

With the stylus in the groove check to make sure the botttom of the cartridge looks to be close to parallel with record from the side and isn't tilted when looking from the front. If the tracking force is close and it's not twisted way left or right in the headshell looking from the top then it should sound way better than you describe even if it's not optimized.

Perhaps you got burned with a defective cartridge. I wouldn't trust a used cartridge from anybody. Is the cantilever straight? Is the stylus broken off?

You could buy an entry level cartridge to test with.
The only suggestion I can make is to recheck the wiring from the four cartridge pins to be sure it's correct. Also be sure the stylus is fully seated into the cartridge. A Shure V15VxMR simply doesn't sound like this. Something is seriously wrong here, as you surmise. Good luck, Dave
You're most-probably using MM cartridge onto MC section or your load impedance of your phono is too low.
I tend to agree with Dopoque and Herman. Something doesn't sound right based on my experience with the V15VxMR. If I understand correctly, both phono stages and the Shure are pretty new so there may be a chance that things need to break in more. The Shure can need up to 50 hrs to come in. A phono stage can take up to 250 hrs. But usually you get a very bright, flat sound until break in occurs. I would recommend taking a deep breath, slowly and carefully recheck everything, then decide if it might be worth waiting until things get a few more hours on them. There is a slight chance that there is an interconnect issue between the table and phono stages. Try swapping these out.

As for your question about comparing a CD and LP of the same material I would whole-heartedly say that it is a fair thing to do. I do it all the time. The LP usually wins but there have been cases where a remastered CD might edge out the LP.

Hang in there, you'll get it sooner or later and then you will be so glad you did.
I would suggest you make sure the TT is well isolated. Non-sprung tables like the Rega need to be placed on vibration free platform. I also had issues with a glass platter, which was remedied by changing an acrylic one.

Also, some LP’s do sound worse than the CD, especially recent recordings where the recording is digital. Vinyl cut from digital recordings normally sound worse than a cheap CD and is actually the worst of both worlds. I have the latest Sound Garden and Metallica on CD and vinyl. The vinyl sounds terrible. However my Led Zeppelin vinyl is waaaay better than any Zeppelin CD’s I have heard.
Much good advice here. I would ad that correct VTA, for the Shure, can be achieved with the smaller of the two Rega washers under the arm. If you are not currently set-up this way, or do not have one of the VTA adjusters for the arm, then you will be off. The cartridge uses a line contact stylus and even small changes in VTA will have very large effects on audible quality.
Not much to add to Dan_Ed's and Viridian's posts. A flat sounding soundstage will result from a system that's wired out of polarity.

Just for testing, try reversing your speaker or power amp + and + connections, whichever is easier to reach. IF LP's suddenly sound more alive, deep and focused then just for haha's throw in a CD. It will sound flat, dull and less focused than normal. Now you know you've got a polarity inversion somewhere between cartridge and line stage. Return your speaker terminals to normal and reverse your cartridge clips or phono plugs. Problem solved.

Hope that works, it's the easiest thing to check and fix.

This is better than just visually checking your cartridge connections. Cartridges have been internally wired backwards in the past and I'm sure some will be wired backwards in the future.

That should read, "...try reversing your speaker or
power amp + and - connections..."
Thanks all fo your ideas. I'm at least glad to hear that it's fair and reasonable to use a CD as a reference against my vinyl and the assumption that the vinyl should sound at least as good - and probably better if I'm set up properly. I can tell you so far what it is NOT. I've tried a couple of the easy ones:
1) The wiring sure looks right and I even buzzed it out with an ohm meter from the cartidge to the RCA conncetor.
2)Reversing the polarity of one side of the system did not help.
3) I was really hoping that the stylus was not seated properly, but alas, I removed it and reinserted it and engaged in a very satisfying manner, but did not solve the problem.

Still many things to check. I'll report back if/when I get this thing licked.

Cheers, Brian
Here's an update... It would appear that there are a couple if things going on: First, the cantiliver on my cartridge looks like it's bent a bit. This makes alignment kind of tough. (Gawd knows what it's doing sonically!) But I think I've got cartridge installation fairly close which has allowed me to uncover what I think is the real culprit. I was hasty in believing that my new Audio Experience Concerto Tube Phono Preamp was working well. It would appear that it's not. With my CJ FET phono preamp, my vinyl is now 'almost' indistingushable from a CD. With the tube preamp - the highs are still audibly attenuated which of course makes evaluating the sound field difficult. Bass seems to be pretty good now, so the cartridge alignment was initially contributing to the problem.

I suspect the Shure cartidge is not operating up to snuff so I probably got screwed buying used (through Audiogon no less!). But I'm pretty sure the tube preamp has some serious problems. It uses 12AX7s and I've tried new tubes including Electro Harmonix, EI, 9th gen. Chinese as well as NOS Matsushita - none of these signficantly 'take the blanket off' the tone. I'll be contacting the manufacturer regarding this issue once I'm absolutely sure it's the problem but if anyone has any experience with these Audio Experience Concerto preamps, I'd like to hear your comments.

... Brian
Check load resistance on your tube phono pre.
Brian, now you're getting somewhere. Yes, the stylus needs to be replaced. That's not an option (check Jack's Music Factory for the lowest price if you can't get satisfaction from your seller). And that phono stage has received less than stellar reviews, though I haven't heard one myself. You may well be better off using the CJ. Good luck, Dave
Hi Brian,

Good to hear you're making progress. Now that you have narrowed the issue, I would suggest keeping as many things constant in your system as you continue to trouble shoot. So stay with the CJ for the time being and concentrate on the table. If you are getting good bass now I think it would be well worth spending some more time adjusting VTA. You may be able to raise the bearing end and open the highs more. This may tell you if there is hope for the cartridge.

If it does turn out to be the cartridge you may be able to correct the issue with just a stylus change. Though, at ~$200 for a new V15VxMR it might be just as well to buy the whole thing.

I don't have any direct experience with the Audio Experience but there are a good many folks happy with theirs. I have heard that the guy building them is pretty responsive.
I've spent a fair bit of time trying to align the cartridge and I can't seem to get it in the sweet spot - so I think it's screwed. Ouch! Time for a new stylus or cartridge. :-(

As an aside, I contacted Chui at Audio Experience and he insists I need to let it fully break-in (100-150 hours) before passing any judgement. I am dubious, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

Curiousity got the better of me so this morning I dragged out some gear and did some tests. I graphed the response curve of the CJ FET phono and found it was within 0.8 dB of the standard RIAA curve and just slightly on the 'hot side' at both ends. (Easily within my error of measurement). The AE tube phono was at worst 4 dB below the line on the bass side of the curve and surprisingly, slightly over 1 dB (at worst) below on the treble side - suggesting slightly accentuated upper mids. So this would seem contradict my own listening tests - but more likely, I messed myself up by changing back to the original noname chinese tubes before running this test. I am an EE and fairly well equipped when it comes to test gear.

Dopogue - I am curious where you saw the less that stellar reviews on the AE Phono Preamp. If you can, please point me at them. Everything I read on Audiogon, Audio Asylum and Ebay feedback was positive so I'm really curious.

Cheers, Brian
Marakantz - To answer your question, with the AE Concerto turned off, the input measures 47K with a DVM. With the unit powered on, this drops to about 9K resistance. I don't have a schematic (so I'm not sure what I'm measuring) nor do I know if the DVM can provide a valid measure with the preamp turned on (tubes are funny things), but there may certainly be a loading issue here. Can you comment?

The CJ on the other hand is nailed at 47K regardless of whether the unit is off or on - but this is no surprise given the very high input impedence of a FET, so I'm basically measuring the input resistor.
Stepping through your comments and experiments made so far, it seems that AE isn't functioning well and the load resistance should NOT change when you turn it on.

My first scientific guess is that the output of your phono is getting short somewhere and feeding back to an input. It may be due to a bad tube(s).

Check thoroughly an output and feedback circuit(if such exists in phono pre).
I would suspect, as you seem to, that the difference in resistance that you measure when on versus off has to do with some voltage being fed back through the input to the meter rather than the input impedance dropping. Switch your meter to volts and see if you get a reading with the amp on. Whether this is normal or not is impossible to tell without a schematic.

As you are probably aware, a better test is feed a signal to the preamp and then insert resistance in series until the signal at the input drops to 1/2 the original. The inserted resistance is then equal to the input impedance. The problem with conducting this test is that the signal levels are so low it is difficult to get accurate measurements.