Why are the vocals on some records hidden behind the music on my system?


Help! I am new to this forum, but have been into audio for over 45 years and have never had this problem before. I was lucky enough to come into some money and decided to use some of it to up grade my system for the first time in almost 30 yrs. The system consists of McIntosh MC-402, McIntosh C-100, McIntosh MCD-500, VPI HW19 MKIII, Soundsmith Aida, Furutech Ag-12 phono cable, Furutech silver head shell wires, Furutech interconnects and Furutech speaker cables (yes I like Furutech) and Raidho XT-3 speakers. Now on some albums the vocals are buried behind the music and you have a really hard time hearing the singer? Not all albums are voiced in this manner but enough that it is bothersome. I have a large dedicated man room (24 x 27) with minimum treatment. CDs sound just fine so I feel that it is with the phono preamp in the C-100? I have moved the speakers 100s of times and have them at 5' 8" apart and 8' 1" to the focal point and the soundstage is good and the vocals are better, but you still have to really listen hard to hear certain vocals on some albums. Most of my albums are 30 to 50 years old and have been cleaned with a sonic cleaner (best thing ever imho). Even some of my new heavy vinyl has this problem.
scooby2do
what phono input you're using MC or MM? In both cases it's loose-loose.
In case of MC the impedance is too low and MM the input is too low.
The solution is you should either have LOMC <.5mV or HIMM >4mV or outboard phonostage or replace load resistors of your MC input.

Check to make sure your cartridge is not connected out of phase. Red on red, green, on green, white on white and blue on blue.
First, why spend all that on gear and not on room treatment?  Try putting soft things on the floor between and around the speakers. That can clear up a lot of mid/treble clutter. This is a free tweak, try it with pillows and blankets before investing. Especially cover hard reflecting surfaces like the tops of entertainment center, sides, and a TV if any.

Second, toe in?
First of all you can use Cardas Test record to check phase and polarity of your system. 
First off I'm using the MM input due to the 2.12v cart. output, Second the back of the cart. is not color coded like some, but I sure I got that part right. If not wouldn't all records have the same issue?, Third I do have some floor rugs and am using some comforters hung on the wall over a garage door and insulated window shades but no actual room treatments like bass traps etc. A thought though--- would a weak motor cause changes to the platter speed have anything to do with this problem? I have been having to start the platter by hand because the motor doesn't seem to have the torque to spin it up but seems to stay steady after that?
if you place cartridge on its top and you’re facing pins, than bottom left is left earth and top left is left signal. same with right side. to eliminate issues with room treatments, try first headphones and see how things are working for you. some records may be more sensitive to out of phase than the others, but still feel like your cartridge isn't great match.
Please name a specific album and track that is problematic.
@scooby2do - Since your CD’s sound fine and some albums sound fine it would appear everything is in in phase.

How old is the cartridge?
--- could just be old age - the suspension of the stylus may be shot

Is the Anti skating set correctly?

Is the stylus worn
--- if it;s worn it could effect phase

Is the stylus/cartridge correctly aligned on the arm?
--- The more advanced stylus types (Contact Line and Shibata) requires a more precise alignment and can cause this issue

I have Optimized Contour Contact Line stylus and it required a Mint Best Protractor to get the best sound

How old is the phono stage?
--- (could be the internal electrolytic caps need replacing is the phono stage is old)

It only takes a small difference in phase between the L/R channels to cause the issues you are descibing.

I do not think the motor would not cause this issue

I’d start with checking Stylus alignment

Then I’d try switching a few IC’s between components in the analogue side of your system to see if they make a difference

As far as room treatments go ...
- the most effective I have tried is a vinyl roller blind behind the listening position. I only had it extended about 15" from the ceiling
- A piece of foam on top of book cases

It seems that the most reverberation issues in my old room occurred close to ceiling level.
The new room has very little (if any) reflected sound issues

Hope you get to the bottom of it

Regards - Steve





Do you know the phono gain via your MM inputs? It is (remotely) possible that the gain is marginal for a 2.2mV cartridge output, I suppose.  But it would help to have some more details regarding your phono stage; does it have separate MM and MC inputs, as Czarivey suggests?

Other than that, I think you may have no problem; in my experience some cartridges do tend to submerge the vocalist in favor of the instrumentalists, compared to others.  This can actually be a virtue of the cartridge, in the case where you are not listening to a single, stage-center vocal LP.  For example, I found that my Stanton 980LZS tended to paint that sort of picture.  But the Stanton excels at bringing forth internal musical threads within a group of instruments.  It's certainly not broken.  The test for this explanation, of course, is to try another cartridge.

Nothing that you wrote suggests to me that the two channels are necessarily out of phase with each other, but be sure of that, too.  Nothing at all suggests a problem with turntable speed stability; I don't know where that came from.

You say the CDs sound fine and the vocals are recessed only on certain albums. The (only) obvious explanations are either those albums are defective or that's how the vocals are recorded on those songs. My suggestion is to play those albums on another turntable to isolate the issue.

The cart. is new with only 100-150 hours on it and I used a Pro-ject cart. alignment tool and spent several hours aligning it and getting the azimuth set and used a digital stylus force gauge to set it at 1.3 grams. I just finished playing Fleetwood Mac's Heroes are Hard to Find and there it was , yet earlier this morning I played Billy Joels I am an Innocent Man and it almost sounded 3d with the finger snap 3 ft in front of his voice? I'm not 100% sure what the gain is on the McIntosh C-100 is but it is about 10 yrs old and the 1st owner just used the MC input.
scooby2do
The cart. is new with only 100-150 hours on it and I used a Pro-ject cart. alignment tool
I suspect the alignment is off, and suggest you use a gauge which aligns the actual stylus and cantilever using a mirror, such as the WallyTractor.

czarivey nailed it as far as I'm concerned.

Assuming everything is connected properly and the MM input is functional, gain is approximately 35 dB on the MM input which is considerably light for a 2.1 mV cartridge, which would probably be optimized with around 44-45 dB of gain.

On the other hand, 68 dB on the MC side is way too high, and more suited to very low output MC's, certainly below .25 mV and more likely to be effective with .1 to .2 mV cartridges.

Get a new cartridge, get a new phono stage, or modify the gain on the existing phono stage.

Most records would probably sound like they were being played through a wet blanket.
Cleeds- the Pro-ject does use a mirror as part of the alignment process.hdm that sounds more likely as czarivey stated it must be a mismatch between cart.and phono stage of the C-100 as nothing else has had any real effect on the problem. Moving to a fairly high end system has shone me that even albums are recorded at different volume levels as are CDs and that the ones that are recorded at those lower levels seem to be the ones that have more of those issues. I want to thank everyone who has chimed in to help and don't stop if you have any other ideas. It may take awhile to find a new phono stage ( under $2000 ) suggestions will be acepted and looked at
I also suggest a different cartridge; I should think a LOMC would be the way to go, but that's my preference.  Your preamp is a very nice rig.

Alignment is the other critical issue as noted above.  The Pro-Ject system works well but as you said, one really must be patient with it and double-check everything.  The one I have (Strobe-It) is quite a bit thicker than the average record.  You don't say which arm or specific tool you have, so you'll want to see where your VTA is both on vinyl and the alignment tool to make sure that isn't an issue as well.

Good luck & happy listening!
No, because cd sound fine does not mean that all is in phase. You simple may have the cartridge pins connection on one side reversed. I would make sure this is correct. Double, triple check your cartridge connections. 

The connections on s should be as such

Red      White
Green   Blue

when looking from the front of the cartridge/table to the back.
scooby2do
the Pro-ject does use a mirror as part of the alignment process
But that's for azimuth, correct? Something like a WallyTractor uses a mirror to set tangency and actually aligns the cantilever itself.

I could be mistaken about the Pro-ject gauge, so I'd appreciate your clarification. 

I had this very same problem with my system after changing cartridges. After a week of pulling out my hair I found that the dip switches on my Jolida were set wrong. With the switches in the back they are hard to see and I missed 2 of the switches.
I reset the switches and everything returned to normal.
Wish you luck but I suspect that something in your phono stage isn't set to work with your cart.
Good luck
Greg
You also indicated that you have aftermarket leads in your head shell. They should be check to ensure you did not inadvertently connect the wrong.
Just to complete the list of suggestions, so that every possible nook and cranny of LP playing has been covered, try playing with VTA/SRA by raising or lowering the tonearm pivot a tiny bit.  But like I wrote up above, I really think you are hearing a characteristic that may be inherent to this particular cartridge, albeit you probably can change the soundstaging or tonal balance or whatever you want to call this problem at least a bit by making very small changes here and there.  Good luck.


I had this happen just recently. I changed amplifiers from Unison S6 to an Allnic  T1500. I really love the Allnic but at times it would seem to emphasize sibilants. Swapped in some TEO liquid metal and sibilants got really bad. As the cables broke in sibilants got far better but vocals are recessed behind the instruments on some recordings. This did even out somewhat as things broke in but does remain. Tubes, cables, cartridge.... synergy. ..., or a more accurate presentation of the recording. 
You have phase cancellations that are likely cause by a misaligned catridge. I too have had this happen and proper ailgnment totally solved the problem. Be aware that not all protractors work properly. I was using a dB and found that it was 2-3 mm too far forward on overhang. Once that problem was solved everything came into sharp focus.
As an additional idea, I would suggest calling to McIntosh to find out what's the best solution on using your cartridge. It also seems to me that you should not have these problems regardless of how far you underdriving your input and they can probably test it on their equipment. I used .5mV Shelter cartridge on my Musical Fidelity V-LPS MM phonostage and was able to bring volume. Vocals were OK and balanced every record played.
I heard that Soundsmith cartridges are capricious, require very ( too ) precise alignment, VTA and anti-skate to sound right. Peter is a perfectionist of a sort. I suggest you talk to him. Each record has different thickness, that cartridge might not like it. Play with VTA and anti-skate first.
Some recordings might be out of phase. Reverse the speaker cable on one speaker and see if that improves the problem. This explains phase!
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Out_Of_Phase_Stereo
More info!
https://www.gcaudio.com/tips-tricks/absolute-polarity-a-prerequisite-to-optimum-performance/
Speaking of recordings being out of phase/polarity, at least 50% of CDs are out of polarity, you know, just by blind luck - there is no Standard for Polarity - and perhaps as much as 92%, if George Louis, the Polarity Pundit, is correct in his logic. Which begs the question, shouldn’t our systems be placed Out of Absolute Polarity for best overall performance? 😳
Once again I want to thank everyone who has chimed in to help fix this problem! Looks like I will have a lot of work ahead of me to find the real issue. I have already double and triple checked the head shell wiring to verify that they are correct (they are), so on to re-alignment, overhang, vta,etc. before investing in a separate phono stage. I did try reversing the speaker cables just as an experiment (didn't help). Hopefully one of these suggestions will be the one that works!
Yogiboy and Geoffkait, I think you may be inadvertently confusing the OP.  There is a difference between issues related to "system phase" (for want of a better word), which I use to refer to the phase in both channels simultaneously, and the issue of having one channel 180 degrees out of phase with the other.  The latter wreaks havoc on imaging, for sure.  The former has a subtle effect (if the channels are in phase with each other and you then switch the phase in BOTH channels by 180 degrees) heard by some but not by all listeners. 

I would say off the top of my bald head that it is impossible to cut an LP such that one channel would be reproduced 180 degrees out of phase with the other.  That can happen at any downstream point in the circuit after transduction, but not a fault of the LP, just based on how a stereo signal is encoded on an LP.  The cartridge itself could be internally miswired to create such a problem (which I don't think is happening here), but the LP cannot be at fault.  (Please, anyone, if I am wrong in this belief, correct me.  No problem.)  Perhaps you guys are attributing the OP's dilemma to system phase (i.e., the two channels are in phase with each other but phase is opposite to what sounds best), which would be the easiest thing in the world to check; switch the leads from hot to ground and vice-versa on BOTH speakers.

Scooby, You say above that you reversed the speaker cables, per my suggestion here.  Did you do it at both speakers or only at one of the two speakers?  
As i said this is a first thing to do and if you only can buy this Test Record it will be easy http://www.cardas.com/music_frequency_sweep_lp.php to check In Phase / Out of Phase and Polarity (Both channels in positive polarity)  / Out Of Polarity (Both channels in reversed or negative polarity Spiral). There is also 13 strikes on a high "B-flat" on a piano Note: The last of the 3 strings are brought into zero-beat, dead-on tuning. Listen for the impact of hammer on string, quickly followed by room reflections mingling with one another, followed by a keener sense of the piano sound itself, as the ring-out time of the string exceeds that of the reverb time of the room.   

... and many more features on this test LP 
Just to clarify, what I’m talking about is the issue usually called Polarity which is when the system is hooked up correctly and all components are in correct polarity (non-inverting). Then, when a recording that is in reverse Polarity is played on the system the resulting sound will be in reverse Polarity. Conversely, if a recording that is in correct polarity is played on a system that for whatever reason is in inverted Polarity the resulting sound will have inverted Polarity. Incorrectly connected cables on one side of the system is a separate issue. 
A possible contributor to the issue which was mentioned by Williewonka and Inna but has not been addressed in the responses by the OP is incorrect anti-skating.

To the OP: When you view the cartridge from the front while it is in the groove of a rotating record, does the cantilever appear to be pointed in the same direction (nominally straight-ahead) as when it is lifted off of the record? Or does it appear to be noticeably deflected to either the left or the right, relative to its position when it is lifted off of the record? If the latter, anti-skating is not set correctly IMO.

I'll mention also that I believe the relatively high compliance of the Aida (in both of its versions) will result in that test being a more sensitive indicator of anti-skating accuracy than in the case of many other cartridges, especially the low compliance low output moving coil cartridges that are used by many of the others participating here.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al



I have the Aida. It never sounded this way even when I didn't have good alignment. I use 40db of gain on a musical surroundings nova phonomena. I have it mounted on a stock VPI Prime. 
I just finished a 2 1/2 hr re-alingment of the cart. and did make a few changes to overhang (maybe 1 mm less) addressed azimuth and played with the vta (moving up and down to find the best sound which came when I raised it till the voice of Eric Clapton became sharp then dropped it down till it sounded normal, best I could do?) lewm I switched both speaker cables which tended to muddy up the mids imho. almarg in checking the anti-skate (AQ PT-6) my understanding may be off but I thought you adjusted it to where the tone arm moved backwards then adjusted back toward no forward or backward movement? At present it is set at .5 so that raising and lowering it doesn't move in or out. Now all the adjustments I have made have made a difference in the vocals of most records but some seem beyond help. I feel that room treatments and maybe a different phono stage may improve it more and that will take more time to address than this tread will stand. But I am still open to more input and will happily do what I can to try anything that might help.
Post removed 
scooby2do
I just finished a 2 1/2 hr re-alingment of the cart.
Unless you are working with a microscope, an alignment should not take two hours or more. How did you perform the alignment? Did you align the cartridge, or did you align the stylus/cantilever? If the former, it’s extremely likely that your alignment is off, ime. That’s why I recommended a gauge that uses a mirror for overhang and tangency.
almarg in checking the anti-skate (AQ PT-6) my understanding may be off but I thought you adjusted it to where the tone arm moved backwards then adjusted back toward no forward or backward movement? At present it is set at .5 so that raising and lowering it doesn’t move in or out.
First, I took a look at the manual for the AQ PT-6 tonearm, at vinylengine.com, and if I understand your response correctly you are **correctly** ignoring the instructions it provides about setting anti-skating. It states that the anti-skating dial should be set to the same number as the VTF dial, which is a statement I’ve seen in the instructions for a number of tonearms in the past but which results in a ridiculously excessive amount of anti-skating force IMO.

In any event, following is the procedure I use and recommend for setting anti-skating, at least in the case of cartridges having medium to high compliance. (I don’t have significant experience with low compliance cartridges, and this procedure may be less useful in those cases since cantilever deflection will probably have less sensitivity to variation of anti-skating force):

1)Observe the cartridge from the front while it is in the groove of a low volume passage of a rotating record, and positioned somewhere in the middle of the record.

2)Adjust anti-skating until deflection of the cantilever to one side (left or right) becomes barely perceptible, relative to its position when the stylus is lifted off of the record. Note the setting.

3)Adjust anti-skating until deflection of the cantilever to the other side (left or right) becomes barely perceptible, relative to its position when the stylus is lifted off of the record. Note the setting.

4)Set anti-skating to the mid-point between those settings.

5)Verify that no perceptible left or right deflection of the cantilever occurs near the beginning and near the end of the record.

Good luck. Regards,
-- Al


cleeds - the alignment itself didn't take 2 1/2 hrs but making adjustments to the vta is a change an listen to see if it is better or worse then doing that over an over until you find what you feel is the best . almarg - maybe I don't have the PT-6 it might be a PT-5 because there is no dial to adjust vta only a set screw to tighten after manually raising or lower the tone arm by feel, I wish there was a calibrated dial it would have been so much easier.  I though it was the PT-6 because of some other differences in the vinylengine.com library to the PT-5. The overhang is 18mm as it is for a 9" tone arm which is what the ProJect shows it to be also. The mirror on the Pro-Ject is for adjusting azimuth. Your method of setting anti-skate sounds similar to what I stated except you use cantilever deflection instead to tonearm drift. Your way may be more accurate so it's something I can try.
...maybe I don't have the PT-6 it might be a PT-5 because there is no dial to adjust vta only a set screw to tighten after manually raising or lower the tone arm by feel, I wish there was a calibrated dial it would have been so much easier.
Note though that my post referred to the dial for setting VTF (i.e., tracking force), not VTA.

Regards,
-- Al
 
scooby2do
...  the alignment itself didn't take 2 1/2 hrs but making adjustments to the vta is a change an listen to see if it is better or worse then doing that over an over until you find what you feel is the best ...
It sounds like you're relying on intuition and feeling here. While I think listening is a critical part of phono cartridge setup, you're chasing your tail if you don't start with measurements, imo. For VTA, that means using a VTA alignment gauge. For overhang and tangency it means using a mirrored alignment gauge that aligns the actual cantilever, rather than the cartridge body. There are so many variables in phono cartridge setup that if you rely on crude tools and listening alone, achieving proper alignment is very much a hit-or-miss proposition. And while it's difficult to diagnose a problem such as yours remotely, it sure sounds like a setup problem to me.

Your speakers too can  clash with your amp,preamp 
the McIntosh are decent but a Pass Labs 250.8 would destroy it 
as well as Ampzilla ,and ambrosia Amp,preamp  little kniwn gems 
from late great Jim Borgiano. Nelson Pass New 250.8 
and many others are far more refined.
i sold Macintosh  nice Looking and dependable, but not the last word in resolution.  For Cd McIntosh for not their Forte.
look up the Lascala, Tube dac, or a Great Lampizator dac ,
or manygreat players .  Rule of thumb don’t buy everything  from 
one company  ,no one makes great everything 
 unless you have $$. Gryphon  .comes to mind , Goldman,
 great Swiss company not too expensive Ensemble.
  Even cables are system dependent . Your system is good 
just a few things  can be bettered for similar  money’s that we’re spent.  Just speaking the truth .having owned a store .

audioman- being in a HI-FI deprived area (rural Okla.) I would have to gone to Dallas, Houston, Denver you get the picture, just to check out any HI-FI stores (unless you count BestBuy). So I bought something that I had heard in the past that sounded good. Now I did go to RMAF in 2017 to hear the Raidho speakers (XT-2 and D-1.2). Wish it was like the 70's with a audio store on every other corner (I lived in Tulsa most of my life). Maybe one of these days I can change it up a bit? Plus all these are used so I didn't pay full price even though it still was a lot of money for me.
I'm not surprised that you found adjusting VTA made a noticeable difference that brought you closer to your goal. IME, it's a super important adjustment; possibly the most important. Personally, I will only use tonearms with VTA adjustment on-the-fly capability. I tweak it for every LP I play with superb results.

That said, I still feel a cartridge that's a closer match to the preamp phono sections would be the way to go.  At a $2K potential budget for a phono stage, you can get a truly outstanding cart that matches either the MC or MM gain on the C100 (a high end rig by any measure).  Without another box between you and the music, BTW.

Even better would be a second hand Graham or Micro Seiki arm with VTA OTF and any one of a dozen <$1K LOMC or high end MM cartridges to mount on it at the same $2K overall.  That approach kills 2 birds with 2 stones (so to speak), and gives you a more flexible platform for the future. I also live in the sticks, and that is a key consideration for me.

Good luck with whatever you decide. Keep us posted and happy listening!

Really, just talk to Peter. He is an audiophile, he uses VPI tables, that's his cartridge - he should know how to proceed further. Might save you a lot of time and effort. 
I think, VTA and anti-skate should always be set by ear with setting VTA first. Take your worst sounding record with vocal and see if you can improve it. I also set VTF by ear, within factory specifications, I know where low and high points are on my arm with my cartridge. Funny activity is to find a compromise. 
Oh yeah, forgot to mention this. Clean a few records again, see if it makes a difference. Just in case.
@effischer 
Are you saying you adjust the vta on every single lp you play?
If so you must be doing that until you like the sound correct?
If so is that not exactly what the op has been doing to set it up originally?
I know there are variances in record thickness but adjusting for every single record played sounds just a little obsessive to me and for myself would tend to spoil the experience of just sitting and listening to the music (well for 20 or so minutes at a time anyways...lol)
No criticism at all but it does sound like your method of adjusting "on the fly" for the sound is the same as the ops initial setting, which has been somewhat criticized by others here.
I set once with a medium weight record and leave, I hardly have any 180gm records as most of those are remasters or modern issues which just do not have the same appeal to my tastes again imho only!
@uberwaltz 
Yes; I adjust for every side of every record.  My system easily resolves the difference and it only takes a moment.  The effect is substantial and very much worth the effort to me.  I recognize that not everyone is that picky or sensitive and that's just fine.  To each their own.   

I'd had a Rega with a LOMC for years and it just sounded like I was missing something.  I then went to a Magnepan Unitrac arm with the same cart and a whole new world opened up for me. That was in 1984 and I've never looked back. 

The OP just described the same effect after doing some more adjustment, so thought I'd share my experience on the point.  That's the joy of this hobby: Getting to happy listening. 

@scooby2do - your Soundsmith Aida Has an Optimized Contour Line Contact Stylus - these require the MOST PRECISE setup!

I would highly recommend setting it up using the Best Mint Protractor first (or a protractor that provides for the same amount of precision) and get a younger pair of eyes to perform the setup for you with a very good loupe.

My setup took around two hours of dickering around with the setup and verifying it was correct using a digital camera for closeup analysis.

This stylus type is critical of mis-alignment but the rewards of getting it right is well worth it.

A printed protractor WILL NOT give you the precision required!

The anti-skate method as detailed on the Soundsmith web site basically mirrors Almarg’s post (i.e. you want to make sure there is no sideways force on the stylus) - with a few little refinements that may make a difference...
https://www.sound-smith.com/faq/how-do-i-adjust-anti-skating-my-cartridge

To see if the position of the stylus is being altered when you lower the stylus on the record you should be using a good loupe. The naked eye is not really good enough for Soundsmith cartridges..

It then took just under 2 hours to get the A/S of my Soundsmith’d Denon cart with the Optimized Contour Line Contact Stylus just right. My cartridge is mounted on an Audiomods arm that use a weight and quadrant antiskate system to optimize the A/S force across the record.
http://www.audiomods.co.uk/antiskatenotes2.pdfs

"Dial-in" anti skate systems can present issues that are difficult to rectify - My old rega arm was so far off I had to set the A/S dial to the maximum, so basically I had to use the "trust my ears" method...

  • Start with the dial set at zero
  • then play a troublesome track while you advance the dial in equal increments (e.g. 1/4 of a turn)
  • when is sounds good set the dial back half an increment to see if it sounds better or worse.
  • adjust in fine increments until best image is attained
  • It might be an easier/faster way to proceed.
  • Do this at the center of the recording surface, that way the beginning and end of the recorded surface will only be a little off, which is always the issue with dial A/S systems.
  • At some point during this process this cartridge should snap into focus.

Hope you get your problems solved soon - Steve
Well everybody guess what? After adjusting and re-adjusting just about everything that has been brought up until my head was spinning I found something that we all missed. At least not that I remember seeing and was one of the easiest to fix and that was the VTF. The Aida shows a range of 1.3 to 1.6 grams as the optimum settings. I was running it at 1.3, just for grins I decided to increase it to the max of 1.6 and played an album that sounded bad and the vocals had increased to the point that I could understand what he was singing over the music. So just for grins again I increased it a little bit more and got even more vocals I have stopped at 1.8 grams which is 1/2 gram more than where I started. Maybe it just takes more weight to get the stylus into the groove far enough to retrieve the sound? Sure making all the other adjustments didn't hurt either but that is what has made the most improvement so far. williwonka- your right my old eyes aren't what the use to be, so I have been using a 30x jewelers loupe to view vta and attempt to set anti-skate. Even with that it is hard to see any deflection of the cantilever but it is enough to see the angle of the stylus and get it at close to 90 degrees.
When the VTA is off by 1/10 degree the distortion is up 100%. 
Sounds like a nice find OP, sometimes it is so easy to chase around in ever decreasing circles only to realise you then have missed the  blindingly obvious...lol.
It is something I never even thought of asking but now you state it, I have just about always run my vtf at the top end of the spec for the cartridge used as it does seem to "dig deeper" into the music.
Of course all the time spent on carefull setup has not gone to waste for sure!
Now sit back, relax and enjoy the music!