To get the most out of your turntable, and enjoy your hi-fi system to the fullest, you must have your turntable set up properly.
Optimizing phono cartridge alignment to deliver its maximum performance requires some patience (and a steady hand) but delivers a greater reward than anything you can do to your hi-fi system. Don’t want to deal with cartridge setup?
See if your dealer or online retailer offers this service, and pay their fee. Nothing wrong with being a destination person instead of a journey-focused person!
If you’d prefer to do it on your own, we’ve created a comprehensive guide for that.
The Goal of Cartridge Alignment
In a perfect world, we’d like your phono cartridge’s stylus to track the record perfectly, with no distortion or mistracking, so the stylus tip always stays perfectly in the middle of the record groove.
Unfortunately, the grooves in your record are cut with a tonearm that is at a 90-degree angle to the lacquer. As a result, nearly all tonearms have some tracking error, and even when your cartridge is perfectly aligned, perfect alignment to the groove only occurs twice during record playback.
These are called null points. They occur about halfway through the second and second to last track on your album.
However, a meticulous setup will result in the least amount of distortion outside of these null points, leading to maximum musical enjoyment.
The sophistication of the tools you use will determine how well you can align the cartridge. This isn’t a matter of right or wrong, it’s a matter of degree.
The simplest of cartridge alignment tools can consist of a paper cartridge alignment protractor, downloaded from www.vinylengine.com, and a basic digital scale. You’ll also need a stylus overhang gauge.
Check Your Cartridge and Check Again
We need to adjust a few things that are all interdependent, so plan on taking repeat steps, in gradually smaller increments.
You’ll have the patience of a saint by the time you’re through, but your turntable will sound fantastic as the vibrations travel through your preamplifier and to your ears.
The goal is to have your cartridge’s stylus perpendicular to the record groove, the stylus cantilever at the perfect angle to the record surface (this is known as Stylus Rake Angle, or Vertical Tracking Angle and for most cartridges is set to 25 degrees), and the stylus bearing down on the groove with the optimum amount of pressure.
First, let’s set stylus tracking force. (Or VTF as some refer to it) this is the downward stylus force where it contacts the record groove. If this is too high, you will bury the stylus tip into your records, doing damage.
If this is way too high you can damage the cartridge’s delicate suspension or even bend the cantilever. Be very careful when making these adjustments as to not damage the cantilever – this is not covered by your cartridge’s warranty.
PRO TIP: If you are going to become proficient at cartridge setup, consider getting the least expensive cartridge you can find (maybe even something used, on eBay for $30 or so) just to get used to using the tools and going through the process a few times.
If you happen to have a tonearm with a removable headshell, you can leave your good cartridge on the other headshell till you feel comfortable and return to it. Kind of like a cooking show!
What Are the Best Tools for Cartridge Alignment?
As we mentioned earlier, you need a few basic tools, and you need to go no further than your cartridge or turntable dealer. The cost of your turntable, and how often you plan on setting your cartridge up will probably determine how much you invest in alignment tools.
You’ll notice that rotating counterweight at the rear of the tonearm. For now, leave the stylus guard on your cartridge until you get comfortable.
Ease the tonearm from its rest and let it lower freely by moving the cueing lever down. Hold it by the sides of the cartridge and rotate the counterweight until the entire tonearm/cartridge assembly appears to float in midair. Turn the counterweight very slightly so that the tonearm now goes down when you lower the cueing lever.
Gently lower the tonearm onto the scale and observe the reading. Your cartridge will have a tracking force value, in grams, that is usually somewhere between about 1.4 and 2.2 grams.
If you are using a Sumiko cartridge, this range is usually about .4 grams, so if tracking force is listed at 1.8-2.2 grams (as it is with the Sumiko Oyster cartridges) start in the middle, at 2 grams.
Fine-tuning Your Cartridge
You’ll notice the two screws at the top of the headshell where the cartridge mounts to the tonearm. Next, we need to set the stylus overhang. This is getting the distance from the center of the tonearm pivot to the tip of the stylus to the manufacturer’s specified length.
That will make for the least distortion and the widest null points.
You’ll need to make two adjustments here. Loosen your cartridge enough to allow it to slide back and forth with gentle resistance. Then, move the cartridge forward, so the tip of the stylus will lower into the corresponding dot in the alignment tool.
Using the grid lines on the Align It, square up the cartridge body so it is parallel to the lines.
While some tonearms with removable headshells allow you to move the cartridge on the tonearm’s axis to be sure that the cartridge is at a perfect 90-degree angle to the groove.
Once the overhang is set properly, recheck the tracking force, it may have gone up or down by a tenth of a gram or two. Just twist the counterweight very slightly to bring this back to where you were.
The next adjustment is the VTA/SRA. If you do not have access to a stylus microscope of some very sophisticated cartridge alignment tools, the best way to “eyeball” this, is to try and visually align the bottom of the cartridge body, so it is parallel to the surface of the record.
Your instruction manual will tell you how to set this for your turntable, but again, think small increments.
Once you’ve set VTA to the best of your ability, check tracking force one last time and you’re ready for the final step – anti-skate.
When your cartridge is zooming along through the record groove, the centrifugal force wants to pull the stylus to the inside of the groove. Left unchecked, this can cause premature wear of your records, stylus and cause a channel imbalance from left to right. Setting the anti-skating force properly will keep the stylus where it belongs. If you go too far in the other direction, the exact opposite will happen.
How Seriously Should You Take Alignment?
Getting really OCD about this will require a test record and some tools, should you be so inclined. Some test records and a sharp pair of ears will help you get this very close. Most Pro-Ject tables use a weight on a monofilament line that has multiple settings.
Choose the one closest to whatever tracking force is set you, and you’ll probably be pretty good.
When you’ve gone through this process a few times, it will either inspire you to learn more and go further or have your turntable set up by an expert. Make sure you know when to replace your turntable cartridge, so you don’t go through the process unnecessarily.
Most dealers with turntable cartridges in stock will be able to guide you through this next phase of your vinyl journey.