Cartridge 101: Everything You Need to Know About Turntable Calibration

Cartridge 101: Everything You Need to Know About Turntable Calibration

People are embracing vinyl records again, especially with the warm tones that an analog record player creates. Since it’s not just audiophiles who need a turntable setup that provides perfect playback, finding the best hi-fi sound might prove to be difficult for someone new to vinyl. Let’s look at what turntable calibration is and why it’s essential for a turntable phonograph. Then, we will give you a step-by-step guide to follow to calibrate your turntable. 

What is Turntable Calibration? 

Turntable calibration is a catchall term for the adjustment of the tonearm balance, the cartridge weighting, and the counterweight behind the pivot. Performing all of these calibrations is critical for the overall audio performance of your vinyl player. Another step to further calibrate and improve your device’s sound is to level out the record player so that the vinyl player won’t run into issues with playback. 

Why is it Important? 

With every vinyl player, you want the correct tracking force. Typically, this is between 1.5 and two grams of tracking force on the record player’s stylus. When you calibrate your turntable to ensure optimized playback, each component will help you achieve this ideal tracking force. While this may seem extraneous, performing adjustments to the pivot’s counterweight will help your player perform more closely to what’s recommended by the manufacturer. 

Tools Needed for Turntable Calibration  

In most cases, turntable calibration isn’t the most tool-heavy process; typically, you’ll already have most items on hand. Still, one thing you’ll need to remember is that any adjustment in the stylus/tonearm area of your vinyl player can easily lead to stylus damage if you’re not careful. For this reason, go slow and be methodical while making these sometimes-minute adjustments so that you don’t damage the stylus tip. 

Here’s a rundown of some of the tools/materials you’ll need: 

  • Your turntable’s manual: If you’re working with an antique or your turntable is no longer in production, you can usually find older manuals online. This will provide you with the precise adjustments recommended by the manufacturer. 
  • A cartridge alignment protractor: A turntable protractor helps you precisely adjust the alignment of the cartridge. When the alignment is poor, the sound quality will quickly degrade. As we mention in our guide to turntable protractors, some protractors are cartridge-specific. Still, if you can’t find one for your exact turntable, the universal version of a protractor works for any device. 
  • A 2mm Allen wrench or flathead screwdriver: You’ll need this if you’re going to be adding a new cartridge to your vinyl player. Some models use Allen screws, while some use standard screws that you can unscrew with a flathead screwdriver. 
  • Tweezers or needle-nose pliers: This is also for phono cartridge replacement. These are for hooking up the tiny wires inside the housing. 

Steps to Calibrate Your Turntable 

Before we get started with the steps, it’s important to understand that we’ll be performing three specific tasks: 

  • Turntable cartridge alignment (or replacement) 
  • Adjustment of the tracking pressure 
  • Adjustment of the anti-skating settings 

Once you have your tools ready, it’s critical that you first consult the owner’s manual for your turntable. As mentioned, you can find these online in most cases in .pdf form if you’ve lost the manual over the years. You’ll need to know the make and model of your player to get the most accurate information about tracking pressure on the record’s grooves, optimal stylus force, etc. 

Aligning or Replacing the Cartridge 

Step 1a: Here’s where you’ll use a cartridge alignment protractor to align the cartridge correctly. During playback, ideally, the tonearm of your player will trace a parabola across the surface of your vinyl disc. When this degrades over time, sound quality suffers, which is why a protractor, which you can download and print as a template, is so valuable. 

For proper phono cartridge stylus alignment, you should place the protractor on the platter and put the stylus tip on the marked alignment point, which may look like a bullseye. Ideally, the cantilever, the metal tube with the stylus at the tip, should run parallel to the guides on the protractor.  

Step 2a: Once the stylus and cantilever are lined up, it’s time to loosen the screws. Differing models of tonearms have differing screws. In most cases, it’s either a hex screw or a flathead screw. Loosen one or both screws on the headshell so that you can move it either forward or backward. Find the position where the stylus lines up correctly with both targets on the protractor. This may take a few adjustments, but once the stylus lines up correctly, retighten the screws. 

Step 1b: Sometimes, you’ll need to replace your cartridge outright. When this is the case, you’ll need to connect the red, blue, green, and white wires to the terminals in the cartridge’s back. This tends to be very fine-tuned work, so a pair of tweezers or thin, delicate pliers will help you place the wires in the correct terminals. After you attach the wires, you’ll need to use a screwdriver to affix the cartridge to the headshell – just make sure to assure proper alignment with a protractor before fully locking the cartridge. 

Adjusting the Tracking Pressure 

The tonearm of your record player is a very intricate part that allows you to adjust the pressure of the stylus on the grooves quickly. Typically, this is another measurement present in your owner’s manual, so once again, consult this resource before you make any adjustments. This is also referred to as tracking force or stylus force adjustments. 

Step 1: The first step is to identify the counterweight on the arm. This is usually a relatively bulbous or large section of the tonearm opposite the armrest. The dial on this presents the pressure in grams. Ideal weight settings vary from player to player, so check the manual before adjustment. 

Step 2: Turn the dial on the counterweight to distribute the weight on both ends of the tonearm equally. Rotating this section adds or subtracts weight at either end and ideally, you’ll want the balance to be perfect so that the tonearm floats in a horizontally-balanced way without any external interference. This ideal horizontal balance is called the azimuth, and you can observe this when you view the cartridge from the front of the player. 

Adjustment of the anti-skating settings 

Somewhere on the turntable, you’ll likely find the anti-skating dial. This dial allows you to counteract the vector force that will eventually pull the stylus tip towards the edge of the groove during playback. Ideally, you want the stylus to fall in the middle of the groove, so this dial is essential to audio playback quality. 

Step 1: For this part of turntable calibration, you only need a single step: match the number on the dial to the same number used in the tracking force calibration mentioned earlier. This will help the stylus fall almost dead-center of the record grooves as you play. 

Turntable Calibration Brings Better Audio Quality 

Sumiko Songbird on Pro-Ject Tonearm

While the steps we outlined may seem to be a lot of extra work, they are integral for creating the best sound quality for your vinyl collection. Another method for calibration includes using an overhang gauge or Pro-Ject’s Align It that establishes how to find the tracking null points similar to a protractor. Taking these steps will be very rewarding in any situation, especially if you want to create an audio profile that’s the closest to the original recording you can get. 


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