6. Pick Up A New Mat
Different mats impart different qualities to the sound. Some swear by felt, others cork, carbon fibre or even vinyl. You can find a selection from Funk in the CANADA HIFI shop (novo.press/product/the-funk-firm-achromat-turntable-platter-mat). If you change your mat you may need to adjust the arm height to compensate for the change in thickness.
7. Check Your Cartridge
Cartridge performance may decline due to wear and tear, or simply through the passing of time as materials dry out. Or perhaps your stylus or cantilever has been damaged by rough handling (been there, done that). Some cartridges have replaceable or even upgradeable styluses, while those that don’t can usually be retipped. You or a dealer can examine the stylus under a specially designed microscope to see if it needs replacement or retipping. If it does, you can go to the original manufacturer or to a number of specialized companies who offer this service, among them being SoundSmith (www.sound-smith.com/retip) and van den Hul (www.vandenhul.com/products/phono/cartridge-repair-modification-and-re-tipping-available-services) who have retipped my Koetsu Black Goldline cartridge (koetsu black goldline.gif)). You may have the option of more advanced profiles and materials. You may also choose to replace your cartridge with another type. You will need the advice of someone who really knows their business, since not every cartridge matches well with every tonearm. SoundSmith and van den Hul may be excellent sources of advice, as is your local dealer.
8. The Connection To Your Amplifier
Some amps have a phono input so you can connect directly to the amp. This input may be designed for low output (usually but not always moving coil cartridges) or high output (usually moving magnet cartridges) or may be switchable. However most such inputs are not designed to get the very best out of your cartridge, and you may do better with a dedicated phono preamplifier that sits between the turntable and the amplifier. Examples of amplifiers with excellent phono inputs do exist, such as the amazing Devialet Le 200 amplifier from France. If you are in the market for a phono preamp there are many models to choose from, a good example being the Sutherland Insight. You may also want to upgrade your cartridge leads or the cable running from the turntable to the amplifier. You can get excellent leads like these Cardas Headshell Leads while turntable cables such as the Kimber TAK-CU will need to be specified with the appropriate connector type (RCA or DIN) for your turntable.
9. Cartridge Installation And Alignment
If you are replacing your cartridge then either you need an expert to do it for you or you’d better take an online tutorial on cartridge installation and alignment. This is by far the most complex and delicate procedure in this article, so you need a good appreciation of fine motor skills and ability to follow detailed instructions. We’re not talking IKEA assembly level skills here – more like model aircraft kit assembly. I have always left this part to the professionals. If you do go ahead, you’re going to need certain tools. You can make your own alignment protractor by downloading from www.vinylengine.com/cartridge-alignment-protractors.shtml or www.enjoythemusic.com/protracori.pdf. Alternatively you can buy one from any number of vendors, such as the DB Systems Protractor or the Pro-Ject Align It Cartridge Alignment Tool, which is also good for checking azimuth. This tool will help you align the cartridge longitudinally within the headshell so that the stylus sits at the correct distance from the pivot of the arm, and at the appropriate angle to the tonearm so that the stylus sits parallel to the groove as seen from above (if you could see through the headshell and cartridge). Unfortunately, unless you are using a parallel tracking arm it is not possible to get the cartridge sitting parallel to the groove at all points across the record – only at two so called null points. The protractor will give you guidance on where these null points should be positioned for optimal performance. You will also need to adjust the Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) of the arm and cartridge. This is normally achieved by raising or lowering the tonearm pillar itself via an adjustment screw or spacers so that the tonearm or the top of the cartridge is parallel to the disc surface when the stylus is in the groove. If the arm does not have such an adjustment, you can achieve the same effect by introducing spacers between the cartridge body and the headshell, but this is an inferior method. If the tonearm is tilted down towards the record, then you need to lower the arm and vice versa. The next adjustment is for azimuth. You want the bottom of the cartridge to be parallel to the record surface when seen from directly in front of the stylus. Some tonearms allow you to rotate the arm tube clockwise or counterclockwise for this purpose. If there is no adjustment then shims on one side of the arm base or spacers on one side of the cartridge can assist. Unfortunately that is not the end of the story. The stylus assembly itself may not be installed at a perfect right angle to the body of the cartridge. To really perform this adjustment correctly, you need to use an azimuth test meter and a special test record, but there is a simpler way to optimize the azimuth. Play a mono recording and adjust until you hear a stable image centred between the two speakers.
10. Vertical Tracking Force (VTF) And Antiskate Settings
If your tracking force is set too light, the stylus will not run stably in the record groove and you may get odd tonality, jumps and other instability which can lead to groove damage. If it is set too heavy, then you may be increasing wear on the LP, cartridge and stylus. Tracking weight is easy to set. First you need to establish a zero reference. Set the antiskate force and the balance weight to zero and see if the arm will just float in midair above where the outer groove of the LP would be. On some turntables this is best done with the platter removed. Take care not to let the stylus come into contact with the hardware. You can move the counterweight in or out to find the balanced position. Then you can refit the platter and set the weight using the scale on the arm itself. Or use a stylus scale like this SFG-2 model from Shure which will lead to a more accurate reading in most cases. Be extra careful to avoid damage. The manufacturer will recommend a range and you should start at the low end on the range and increase it slowly until you achieve secure tracking. Antiskate is more complex as it depends on the geometry of the arm. This setting pushes the arm slightly towards the centre of the turntable to counteract the centrifugal force generated by the stylus in the groove. There is no perfect setting, since that force will be different at different positions on the LP. The arm manufacturer will give you some guidance so start with that, then lower the stylus onto the LP around the midpoint of the playing surface. Watch carefully as you raise the arm by its mechanical lift to see if the arm swings out a little or in as the stylus leaves the surface of the record. If it swings out, you need to increase the antiskate, and if it swings in then you have set it too high. Then try listening to demanding tracks to see if a small adjustment of tracking weight or antiskate leads to a better sound. Finally you can make small adjustments to the VTA to see if a tilted up or tilted down tonearm improves the sound.