For audiophiles and music lovers, the 1982 launch of CDs promised “perfect sound forever”. However this rather optimistic guarantee never really materialized. Today, interest in turntables, vinyl records, and the sound of analog recordings is thriving. Why…? Despite the conveniences that streaming music services and digital downloads offer, many music lovers prefer the organic sound and remarkable detail offered by well recorded vinyl. Many listeners also really enjoy placing their cherished records - very carefully - on their turntable platters.
There is, of course, a caveat to this. An incorrectly set-up turntable, tonearm, and cartridge will not sound as good as a ‘table that’s been precisely dialled-in. With this in mind, Nordost is happy to offer helpful hints on properly setting up a turntable. This complete turntable setup guide will help you achieve the best possible sound.
The Turntable’s Base, Plinth, and Platter
Two types of vibrations can negatively affect the sound of any turntable: one, airborne acoustical energy (i.e. sound waves); and two, mechanical resonances which travel through the bearing, sub-platter, platter, motor, and drive mechanism.
A turntable’s base and plinth need to isolate the platter, tonearm, drive system, and cartridge from vibrations. Phono cartridges unwittingly convert all of these resonances into electrical signals that are transformed into unwelcome distortion, noise hash, and a haze that hangs over, and underneath, the music.
Placing a turntable upon a sturdy, level, and non-resonant stand is critical to minimizing the worst vibrations. A poorly designed stand will dramatically degrade the sound quality of any record player.
Once placed on a decent stand, use a bubble level to verify that the ‘table is…indeed…level.
At Nordost, we have spent many years researching and developing products to minimize hifi system vibrations. Our Sort System products offer state-of-the-art approaches to solving all sorts of vibration issues.
Bearing Lubrication & Rotational Speed Accuracy
Smooth bearing and spindle rotation plays an important role in vinyl playback, as it directly affects the rotational speed of a turntable’s platter. It has a dramatic effect on the pace, rhythm and time (PRaT) and dynamics of the music. If your turntable’s main bearing, sub-platter, and spindle haven’t been lubricated in recent memory, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for re-lubricating all of these parts with a recommended fluid. A poorly lubricated drive mechanism has the potential to suck the life right out of your music.
Similarly, miniscule inaccuracies in the rotational speed of the platter can cause enormous sonic performance loss. It’s critical to dial-in a platter’s 33.3 RPM rotational speed. Most seasoned ‘table gurus use a tachometer to precisely set this metric. Tachometers can be easily found at local audio dealers and online retailers.
Finally, if your turntable’s a belt-driven model and the belt is old, also buy and install a new belt. All rubber ages poorly and even a slightly deteriorated belt will negatively impact your music. A fresh belt on the other hand will help to stabilize the timing and play music at a steady pace.
Cartridge Mounting & Alignment
An accurately aligned cartridge will keep the needle in the groove, minimize tracking errors, and achieve the most accurate sound from your turntable. All tonearms have headshells that hold a cartridge in place with small screws and bolts. To attach a cart to a tonearm, first insert the screws and nuts through the headshell to hold the cartridge in place. Do NOT initially tighten the screws all the way down. Once loosely attached, connect the four tiny wires that come from the tonearm to the cart’s color-coded ends. We recommend using tweezers to connect these tiny wires.
Before tightening the mounting screws to the arm’s headshell, the cartridge’s alignment must be set correctly. Acoustic Solid, Acoustical Systems, Baerwald, Feikert, Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, and VPI all make great alignment tools.
The first step of this process is to mount the tonearm precisely, by accurately setting the distance between the tonearm pivot and the spindle, as specified by the manufacturer of your turntable. To perform this procedure, you will need to use a “pivot to spindle” measuring tool. Simply follow the instructions provided with the measuring tool and you’ll end up with a perfectly mounted tonearm.
The next step is to align the cartridge stylus using a mounting template. While you can find a number of free mounting templates online, which you can print, we recommend using a more precise cartridge alignment tool from one of the manufacturers mentioned above to unlock the full potential of your turntable. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions that come with the alignment tool, as this is a critical turntable setup step. Once you dial-in the precise position of the cartridge, simply tighten its mounting screws and take care not to over tighten them.
Cartridge VTA / SRA
The Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) sets the angle at which the cartridge’s stylus sits in the record’s grooves, when viewed from the side of the tonearm. This in turn determines the Stylus Rake Angle (SRA), or the angle at which the stylus is raking the record grooves at. The optimal SRA angle is the angle at which the record grooves are cut, which in most cases is 92 degrees.
When the stylus is in the groove, the goal is to get the cartridge’s body parallel to the record’s surface. Pivoted tonearms usually have a set screw located at the base of the pivot point to raise or lower the arm and adjust the VTA / SRA. Getting the VTA / SRA aligned correctly will reduce tracking errors, groove modulation distortion, and surface noise. To accurately set the VTA / SRA, to match the angle at which the record grooves are cut, we recommend using a tool like the Acoustical Systems SMARTstylus tool.
Vertical Tracking Force (VTF)
Tonearms hold Moving Magnet (M/M) or Moving Coil (M/C) phono cartridges and let the cart’s stylus smoothly trace the record’s grooves. Most turntables use pivoted tonearms outfitted with a counterweight located at the back of the pivot point. This counterweight allows you to adjust the Vertical Tracking Force (VTF), which refers to the amount of “weight” or downward force that the cartridge’s stylus exerts on the record’s grooves. You can use a stylus force gauge, readily available from a number of manufacturers, to precisely measure and set VTF. Adjustments are made by gently sliding the tonearm’s counterweight forward or backward to achieve a specific weight range specified by the cartridge manufacturer.
Azimuth refers to the perpendicular 90 degree angle of the stylus in relation to the groove. To achieve accurate stereo imaging between the left and right channels and the full size and potential of the soundstage, cartridge azimuth must be dialled-in. An incorrectly set azimuth will result in the left channel signals leaking into the right channel, or vice-versa. This leakage between channels is called crosstalk and results in vastly deteriorated audio quality. To properly set the cartridge azimuth, you can use the same Acoustical Systems SMARTstylus tool mentioned above in the VTA / SRA section.
Remember, it is the stylus’ azimuth and not the cartridge’s body that needs to be set at a 90 degree angle. If the stylus is bent, you’ll need an expert to fix it. Most turntables do not offer a mechanical means to adjust a cartridge’s azimuth, only some of the more expensive models do.
Anti-Skating Force (ASF)
“Skating” refers to a frictional vector force that pulls the tonearm towards the center of the record. To counter this force, turntables use weights with pulleys, adjustable tensioned springs, and mechanical devices to create an equal but opposite force called anti-skating.
A turntable with an accurate anti-skate force will let the stylus maintain equal pressure against both sides of the record’s groove walls. A Fozgometer and/or a test record are needed to precisely dial the ASF.
Tonearm Cables / Phono Interconnects
If your ‘table has a removable tonearm cable, you can achieve a striking improvement in sound quality by upgrading the stock cable with a high performance model. The tonearm cable carries the most delicate signal in the analog audio system chain and hence a purpose-built, low capacitance cable with proper shielding for both channels will enable the turntable cartridge to deliver all the musical details contained on LPs to the phono preamp. As with the actual signal, the grounding is also very important. Proper grounding is essential for keeping the signal quality. Today’s tonearm cables need a very versatile grounding system, as different ‘table and phono pre-amplifier manufacturers have varying grounding solutions.
The mechanical properties of your tonearm cable shouldn’t be overlooked either. As previously discussed with cartridges, micro resonances can also be picked up and added to the signal by tonearm cables themselves. Nordost’s unique mechanically tuned construction techniques help to minimize this very problem. If you’d really like to push the boundaries of performance from your turntable setup, take a look at our range of Tonearm Cable designs. Nordost also produces two extremely precise and accurate internal tonearm cables, offered by various manufacturers, like VPI and Graham, and by specialist audio dealers providing aftermarket upgrade services.
Record Weights and Turntable Mats
To further push the performance of your turntable, the stock platter mat can be upgraded to one made from sorbothane, cork, carbon-fibre, and other wildly exotic materials. A turntable platter weight can also help minimize vibrations, cut background noise, and create better sound. It’s best to follow the recommendations of your ‘table’s manufacturer for both mats and weights.
Keeping your records and the stylus’ tip clean will also create a much better sound. A stylus brush and cleaning fluid are small investments, and absolute must-haves for all turntable owners.
Cleaning vinyl by hand with clean cheese-cloth strips and record cleaning solution is fast and cheap. If you have a large record collection and/or buy a lot of used vinyl, a vacuum suction RCM (Record Cleaning Machine) or an Ultra Sonic RCM can achieve professional quality results.
Clean inner sleeves and an anti-static gun are also helpful for keeping your records in tip-top shape.
All of the tools mentioned above can be purchased individually but you can also pick up a complete turntable setup kit from manufacturers like Acoustic Solid and Acoustical Systems.