THIS ISSUE: Michael Fremer’s illustrated cartridgesetup guide using a digital oscilloscope, a USB microscope, and a variety of WallyTools.
Held every November in normal times, the annual Warsaw Audio Video Show is among the world’s largest. I first attended a decade ago, in 2011, and was amazed by both the number of attendees—more than 10,000 people—and demographics that skewed young and included many families. That show was bigger and better attended than any I’ve been to in America.
The show organizers had arranged for my travel and hotel accommodations in exchange for a series of turntable setup seminars, which seemed like a fair deal.
Upon my arrival at Frederic Chopin airport, I was picked up not by someone from the show but by an individual who informed me that he and not the show organizers had paid for my trip, in exchange for setting up his turntable!
I was okay with that. For one thing, it was kind of flattering, don’t you think, for someone to fly you a third of the way around the world just to set up his turntable? I got to see the beautiful Polish countryside, have a lakeside meal at a fine restaurant, and spend some time in Torún, the birthplace of Copernicus. But first I had to set up this guy’s turntable.
After an overnight flight in the cheap seats, I was jetlagged, and my ears arrived clogged and ringing — and not for me and my gal. But no matter! I went in for an instrument landing, relying on gauges and not on my ears, though even with blocked eustachian tubes it was obvious that the Ortofon A90 had been set up incorrectly.
Ortofon’s Replicant 100 stylus is sensitive to SRA. Incorrectly set up, the A90 can sound hard, bright, gritty, and itchy. More than a few reviews of that revolutionary selective laser–melt body cartridge revealed the reviewer’s bad setup and not the cartridge’s sonic performance.
Once I’d adjusted everything, using a USB microscope and tools manufactured by and knowledge supplied by my late Poland-born mentor Wally Malewicz, I knew it was going to sound much better before I even played a track. It did. Money well spent, my grateful host said after playing a few demo tracks.
As an audiophile, I’m a listener, but when setting up a phono cartridge, I believe in using measurements and not doing it “by ear”—through a final tweak by ear can often be useful, especially setting tracking force (VTF) and sometimes stylus rake angle (SRA). Setting up a high-performance phono cartridge entirely by eye or by ear is not acceptable when you’ve spent thousands of dollars.
Ideally, you shouldn’t even buy a cartridge without an instrument inspection. Without a microscope, you can’t even be certain of correct stylus/ cantilever manufacture. When that’s out of spec, as it too often is, you can set the arms parallel to the record surface and listen to all you want and never get SRA set to 92° or 93°. Furthermore, adjusting the cantilever so that it’s perpendicular to the record surface does not guarantee correct azimuth adjustment. And making small azimuth adjustments by ear is hardly reliable.
Tools allow for other critical diagnostics. At a show in Copenhagen in front of hundreds of audiophiles, Wally’s original anti-skating device demonstrated that the arm I had been given to set up had damage to its vertical bearing: Instead of swinging freely horizontally, it stuck in place, probably a victim of shipping damage. At a show in Trondheim, I discovered, also in front of a large crowd, that the pivot-to-spindle template supplied by another arms manufacturer allowed for far too much play to be reliable. The headshell slots weren’t long enough to compensate and properly set the overhang.
Back home, I helped a local vinyl enthusiast who’d ended up with a skewed cantilever on a circa $10,000 cartridge he’d twice returned to the factory for “realignment.” But it wasn’t the cartridge manufacturer’s fault: A damaged arm bearing was applying enormous anti-skating force, even with anti-skating turned off. I discovered this with the WallySkater tool.
The WAM Engineering LLC website (wallyanalog.com) is a repository of outstanding science- and mathematics-based turntable setup information, with many useful videos including one that finally explains skating conclusively.
THE NEW GENERATION OF WALLYTOOLS
Wally has passed, but today, Wally’s part-time assistant J.R. Boisclair and Wally’s son Andrzej, a mechanical engineer who in his day job oversees projects more critical than the development and refinement of turntable setup tools, continue to develop new, improved devices that I find indispensable, beginning with the new WallyReference, which is designed to insure that as a setup starting point, the cartridge is parallel to the record surface along both longitudinal and transverse axes, though these probably will not be the final settings of VTA and azimuth.
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