Turntable setup is a diagnostic exercise
Stereophile|February 2022
ANALOG CORNER
MICHAEL FREMER

As I watched WAM Engineering’s J.R. Boisclair give an advanced turntable setup seminar at last November’s Capitol Audiofest, a light went off.

I’m being figurative, but the lights did—literally —go off, and then on again, as I flipped the switch for Boisclair’s presentation (see the photo below), which featured both screen time and an in-person lecture.

Boisclair’s presentation did not include setting up an actual, physical turntable. Rather, using slides and 1000:1 scale 3D-printed groove and stylus models, he dug into the advanced concepts involved in setting up a turntable and why those concepts matter.

After the presentation, a few people asked me if I was comfortable playing “second fiddle” when I’m usually up there myself doing the talking. I told them I’m perfectly happy flipping light switches and learning from the successor to the abundant Wally Malewicz knowledge base. After all, most of what I know about the subject came directly from Wally, a mechanical engineer, who, while not infallible, was most often correct.

Boisclair is not a mechanical engineer, but he was Wally’s longtime friend and assistant. Today, he is assisted by Wally’s son Andrzej, who, like Wally, is a mechanical engineer. He is vice-president of R&D at Medtronic, a giant healthcare tech company.

The light that went off for me during the presentation was the realization that correctly setting up a turntable is as much an exercise in diagnostics as it is in getting the cartridge precisely aligned in the tonearm.

I usually try to avoid setting up turntables for other people, but Boisclair’s mostly theoretical presentation had me flashing back to some setup experiences I’ve had, beginning with my +1 date to Jack White’s pressing plant grand opening in Detroit’s Cass Corridor back in February 2017.

Just to be clear, this wasn’t a “date”-date (though he turned out to be an attractive man). My wife didn’t want to attend the event, so I ran a contest on AnalogPlanet, and this reader won, so he was my date. He had to pay his own way, but he was thrilled to win, and the evening was as much fun as we’d hoped it would be and included having a photo taken with Jack White.

Afterward, he called me to ask if I could help his friend with a stubborn turntable problem. “Of course, happy to help,” I replied.

I heard from the friend a few days later. He told me he had a 9 Kuzma 4Point tonearm mounted on a Dr. Feickert Woodpecker turntable fitted with a Lyra Etna cartridge. He’d bought it all new and had it set up by someone he trusted to do a good job, but neither he nor his wife were satisfied with the sound. It just sounded “off,” he told me, though he couldn’t be more specific.

He told me that over time the Etna’s cantilever began to skew so far left that it interfered with tracking, and the sound seriously suffered. Off to Lyra went the Etna via Etna importer AudioQuest, and he was left for quite some time with no vinyl playback—too bad because vinyl was his main musical source.

Months later, the same person who installed the cartridge the first time reinstalled the repaired cartridge. Soon thereafter, it again began to skew. This time, the unlucky 4Point owner called me before the cantilever got too far off. I listed every 4Point setup error and mechanical culprit I could think of and asked him to check them all. Everything appeared normal as best I could ascertain at a distance.

I’ve known for some time that the antiskating weight Kuzma supplies (or perhaps used to supply) with the 4Point is too heavy and that adjusting the weight’s position per Kuzma's instruction manual produces excessive antiskating force. Even placing the weight as close as possible to the pulley to fully minimize antiskating force turns out to be excessive with many cartridges.

How do I know that? Because I have the WallySkater tool from WAM Engineering. While setting antiskating is intrinsically an exercise in imprecision, this tool offers a reliable, relatively precise way to set it; its settings are corroborated by the other worthwhile antiskating setting accessories. (Telarc's Omnidisc for instance; the grooveless-record approach is not worthwhile, in my opinion.) For more about antiskating, please read “Everything You Know About Skating Is Wrong! at AnalogPlanet? Kuzma, along with American importer Elite Audio/Visual Distribution, is now said to be including a lighter antiskating weight with 4Point arms.

It was time for me to meet this unlucky 40-something vinyl enthusiast and examine his turntable in person. He brought it over. As we talked, it became clear that he was disappointed with the whole course of his investment and ownership of this costly analog front end. It wasn't a casual purchase, and he felt he'd done it the right way, buying the arm from a dealer and having it properly set up by someone who ought to have expertise-so what was going on?

The first thing I did was put the WallySkater device on the arm. The WallySkater suspends the arm from a string hanging from a crossbar; at the end of the string is a loop you place around the finger lift, allowing the arm to dangle free in space.

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