Sound Quality: The Set-Up Issue
The fact that the AVM R5.3 comes with a built-in tonearm, is compact in size and weight, and has four adjustable, damped feet makes it easier to set up and adjust than most turntable/tonearms, but “easier” is not easy. As reviewers, we may have fallen down on our job in not warning audiophiles that no phono front end is any better than its setup, that cartridge setup is generally the most critical and difficult aspect, and that this is an art form that normally requires the help of either a professional or a very experienced dealer or friend.
For this review, I tried the R5.3 out with four different cartridges: An Ortofon A95, Soundsmith Sussurro Mark II, a Koetsu Rosewood, and a Shure M91E. They all worked very well in terms of cartridge weight, compliance, and the resultant resonances in the tonearm. However, the Ortofon and Soundsmith, my favorite cartridges, have relatively exotic stylus shapes, and the body shapes varied sharply in all four cases.
The tonearm in the R5.3 does allow for relatively easy adjustment of tracking weight, overhang, azimuth, and stylus rake angle (SRA)—although I never received the overhang protractor that was supposed to come with the unit. (The review sample was forwarded from a show.) Both Ortofon and Soundsmith provide good on-line set-up instructions, and Soundsmith even provides two different set-up protractors that you can print out.
The problem is that you can go through all of the motions called for in these instructions and still fall far short of an optimal result. It takes a lot of practical experience to do things right, and a lot of listening experience as well, although test records and devices like a Fozgometer azimuth range meter can help. Moreover, far too many dealers who sell turntables either provide no real setup, or lack an experienced expert who knows all the practical tricks.
This is why I’d check out a dealer’s methods, experience, and frequency of actual set-up work very carefully before buying. I’d also strongly consider hiring a set-up expert. (AVM provided me with the help of a professional, Michael Trei, for the Ortofon A95, and a close friend of mine who has made setup a hobby, and a bit too much of a crusade, walked me through the setup of the Sussurro Mark II.)
Do be aware that it may also be cheaper to pay for the services of a real expert, though proper setup is anything but inexpensive, and every set-up device tends to produce slightly different results in practice. Most protractors do not have a mirror to show you the cartridge body alignment. There is no one right way to set overhang or SRA (where CBS labs concluded that reducing one form of distortion tends to increase another). And, every set-up aid you can buy presents some visual alignment problems and calls for slightly different adjustments. This lack of consistency applies to other aspects of phono setup. I have VPI and Audiotex strobe discs that have about a 1% difference in measuring speed at 33 1/3rpm, and I have five different turntable levels that all produce slightly different results.
Someone who has done a lot of setups with a lot of different cartridges, with different shapes and specs, will have worked around such minor issues empirically. Doing it by the book for the first time or at rare intervals tends to produce very different results.