Setting Up a Phono Cartridge

The Andre Jennings Way

Setting Up a Phono Cartridge

Because it is a thing of beauty to witness and because the results make such a huge difference in sonics, I’d like to take you through the process of mounting, aligning, and optimizing a moving-coil phono cartridge the way an expert does it. That expert is my friend and TAS colleague Andre Jennings.

Although I am capable of handling several of these set-up chores on my own, I generally leave the fine-tuning to Andre. He’s had experience with just about every cartridge and tonearm currently on the market (as well as many that are no longer marketed), and has set up cartridges and tonearms for friends and colleagues throughout the Midwest and for manufacturers at trade shows. His expertise is, IMO, unrivaled.

The photos I’ve taken of Andre’s work actually involve the setup of two different cartridges in two different tonearms—the Goldfinger Statement in the DaVinci Master Reference Virtu tonearm and the Ortofon MC Anna in the Kuzma 4Point tonearm.

Like old age, cartridge setup—done right—is not for sissies. It is an arduous, painstaking process that requires nerves of steel and infinite patience. If, like me, you tend towards clumsiness or near-panicky fits of pique when handling very small, very delicate items, you would be well-advised to leave cartridge setup to an expert like Andre—or to an analog maven of your acquaintance or a retailer with a good deal of experience in the field. The cartridges being installed here are anything but cheap—$8500 (Anna) to $15,000 (Statement)—and getting fed up and doing something careless or stupid while handling them can end up costing you a lot of money.

Andre begins, of course, by mounting the cartridge in the tonearm’s headshell—here the Goldfinger Statement in the DaVinci Audio Lab Master Reference Virtu. Unlike the headshell of DaVinci’s previous flagship Grandezza tonearm, the Virtu’s is removable, which makes attaching a cartridge to it a bit easier (although it also adds a potentially resonant “joint” to the structure of the ’arm). Obviously the width of the mounting screws has to be compatible with both the slots in the headshell and the screwholes in the cartridge, and the length of the screws has to be sufficient to clear the added height of the headshell, while still fastening firmly into the cartridge body. (Nowadays, most cartridges have screwholes tapped into their bodies—a big improvement over the so-called Golden Age of Vinyl, when cartridges only came with molded plastic loops on either side of their plastic chassis and had to be attached to the headshell with screws, washers, and nuts, adding difficulty to the mounting process and resonant mass to the entire setup.)

Before alignment Andre snugs the screws down but doesn’t fully tighten them, as the cartridge will need to be moved forward and back in the headshell and twisted slightly side-to-side to achieve proper alignment.

Step two is attaching the tonearm leads to the output pins at the back of the cartridge. Although I’m not showing you the process—just the result—this is (or, at least, can be) a tricky little step, depending on how handy you are. You have to use the right tool for this job, and fingers aren’t it. You’ll need tweezers or small needle-nose pliers to do it right—and you’ll still have to be careful! The stylus of a cartridge, like the Goldfinger Statement here illustrated, is completely unprotected by the cartridge body—sticking out in front of it like a tiny invitation to disaster. If you seek to gain leverage while attaching the clamps of the color-coded tonearm leads to the (usually) color-coded cartridge pins by putting a finger on the front or side of the cartridge, you may very well bump that stylus with some force if your finger slips, and, folks, take it from someone who knows: You do not want to hit the stylus of a Goldfinger Statement (or any cartridge, for that matter) with your finger. Keeping the stylus guard on the cartridge when attaching the leads is the safest procedure, and what Andre has done here.