Setting Up a Phono Cartridge

The Andre Jennings Way

Setting Up a Phono Cartridge

If you’re attaching a cartridge to a tonearm for the first time or switching cartridges, you may find that the clamps at the ends of the tonearm leads are too tight or too loose to fit snugly on the cartridge pins. Don’t force anything! The clamps may need to be slightly enlarged or slightly narrowed prior to attachment. You can do the former by inserting a toothpick into the clamp, opening the gap up a wee bit; to close it down some, use your needle-nose pliers, but use those pliers gently and sparingly! The clamps at the end of tonearm leads can only stand a little bit of strain. If you pull them or twist them or abuse them repeatedly, chances are they will break off, making it necessary to solder them to the tonearm leads again (a job you don’t want to do).

Step three is setting VTF (vertical tracking force). You need to do this before alignment, but you don’t have to get VTF exactly right at this point—just in the ballpark of the manufacturer’s recommendation. You will need to check VTF again in any event after alignment and other adjustments have been made—and later by ear.

There are several digital stylus-force gauges on the market; if you’re heavily into analog I would recommend purchasing one of them. They are more precise than Shure’s mechanical gauge, although be aware that some of them are affected by a cartridge’s magnetic field. You can tell if you’ve got one of these if the VTF reading changes to any value other than 0.000 as you prepare to lower (or actually lower) the cartridge onto the gauge. If your meter does fluctuate as you position the cartridge above the gauge’s measuring platform, stop and press the TARE button. This should zero-out the meter, after which you can continue lowering the cartridge.

Step four is attaching an alignment jig to your turntable/ tonearm. Once again, there are many of these on the market from freebies on the Internet, to protractor-style jigs like the custom-made one from Dr. Feickert that comes with the DaVinci Virtu tonearm, to engraved-mirror ones from Wally Tractor, to the dedicated paper or plastic graphs and other devices invariably supplied with tonearms.

I’m not going to go into the science behind alignment. Suffice it to say, that a cartridge in a pivoted arm is only exactly in the right position (in perfect tangency with the groovewalls) at two points in its arc of travel. Everywhere else it is slightly out of perfect tangency. A straight-line-tracking tonearm, OTOH, is always in perfect tangency vis-à-vis the groovewalls. However, neither a pivoted nor a linear-tracking tonearm will be “right” if it is not properly aligned to begin with.

Basically, alignment is a two-part process: 1) setting overhang, and 2) aligning the stylus. The first is accomplished by moving the cartridge back and forth in the headshell (toward and away from the tonearm pivot point) so that the stylus fits precisely in the pinprick or crosshairs engraved on your protractor at one or two specified points in its arc of travel (or, with a straight-line tonearm, remains in the groove of your protractor through its entire radius of travel). Alignment is accomplished by twisting the cartridge body so that the stylus/cantilever assembly is perfectly “squared up” within the engraved rectangular grid surrounding the pinprick/crosshairs on your protractor (while the stylus tip is sitting in that pinprick), so that the stylus is not just sitting in precisely the right point(s) for proper overhang but is aligned so that it is squarely in that point and not at an angle to it. You can see Andre adjusting alignment in the photograph; he is using a flashlight in his cellphone to illuminate the cartridge and the jig.

Most modern cartridge bodies are not squared off. Because of this, Andre always aligns the stylus/cantilever assembly instead of the body of the cartridge. The most precise approach is to try to align the cantilever to the sightline running along the pinprick or crosshairs of the alignment jig. Basically this involves setting the stylus in the pinprick or crosshairs of the alignment grid and, from the front of the cartridge, following the sightline of the alignment grid running alongside or below the cantilever. Adjust (twist) the cartridge body in order to get the cantilever to lineup with this sightline. (This is easier to do, and can be more precise, with mirrored protractors that allow the reflection of both the cantilever and sightline to both be seen from the proper viewing angle.)