Analog Corner #109

Not quite a meeting of the minds at Home Entertainment 2004: Michael Fremer (right) explains to Ken Kessler (left) why LPs sound better than CDs. (Photo: John Atkinson)

It wasn't exactly heroic or even particularly daring, but has anyone ever attempted to install a phono cartridge while facing a room full of audiophiles at a hi-fi show, as I did during my "Analog Clinic" at Home Entertainment 2004 in May? Not that I know of.

Despite the Clinic's being scheduled at 2:30 Sunday afternoon, the butt end of the Show, the seats were filled. There were knowing nods when I began by saying that, in 2004, you can't depend on most dealers to do a solid cartridge installation, and that self-sufficiency is critical for maximum analog enjoyment. Thanks to Show organizer Greg Nivens and the New York Hilton's audio-visual department, the alignment was shot close-up and projected in real time via a video projector and a large screen. Unfortunately, I neglected to stop and have the cameraman duplicate my view, to ensure that the audience could see what I saw during the procedure. I'll do better next time.

Seminar Power Points
During my "Analog Clinic" at HE2004 I tried to make the cartridge-setup procedure as nontechnical and practical as possible, but I did try to explain why the various adjustments are necessary, and the order in which to proceed.

First, I loosely affix the cartridge to the headshell using the supplied screws and washers—and, if necessary, nuts. Then it's time to set the vertical tracking force (VTF) by moving the counterweight in or out to the approximately correct setting. The VTF setting will change as the cartridge is moved fore and aft to adjust its overhang, but it needs to be close to correct to protect the cartridge suspension and cantilever. The correct setting is usually at the higher end of the range of recommended tracking forces. Too light a tracking force usually does more damage than too heavy a force.

Next I adjust the vertical tracking angle (VTA) so that the tonearm is parallel to the surface of a 180gm LP, which approximates the difference in VTA between 200gm LPs and typical commercial pressings. I use Wally Malewicz's skate-blade–like Wally Tools device, which is precise and especially easy to use with tapered tonearms—but a lined index card or a 2" section of thin plastic ruler will work fine as well. Rest the lined index card on the record surface so that the lines are parallel to the surface. Adjust the tonearm height until the armtube is parallel to the closest index card line.

Setting the overhang adjusts the arc traced by the stylus across the record surface. The idea is to minimize the distortion caused by the difference between the straight line traced by the cutting stylus across the surface of the lacquer and the arc described by a stylus in a pivoted arm. Ideally, the cantilever should be tangential to the groove at all times. You can set the overhang to minimize distortion anywhere on the record surface—such as closer to the end of the record, which might be best for classical music—but most gauges set tangency at two "null points" of 1/3 and 2/3 along the arc.

I demonstrated a few different types of gauges, including a single-point protractor and a Wally gauge, which traces the actual ideal arc laser-cut into a piece of mirrored plastic. Wally's gauge is ideal, but it assumes your tonearm has been precisely installed: Wally cuts the arc based on the exact distance of your specific tonearm's bearing to the platter's spindle. If that's off, your overhang adjustment will be too. Fortunately, you can easily measure this relationship with a transparent yardstick cut at approximately 15" (380mm) and drilled for a spindle hole close to the 0mm mark. Put the ruler over the spindle hole and measure the distance to the center of the bearing.

With overhang set and the cartridge mounting screws snugged down so they can't move, it's time to check the VTF again. Because the stylus is at the end of a spring mechanism, a higher VTF will bring the tonearm closer to the record surface, which displaces the stylus forward. If you've moved the cartridge only slightly to get the overhang correct, there will be no change to the overhang setting.

Next you set the zenith angle, which is a rotational movement around an imaginary vertical line drawn through the center of the cartridge. This adjustment, which optimizes tangency to the groove at the null points, is usually accomplished by making sure that, when viewed from directly in front, the cantilever is parallel to a set of hash marks on either side of it, and runs true with a line intersecting it. Make sure to disable the arm's antiskating (see next paragraph), which, under static conditions, pulls the arm outward, which slants the cantilever to the right. Even though you've just set overhang, if the zenith needs to be adjusted you'll have to loosen the cartridge screws again, so you can twist the cartridge body and get the zenith correct. Be sure to re-check overhang and zenith; when both are correct, tighten the screws snugly, then re-check the VTF.

Set the antiskating force by using as a starting point the setting suggested by your tonearm's manufacturer, based on the VTF you're using. Wally makes a good gauge for this. There are also some good test records, especially Telarc's out-of-print Omnidisc, which I think has the best antiskating band on record. Skating is a force that occurs in pivoted tonearms with offset headshells (ie, most modern arms), which causes the arm to "skate" toward the spindle. The force of the skating depends on the arm's location on the record, the intensity of the modulations in the groove, and even the quality of the vinyl. Any antiskating setting is an average and therefore a compromise, but I think it's better than ignoring skating altogether.

If you can set azimuth, use a test record containing a 1kHz tone in the left channel and nothing in the other, and vice versa. I use a voltmeter connected to the amplifier output with the volume set to deliver around 4V, but, as an "Analog Clinic" attendee pointed out, you can use a cassette deck's VU meters. Measure the large voltage of the modulated channel, then the much smaller voltage of the unmodulated channel (that measurement is the crosstalk). Convert the ratio between the voltages to decibels (easy to do if you have a calculator with a log function, footnote 1) and you have your cartridge's separation at 1kHz for the modulated channel. Repeat for the other channel.

Adjust azimuth if necessary, so that each channel's crosstalk is minimized and made as equal as possible between the channels. Setting azimuth changes the cantilever's perpendicularity to the record surface. Running one channel out of phase relative to the other and then nulling out the sound using a test tone does not set azimuth. That adjustment equalizes electrical output. Sometimes that's the same as proper azimuth, but not necessarily.

Basically, you're done, except for the tweaking. My "Audio Clinic" participants wanted to know what being "off" sounds like for each of these parameters, and what adjusting each from the measured setting would do.

I didn't spend enough time describing what to listen for when changing VTA. Setting the tonearm parallel to the record is only a starting point, and an approximate setting. Most cartridges sound best with the back of the arm (the pivot point) slightly lower than the front. Too high and the sound usually gets brighter and thinner. Too low and the bass gets soggy and fat, image focus suffers, soundstage depth collapses, and separation between instruments with similar timbres and the ability to hear them separately deteriorates. When you've got the VTA correct, the sound seems to be liberated from the confines of the speakers.

When the antiskating is set too high, the left channel can sound distorted on highly modulated passages, or the soundstage can be skewed slightly to the right. With the antiskating set too low, the right channel can sound distorted and/or the soundstage can sound skewed to the left.

Setting the vertical tracking force too low within the recommended range causes bright, spitty sound, especially on sibilants, and possibly audible mistracking. Too high a VTF can cause the sound to get dull and thick and slow. Changing the VTF can change sound dramatically because it also changes the stylus rake angle (SRA), which is the angle of the stylus relative to the record surface. Because the pivot point of this change is the cartridge suspension and is therefore very close to the stylus relative to the arm's pivot point, it's been posited that changing VTF actually has a greater effect on sound than changing VTA. SRA and VTA are therefore related.

That's about all there is to it. A few helpful hints: use a good light that you can move and position easily, such as a Littlite gooseneck lamp; get a good, moderate-strength (4x) magnifying glass; make sure the turntable is level; and, if you can move the 'table to a chest-high surface, your back won't hurt when you're finished. When you're done, sit back and enjoy what should be totally transparent vinyl playback, regardless of how much or how little your turntable, arm, and cartridge cost.

Analog Is Alive and Well in New York
There wasn't much analog news at HE2004, though there were plenty of turntables and lots of vinyl, both in the rooms and on the selling floor. Attendees were overwhelmed by the selection from the Acoustic Sounds, Music Direct, Elusive Disc, and Red Trumpet booths. Add in the new vinyl from Analogue Productions, Classic Records, Speakers Corner, Groove Note, Sundazed, S&P, and others—including major labels Sony and BMG, who are supposedly out of the vinyl business—and you could have walked away with an instant 1000-disc LP collection, wallet and muscles permitting.

Among the more noteworthy new vinyl was Creedence Clearwater Revival's Absolute Originals, the long-awaited boxed set from Acoustic Sounds: seven LPs plus a bonus 12" 45rpm disc. Also new and at the Show: Speakers Corner's Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Song Book boxed set and some CTI jazz titles; S&P's new LP of Eva Cassidy's Songbird, mastered from analog by Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman; Nat Cole's Love Is the Thing, on Groove Note (previously reissued, in the 1990s, by DCC Compact Classics); and test pressings of Classic's reissue of Bob Dylan's The Bootleg Series Volume 6, Live 1964: Concert at Philharmonic Hall, which sounded absolutely mesmerizing. Lack of vinyl is hardly an analog issue in 2004!

The first turntable I saw was the imposing stainless-steel edition of the Brinkmann Balance ($12,900), fitted with Brinkmann's 10.5" tonearm ($3500) and their EMT-based moving-coil cartridge ($2500). The Balance comes with a heated bearing system so that it's always warmed up and ready to perform optimally. For another $2500, you can add a vacuum-tube power supply. Sounds like overkill? I'll find out when the package arrives for review later this year.

Among the new 'tables introduced at HE2004E were a nameless one from Max Townshend (ca $8000), and the Nordic Concept Artist, imported by Donald North Imports. The thread-driven Artist, which has a DC motor, an acrylic platter, and the same bearing and clamp as Nordic's dual-plinth 'table ($14,000), is available in fir, walnut, or oak.

One of the most striking-looking new 'tables was Redpoint Audio Design's Testa Rossa ($7500), in Maserati Red. Turns out the designer likes the Ferrari model name and Maserati's paint color. Weighing up to 90 lbs, depending on options, the Testa Rossa features a Teflon-topped platter driven by Mylar tape. The platter has 24 inserts filled with lead shot and oil, and the motor is battery-powered. The motor and arm pods are independent of the platter assembly. In the more expensive Redpoint models ($12,500 and $15,000), the motor and arm pods, too, have inserts filled with oil and shot.

Familiar 'tables spotted at HE2004E included the Linn Sondek, the Wilson Benesch Full Circle, the Simon Yorke S-7, Musical Fidelity's M-1, the Kuzma Stabi Reference (fitted with the Air Line air-bearing linear-tracking tonearm I review in this issue), the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold, and the Music Hall, SOTA, and Clearaudio lines. Damoka Demo Systems demoed vintage EMT and Micro-Seiki 'tables via Lamm electronics and two enormous vintage loudspeaker systems—the Tannoy Autograph Professional and Siemens Bionor—placed on opposite sides of the room. So much was right with the sound (scale, musical flow), and so much wrong (dynamics, timbre).

Curiously, while local firm VPI was not represented at HE2004E, VPI owners Harry and Sheila Weisfeld were there in person. The VPI 'tables are now available in glossy black lacquer, as well as walnut and cherry veneer. Also not on hand was Brooklyn-based Grado Labs, as well as Rega, Thorens, Acoustic Signature, SME, Pro-Ject, Trans-Rotor, and Garrard. Perhaps the Munich hi-fi show, which took place the same time as HE2004E, kept some of the European companies on the Continent.

European turntables from Eurolab were on display at the Audio Advancements booth, including the Minuette ($1350), fitted with a Schröder Model 2 arm ($2400), which uses the same pivoting headshell design apparently copied by Clearaudio for its Satisfy tonearm. Eurolab's compact 2008A ($2750) looked particularly intriguing.

But unless I missed something, that was it for turntables at HE2004E—a disappointing turnout compared to the many spinners shown at January's Consumer Electronics Show. Perhaps next time, the HE Show could organize a room similar to what I first saw at a Frankfurt show a few years ago: a room dedicated to turntables. When you see a room filled with an overwhelming variety of brands and models, it makes a powerful statement about the strength of the analog revival. It would take someone to organize, set up, and man the room, but the opportunity would allow importers and manufacturers to participate without spending enormous sums of money. A local audio society performed turntable shoot-outs throughout that Frankfurt show, but getting that to happen at an HE Show is probably too much to ask for right away.

About the only new phono preamp I found at HE2004E was part of the new Cyrus line imported from the UK by Rega importer Sound Organisation. The compact Phono X will sell for $1500; a power-supply upgrade will be available for $700. When I asked Sound Organisation's Steve Daniels about Rega's new P5 and P7 'tables, already launched in Europe, he told me that power-supply issues were still being worked out for the American market.

Cartridge maker Benz-Micro celebrated Albert Lukaschek's 10th anniversary as owner-designer by introducing the Ruby 3 and Ref Series 3, as well as the new Ebony H, new mono designs, and overall improvements to the line. The Ruby 3, a low-output moving-coil, now has a stronger magnet and new pole pieces, as well as a new coil design derived from the top of the Benz line, the LP. The resulting greater efficiency allows the new, lower-mass coil to output the same 3.5mV at 3.54cm/s as the previous design. The Ruby 3 contains other improvements as well, but its price is still $3000. Older Ruby cartridges can be exchanged for new for $1000.

Other cartridges in the Benz line have received similar upgrades. Mono versions of all Benz-Micro cartridges are now available, priced the same as the stereo editions, including optional conical styli for 78rpm playback at no extra cost. Finally, all medium- and high-output Benz-Micro cartridges now feature Fritz Geiger FG2 styli precision-bonded to 5.5mm cantilevers of solid boron.

A few sonic highlights
Scouting Home Entertainment 2004 East for turntables and acting as the official Show spokesperson took up a great deal of my time, but I did have a chance to scope out some actual rooms.

As always, Music Hall got great sound from reasonably priced gear, including Epos speakers and Music Hall turntables and electronics. Driven by Perreaux electronics, Spendor's S5e floorstanding speaker ($1695) sounded dynamic, extended, and tonally satisfying overall. (Unless otherwise noted, all speaker prices are per pair.) The Music Hall and Spendor rooms proved that you can assemble a great-sounding audio system for a very reasonable price. Right across from my hotel room, and for an even more reasonable price, Almarro Products of Japan demonstrated a $2000 system consisting of an A205A integrated tube amp ($800) and a pair of MOA speakers ($1200/pair); it made convincing music, though at restricted volume and dynamics. What this system did right made it one of the highlights of the Show for me.

But mbl's room proved that if you're willing to spend a small fortune, you can get absolutely spectacular sound. The mbl 101 speakers are heading this way for review soon. Other impressive-sounding rooms: DeVore speakers with Simaudio electronics, Joseph Audio with Manley Labs electronics (Jeff Joseph tried to trick listeners by hiding his in-wall speakers behind a curtain, but I wasn't fooled), Cyrus electronics and Wilson Benesch speakers and turntable, and Reference 3A speakers with Kuzma turntable and tonearm and, I think, Antique Sound Labs amplifiers. One industry insider complained that HE2004E had about the worst sound overall of any show he'd attended, but I thought there were many fine-sounding rooms.

The most memorable HE2004E moment for me was at the beginning of Stereophile's "Ask the Editors" seminar. We panelists took our seats randomly, and editor John Atkinson began to introduce us. "Beginning on the far left," he began, "appropriately enough, is Michael Fremer." The injection of politics set off a chain reaction on stage, as everyone changed seats to better reflect their political views. Art Dudley ended up in my seat, with me seated next to him. Sam Tellig was off to the far right, with John Marks next to him and, in the middle, Ken Kessler, who protested, "If I could sit where I really belong, I'll be off to the right in the next room!" The consensus was that this seminar was one of the most entertaining and informative ever.

The second most memorable moment for me occurred during the Stereophile Ultimate AV "Ask the Editors" seminar. Peter Putman ended his "tips" segment by saying, "And remember, unless you live in outer space or in a really corrosive environment, you don't need gold-plated connectors."

"Some of us live in both, Peter," I said.

Footnote 1: The Web has many decibel calculators available, which you can find with Google. Just remember that if you use one that asks you to enter powers or energy rather than voltages or fields, you need to double the result.—John Atkinson