Zenith Angle Correction: The Final Set-up Frontier!

Before getting to the image above, let's reiterate some cartridge set-up facts: despite the instructions that accompany most turntables and tone arms, you can't reliably set stylus rake angle to 92 degrees by putting your tone arm parallel to the record surface. Insuring that the cantilever is perpendicular to the record surface does not mean you've correctly set azimuth. Why do the manufacturers tell you to do those things? To make set up simple, instead of telling you what you need to do to accurately set these critical parameters.

If you think otherwise, or if you think you can "dial in SRA by ear" you are wrong. If you pay someone to set up your tone arm who dials it in "by ear", you are not getting your money's worth! Here's proof:

This image is the stylus of an expensive cartridge ($6000+) with the arm set parallel to the record surface. If the buyer or installer thinks he can set SRA by "ear" by moving the back of the arm up or down, he (or she) is clearly wrong! To achieve 92 degrees here on a 9" arm, you'd have to raise the back of the arm 20 millimeters— a ski-slope of an angle! Without a microscope, the buyer or installer would simply "fiddle" with the arm, moving it up or down small amounts and never get near where the arm has to go to reach 92 degrees. Faced with this image, the best thing to do is return the cartridge and demand a properly manufactured one, especially when the cartridge costs many thousands of dollars.

That is why SRA must be set using a microscope and azimuth must be set using either a voltmeter or a digital oscilloscope. These tools are available for a reasonable amount of money (around $500 for both). Reasonable especially if you spend thousands on a cartridge! Some acquired skills are necessary to use these tools.

Everyone reading this who installs his or her own cartridge uses the cantilever as the guide for setting zenith angle, which is what you set after you get the correct "overhang". Unfortunately, as the photo at the top indicates, even that setting is unreliable! The costly microscope used to produce that image shows an expensive cartridge's stylus inserted into the cantilever at an angle that's around 4% "off". The result is that the stylus reads one side of the groove before the other. This problem gets exacerbated the further towards the center of the record the arm travels, resulting at the very least in gross phase distortion.

The photo supplied by Wallytool's J.R. Boisclair makes clear that setting zenith angle, like the other set-up parameters cannot be done reliably "by eye"—unless the stylus/cantilever assembly (at the very least) has been correctly manufactured, and based upon his experience, too many are not! (Note: the measurement showing the zenith error is NOT done by evaluating the side facets of the shank relative to the cantilever as most readers would infer upon seeing it. The measurement is of the contact edges, which here, are partially obscured by the green angle line).

Unfortunately the prohibitive cost of the microscope makes this parameter impossible to correctly set "at home", but there is a solution.

Wallytools offers (or will soon offer) a service whereby you send your new cartridge to them for inspection. It will be returned with a full report detailing the variances (if any) from the ideal that would allow parallel to the record surface and cantilever perpendicularity to correctly set SRA and azimuth and cantilever placement parallel to the "hash" or grid lines to set zenith angle.

Best of all, the service can also offer (at additional cost) specially designed shims that will allow you to set SRA and azimuth without any measurements by you at all, and this applies also to arms like Rega's that don't offer any options for azimuth or SRA adjustability. Wallytools is working on a multi-angled zenith angle gauge that will allow you to accurately set zenith angle for your cartridge based upon the degree to which the stylus is "off". All of this is currently "in the works". The inspection cost alone will not be inexpensive and certainly if you're spending $500 or so on a cartridge such a service would make little sense, but if you are buying a $5000 or even $10,000 or more cartridge, it would be foolish to not take advantage of this service, if just to find out if your cartridge has been correctly manufactured.

The best way for this to work, would be if manufacturers or importers sent all of their new cartridges to Wallytools for evaluation, with the cost tacked on to the cartridge cost so that when you by it, it comes with the full report "out of the box". That may happen too.

Stay tuned for further updates as this service becomes fully operational. In the meantime, setting zenith angle is at best approximate, I'm sorry to tell you. By the way, the top image is of my old Transfiguration Temper Supreme, it was returned to me with a full report prototype and a gauge that will allow me to correct for the 4 degree (gross) zenith angle error produced by the misaligned stylus. Mr. Boisclair used blind testing to prove that correcting this error is easily audible and produces a major sonic benefit.

Jim Tavegia's picture

Us poor folks are out of luck as we just trust the manufacturers to do right, but clearly this is not being done. Just have to enjoy what I have. I have enough keeping me up at night, and now this.

Glotz's picture

And they should be on notice. I have seen my share of utterly sloppy work very recently, less than 2 months ago, from a reputed manufacturer.

Thankfully, I went to the mattresses with this manufacturer, much to his ire. He did comply with a much better manufactured product and in record time (the previous rebuild took 40 weeks)!

I will read the rest of this excellent, ground-breaking article and be utterly PUMPED that Michael is protecting MY INTERESTS!!

Kudos to the Analog Maven!

Glotz's picture

That if it wasn't for Michael DIRECTLY stating that we as consumers should demand more (when products are misaligned by many degrees of error) several years ago, I would have never called and wrote back to the manufacturer to expect a quality product.

His words echoed in my mind several times throughout the years to be respected when less-ethical folks cut corners for their own business interests.

I won in this instance and learned several valuable truths in the process.

AnalogJ's picture

Back in the late '90s or early '00s when I got my current Benz Wood M2, I noticed that the cantilever/stylus was off by about 35 degrees from perpendicular to the groove. I was astounded that this unit, new, was allowed to leave Musical Surroundings and/or the Benz factory. This was a hand-built cartridge, and includes the a graph resulting from the frequency response of that particular sample.

I was obviously not happy. I sent it back to Garth Leerer at Musical Surroundings and he sent me back another one, along with a bottle of RRL cleaning fluid for my trouble. But I certainly expected more for a cartridge which cost that much.

Glotz's picture

I do not think that was enough, and I like Garth and the products he represents.

In the past I have found that if a company does more to win my trust back, that will get my loyalty over time.

There have been messes that smart manufacturers have redressed issues and given other products gratis to make up for their oversights or lack of quality control. One such company gave me a $400 AC power cable to make the relationship right, and it worked. I bought another $2500 product of theirs afterwards.

Other manufacturers that feel just correcting mistakes is enough. We as audiophiles are perfectionists with our passion and we require more. These are specialist manufacturers that we are asking to go well beyond mediocrity all of the way to greatness (or pretty darn close to it for the investment level).

When a manufacturer doesn't appreciate the tenuous relationship between they and consumer, I can and do take my business elsewhere. Permanently.

jazz's picture

I could tell you (but won’t do here) from a famous and very expensive cartridge series which due to its cantilever/diamond construction is far way off on any tonearm except one which offers extreme options of adjustment. Nearly all users in the world (and there are many) have totally misaligned setups without knowing.

Elubow's picture

“ Nearly all users in the world (and there are many) have totally misaligned setups without knowing.”

And maybe that’s a GOOD thing! What percentage of those who play vinyl regularly want to go to this trouble? Damn it- what happened to just sitting down and listening to music? This is fine for the small percentage who are anal enough to spend significant dollars and hours of time trying to get the Exact VTA, SRA, azimuth, etc. . And if you’re off two degrees in azimuth, you think your world will fall apart, you will no longer enjoy listening to vinyl? I love vinyl I have a Rega RP6 and Exact cartridge that gives me immense amounts of pleasure. The cartridge set up takes minutes, not hours. No VTA or azimuth adjustments. Not one.

Each to his own but I really believe many of us are really more interested in “listening” to their equipment than listening to music. I think our fathers and grandfathers fifty years ago probably enjoyed listening to vinyl records a hell of a lot more when they didn’t have to worry that their VTA or azimuth was precise to a degree. In fact, I’m sure they had never heard those terms before. How lucky they were!

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered with the exacting details of information recovery from the groove and I just want to immerse in the music. Admittedly, I have lived for weeks on end with analog setups that I was perfectly aware were not setup properly. I enjoyed the music nonetheless.

However, almost invariably when I make the effort of getting the relationship between the groove walls and the contact edges of the stylus right I always find myself listening to the same LPs over again as if for the first time. If I had a conical or even a basic elliptical stylus such alignment efforts would yield little improvement. “Unfortunately”, I have learned to love the line contact, Shibata, Geiger and other profiles that have the mechanical ability - when properly aligned - to extract much more information from the grooves, making the musical playback experience more emotionally impactful and able to transport me to another place and time organically without electronic artifact to remind me it isn’t real.

These cases remind me that I don’t know what I am missing until i have found it, Perhaps to your point, “knowing” is a double edged sword! I have warned many prospective WallyTools owners that if they use our tools they might not like what they learn about their equipment - especially so with the WallySkater.

I am working very hard to devise ways to speed the ideal alignment process and also make it easier and cheaper to perform for everyone. I aim to be publishing a blog article on our website in the next several weeks on how everyone can get easy to make DYNAMIC (not static) SRA measurements on their own using inexpensive and easy to control(!) microscopic equipment.

Having heard the impact of CORRECTED zenith error and now seeing how common it is on multi-thousand dollar cartridges, I hope to find a way to make the analysis process easier and cheaper than having to send us your cartridge for evaluation under a very expensive microscope. I have some untested ideas and will be publishing results when ready.

Those who read our articles and watch our videos closely know that we are NOT proponents of multivariate testing for ideal setup parameters. In the interest of accuracy and certainty, it is essential to determine each setup parameter independent of influences from other setup parameters - something that is not possible to do in most tests that involve taking an electrical reading of a stylus tracing through a groove. This approach is far too iterative, prone to error and cannot reveal stylus mount flaws.

Anyway, this is a bit long-winded but I want you to know that despite my own predilections toward ideal setup, I would never wish to disavow you of your position on the matter. In a way, I envy you!

Jim Tavegia's picture

I listed links to your site on a TT forum and the angst I received from the disrespect of your science was amazing. It is wasn't from the fact that it was from owners of $300 to $400 TT owners I would still be there, but I couldn't take it anymore and left. What is right is right, and ignorance and laziness is not a reason to disrespect your science just because it does not fit into their lack of understanding and upsets "their world".

Now this? What must they think now with their $49 cartridges not being perfect? They will know they are anyway.

It is a lot of work to get your TT set up just right and most won't take the time I think. I could be wrong, but probably not. In my pedestrian set up I will just have to live with what I have. I will follow your advice when I can and can afford it.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

I can only spare the time to participate in forums when people are consistently respectful to each other. It’s just fine with me if someone disagrees with me on setup approach. I’m just thankful we’re all spinning vinyl because the collective interest - whatever the level of fidelity being chased after - is good for us all as it results in more record production and advances the technology for everyone.

There enough room for competing setup schools. Let us all judge for ourselves without being judged ourselves.

Besides, as mentioned elsewhere, if you have a conical - or even many elliptical- stylus, you needn’t bother with this level of setup fussiness. Of course, with such stylus profiles you won’t hear all of the information the groove has to offer either!

Elubow's picture

Thanks for your comments and particularly your ability to see both sides of the issue. Just because I, personally may have no interest in your attempts to make cartridge mounting easier and more accessible, doesn’t mean that others aren’t very appreciative of your knowledge and expertise. I wish you luck in this endeavor.

jazz's picture

...about audiophiles vs. music lovers, meaning of proper adjustment and others.

Those cartridges react very sensible on adjustment in their performance, are not only a bit but way off in SRA and the price paid for them is a nightmare for the customers due to the performance loss by the misalignment.

Where I agree with you is, that all this doesn’t play a role with grandfathers Dual and for those who enjoy the performance of players coming ready set up without fine adjustment options and don’t need or ever heard more.

99% of earth’s population counts those audiophiles crazy who properly locate their speakers for stereo imaging, as for them music also plays when speakers just stand somewhere. Maybe you’re among them here, too.

It’s all a matter of demand, expectation and the will to optimize.

If you have a Rega and did some basic adjustments you’re anal enough to go to this stage, which others left out already. The crazy thing is when people decide that the useless perfectionism begins just where they personally decided to stop for whatever reason. We can call this arrogance, ignorance, modesty, pragmatism or simply a way to be happy.

Elubow's picture

“The crazy thing is when people
decide that the useless perfectionism begins just where they personally
decided to stop for whatever reason. We can call this arrogance, ignorance,
modesty, pragmatism or simply a way to be happy.”

Very well put! I couldn’t have said it better.

Michael Fremer's picture
Once set up correctly there's no need to obsess over this. You are the only person describing this as "worlds falling apart." Were you to hear your cartridge precisely set up I have no doubt you'd hear and appreciate the difference. I base that on doing this for many people over the years...so I don't mean to pick a fight, but your bliss is partially the result of ignorance.
Elubow's picture

“ so I don't mean to pick a fight, (DRUMROLL) but your bliss is partially the result of ignorance.”
Well, Michael, I guess this is typical; whereas others, ie. Wallytool and jazz have managed to respond to my post with some eloquence and understanding, you, as has occasionally been your wont, feels compelled to attack and insult. (I’m really not insulted). When I wrote “worlds falling apart” that was hyperbole. I know you’re aware of the term, having used it yourself on occasion.

My main point— and clearly you missed it— is that not everyone who has a turntable wants to go to this trouble to achieve that blissful, ethereal, dreamlike sound that some here seem to so covet. We don’t all have to enter Valhalla. Some of us are quite content with a little stroll through the countryside breathing fresh air, listening to the whinnying of horses. The truth is there are many types of audiophiles, some more anal than others. For the vast majority of turntable owners, and I include myself here, this zenith angle correction is something I am most happy to be blissfully unaware of. If this is ignorance so be it. In fact, nail me to the stake, behead me, throw me to the wolves, but I could care less about VTA, SRA, azimuth. That why I have a Rega. In an effort to achieve good sound, one has to draw the line somewhere. This is where I choose to draw it!

scottsol's picture

Perhaps the point is that your point is both redundant and obvious.

Michael explicitly stated that the zenith and SRA services were not sensible for owners of low or moderately priced cartridges. If you cared enough to acquire a multi kilobuck cartridge you certainly should care enough to go through a careful setup or pay someone to do it for you.

In any case, it is obvious that most people are not willing to go through extreme effort or expense to get the best possible results from anything, so it is a notion that does not need repeating.

Vinyl On Tubes's picture

I read the article. I'm a Rega owner, but I'm not one really to accept the expense of their cartridges for the ease of installation they provide. I'd rather spend less money for a cartridge with Line Contact stylus. To my point, you have to spend $5k with Rega to get one with a boron cantilever and a Line Contact stylus tip. I'm sure the Aphelion is great, but I'm not spending that kind of money for a cartridge when I can go with another brand that has offerings for 1/5 that price. Still if you look at the Amphelion, this service seems to add at least a portion of Rega's plug and play installation for other brands who offer similarly priced cartridges.

While I don't think I'd likely use these services I am intrigued the they are being offered. I tend to think this kind of service should be include with any cartridge that costs over $2000. I also like that we are getting some interesting updates with relaunch of Wally Tools. Before Wally's passing, the business mostly fell apart. Orders were mishandled and distrust was common despite the desire of many to own their products. The article isn't so much any kind of pitch for these services. I read the article it as validation for a business model. And from what I read, the model seem viable.

Michael Fremer's picture
I know the company's name but won't repeat it either....
richiep's picture

Michael, if a vendor is selling a Cartridge for thousand's of dollars I think they would have an in house Microscope that could correct this problem during production? I've watched many of your videos that show even lesser costly units that are meticulously manufactured, I would think this step is added quality with minimal cost added to the Cartridge. Sending a 6 or 10 thousand dollar unit thru the mail is a much more involved process and scary. This may be good for units used already in the field or if they can offer a re-tipping service as well.

hockeyyo's picture

Very interesting information. Can software like the AnalogMagik correct for some of these problems stated in your article ?

mtemur's picture

It definitely can solve that zenith issue. I used it to align zenith at least 10-15 cartridge setups. One cartridge’s zenith was way of almost 4-5 degrees (unfortunately my own cartridge) and after aligning zenith with Analogmagik it started to sound great with less inner groove distortion. But when you look at the cantilever from front of the cartridge it looked like as if cartridge is tilted to left. If I would rely on cantilever’s being perpendicular I would never get a decent sound from that cartridge..

Dr. Vinyl's picture

I believe the results you get with the Analog Magik certainly made for a better sounding setup. I have done more than 50 setups with the Smartractor and the Analogmagik record, with 100% satisfaction from the clients. That is turntables from $300 to $20,000

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

All tests that capture electronic data generated by raking the stylus through the groove are multivariate in nature and are therefore prone to error, misinterpretation, are highly iterative and will never reliably reveal stylus mount flaws. Some of those tests are more sensitive to these problems than others. Zenith is most definitely one of the more sensitive. Azimuth is less so.

We’ve been experimenting with multivariate testing and have been frustrated that the results often do not agree with what we can clearly see and measure directly with a high end microscope. We do think there may be a place for one or two other parameters other than azimuth to be reliably measured using a multivariate method but are finding that certainty needs to be achieved in related parameters for the data to be consistently worthwhile.

Since most tonearm designs are such that an intentional change to ANY single setup parameter ALSO changes at least one other parameter UN-intentionally, this is quite difficult. However, as mentioned above we are committed to finding easier and cheaper ways to achieve ideal alignment. One (perhaps two) other multivariate measurement besides azimuth is not out of the question yet and is still being researched.

Michael Fremer's picture
Software is only as good as the people who program it. The creators of this program have never expressed interest in having it reviewed by me and it's a Windows-only application so they'd have to supply a computer but I am more comfortable doing the set up not dependent upon a computer program. But that's just me...
volvic's picture

I find the use of the USB microscope a compelling idea for getting the correct SRA, where it has failed for me, is the frustration in getting it to stay still and not move, drift, or even get bumped when setting up the cartridge. I bought one several years back to do just this but the dang thing just doesn’t stay still, it would continually drift from its cradle, and getting it back to where it was supposed to be ended up being an extremely frustrating experience. In the end for me slightly above parallel has worked fine and with other cartridges I own parallel. I listen using one or two records I am familiar with and use the surface noise i know on the record to judge and how well it sounds. Perhaps it might be time to consider the AnalogMajik software, as mentioned above.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

The solution to your microscope handling issues is in being able to control the XY and Z axes. Get a microscope holder from your manufacturer that allows you to orient the scope horizontally and change the up/down travel with a dial. Something like the Dinolite RK10A plus RK10PX.

Then, place that holder on a XY stage like this: https://www.supereyes-store.com/collections/microscopes/products/superey...

If you have a 3D printer consider making one yourself: http://www.thepulsar.be/article/building-a-low-cost-xyz-microscopy-stage/

If you have a Shibata, Soundsmith OLC or other asymmetric stylus you’ll need at least 400x magnification and great illumination. Those are tough with basic USB scopes and impossible without a XYZ control.

I addressed multivariate testing methods in the response above.

By the way, don’t forget that when you change tonearm height you also change your azimuth. Calculator for that is here: https://www.wallyanalog.com/sra-impact-to-azimuth-calculator

jazz's picture

It’s strange when people think, details can be ignored because they are small in magnitude for the plain eye. It’s more recommendable here to think about its impact in the current field of application if you want to hear what’s really in the grooves.

volvic's picture

Something to consider, still the whole process is quite labor intensive isn’t it? And the whole exercise of getting the microscope close to the stylus for reading and to the turntable opens itself to accidents. I am pretty careful and methodical but sometimes even I have lapses in judgement. Not for the faint of heart. Cheers!

Michael Fremer's picture
But not that difficult to master it.
volvic's picture

This time maybe purchase a better one and also as mentioned above, with the appropriate clamps and stand.

volvic's picture

I forgot to mention I also use a small little bubble level that I place over the headshell as a useful guide when setting up.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

I did a WallyTools Instagram post on this before.

I bought 100 small bubble levels for what I thought would be the first WallyReference. I started making a bunch of them and then realized that I ASSUMED that the bubble levels were accurate. Time to check!

I lined up about sixty of them side by side on a polished granite surface. I could immediately see that about 1/3 of them didn’t agree with the remainder. I tossed them out thinking this might be the cost of quality assurance. I almost walked away believing I’d solved for the problem until I thought, “I should rotate them all 90 degrees onto their adjacent surface and confirm they all still agree with each other - just in case.”

1/3 failed again and were tossed out.

By this time I was hoping the process was done because while they are not expensive when purchased in bulk, bubble levels aren’t free either. I turned what was left of them 90 degrees again and about 1/4 failed.

I then threw away about thirty of the first WallyReference blades - all fitted with those miserable things, never to return to bubble levels again. Calibrated ones are available, but did I really want to buy a miniature, but heavy, $120 bubble level when there is a better way to confirm BOTH axes are parallel to the surface of the record?

jazz's picture

What again is the better way to evaluate parallel axes than with bubble levels?

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Build a perfect cube to mount to the headshell that has the exact same height as the cartridge under nominal VTF. Or, use a WallyReference.

jazz's picture

for pure tonearm parallelism that’s fine.

But what to do to set tonearm plane and platter plane matching without bubble levels? You have to use at least ne small one n the arm and those small ones are a mess as you described.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

If a perfect cube of identical height to the cartridge when it is under nominal VTF is mounted to the headshell and you then set the cube down onto the record surface, if all four edges of the cube meet the record then there is perfect parallelism between the headshell (read: cartridge) and the record. If you are asking how to determine that your turntable platter is level then a decent quality bubble level is fine. I use a digital level that is a bit pricey (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B077T7XW7X/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin...) but you can get less accurate ones for around $20. Absolute level of the platter isn't as important as absolute parallelism (as a starting point) for the record/headshell pairing. Remember that it is reading groove undulations that are measured in the single digit microns, so - for a line contact profile, anyway - it really matters.

jazz's picture

my tonearm plane is adjustable separately from the platter‘s plane. To compare both I need a small bubble level that doesn’t change its result when slightly turning (or two identically displaying ones no matter how they are placed). All that is not easy to find. I found a way to get proper results with a life hack too long to describe now, but I’d prefer having one reliable bubble level, no matter how hard you put it on a table or how it’s turned left/right when using..

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Feel free to use the phone number on the website or email me so we can take this off this comments section.

volvic's picture

I spent an afternoon at Home Depot aligning 15 bubble levels on the rack trying to pick out which ones measured exactly the same. I picked out four only to get home and realize they all measured differently. I find an audio dealer online who has small ones, really small that weigh next to nothing, can he guarantee me two that measure exactly the same? He can, sends them to me and both measure differently. I aligned all of them on a granite slab that I know is level and proceeded in turning each one clockwise until they all measured correctly. Surprise, not all did, they came close but not enough. I marked the few that did with a notch as to where they align and binned the rest. Thankfully two of them were the miniature ones the dealer sold me so he was true to his word. The key is turning them clockwise to see if they measure exactly the same and then mark a notch on them so they all align. Thankfully was able to salvage several. Still, the more I think of it the more the AnalogMagik software is the way to go.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Even if we did manage to find several that were agreeing with each other, that would be no guarantee that they were even accurate to perfectly level versus simply accurate to each other in a manner equally inaccurate to perfectly level!

volvic's picture

But the same can be said when using the USB microscope to find the right rake angle. The lines drawn are also subjective. In the end, we are taking a leap of faith that we are getting right but we can never be 100% sure.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

The approach we take and recommend when measuring SRA uses probability to achieve a level of accuracy. We take at least nine images using different focal lengths, illumination patterns, magnification and different methods of extended depth focus stacking. We then take that data and find the average, standard deviation and the 95% confidence rate. We aim for a 95% confidence rate of less than 1/4 of a degree. That way, when we report on the native SRA I can also provide a determinate measure of certainty for that figure. It’s not tough. I will share the process and spreadsheet when I can catch my breath and get some time.

volvic's picture

Look forward to reading it. Cheers !

SeagoatLeo's picture

I am 65 and own 25,000 LPs. The worst thing about my upper end audiophile analog system is installing a cartridge. I have a Benz Ruby 3 on a modified SME IV arm. It took at least 10 hours of fiddling with the tracking force and VTA to get it where it sounded excellent after a 50 hour break-in. It may still be off but sounds excellent. My friends who are remastering engineers and audio equipment manufacturers agree. I HATE setting up a new cartridge because I don't know it the cartridge is manufactured correctly and what is really the correct physical installation parameters. Then I have to decide on an MC what the correct gain and impedance settings should be. This is almost equal to getting a colonoscopy but worse than getting a tooth filling. My friends say that it's easy to set up their cartridges. Do I know if they have set them up correctly? No I don't. Setting up my Grado 78 elliptical cartridge on another VPI table was a breeze. Maybe it's wrong but it was so easy. I would pay someone $350 to set up my next cartridge but there is no assurance that it would be correct or that the cartridge is correctly manufactured. P.S. The Benz Ruby 3 likes to see a lower than parallel VTA, just as the U.S. distributor told me.

mtemur's picture

I can not agree more. I have sme v and v-12 and setting up turntables for at least 10 years. Even though it’s relatively easy to setup a sme tonearm compared to acoustical systems axiom or sat cf1 it still takes 3 to 4 hours for me. I would like to make a note that when you change vta it also changes hta. You need to put protractor back in and check hta again which makes aligning process a headache.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

...because tonearm height changes most definitely do not impact the horizontal alignment of the stylus/cantilever assembly though it LOOKS like it does because when viewing the cartridge from the front at record level the clockwise/counterclockwise apparent “tilt” of the cantilever is visually identical to the tilt achieved by azimuth changes - though one is accompanied by a similarly tilted cartridge body and the other isn’t.

See this calculator on the website: https://www.wallyanalog.com/wallyzenith-calculator

This calculates the visual angle from front of the cartridge at record height when zenith AND azimuth are both at an angle.

mtemur's picture

I’m aware of aligning vta/sra by changing tonearm height is also changing azimuth. that’s ok but it also changes the effective length of the tonearm for that specific alignment. you may need to put back the protractor to setup overhang again.
I mentioned hta because the topic is specifically related with sme tonearm and like all sliding base tonearms overhang adjustment is related with hta.
as a result I mean when you change vta don’t forget to check overhang

PeterPani's picture

it should be quite easy to set up the cartridge in all directions.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

It doesn’t make it “easy” it makes it possible - and then only for SRA.

mtemur's picture

From my point of view zenith is one of the most important alignments together with azimuth. It has a great impact on sound quality. More important than vta/sra.
You can use Wallytools service or you can use Analogmagik software’s vta track to align zenith angle. It’s a confirmed method by the creator of Analogmagik software.
Zenith is the first alignment I concentrate after finishing optical aligning process (actually the first one is speed check via software but it’s not related with cartridge alignment). Afterwards It’s much more easier to align vta and azimuth and even antiskating.
Or you can wait for upcoming release of Analogmagik software which will have a dedicated zenith track.

Michael Fremer's picture
The creators have never expressed an interest in having me review it. They pretty much have ignored me when I have approached their booths at shows. I wonder why. However, I remain skeptical of a software approach to this process. It's only as good as the software that's been written and of whatever test record they have produced. And I don't know their approach nor have they attempted to explain it to me. Manufacturers of all kinds of analog products are usually happy for me to review theirs. Not AnalogMagik. Draw your own conclusions (including that perhaps I am an egomaniac).
mtemur's picture

- “The creators have never expressed an interest in having me review it. They pretty much have ignored me when I have approached their booths at shows.”

I should clarify that I’m just a customer using Analogmagik and I can not talk on behalf of them but what they did is a big mistake. I wouldn’t do that. at least that’s my opinion.

- “ I don't know their approach nor have they attempted to explain it to me.”

according to Analogmagik website their approach is distortion measurements. software is trying to help the user on lowering distortion.

- “However, I remain skeptical of a software approach to this process. “

I understand your being skeptical about Analogmagik but it still deserves a try. you say in your review:

- “If you think otherwise, or if you think you can "dial in SRA by ear" you are wrong.”

- “That is why SRA must be set using a microscope and azimuth must be set using either a voltmeter or a digital oscilloscope. “

it makes perfect sense using a microscope and proper tolls instead of relying on “ear” and I’m just saying move this approach a step further.
after you optically aligned the cartridge using a microscope (which I do) make use of a dedicated software trying to carry to a perfect level. if you don’t like the results you can still revert to the alignment you make with a microscope and other tools.
my point is; if you can use a microscope and other tools why just rely only on your ears and if you can use a software then why just rely only on a microscope?
on the other hand Analogmagik is not an easy software like you have it today and you have perfect alignment tomorrow. no it doesn’t work that why. it takes quite some time to learn what the distortion figures are telling you. it’s not an easy program cause all the alignments are interrelated. that’s my observation maybe somebody else can learn using it immediately.

- “These tools are available for a reasonable amount of money (around $500 for both). Reasonable especially if you spend thousands on a cartridge!”

I think nobody will say anything against that sentence and from that perspective spending $750 for Analogmagik is reasonable too.

volvic's picture

Am I reading too much in your comments, correct me if I am wrong. I get the impression that the software does not appear to meet your needs and you do use the USB microscope to dial in the SRA. Surely if the software did the trick there wouldn't be any need to use the microscope. Would love to hear your thoughts.

mtemur's picture

Actually that’s not what I meant. I’m using all of them together. Here is what I do:
- Setting up the cartridge with an arc protractor. (Primarily overhang and zenith)
- Checking vta and azimuth with usb microscope (there is a long debate on if the azimuth should be aligned according to phase/channel balance or stylus being perpendicular in the groove. I check both of them)
- Checking all alignments with software
- Checking with an arc protractor again because while aligning zenith, vta and azimuth you can easily ruin overhang
- Confirming everything is in order with software again.

volvic's picture

Sounds reasonable.

volvic's picture

I wonder what they are worried about. I can only surmise they are not yet confident in their product to allow it to be tested.

hockeyyo's picture

As a recent owner of a Miyajima Infinity .7mil mono cart I was wondering how this discussion affects the set-up of mono cartridges ? My stereo cart is a Lyra Etna and I wasn't 100% happy after it was installed. The dealer re-installed it using the AnalogMagik (at a cost) and was I impressed with the results. Is it worthwhile using AnalogMagik for a mono cart ?

mtemur's picture

Although it’s not recommended to use Analogmagik with mono cartridges I use it with my EMT TMD25 N mono cartridge to align vta, vtf and antiskating. The benefits of the program is very limited with mono cartridges.

WesHeadley's picture

I do not think it is too much to ask that the manufacturer sets the damn stylus tip up correctly during the building process. Look at the labor that does into building a high-end cartridge, look at the equipment used to make alignments-- there is just NO EXCUSE for selling a multi-thousand dollar cartridge with a misaligned stylus tip that then places the burden on the user to correct what can only be described as a flawed product-- by spending hours (or hundreds more dollars) trying to compensate for a misaligned stylus tip.

And let's not kid ourselves about the profits made on high-end cartridges. Perhaps not as blatantly obscene as the profits extracted from high-end cables-- but crazy-high none-the-less. Yes, you are paying stupid money when you drop $10k or more on a phono cartridge whose actual cost to manufacture is vastly VASTLY less than that.

There is no economic explanation-- it's aspirational pricing totally decoupled from reality. I say this as someone that has purchased cartridges in the $5k-$10k range multiple times and who does appreciate their power to extract more nuance and detail from those record grooves.

Could you imagine driving a new Ferrari off the lot with misaligned wheels and steering as a matter of course? You are then told you need to spend more time and money fixing that. Who would tolerate this?!

What I would like is a simple method of checking that the cartridge that I just spend many thousands of dollars on IS correctly aligned-- and if not then I'd prefer to send the unit back for a properly manufactured replacement. Is this too much to ask?

For this kind of money the makers have an OBLIGATION TO GET IT RIGHT BEFORE SELLING IT.

Rodan's picture

I don't know if anyone else is concerned about this, but isn't it a bit troubling that cartridge manufacturers' quality control is apparently so pathetic that "Wallytools offers (or will soon offer) a service whereby you send your new cartridge to them for inspection?" Think about it: Wallytools believes that there's enough of a market to inspect NEW cartridges to set up such a service. Would any audiophile consider sending a new amplifier to an outside service to check to see if the capacitors are in spec, if there are cold solder joints, if all the screws are tightened, etc.? So why should purchasers (a.k.a."the customers") or some secondary source serve as quality control for cartridge manufacturers? Given the fact that many vinyl aficionados will never possess some of the gear needed to determine whether or not cartridge construction is up to spec, shouldn't that make cartridge manufacturers even MORE concerned about quality control?

Yet, Micheal shows an image of a "$6,000+ cartridge" that's evidently egregiously mis-manufactured. And, by the way, who is the manufacturer? It would be a service to analog mavens to know the name of the cartridge builder who let this thing out on to the world. Stereophile doesn't seem to mind citing deficiencies--as well as excellences--in their test reports for the gear that's reported on, so I wouldn't think there's any sensitivity as to embarrassing the manufacturer. The fact is that until analog-oriented audiophiles hold the cartridge MANUFACTURERS accountable for the quality control of their products, then cartridge buyers will have to continue to perform this function themselves--or farm it out to Wallytools, et al.

All of that said, my own experience with high-end cartridges (Lyra, Allaerts, Air-Tight, Ikeda, among others) has been positive, and the only problem I've ever had after all these years was graciously set to rights. However, Michael's discussed the issue of out-of-spec cartridges enough that I've got to believe it's a problem that needs to be resolved--by the manufacturers.

hifitommy's picture

more than a decade ago, i bought a used monster cable cartridge from a dealer in NYS and upon inspection with my handy dandy handheld microsope, i saw that the zenith (though i didn't know it was called that then) was visually off. i complained and got my money back upon return. i was quite disappointed because a friend had one that sounded glorious.

i feel that we would be foolish to accept that sort of defect especially in light ot the fact that advanced instrumentation of today should preclude the sale of a product that far out of spec.

krahbeknudsen's picture

Great article!

Anton D's picture

In the pictured example, given a four degree zenith error, couldn’t one calculate the relative timing error, since we also know the velocity the ‘passing’ groove?

That seems like we could get an idea of the magnitude of the parameter being discussed.

Anton D's picture

At the outer ‘groove’ of a record, the linear velocity of the groove passing the stylus 0.5 meters per second. Inner ‘groove’ is about 0.2 meters per second.

The RIAA says ‘optimal’ stylus tip radius is “0.5 mils”, or 12 micrometers, I think.


Changing from a perfect tangent for a stylus to 4 degrees off...would that be about a 4 percent error relative to a true tangent? That would equate to how many meters (or your unit of choice) difference in distance between where the two points of the stylus make contact?

Still spit balling....

12 microns diameter, with 4 degree error: about a five micron distance...or, would it be 2.5 micron distance between proper alignment vs this error?

If 2.5 microns, and the groove traveling at 0.5 meters per second (500,000 microns per second) would yield a .0005% timing/phase error?

I likely mangled this, just trying to get some numbers going!

Anton D's picture

0.001% phase/timing error?

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

...explaining it is not simple without leaving out some important details. I will be doing a video on this in the future. Sorry to deflect but this opens up a hairball that is best shared systematically and carefully.

Nathan Zeller's picture

It would be appreciated if data could overtime be gathered and shared to tell the general public which manufacturers ship out more defective cartridges than others.

Eskisi's picture

In the 80s it used to be a joke that a $250K Ferrari had innumerable manufacturing flaws compared to a $15K Toyota. Why? Well, the Ferrari had many cheap parts from the Fiat parts bin and, more importantly, it was most likely hand-built by a bunch of chain-smoking Italians. The Toyota benefitted both from custom parts due to numbers it produced and most assembly was done by precise robotics. Let us add that feedback from millions of owners also helped whereas the Ferrari operated in its “emperor’s new clothes” world.

I suspect cartridges are no different...”handbuilt” is so overrated!

Also, in the article above, “... insuring that the cantilever is set perpendicular to the record surface...” ? — I hope not, unless it is a Decca London.

Ivan Lietaert's picture

"The photo supplied by Wallytool's J.R. Boisclair makes clear that setting zenith angle, like the other set-up parameters cannot be done reliably "by eye"—unless the stylus/cantilever assembly (at the very least) has been correctly manufactured, and based upon his experience, too many are not!"

Wallytool has a service to sell, so they are clever enough to provide a picture of an undisclosed, clearly faulty needle, not within the 2% tolerance range. I'm sure needle manufacturers have decent quality control and they will be happy to help their customers when there is an issue. When not happy with a product, the first step should be to contact the company where you bought your product.
(I'm happily spinning albums on my Pro-ject Essential III with Ortofon OM10 needle ($49), so I needn't worry about zenith and azimuth angles...)

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

...as I typically approach these things from the same angle. Keep in mind that the photo of the Transfiguration shared by Michael was his one and only cartridge he sent to me. If these were rare circumstances to have more than 2 degree error in any one of the three parameters analyzed, seeing this would be an aberration.

I am compiling a database and do not have enough data to make anything statistically significant yet, but right now over 50% of the cartridges I analyze have at least one parameter more than 2% off. About 15% have two parameters more than 2% off.

In most cases, these errors can be accommodated for with the customized shim. Not all headshell screw channels will allow for a 4.5 degree twist of the cartridge that Michael's cartridge requires.

Your OM10 has tip radii of 8/18. It would not be sensitive to SRA and only a little bit to azimuth but it is sensitive to zenith. However, if you are simply enjoying it as it is now, well, ENJOY!!! You have a freedom that I am slightly envious of.

scottsol's picture
Eskisi's picture

Can the cartridge at the top ever be corrected? If it were turned slightly counterclockwise while mounting (with respect to the picture) to level the two edges of the conract stylus, would you then not end up with one channel bleeding into the other — and vice versa — because now the coil / magnet assemblies inside would no longer be orthogonal?

Anton D's picture

Great question!

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Franc Kuzma asked me a similar question. Just like when you change SRA, the energy transfer from the groove to the cartridge motor does change the action of the stylus/cantilever assembly relative to the motor. I like to begin assessing things like this by imagining what that relationship looks like if you have a 90 degree change from ideal. At that point, the grooves want to push the cantilever in and out of the motor assembly like a piston - which it is not designed to do and will result in a huge loss to output as a result. We haven't done the math on zenith changes yet, but if I recall correctly, a 5 degree change in SRA results in something like 0.4% decrease in motor efficiency - meaning the output decreases VERY little. There will still be some output at 90 degrees and what output remains will certainly be almost all distortion but the scenario is unrealistic for obvious reasons. When talking about low single digit degree error corrections of the sort we are discussing, the distortion that is worth considering comes in with the new relationship between the stylus contact edges and the grooves which were cut by a lathe cutterhead that was at a different cutting angle than the stylus contact edges - but that is exactly what we are aiming to fix by making the error correction in the first place.

Zenith error correction will have similar negligible impact within reason. Though we have yet to do the math, I think the "reason" will be limited by the headshell itself. I cannot get more than 4.5 degrees correction from my Kuzma headshell before the screw slots limits are reached. We'll eventually have all of this information and illustrations in new videos.

BobBobby's picture

If you ask yourself whats wrong with our hobby the answer is right here. Bob in the Caribbean.

ManyRekids's picture

Michael, Could you describe what you heard with the Transfiguration Temper Supreme when you first set it up. I’m guessing the misaligned stylus was immediately apparent, especially with cymbals. Where you able to get proper alignment with the groove or is the stylus so far off square that it couldn’t be aligned?

Anton D's picture

The sound of the cartridge is commented on here...


From the review...

"I began with the Transfiguration Temper Supreme, about as neutral a cartridge as I know of. While I also ran the Model 10 with the Lyra Parnassus D.C.t, the EMT TU-3 Geyger, and the Lyra Evolve 99, with the Temper Supreme the verdict was in within a few slabs of wax: The dynamic performance the 10 yanked from the Temper Supreme was startlingly better than I was accustomed to."

"Cymbals and sibilants were reproduced with an impressive combination of clarity, speed, and weight. Piano, which contains a wicked combination of percussion (felt hammers on wire strings tensioned on a metal frame), rich harmonic overtones (wooden sounding board), reverberant trails (pedal sustain and room sound), and an unusually wide fundamental bandwidth, was particularly well served by the 10—about as convincingly as I've heard the instrument reproduced by a turntable."

Seems like it managed to sound OK.

Rayman's picture

since I had spent so much I bought a usb microscope and set the right angle. Next level stuff. Also balancing the left and right channel.
Wow! Especially if you have a more expensive fine line cartridge.
Thanks Michael! Again!

dcbingaman's picture

The message I get from this is that line contact styli are impractical due to the difficulty of alignment of the diamond and the cantilever during manufacture. That may be why conical and elliptical styli are still quite popular, because these azimuth and SRA errors are much less critical WRT alignment for "fatter" side radii.

Let the buyer beware, but the vast experience is that NO phono cartridge manufacturer is very good at getting this right.

Bill A's picture

"if you think you can "dial in SRA by ear" you are wrong."

I've heard from some audiophiles that you can. An Audiogon poster who is highly respected, a Doug Deacon, claims as much. However, if it's true that one cannot "dial in SRA by ear," then can one say that dialing it in at all makes any difference? Presumably the reason for dialing in SRA at all is because one should be able to "hear" the difference, right?

scottsol's picture

The stumbling block in Michael’s example is that the proper setting was so far off from parallel that you’re not likely to ever do any listening with the arm at near the correct height. Moreover, if you do make a large change in arm height then other setup factors will be off.

JMosch's picture

1.) Getting a decent picture with a USB microscope does not require spending $500. I bought a cheap one from Amazon and I get nice pictures. You need to move your table into the shop and figure out a good way to clamp the microscope. You need the kind of clamps common in chemistry labs that hold cylinders etc. So spend a few dollars on some clamps.

2) The problem I have with relying on the USB scope is that not all styli look like the nice symmetric one shown in this article. Many look like the photos shown in this thread on the VPI forum. http://www.vpiforum.com/viewtopic.php?t=16529
I have a couple of Benz carts that look similar. To me there is no sure way to measure SRA with a stylus like the micro-line. The method of averaging the two angles is hokey. You will be able to determine if it is catastrophically off, like that shown in the article. So there is some utility to the scope inspection. But there is no way to "dial in" 92 degrees with that kind of stylus.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

Hi JMosch. There is a way to achieve accuracy using inexpensive USB scopes - even DYNAMIC SRA! I need to make a couple videos on this as many people need more instruction on how to measure asymmetric styli, improve illumination, ensure proper camera angles, capture reliable data and so forth. I'm working as fast as I can on this stuff! Stay tuned.

39goose's picture

Very SMALL adjustments can make a HUGE difference. You can gauge this by listening and finally getting enough fix for the night, to staying up WAY late and only shutting the stereo down because of the time on your watch or idiot-phone.
Most important thing is your SOURCE, what might you think might be the next critical criteria, WAY before you send the signal downstream.
Orientating a "cartridge ", diamond in the groove properly whether by luck ( not often ), or skill by set-up tools and decent ears is worth some time, money and effort. When you do hit it close or near close, you will be thinking of the next record you want to hear before the one you are smiling about has even ended. William

OldschoolE's picture

I had a nice conversation with JR at Wallytools and he and I speak the same language. I chatted with him because this article and subsequent comments raised some questions. One concern was that only about 1.2% of the population run $5000+ cartridges, while the rest of us are $1000 or less and mostly with elliptical styli and have the same problem that has been the norm for 70 years.
For anyone worried about "hey what about the rest of us who have lower cost cartridges"? You can rest easy, JR is working on an affordable way for the rest of us to check SRA and styli mount no matter what cart we run, but be patient please.
JR is the real deal and has a passion for this, is a nice guy and most importantly, honest! I personally run vintage tables of two different flavors (Why? = "Why not"?! I learned to setup tables thanks to inspiration from Michael years ago. (Discussing table setup with a local dealer once gave me a lot of motivation if you know what I mean).
Anyway, I'm happy with my tables and don't hear anything disturbing, but I do not have any Wallytools as they are bit pricey, but not terrible. Actually, they are a bargain compared to Audiomagik. I do have questions about one of my tables where I am pushing the envelope. So now I am considering saving up to get at least a couple of the tools if they will work with my tables (it is always a shock to discover what you don't know), one being 50 years old and one being 30+ years old. When I'm ready I'll make sure before purchase.

Shep's picture

...incorporating WallyTolls inspection service as part of your review process?
Would it be practical to have them take a look, post review, to assess the build quality of review cartridges and include their analysis in the review? Certainly, that would provide meaningful correlations between your listening impressions and build quality.
I imagine there are obstacles to taking that approach, however, it would be a huge step toward shifting responsibility for quality compliance from the consumer to the cartridge maker, where it belongs.

jazz's picture

And every manufacturer of better cartridges should incorporate more quality controls, especially those which reflect the audible outcome.

I have a very expensive cartridge, of which I got 2 replacements of the brand new piece due to limited performance (the last one sounds fantastic). Furthermore I recognized that it is by design not adjustable on 99% of tonearms including the ones of the manufacturer himself (but fortunately on mine of another brand, which is the only design I know of where this is possible). The cartridge series will probably be redesigned.

This problem was not recognized by thousands of buyers so far and I guess hardly anyone has a personal reference how things should sound and tells his demand until it fits.

My guess is, if any cartridge at customers would be tested (e.g. by Wallytools) for physical and audible correctness, at least 40% would be crap or completely misadjusted.

Tom L's picture

I understand how this sort of misalignment can cause audible (usually subtle) coloration or distortion. As the owner of one Shibata stylus and one elliptical (both track in the 1.8 to 2.0 gram area), I want to know if there's any chance that the problem could cause damage or premature wear to the vinyl.

WallyTools - WAM Engineering LTD's picture

...with a Shibata or other extended contact stylus profile the playback improvement can be pretty big *IF* your error is great to start with. If it is only, say, 1 degree off then you aren't likely to hear much improvement except maybe on 33rpm and then only on the inner area of the record.

Anton D's picture
Fat Phoca's picture

I don't think you should dismiss a product just because they don't need you to review it. Many manufacturer
s are happy to let the end user judge the product for themselves.

amy88's picture

You don’t need to write “he (or she)” might...”

Just say “They may” or “they might”.

Instead of “His or her” just write “their”.

The implication male is the default is a bit silly, as is the idea only people with binary pronouns might be involved in analog appreciation. Easy and clean fix!

orthobiz's picture

we can permanently get rid of 'table and 'arm and 'speaker.


pessoist's picture

is what you hear.
Why is audible setup not acceptable but audible analysis/testing is prove that it makes a difference?
How do EMT and Ortofon handle the case for their TSD and SPU systems?
No data on manufacturers, but Service Ads tweaked into "scientific" statements.
You can do better.

Anton D's picture

We are subjectivists when it suits our purposes, and objectivists when it serves our purposes.

There are things we can't measure but we can hear, and things we can't hear, but we can measure.

Just validate the hobby and roll with it.


Interwebs disclaimer: I am just goofing off, all answers are obviously the answer.

Jim Tavegia's picture

We all expect manufacturers to do the right thing in all walks of life. Our Drs. car makers, food suppliers, etc. and if seems like there are so many recalls it is beyond ridiculous. Yes no one is going to die over this issue.

It still seem that if there are some basic parameters that must be met to insure the the stylus is sitting in the groove properly based on years of disc cutting science it should be done at any price point. This should be a given in the beginning stages of the design process. What is clear is that 'statistical sampling" is taking place here in that regardless of cost, once the production line starts only a few out of a 100 are check for anything. Did not Shure years ago with the the V15MR include a graph of the Freq. response of each unit that left the factory. What other cart manufacturer made test records that one could buy to verify performance for yourself?

Those of you who are able to spend thousands on a cart do deserve to know that your cart is perfectly made. You should not have to trust or expect it is right and then find out is is not even close.

I will say that not all vinyl is manufactured equal, we all know that and Michael is good enough to rate pressing quality, but when you are dropping hundreds on a 4-6 LP boxed set you should have confidence that your TT system is right and can play them properly.

I think this is a Big Deal and when we worry about even the smallest detail of CD quality, or a DAC that does not have near perfect linearity, or nearly the lowest measured jitter; it is not clear that there is much more to be worried about when it comes to LP playback. Yes, when wrong LPs can sound amazing, but we should not have to worry about poor cart. manufacturing.

I think back to my days in the custom sheet metal business and we worried and backed up our promise of a tolerance of .005" and in some aerospace work, .003 and did everything we could to check all our parts in QC, what is happening here is not acceptable.

OldschoolE's picture

I was talking with JR and proposed that this idea should also apply to nearly all phono carts at any price of say above $100 and he agreed. That is what he is working on, which is to enable someone to check this at home for far less and be able to decide to contact the point of sale or manufacturer and have them correct it if need be.
If you are paying over $100 for anything, you should have the right to insist on reasonable quality. That should not be limited to the 1% crowd!