Lloyd Walker on Fine Tuning Your Turntable
An article by Walker Audio founder and Chief Designer Lloyd Walker
We will assume you have installed your cartridge correctly using some kind of an alignment gauge and that it is set-up to the manufacturer’s recommendations such as body parallel to the record for VTA. The tracking force should be set at the mid-point of the range recommended by the manufacturer. For example, if the recommended range is 1.8 to 2.2 grams, then set it to 2.0. Use a magnifier and twist the cartridge to align the cantilever with the alignment marks.
These settings are just a starting point. The VTA and tracking force setting must be adjusted by ear. There is no other way that we know of to get the best out of your system.
It is vitally important to clean your records. We recommend a vacuum-type recording cleaning machine like the VPI Typhoon and our Prelude Recording Cleaning Kit, as well as our Talisman Magnetic Optimizer. Clean and treat your record, then play two sides of an LP to warm up your cartridge and system.
For testing, put on a well-recorded LP with complex music, such as classical or complex jazz. Do not start with piano, female voice or acoustic guitar. You can listen to that later. You need to hear bass, the extreme highs, and everything in between at the same settings.
Listen to the same music after each adjustment so you will know what you did. It won’t hurt your LP under normal adjustments.
GENERAL RULES AND EFFECTS:
- Raise the VTA (raise the rear of the arm) and the highs will usually get better. Too much and you will lose the bass.
- Lower the VTA and the bass will get stronger. Too much and you will lose the highs.
- Increasing the tracking force: will usually improve the lower mid-range and bass. Go too heavy and you will lose the highs and lose focus. The bass will become heavy and distorted.
- Decreasing the tracking force will improve the highs and focus from top to bottom. Go too low and the mid-range will lean out. The bass will distort and the cartridge will mistrack.
- We want to match the arm to the compliance of the cartridge
- A mismatch will result in an imbalance to either the treble or bass side.
Start by adjusting the VTA. Lower it until the highs drop off and the bass goes heavy. Then I slowly raise the VTA until the soundstage opens up and the highs get clean and clear. The bass will become more focused and defined. Go too high and the bass will suddenly drop. When this happens, lower the VTA slightly.
Increase the tracking force slightly. If the bass gets stronger without hurting the highs and soundstage depth, then increase the force until it does. Then back off the tracking force until the highs are nice and clean and the harmonics hang naturally in the room without losing the bass. Make very small adjustments.
First, make a note of your tracking force. Then apply our Cartridge Compliance Crystals to your head shell, reset your tracking force to the noted value, and listen. Start with the smallest cups first. You’ll notice an immediate improvement, but our work isn’t done yet. Replace one of the smallest cups with one of the medium cups (you’ll now have one of each size on the head shell), reset your tracking force to the noted value, and listen again. You might notice an increase in bass – perhaps an overall improvement, but perhaps at the expense of the highs, depending on your cartridge. If the second set is not an improvement over the first, go back to the two small cups. You’re done with this step! If it is an improvement, try two medium cups, reset your tracking force, and listen again. Same as before, if it’s not an improvement, go back a step. If it is, you might choose to try the larger cups, or to leave things as they are.
We’ve noticed in our research that we seldom use the larger cups – they’re almost always overkill, but we include them in case your cartridge is the exception. If you choose not to use them on your head shell, feel free to experiment with the noise-canceling properties of the crystals in other locations around your turntable, or at the windows to your listening room, if you have them.
FINE TUNING (Where the Magic Happens):
We’re not done yet. When you adjust the VTA or tracking force, one slightly affects the other. Very small changes will not affect the other. However, we have made large changes here. Go back and fine tune the VTA again making very small changes. Now fine tune the tracking force. You must do this. This is where the magic is. Listen to the soundstage, to the instruments that are playing in the background, not just to the lead instrument. If they are not defined, very slightly decrease the tracking force and listen again. If this doesn’t bring them into focus, raise the VTA slightly.
If you have used a 180-gram record to adjust your arm, we suggest you now put on a standard (thin) LP. Listen to it. Then lower your VTA slightly until it sounds the best. Do the same for a 200-gram record. You’ll be surprised at the improvement. Mark or remember the three settings for the three record types: standard, 180-gram and 200-gram.
Not all records are the same thickness, nor are they cut at the same angle. You must adjust the VTA for best sound. If the sound is bright and thin, lower the VTA slightly. If it is congested and boomy, raise the VTA. This adjustment is crucial to hearing the record as it should be heard.
If you arm has adjustable damping, now is the time to fine tune the damping. Start with the 180-gram LP. You will probably find the arm will require only a small amount of damping. Adding damping, the sound will get cleaner and the soundstage will get wider and much deeper. Bass will become stronger and better focus.
There is a fine line between right and too much. Too much, the highs will die and the soundstage will collapse. Next, put on a standard LP. You will probably find a little extra damping will dramatically improve it. Remember the two settings.
Something else to consider – your turntable is subject to the same environmental challenges as every other component in your system, and at various locations – whether it be resonance and vibration, EMI/RFI, anomalies in signal transmission, etc. Our online store offers a number of options for addressing these challenges. They will, without question, improve the performance of your turntable.
When I first started setting up turntables many years ago, the process was mysterious and frustrating. I often felt that for every improvement in one setting, I lost something in another. Over the years, I’ve developed a way that works for me and will work for you too. It is not hard, but requires a systematic approach and patience. You must make one adjustment at a time and listen after each one. You’ll get the settings close using large adjustments, but it is the secondary fine adjustments that make the differences between good sound and great sound.
Call us for other tips to improve your turntable.