23 April, 2010

Talk Vinyl: The Neurosis of Alignment

Talk Vinyl: The Neurosis of Alignment
or: The Basics of Cartridge Alignment Protractors, a Rough Guide
or: Freeware versus Theoreticians, Neurotics and Swindlers
or: Simple 2-point vs Dennesen

(last revised April 24, 2010)
Although my system has remained largely unchanged, the arrival of Koetsu Black has resulted in major upheaval's for all my turntables, as I swapped around cartridges. Installing required protractors and stylus force gauge. I used some vintage devices loaned by a friend, AND checked out some Freewares to see how good they are.

Should cartridge alignment be a protracted affair?

Free tools
I'm not going to go into this topic of protractors too much. Suffice to say having one is helpful, but don't go anal over it. There are many variations, but if you're a starter, the BEST place to start would be Vinyl Engine:

(1) start here to acquaint yourself with various devices;
(2) then here to download some templates which you can print out free. Note that the various methods differ significantly in their "null-points". More on that later.

There are many other free protractors. To cite just 2 examples, the ones from tnt/enjoythemusic and styli.co.nz. For these 2, the ones I printed out seem to have "null-points" that are neither Baerwald nor Loefgren. Even just eyeing the pdf, you can see the 2 differ obviously in their points. These seem to deviate significantly from either Baerwald or Loefren. Does that matter? Read on.

(3) Important Reminder: As alluded to on the (always) confusing TNT website, when you print out ANY of the templates, you cannot just print. You MUST go to "Print Preview" and make sure the (default) "fit to page" is turned OFF. It depends on the browser, but you do NOT want anything that fits the image to the page. For my XP, I had to select "None". Only this way can actual size be printed. 2 of the Vinyl Engine templates have built-in rulers to let you check. Only this way is it fool-proof.

If you're not sure about printing one out yourself, you can buy any number of aftermarket tools with prices between $1.50 (Garage A'Record) and hundreds (I'd go for the $1.50 one).

If you really want to get serious, you can even design a even more accurate one for yourself, free. There are free software's out there (including one on the tnt website cited) that optimize everything for your arm/cartridge. Some "experts" out there, including some in HK, use these free software's and make custom protractors for a hefty fee. You pay, unreasonably, for your laziness.

Dennesen Protractor and Technics Stylus Force Gauge
I did not use any of the aforementioned free tools in the actual setup (but read on), instead I availed myself of a friend's Dennesen Protractor, as shown in pics. It's a 1-point Baerwald type. I found it easy to use and the result, as judged by listening, was very good. Suffice to say there are plenty of neurotics out there who talk and worry about a 0.5 mm difference. I would not be one of them. The device is quite old, long out of production, and undoubtedly the precursor of the Feickert (as well as others like the Clearaudio and even Project).

I proceeded to set up my LP12/Ittok and Technics SL-1200 with the help of the Technics balance, also pictured. Both set up thus showed very little groove distortion (if any) and low surface noise. After almost a hundred LP plays, I consider my job done.

How different are they?
Just for fun, I checked both using the various free templates and found out both the LP12/Ittok and Technics SL-1200 MkII showed near-perfect alignment with all the templates. The LP 12/Ittok appears dead-on, the Technics not far behind (due to its intrinsic property, some of the cartridges had to be pushed all the way to the front of the headshell, and even then it misses by ~ 1mm).

Is that surprising? Well, IF alignment is proper, the cartridge should not be too much off at any point in theory, and given the inevitable parallax error of our feeble eyes even harder to detect. My view is that ANY of these free protractors get about the same results compared to each other and are comparable to the much more costly Dennesen (or their modern counterparts).

And now we come to the TD-125/SME. The use of Dennesen on the unique SME arm has a unique built-in problem. The protractors assume a fixed pivot-point of correct length, but the SME by necessity has a movable pivot (it aligns the cartridge by moving the pivot). My old alignment (Benz Silver) used a self-made 2-point protractor. The Denon DL-304 obviously had different properties. Using the old pivot point and "aligned" with the Dennesen, the body of the cartridge was obviously not parallel when assessed by the various 2-point protractors. I re-aligned the whole thing using the Vinyl Engine Baerwald protractor, and the result was also in excellent alignment with the Loefgren. I noted that I had to push the arm all the way forward in its slot. I think the 2-point protractors are good for SME.

Tell you something, in the past, when I did not have one on hand, or when helping a friend who did not have one, I would just draw one myself and approximate the 2-points, and the results have been quite good so far. Any 2-points may not get you the ultimate precision, but it would not be too far off either. If some of this sounds like heresy, so be it. I have been listening to LPs for almost 40 years, and there have not been too many LPs that jumped out of the groove during heavy modulation, and I don't hear too much distortion on well-worn LPs, and I don't even wash my LPs usually.

Tell you something else. I have also listened to too many really high-end setups that were probably aligned using expensive tools or by dubious self-proclaimed experts, and few of them tracked well in reality, and most were noisy. It is amazing how bad some of them were/are! Why should that be? Who knows! My advice, do it yourself.

Theoreticians, Neurotics and Swindlers
The world of turntable setup discussion is populated MAINLY by these 3 types. While some genuinely try to coax better performances, much of the discussion is rather cerebral. The Theoretician believes in the infallibility of "science" and dismisses the ears. The Neurotic fusses over everything and probably never plays anything else other than his Test LP. The Swindler tells you turntable setup is HARD, that sound would be terrible even with minimal deviation (from HIS ideal), that HIS ears are the only dependable ones and charges dearly for his service. I hope you don't have these people as your friends.

Take your fate in YOUR hands
In the end, what matters is listening. Do your TTs play reasonably well with a range of records, all the way to the end groove? All of mine do, and I am no expert. In 40 years of listening, the simple 2-point method (or 1-point in the case of the protractor supplied with the Rega turntable) has worked very well for a host of combinations, and it shall continue to do so. Print out (properly) some of these templates and check yourself. You may be the next expert!

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