08 April, 2016

Turntable Setup/Starter Kit EAR MC4 Technics SL-1200 Audio-Technica AT-PL120 VTA Problems

Comedian Buddy Hackett had turntable routines up his sleeve, literally. The transcription turntable and arm look familiar. Can someone tell me what make it is?

Letter from NYC (49) 2016 (5) Set Up, not Upset 
Talk Vinyl: Turntable Setup Guide/Starter Kit
Talk Vinyl: DJ Turntable (Technics SL-1200MkII/Audio-Technica AT-PL120) VTA Problems

Note: In response to a reader's query, I started to write about the setup problems (especially the VTA) I faced with my DJ Turntables, the discontinued Technics SL-1200mkII and its clone, the much cheaper Audio-Technica AT-PL120. Then I thought I might as well incorporate that into an article on Turntable Start Up and Setup.

Perhaps of Interest: For where I came from (analog speaking), read my rambling Talk Vinyl: All My Turntables on my 40-year journey.

I do not claim to be a setup expert, far from it. My approach, if it can be so termed, is more personal, loose-limbed, certainly ad-hoc and on-the-cheap, though of course I do listen very carefully.

This article is also my meagre effort to counter some of the rampant and misplaced obsessions found on the net. While I respect someone with a simple setup (say, an old receiver, a Technics SL-1200 and a Shure) who enjoys music, tries to get the most out of it, and writes about his findings with different styli, it is another thing to read about the capacitance or loading that is absolutely required for a certain cartridge, or how a cartridge can only be used with a certain type of arm. While there may be kernels of truth in some of these, kernels are all they may be. As an example, many declared that the Rega 250/300 and the SME3009 are unsuited to the Denon DL-103, while not having used such, but I have used these combos for a long time, and satisfactorily (heresy!). I am not the only one who thinks differently: tonearm modifier and manufacturer Origin Live (I like them) goes even further here. Suffice to say, the newcomer should take everything with a grain of salt, even (some say especially) majority opinion and conventional "wisdom".

As analog is not even close to an exact science, listening is much more important than reliance on tools and adherence to theories. Over the years I have heard way too many mega-buck analog rigs that were meticulously set up (that employ all manners of expensive gadgets that together may cost more than my turntable, like expensive professional scales, lasers, tweaks etc), yet sound suboptimal, even downright dreadful. Something went wrong with their assessment. Perhaps too much attention was paid to "objective" parameters and too little to listening?

All of my (simply set up) turntables may not be the last word in anything, but they are usually eminently listenable - across genres and all the way to the classical end-groove; so setup, while important, is not the obsessive thing some make it out to be. Newcomers should not be scared off, though YMMV.

General Turntable Setup Guide for Beginners
A Google search will turn up a plethora of articles, solid evidence for the vinyl resurgence. Therefore, I shall not elaborate on this, instead just commenting on various aspects in the next section. Here are 2 links that I think are very helpful for the beginner:

The Ultimate Turntable Guide (from iamthejeff) The first half of this article is a buying guide. The second half covers setup in a relaxed manner, with particularly good links, including video instructions.

Beginner's Guide to Cartridge Setup (from Audiophilia) This is a more tightly written and comprehensive article on setup only, and should be carefully read.

After these introductory articles, peruse these very good article written in layman language:

This article in soundfountain is concisely written. It covers the tonearm-cartridge interface, compliance, resonance etc. Similar articles (here and here) are also worthwhile.

As for alignment, soundfountain also has a good article. (in fact, read all of their articles). You may also want to read this well illustrated one from the mostly hi-end TAS.

Personal Notes and Tips on Turntables, Phonoamps and Setup 
  • Internet Resources Although the novice has an equal chance of getting good or bad advice (especially in forums), one cannot deny the internet can be a very useful place for vinyl lovers. Vinyl Engine is a must for the novice and the seasoned alike. Make sure you navigate their menu bar: the Database, Tools and Library are particularly useful. Lenco Heaven is mainly a forum, much less organized, so although it has some useful information, it is Lencocentric and difficult to navigate for the uninitiated/casual visitor.
  • Turntable Type I believe there is no best, and so have no strong bias against any type; in fact, I always think one should have at least one Idler-Wheel Drive, one Belt-Drive and one Direct-Drive (at least), and I do. Here is a good article on Direct Drive vs Belt Drive. As for suspension-less turntables, I have nothing against them (I have some too), save for the fact that in general these tend only to be more effective with increasing mass (Rega is the exception), and I frown upon large and ungainly turntables. One reason I like Direct Drives is because they are less cluttered, usually more compact and, though suspension-less, heavy for size. Entry Level Turntables? Here I part ways with some of the common advices. I do not recommend the usual starter turntables out there (like Project Debut, Rega RP1, etc) for the following reasons: 1) as satisfying as these may be in the short term, they may not outperform a cheap but good vintage deck. e.g. I'd think my Pioneer PL-10, which can be obtained on Ebay for $50 or less, is as good as the current entry level offerings up to many times its price; 2) vinyl is addictive, and one sooner or later upgrades. Therefore, it is better to buy something that you would still want to hold on to as a second TT (like a Technics SL-1200) or something that can be easily sold (Rega is good in this regard). My Recommendations Budget/Current Although I haven't heard one (I'd like to), among the current budget decks the one that I'd buy is the super-budget basic version of U-Turn Orbit (no VTA adjustment; for $179). But then, $70 more (at $250) buys you a LOT more flexibility  (with built-in fine-sounding phono and USB ADC for digitizing) in the form of Audio Technica AT-LP120USB (essentially my AT-PL120 with added USB ADC). All of these are hassle-free, almost one-button buyable, plug-and-play. Beyond Budget/Second-Hand However, for an even better turntable, one could invest double the amount (or more) and energy (a lot of work sourcing or bidding) in a vintage turntable in good condition. The Technics SL-1200 (or SL-120) with a good arm is a relatively painless choice. For the more adventurous, a good manual Thorens TD-150 or 160 or Lenco would shame many current offerings, but the chance that you have to do some servicing is commensurately higher (the net offers good guidance). Other good vintage turntables, like the Pioneer PL-12/10 can be had for a song if you look around. With the internet, few problems cannot be solved, so have some confidence in yourself! My Top Choices For even more money, my top choices would be Garrard 301/401, Thorens TD-124, 125, Lenco (mine is L75), Technics SP-10. Complicated Designs No, I am lazy and I'd never play with fussy tangential tracking arms, pumps and vacuums, you get the idea! But I have to tell you, when done right, such as those touched by the magic hands of my friend and guru Andy, the result is fabulous! Cost-no-Object I got you there! Eh, I don't do this category, but I have heard a lot to tell me not to do it! Also, by nature, almost down to the last one, I don't like these chunks of metal and acrylic. I don't think, even if I have the dough, I'd want to spin vinyl on something so overbuilt like a Clearaudio Statement (besides, it has no rhythmic flair to speak of)! That is not style!
  • Tonearm Most budget tables will come with their own tonearm. But should you don't have one (say, just bought an armless Technics SL-120) I'd recommend the cheap Rega arms (the older RB250/300 to the newer RB202/303), which have served me well for two decades. Many vintage tables come with various generations of SME 3009 arms, and these I also love (with the exception of the Series III). For a moderate layout, Jelco is reputable and does OEM for Ortofon. For a 12" arm, I also recommend Thomas Schick. Gimballed vs Uni-pivot For a good articles on the various types of arms, here is a good article from TNT. Most beginner's TT has gimballed arms (which makes the uni-pivot U-Turn stand out) for good reason: easier to adjust and obtain good performances from. I do think in general gimballed arms have better dynamics, better for classical music perhaps. 12" vs 9" Arms Understandably starter TT's never have 12" arms. 12" arms, like my SME3012 and Schick, track better and have a blacker background, but they are audibly a tad slow, even more so if used with Garrard's and Ortofon SPU's (a combo favoured in Asia). Here is my experience of 12" vs 9". In general, I prefer 9" (or my 10" SME3010) arms, and I never have undue tracking errors. 
  • Cartridge Budget Starter cartridges are always MM/MI, and that is how it should be, as these make less demands on the phono stage. For MM upgrade, a safe bet is Shure, from the common home-use $80 Shure M-97XE to the amazing $35 "DJ" heavy tracker Shure SC35C (Stereophile review; my article to come), unless you, like Andy, want to wander into the jungle of vintage MM's. When you are ready for MC, start with the ridiculously inexpensive evergreen Denon DL-103. Many people, including the great J.C. Verdier, use this in conjunction with very expensive associated equipment! For every aficionado, there is a detractor, and here the internet can be confusing. In theory, the Denon should be used on a heavy arm, and so many demur on putting this cartridge on even a Rega, not to mention a 3009i, but as mentioned above I have used these to good effect. FYI, there is a big discussion between respected designer Thorsten Loesch and Denon-hater Romy the Cat that illustrates why analog is so fascinating. My 3009i has fixed SME headshell and it works like Throsten says. My Top Choices I am still basically for the MC, which I think particularly benefits classicals, though perhaps I should re-visit MM's after my experience with resurrecting my Empire 2000's (here) and my recent Shure SC35X (report to come). Besides the Denon DL-103, I like the Denon DL-304older Ortofons (I have the MC-3000 and MC-5000). More Expensive There are so many great MC cartridges out there that we are living in a time of plenty. Unlike expensive equipment, these cartridges are mostly exceptional. Problem is, they are stratospherically and unrealistically priced. I do have an Air Tight PC-1 (acquired second-hand) which is truly exceptional, and my favorite. If you are into expensive stuff, I'd go with the Japanese boutique brands (Koetsu, Miyajima, Kondo, for example) rather than the likes of Van den Hul (heard the Colibri too many times and never liked it) and Clearaudio (heard the Goldfinger many times too). I also like Benz-Micro, but they seem to have forgone the lower end of the market. And then there are the Ortofon SPU's - very popular, full-bodied old-world sound, but I in general prefer a faster sound.
  • Stylus Guard Be careful when taking one off or putting one back on. Many cartridges are ruined this way.
  • Cartridge Screws and Washers These are pain-in-the-butt, but of course necessary evils! Cartridge installation/un-installation is another common way to ruin a cartridge. The Denon cartridges in particular will have you scream out loud! Sometimes a cartridge installs better with the screws upside down. Tighten enough but not too much.
  • Headshell I am not particular about this. Expensive headshells made out of exotic material are not necessarily good sounding (I have a heavy carbon Ortofon LH-9000 and I am not sure I like it) so I avoid them (I'd like an Orsonic though). I like the looks of vintage plastic ones like those on SME and my Pioneer, but replicas are usually less well made. A very good quality and reasonably priced aluminum headshell is the Ortofon SH-4. Buy a few of them!
  • Tonearm Wire Everybody hates those cartridge clips, but that is life! The wires make a big difference in sound. In my experience, the cheap and thin ones that come with headshells usually don't sound bad, but I had issue with the "better" ones supplied with my Ortofon SH-4 (thicker stranded in clear plastic sleeves), so it is not a question of price. Experiment! Also, the thin ones easily suffer damage - an improper connection can adversely affect sound, as recently happened to me (see my coming SC35C report)!
  • Tacking Weight I always follow the manufacturer's instructions. I almost always use the suggested weight, sometimes 0.1g more, never less (unless using after-market replacements, where anything goes).
  • Counterweight and Headshell Weight In case your counterweight is not heavy enough to balance a heavy cartridge (not something that would happen to a beginner), use Blu-tac to affix some coins (or whatever metal) to add weight (as I did here). You can do the same to a headshell if the cartridge is too light or if you think it should be used in a heavier arm (as I did here). There are also headshells with screw-on additional weight (a la Stanton). And then there are thread-through weights (pic), which I find very useful. 
  • Anti-Skating Unless the cartridge flies over the label after the end groove, I pretty much just dial in the tracking weight. Note that some people don't believe in it (VPI and Thomas Schick). A serious way to test this would be to get a HiFi News Test Record (TNT review; current version has a different cover), which I don't have (and maybe should get).
  • Stylus Force Gauge This is essential. My favourite is the elegant Shure SFG-2 (right). Prices currently vary quite a bit, so shop around. One problem, it only goes to 3g, and so cannot be used on certain oddballs, like the Shure SC35C (4.5g). For this purpose, the Rek-O-Kut is perfect (left; up to 5.75g; see Art Dudley in Stereophile). It is fashionable to use electronic balances, but I doubt the accuracy of the cheap ones, and I think the expensive ones are overkill's.
  • VTA Now this is a topic on which much venom have been absurdly spilt on the internet. Basically you'd want the cartridge body to be parallel to the record surface. I do this several ways: raise or lower the tonearm, change the height of the platter, or put shims between the headshell and cartridge. Tonearm Height With adjustable arms, like my SME's and Linn Ittok, this is simple - just loosen a screw, raise or lower the pillar, and re-tighten. Rega's are more trouble, as you have to add rings or invest in an expensive after-maket VTA adjuster that could cost as much as the arm. Then some turntables have a fixed arm (like my Pioneer) that cannot be raised or lowered, in which case the next step may help. DJ Turntables I don't see this mentioned much on the net but, even with the arms at the lowest position, the tails of both my SL-1200MkII and AT-PL120 tonearms are by far too high (by almost 1 cm), nescessitating draconian measures for VTA adjustment by the following methods: Platter Mat and Height In the case of Pioneer, if the cartridge body is too tall, you can only resort to using a thinner mat (hasn't happened yet, as it matches well with the Empire 2000, Shure SC35C or Raos MC Mono that I have used). Usually, with my DJ tables (as we shall see later), the tail of the tonearm is too high and I'd have to resort to adding height to the platter (I use expendable LPs, which surely have the same resonant signature as the record being played). Shims/weight between the Headshell and Cartridge In the case of my DJ tables, sometimes raising the platter height is still insufficient, in which case I'd insert shims between the headshell and cartridge so as to raise the front of the arm (I use small strips of cut plastic, like expired ATM or credit cards). One can also use the heavier headshell weight pictured above. I do NOT constantly adjust VTA. I like the advice given in the above link to Audiophilia: "...One could spend a good portion of their remaining days on earth tweaking their cartridge’s VTA. It will, after all, vary depending on the thickness of each record played. While it’s worth investing a reasonable amount of time to find a VTA setting that works well for a representative sample of records in your collection, don’t obsess over it. Life’s too short, and there’s too much music to be heard...".
  • Alignment (see also my earlier post on the subject) This is an important step, and I can see why some can easily go anal. Aside from tangential tracking arms, there is NO perfect alignment, but that doesn't prevent many from tirelessly fighting over it. I do align, but I'd not lose sleep over it if I run into problems. I also remind you of the time I played with my friend's Decca, incredibly good sounding despite a gargantuan geometric error (reported here; nothing I could do about it). One-Point Protractor This is a relative rarity, requiring one to only align to one null point. Rega and VPI does this, but I myself use Baerwald (without any problem) on the Rega, and SME does this too, although their method of sliding the tonearm assembly is a different animal. Two-Point Protractors These are more common. There is not much point buying a cheap one, since one can print out (taking care that the computer is using the right scale; no re-sizing) the free protractors available at Vinyl Engine (links above). The "Stupid" Protractor is probably enough for most people. I tend to use Baerwald, but if I run into trouble I'd not hesitate to try the other geometries. If you run run several turntables and intend to try many cartridges, invest (like me) in a Dr. Feickert Protractor, surely modelled after (but better than) the Dennesen. I mostly play classical records, usually all the way to the end, and almost never have undue end-groove distortion even with the simplest Baerwald protractor (such as the free Vinyl Engine), so there.
  • Mat A mat changes the sound, sometimes drastically, and it is a jungle out there. There are NO rules and NO bests. I'd think every case is different and there is with little correlation with price (I'd avoid the very expensive ones). I usually stick with the one supplied by the manufacturer. Overall, I like the feel of rubber mats the best (they are essential on metal platters). Substantial felt mats are OK, but not the flimsy ones that can come out coupled to your record with static (like the one on the Pro-ject RPM1.3). I'd like to try a cork mat one day.
  • Record Weight Usually I find the sound is better without. But they have the advantage of steadying the record, useful with mildly warped ones.
  • Phonoamp A comprehensive survey is beside the scope of this article. The first thing to consider is the basic MM amplification, which I consider to be the foundation of it all, and nothing betters Tube. Because of noise issues, the additional MC gain is very difficult to achieve using tube (but not impossible), which is why Step-Up Transformers (SUT's) are often used even by accomplished tube designers (see section below). My Preference There are some who prefer outboard units, but I prefer a high quality full-function TUBE preamp (like the Shindo Monbrisson I use). Current tube preamps that fit the description are in general on the expensive side (Shindo, Leben, etc), which is why some full-function tube preamps have SS phono sections (Rogue, AVA, etc). Tube preamps that have MC facilities are even more expensive (EAR, Shindo, Audible Illusions, CAT etc), and those that use SUT's don't use very expensive ones, so there is potential for you to outgrow them. Vintage Offerings For better value one will do well to look to more recent vintage Full-Function Tube (or hybrid) Preamps. Many American brands are superb in this department: ARC (SP3/6/8/9, not to mention SP10/11), MFA (Magus), Counterpoint (3/5/7.1), Conrad-Johnson (many models), Melos (222/333), Precision Fidelity, to name a few. Of course one has to be careful and should only buy from a seller who knows the condition of the phono section (as many only uses line). These always have a Tape Loop so you always have the option of using them as outboard units. Just the phono facilities is worth the price, and you get a full preamp. Some of the more famous ones may even have gains high enough for medium-output MC duties, but not usually for low output, unless your loudspeakers are highly efficient (like mine, which is why I can more or less get away with using the Denon DL-103 with an ARC SP-11). Outboard Phonoamps As I have several systems, I do use them. For the phono amps I favor, I refer you to my various Phonoamp Shootouts (here, here and here; there're more, but these are the major ones). I'd advise buying one with both MC/MM capabilities. Among the budget phono amps I like, in increasing price, are the Micromega MyGroov (which I notice is on sale as of writing); the feature-laden iFi iPhono; and the evergreen Lehmann Black Cube (mine is the regular one, which is more expensive than the inaptly named Statement). One step up would be the Nagra BPS and AQVOX 2CI-II. Then, my reference Aurorasound Vida, Parasound JC3 and Fosgate Reference, not to mention the full-function Shindo and Nagra PL-P that I still use, or the ARC SP10/11, Melos 222 that I haven't used in quite a while.
  • Step-Up Transformer (SUT) and Pre-Preamplifier If you want to use an MC cartridge with an MM phono stage, you'd have to add around 10-20 db of amplification ahead. Because of noise, this is most easily achieved by using a passive SUT. Since vintage ones are just as good or superior, we should include them in our considerations; hence it is a wide world out there. Due to the nature of the subject, even introductory articles are somewhat technical. You may start with these in vinyl engine and theanalogdept but keep in mind impedance (see section below too) is not an easy subject even for designers, which is why there is so much heated discussion around. Buying a SUT to "match" a particular cartridge is expensive and does not always work out. It is desirable to have a few lying around; vintage ones are good and keep their resale value (think Cotter!). As for current offerings, K&K Audio (Stereophile) is great value, available both as kit and assembled (here; their MC Step Up guide is also good). Like Shindo, K&K used Lundahl transformers. And then there is Bob's Devices. They used to also manufacture cheaper units using the Cinemag 3440A, but they seem to have gone upscale, with the 1131 only, for considerably more money (here). I can attest to the superb performance and value of the Cinemag 3440A (here). Better yet, get an SUT with multiple taps. A good and modern one is the EAR MC-4 (see Stereophile; it is also the same transformer in my EAR 912, so I know it very well; see my report here), which is a bargain, as it is several SUT's in one. For  For Denon Naturally, Denon makes many SUT's, and even the cheapest AU300LC (my experience here) is good, and it is still easily available. Trial-and-Error If you have the option to try different ones, by all means do so. Sometimes, a "mis-match" will sound best in your system, so cast theories aside and use your ears (just one personal anecdote: in my old setup, using the Kondo SFz SUT with Denon DL-103, surprisingly the 1 ohm setting sounded better than the 40 ohm, go figure). PrePreamplifiers or Headamps these are active devices that supply the additional gain, not something in vogue now. I have the Mark Levinson JC-1 (DC), Klyne SK-1(here), Audionix and Ortofon MCA76 (both treated here); they all serve their useful purposes, but the Klyne is no doubt the most useful and it sounds great too. A good one can be very quiet, but less so than a good SUT.
  • MC Loading The basics are covered in many of the links above. This is a subject of much heated debate. In my experience, it is rather setup dependent - some systems are more responsive than others. Active MC Phonoamps Many, like my Fosgate Reference and BAT P5, have several impedance settings; others, like the Parasound JC3, has only the standard 100 ohm (John Curl does not believe in loading, but he bowed to public pressure in his later JC3+). Given that there are so many "experts" on loading values on the net, it almost tickles me when I think a lot of good designers don't (to name but two, the aforementioned John Curl; and Linn offers reason not to). My view is a better phono amp with no loading choice (like the JC3) is much preferable to a lesser phono amp with great loading choices (like the Phonomena II). Loading a SUT? Since SUT's are imperfect, many people add resistors to change the load. I don't do this and I don't believe in it (beside, it is too much trouble). MM Capacitance I don't do this either, but then I seldom use MM. Remember, loading is not the only way to change the sound, altering VTA and tracking weights are easier and effective.
  • Phono Interconnects Use the best and most neutral one you have. The interconnect for the source is always very important.
  • Test Records For dialling the sound in, best is to use a few good classical records, supplemented by some vocals and jazz perhaps. For assessing performance parameters, the HiFi News Test Record is surely indispensable for most even if I dispense with it.
p.s. I can go on and on, and have an unfinished feeling, but I'll stop here. Maybe more revisions and additions later. It has taken too long.

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