How to Align and Fit a Cartridge
As Origin Live supply most brands of Hi-Fi cartridges, we get asked questions from time to time about various issues regarding set up and care. To help newcomers to this area we have published the following notes. These guidelines are of a general nature – we publish them only to be of help and although widely accepted they are not formally authoritative – we cannot accept liability if you choose to use them and neither do we encourage the time-consuming occupation of answering queries surrounding the procedures outlined. These are best referred to the manufacturer of your specific Hi-Fi cartridge.
For those new or inexperienced to fitting Hi-Fi cartridges, we would state that this is not difficult. We ourselves do not normally check azimuth, or vary tracking forces from the manufacturers recommendations – neither would we worry if the arm was up to 2mm away from the recommended distance from the spindle. Although all these details are audible they are generally of a relatively low order, however tracking force and VTA in particular are worth fine-tuning should you feel anything is lacking. If things seem complicated we would encourage you not to be put off as it all becomes clear once you get started.
Before fine tuning the set up as described below you should allow the cartridge to “run in” properly—at least 40 hours for some cartridges.
Why You Should Set up Your Cartridge Correctly
Hi-Fi cartridges travel like a bobsleigh through the grooves of a record only a few thousandths of an inch wide. You hear groove displacements of the order of a few millionths of an inch (that’s like splitting a hair into one thousand pieces). Every bit of motion or vibration allowed at this level can be heard enormously amplified through your speakers. For this reason it is good to set up the turntable and arm correctly so that the audio cartridge can do it’s job properly. For instance, a turntable out of level can produce side-forces on the pickup cartridge tip that will wear it more on one side than the other as well as have a slightly degrading effect on the wear of your records.
When a turntable goes out of level, the platter bearing performance and the arm’s dynamics, specifically anti-skate, are negatively affected. So be sure your turntable platter and tonearm mounting board are level – use a spirit level. If the platter is out of level, first adjust the surface that the deck stands on. The suspension (in the case of a suspended sub-chassis design) may also need levelling if it has subsided over time. If the armboard is not level (which means the arm pivot is not vertical), either return it to your dealer for repair or re-level it yourself by shimming between the mounting board and its support.
Alignment for Hi-Fi cartridges needs to be optimised in three different planes. However, it cannot be perfect in all three planes, so it must be optimised for an overall best balance or compromise. The final authority should always be your ears and preferably over an extended period of listening. Bear in mind that each record is cut slightly differently. Here again, optimise for an overall balance of good sound over a wide range of records. The three alignment planes are as follows (please note that it is the stylus, not the cartridge that is being aligned):
Lateral Tracking Angle
Viewed from above, the Hi-Fi cartridges arcing movement across the record must maintain the stylus in the same relation to the groove as that of the cutting stylus’s straight-line tracking; this is Lateral Tracking Angle, or Tangency. Apart from linear tracking arms this is always a matter of the best compromise.
Viewed from head on, the stylus must be perpendicular in the groove so as not to favour one groove wall, and therefore one channel, over the other wall/channel; this is Azimuth.
Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA)
Viewed from the side, the stylus must sit correctly in the groove, at the same angle as the original cutter; this is Vertical Tracking/Stylus Rake Angle. VTA, however, varies from record to record due to their varying thicknesses. Therefore, this alignment must be set by ear (even more than is the case with the other adjustments).
Hi-Fi Cartridge Aligning Tools
Tools required are an alignment gauge, a ruler, a tracking force gauge, a FLAT record, a screwdriver or Allen keys of the right size (usually 2mm), a good light may also be helpful. Small needle-nose pliers and a magnifying glass all help. It also helps to have the Hi-Fi news test record.
Treat the arm with care as some parts are fragile. To this end ensure that tightening of any bolts is carried out gently and without causing undue strain.
Tonearm wiring uses a standard colour-code for channel and polarity identification:
White = L Hot
Blue = L Ground
Red = R Hot
Green = R Ground.
If the cartridge pins aren’t colour-coded the same way, they will have letter identifications next to them. Make sure that the arm’s wires, wire clips, and solder joints are in very good condition. At minimum, clean the contact between cartridge pins and wire clips by removing and replacing each clip. Holding the clips with needle-nose pliers can make this easier, but be careful that you don’t strain the wires where they join the clip. Check the clips for a proper fit on the cartridge pins, and adjust them if necessary. “Proper” means snug but not tight.
To check clip size, hold the cartridge tail-up close to the head wires, grasp a clip firmly right behind its tubular part with the tweezers, line it up with the cartridge pin, and press. If it does not slide on with moderate force, the clip needs opening-up. If it slides on easily but flops around when attached, it needs tightening.
Re-sizing is the operation most likely to detach a clip. The trick is to avoid bending the wire at its attachment point or putting too much tension on it. To avoid either, always hold the clip with its wire slightly slack-looped behind it while adjusting.
For opening a clip, hold it firmly with the tweezers or needle-noses, right behind its tubular section, and press the tip of the jeweler’s screwdriver into the open end of its longitudinal slot until you see this widen very slightly (here’s where you’ll probably need the headband magnifier or reading glasses.) You are dealing with thousandths of an inch here, so a barely visible spreading may be all that’s needed. Try it for fit, and repeat until it does.
For tightening a clip, press a toothpick inside it as far as it will go, then use the needle-nose pliers to gently squeeze together the sides of the clip near its free end, while watching the slot for any change (attempting to squeeze a clip without the toothpick inside it will flatten its sides.) Try it for size, and re-squeeze if necessary until the fit is correct. When it is, close up the middle section of the tube to match the end.
Replace your cartridge when due. Hi-Fi cartridges have a lifespan for their cantilever suspensions and stylus needles. This will vary from manufacturer and type of cartridge as well as other factors like the cleanliness of your record and the care you take of the cartridge. It is wise to enquire on the expected life of your cartridge to the manufacturer so that when the time comes it is replaced accordingly. Most importantly, this preserves your records as well as enabling you to enjoy the best performance.
If there is a build-up of dust and dirt where the needle enters the cartridge body you should use a small soft brush to remove debris. Always brush from the direction of the cantilever to the stylus or you may do damage.
One well-known method of cleaning stylus is the Linn Green Stuff which is a very fine abrasive paper. This may just be safe on some cartridges which do not have fine stylus tips and fragile cantilever mechanisms. However there is a danger of causing fractures or chips on your diamond stylus on certain fine line tips. This method can also strain the cantilever mechanism.
There are a number of fluids on the market that increase stylus life and help to clean gunge from the needle – a word of caution though, some of these can loosen the stylus glue on the cantilever over time. Some fluids can also attack the cantilever or coil material itself or harden the suspension. Consult your cartridge manufacturer over this. One key factor is to use the liquid very sparingly on a cotton bud such that it is just damp (not running with fluid). This minimises the fluid which can run up inside the cartridge.