A turntable that does not allow adjustment is a turntable not worth owning. In order to get the best sound reproduction, many factors need to be taken into account and fine tuned by the consumer or an experienced technician. Most widely available mass market turntables sold by large retailers (such as Radio Shack) while affordable, are of very cheap build quality and have been "idiot-proofed." Important adjustments like tracking-weight or anti-skating, sometimes even pitch control, have been either hidden inside the mechanics of the turntable or removed completely.
For example, my father owns a ~$100 RCA LAB1200 belt driven automatic mechanism turntable purchased at Radio Shack in 1999. It sat for many years getting very little use. When I became interested in records, I tested it and quickly realized the music's pitch was off specification by a wide margin. Neil Sedaka sounded like a girl. The platter was spinning too fast, but the belt was in good condition. There was no easily accessible pitch control. As the consumer, I was required to open up the unit and tweak the motor by hand. It had "hi" and "lo" potentiometers recessed in the motor and accessed via tiny holes. Each time I would make an adjustment with a tiny flathead screwdriver, I would have to flip the turntable back over, remove a rubber band from the tonearm, and measure the speed by stroboscope. This was VERY inconvenient. It was a long session of hit and miss. I must have flipped that turntable over thirty times just to set the right speed - measured in revolutions per minute.
If the manufacturer had been more kind to the consumer, there would be pitch control knobs located next to the playback controls. Instead, they have perpetuated a scam that both saves money by skimping on parts, and makes money off the Average Joe who must send in their unit for expensive out-of-warranty repair --- or give up and buy a new turntable.
Another sad feature of these cheapo turntables is their tonearm-cartridge integration. Only the diamond stylus is replaceable. Want to upgrade the cartridge to a name-brand like Grado or Nagaoka? Too bad, you are stuck with the low quality of the built-in moving magnet, or god-forbid, ceramic cartridge. It is part of the tonearm. The funny thing is, new turntables from Crosley in 2010 use the same non-adjustable integrated tonearm-cartridge combo as my dad's RCA turntable from 1999. The same no name (Chinese?) company has been supplying these extremely cheap parts to low-end turntable manufacturers for years. Avoid these decks at all costs. The stylus tracking force is often over 3 grams, sometimes as much as 6 grams(!), which wears out your precious records much faster than the more acceptable and nuanced 0.75-1.75 grams used by quality cartridges.
Assuming you have a decent turntable that allows for necessary adjustments and tweaking, there are some steps to take before you can sit back and enjoy a vinyl record. Remember, the amount of effort you put into this equals the amount of enjoyment and safe playback you get out of it. This is the sum of what I have learned since re-discovering my love for vinyl records.
Turntable Adjustments for Optimum High-Fidelity Playback of Vinyl Records
0. Lubrication and deoxidization. If you are an advanced user who does not fear looking "under the hood," then this step is for you. Otherwise, skip to section one.
Turntables are mechanical beings by nature. When new, their internal components had grease applied in all the right places to reduce friction and unwanted noise. Through the years, the grease and lubrication in older turntables has long since dried up. Unplug the turntable. Go ahead and open it up. Examine its inner workings. Clean off the old grease with isopropyl alcohol and some Q-tips (do not touch rubber components with alcohol). Apply new white lithium grease (available at auto parts or home improvement stores) to the moving parts, such as gears and levers. Use good judgement - not everything needs grease. Sparingly apply contact cleaner/deoxidizer to potentiometers like pitch controls. Remove any foreign objects. Close up the turntable.
1. Tonearm and cartridge compatibility. This is a critical step. In the long chain of sound reproduction, this is where the music begins.
a. Choose a cartridge that fits the mounting system required by the tonearm. Most quality turntables utilize what is called the "standard half-inch" cartridge mounting system, whereby the cartridge is secured to the headshell with two small screws and nuts, and connected via headshell lead wires. Slightly less common is the "P-mount" or "T4P" mounting system, whereby the cartridge connector pins plug in to a female receptacle, and the cartridge is secured by a single screw. There is one more type worth mentioning: the "integrated headshell", which is used by some DJ cartridges. These will connect to a tonearm that uses standard half inch mounts, but without the headshell and screws. It simply plugs right in.
b. Choose a cartridge with the correct stylus compliance rating for the mass of your tonearm. This is essential in order for the stylus diamond to track grooves properly on warped records. Even very slight warps can wreak havoc on a compliance mismatch. A cantilever is the tiny rod that holds the diamond that traces record grooves. Compliance is the willingness of the cantilever to bend upwards towards the cartridge when under pressure. A cantilever that is very rigid and does not bend much has a low-compliance rating. Conversely, a cantilever that has a lot of give and bends easily has a high-compliance rating.
A high-mass tonearm must be paired with a low-compliance cartridge for optimum playback, and a low-mass tonearm should be paired with a high-compliance cartridge. Try to think of it like this: if a high-mass tonearm is paired with a high-compliance cartridge, when that stylus tries to trace a warp in the vinyl record, a force pushes upwards against the cantilever, which pushes the cartridge and tonearm up too. The high mass of the tonearm will put undue stress on the cantilever when it comes back down. The stylus bounces out of the grooves, causing skips or jumps.
Cartridge manufacturers have different methods of measuring compliance, and occasionally do not even publish the data for the consumer, so this can be a tough choice to make. Generally, we can think of compliance ratings in terms of the numbers 1 through 35. A compliance rating of 7 would be low-compliance, and a rating of 25 would be high-compliance. Sometimes there are two ratings provided: static compliance is the rigidity of the cantilever sitting on a stationary surface, and dynamic compliance is the rigidity of the cantilever when tracing a moving record surface.
2. Cartridge alignment. This can be a very time-consuming, frustrating endeavor. P-Mount/T4P cartridges do not need to be aligned. Standard half-inch mount cartridges must be aligned so that the cantilever runs parallel to the record grooves. An incorrect alignment will prematurely wear out one side of the record grooves, and possibly the diamond stylus itself.
"Protractor cartridge alignment tools" are sold that enable a precise alignment for the best sound reproduction possible. These are usually made of thick paper, with a hole for the platter spindle to secure the protractor, and a set of parallel lines printed on the tool, along with two points A and B. The goal is to have the cartridge and cantilever parallel to the lines when the diamond stylus is aligned to point A, and also point B. That is, parallel to the outer grooves, and parallel to the inner grooves.
Unplug the turntable to make sure the platter does not spin. Place a record of average thickness on the platter, and place the alignment protractor on top over the center spindle. Cue up the tonearm to prevent damage to the cantilever. Maneuver the platter by hand so that the protractor's point A is beneath the diamond. Loosen the screws on the headshell, turn the cartridge ever so slightly to align parallel to the lines on the protractor, re-tighten the screws. Gently cue down the tonearm so that the diamond hovers right over point A. Check to see if the cantilever and cartridge are parallel ("eyeball" it). If it's close, maneuver the platter and tonearm to check point B. When the cartridge is parallel to the measuring lines at both points, the alignment is complete. Good luck.
3. Tracking force. This is the the amount of force the diamond stylus exerts on the record surface. The tonearm is mounted on a pivot point, with the headshell and cartridge offset by a counterweight. Every cartridge has a recommended range of tracking force measured in grams. The heavier the tracking force, the quicker a record is worn out. Therefore, it is imperative to select a good cartridge that requires a relatively low tracking force, while simultaneously extracting accurate information from the grooves and correctly tracking without skipping.
Unplug the turntable to prevent the platter from spinning. In order to set the tracking force, the tonearm must first be "zeroed out." When performing this adjustment be very careful and do not place any excessive stress on the stylus, or make sudden movements that may damage it. Turn or set the counterweight until the arm hovers parallel to the turntable, with the cartridge floating above the platter. Neither leaning backwards or forwards. Set the counterweight numerical indicator to 0.
Turntable models will vary, but mine allows me to turn the counterweight and the weight indicators turn with it. Turn the counterweight to the appropriate number of grams. If the cartridge specifications state 1.0 - 2.0 grams, or 1.5 ∓ 0.5 grams, set it to the average of 1.5 grams. The "middle" is a good place to begin, and can be fine tuned by ear from there. Perhaps an increased tracking force results in a sound you find pleasing - go with that (within specifications!). Mechanical and digital tracking force gauges are available. I highly recommend buying one because accuracy is important, and a turntable's integrated weight indicator is often slightly inaccurate.
4. Anti-skate adjustment. When playing a record, the forces placed on the diamond tip at the end of the stylus are immense! Playback of the grooves results in a force pulling the stylus in towards the center of the record. This is called skating. If there is no anti-skate applied to a tonearm, the arm may go flying towards the center of the record, dragging the diamond stylus over the grooves, resulting in a big scratch and stylus damage.
To avoid this, set the anti-skate adjustment to a number equal to the tracking force. If the tracking force is set to 1.5 grams, set the anti-skate to 1.5. Let's say you enjoy the sound from your turntable most when the tracking force is set to 1.8 grams, but the anti-skate only increases in increments of 0.5. In this case go with the anti-skate number that is closest, 2.
5. Turntable speed / pitch / RPM. Vinyl records are manufactured to be played back at a certain speed. Most 12 inch (diameter) long-play records are played back at 33 1/3rd revolutions per minute. Most 7 inch records require 45 RPM. There are many exceptions, so always pay attention to the speed printed on the center label or record jacket. While DJs use pitch controls to beat-match two different recordings, for home hi-fi listening it is essential for the turntable to play at the correct speed. Otherwise, the music will sound strange playing at an incorrect pitch and tempo.
*If you own a belt-driven turntable, the belt should be new or "fresh" with a known history. If you acquired the turntable second-hand, and have no idea how old the belt is, replace it right away. There are many websites that will help you match a turntable to a replacement belt. I personally use Vintage Electronics because they have low prices compared to other stores, and historical knowledge of belt sizes and quality manufacturers.
In order to determine the rotation speed of a turntable platter it is necessary to acquire a "stroboscope" disc. Some platters have strobe indicators printed on the side or in the center. If your country's AC mains electricity is 60Hz, the stroboscope must be made for that frequency. The same applies to a country that uses 50Hz AC. A certain type of light is required; many turntables have a built-in strobe light that makes things easy. If it is absent, try to make the adjustments under a fluorescent light. Barring that, one may purchase a handheld turntable strobe light from online sources.
There are a certain number of indicator marks on a stroboscope. When rotated at the correct speed, then illuminated by a light source powered at the same frequency, the strobe indicators will appear still. If they are moving in one direction or the other, clockwise (too fast) or counter-clockwise (too slow), adjust the pitch control knob or slider until they appear still, staying in one place. That indicates a steady, accurate speed. 33 1/3rd RPM and 45 RPM will have different sets of indicator marks. Slight wavering of the indicator can be expected with belt-driven turntables; this is usually inaudible.
6. Pre-Amplification. The sound output generated by a turntable is far below "line level." Unlike other audio components like CD/DVD players, the turntable needs to be connected to an appropriate pre-amplifier before running through a stereo receiver/amplifier. This pre-amp must simultaneously boost the signal and apply the (very necessary) RIAA equalization curve. Many stereos have a "phono" input jack, which has a built-in pre-amplifier made for turntables. Some newer stereo receivers lack a phono input (which is ridiculous in the author's opinion). Some newer turntables have an integrated pre-amp for such a situation, toggled by a switch, that boosts the output to line level. Consult your turntable's instruction manual. If all else fails, purchase a stand-alone pre-amplifier made for turntables.
Most cartridges will do well with these pre-amps. Specifically ceramic, moving iron, moving magnet, and high-output moving coil cartridges. A turntable cartridge is basically a mini-generator rated in mV. For example, moving magnet cartridges output 3mV to 6.5mV, or even 10mV depending on the model. Some audio enthusiasts prefer low-output moving coil cartridges. These may output from 0.1mV to 0.8mV depending on the model. Low-output moving coil cartridges require a special stronger pre-amplifier boost matched(?) to their impedance. Or something like that. Moving coil cartridges are out of my price range so I cannot offer advice on their purchase or use. Know that one cannot replace the stylus on a moving coil cartridge, as it is permanently attached and can only be serviced by the factory. Thus many moving coil owners will trade-in their old cartridge for a new one at discount when the stylus wear becomes noticeable.
7. Cleanliness is godliness. Keep the stylus clean. Keep the platter clean and level. Keep vinyl record media as free from dust and contaminants as possible. I personally use the Groovmaster Label Saver developed by William Sargent to wet clean my records. It is possible for previously noise-ridden records to become quiet after washing the dust out of the grooves, with only the music being heard and enjoyed. Still, we are limited by the physical condition of the record, scratches, groove-wear and all.
Notes for Linear Tracking/Tangential Arm Turntable Owners: There are some issues specific to linear trackers that are mostly beyond the scope of this guide, due to the sheer variety of technologies applied. Still, I own a Sony and have some experience fixing it.
-There may be a small belt inside the player that connects a motor to gears that move the tracking arm. This belt will wear out with time. Unplug and open up your turntable. Carefully remove the old belt, clean the surfaces it contacts to ensure grip, and replace the belt with a new one if possible. Apply new white lithium grease to the gears.
-Clean any guide rail the tracking arm travels upon, and keep it greased or oiled for smooth lubricated movement. I think white lithium grease will work fine, but I used a medium weight oil for my player. Do NOT use WD-40.
This is a lot to learn and keep track of, but if you love music, it's worth it on so many levels. I like knowing that I have done everything in my power to connect with the true musical sound of the artist. All it requires to achieve a good sound is initiative, effort and a willingness to learn. One does not need to spend thousands of dollars on a high end system to find happiness. It can be right in front of you in the old stereo and turntable you inherited from your parents or grandparents. Or in the heavily used DJ deck you scored for a song off craigslist. Good luck and happy listening!
-The Pink Pirate