Analog Corner #82

Setting tonearm geometry with Wally Malewicz's WallyTools (see later)

In his "Manufacturer's Comment" response to my writeup on the VPI Aries Extended turntable in March 2002, Harry Weisfeld wrote that, among other things, he wasn't pleased with what I'd set his 'table on. So I tried supporting the VPI with a piece of very heavy slate resting on six of those big AudioQuest Sorbothane half-spheres and made a series of recordings of LP tracks on the Alesis Masterlink's hard drive at 24-bits/96kHz. I then put the Simon Yorke/Immedia RPM2/Graham 2.2 combination on the slate to level the playing field, and recorded the same tracks using the same Helikon SL cartridge.

I stand by what I said in March, with this clarification: I didn't mean to say that the VPI Aries with the JPW 12.5 arm didn't deliver musical "detail"; it did, but it didn't delineate between spatial events as clearly or as cleanly as I have heard from other players. Its transient performance sounded somewhat slower—reverberant trails didn't seem to fall off as quickly or as cleanly, for example—and ambient detail was somewhat muted. One man's "sharp and clean" is another's "bright and edgy," so try to listen for yourself.

In fact, I distributed to Phonogram list subscribers four identical CD-Rs recorded from the Masterlink's hard drive, each containing eight selections recorded using the Helikon SL with both front-ends sitting on the slate. The Masterlink—review to appear in the June issue—allows you to order the tracks after you've recorded them, so I was able to have the two versions of each tune go head to head. I didn't identify which turntable/arm combo was which, and I mixed up the order so that which version came first was randomized. I'll let you know what these very good listeners heard and which they preferred.

I found it pretty easy to tell which was which. As I wrote in March, the Aries is extremely sensitive to what it sits on. For some reason, no matter what I did, the slate transmitted the motor noise to its semi-suspended plinth more effectively than did the acrylic platform I'd originally set the Aries on. Yet when I placed the essentially plinthless and entirely suspensionless Simon Yorke turntable on the slate, there was dead silence from the outboard motor.

This is not to say that VPI's Aries Extended is not a fine turntable. It is. But just so there's no misunderstanding: The Aries Extended is very sensitive to what you put it on—more so than most other 'tables I've reviewed. Outboarding the motor only partially reduces the vibrations transmitted to the stylus. I recommend the Bright Star Big Rock TNT isolation device with split plinth.

But if you use multiple cartridges, no tonearm beats the JMW Memorial 12.5: the armtube is completely preset for all parameters, and swapping arms takes about 10 seconds. Then, the only thing you might have to do is adjust VTA. I'm currently using the Aries/JMW 12.5 combo to compare the Transfiguration Spirit Mk.2 cartridge with the new Mk.3 edition; with two armtubes, the job's a snap.

Analogue Productions' Creedence Test Pressings
The Creedence Clearwater Revival test pressings that Analogue Productions/Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem promised to send—all five LPs—arrived this morning. I played them through, mouth hanging wide open. The bass on "I Put a Spell on You" was so deep and massive that I thought it was a 45rpm cut played at 33 1/3! But when the guitars, drums, and vocals kicked in, I knew I was listening to the results of what has to be one of the finest—if not the finest—cutting suites in the business today. Kevin Gray put it together, and he and Steve Hoffman are given mastering credit on the "dead wax" of the Creedence LPs, which exhibit breathtaking transparency, ground-shaking bass, wide-open dynamics, superb transients, and freedom from edge or grain.

With these and Gray's mastering of Speakers Corner's superb boxed set of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book (which includes the snazziest LP packaging job in recent memory), analog lovers have to hope that more reissue labels will be taking advantage of the facility, and that Analogue Productions picks up the reissue pace, after having let it slide for a few years.

Speaking of which, there's yet another new source of vinyl: UK label Diverse Records ( has announced its first release, Alison Krauss and Union Station's New Favorite, recorded using Sony's DSD technology and available on a Rounder SACD. Diverse's 180gm vinyl issue was mastered from the DSD stream—I got a test pressing, and it sounds quite good. According to label head John Richards, there's more to come, and he assured me he'd cut from analog sources when available. I gave him George "Porky" Peckham's phone number, though Ray Staff mastered the Krauss LP. Staff cut the Absolute Analogue LPs of a few years back, and has mastered for Elton John, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones, and many others in an illustrious career that goes back more than 30 years. He ain't exactly chopped liver.

Wally Tools and Setting Up Your Cartridge
I last wrote about cartridge setup in the November 1997 and May '98 Stereophiles, but in the past few months a surprising number of letters and e-mails have poured in from new, mainly young vinyl enthusiasts asking for a repeat primer. In the meantime, Wally Malewicz has expanded his arsenal of phono setup tools and is now devoting himself full-time to making and marketing them. He's promised that any supply problems some readers might have previously encountered is now a thing of the past. He's hired an assistant, will be selling direct worldwide, and claims to be ready for any deluge of new business this writeup might inspire.

In addition to his WallyTractor alignment device (laser-cut for your brand of tonearm), WallyVTAGauge, and WallySkater antiskating adjustment tool, Malewicz has added two surprisingly inexpensive WallyScales—electronic stylus-pressure gauges from Taiwan—and the really neat WallyAzimuth Shop azimuth-adjustment box, which also offers cartridge demagnetization, super-accurate adjustment of turntable speed, and some other features I'll tell you about in a minute. I find many of Malewicz's devices indispensable for my work.

Wally's goals are optimization of: horizontal tracking geometry (overhang and zenith), tracking force, antiskating, vertical tracking angle (VTA), stylus rake angle (SRA), and azimuth. My goal here is to provide a practical, not overly theoretical discussion. I ask analog veterans to forgive me for restating the obvious: Don't attempt to set up a cartridge if you are 1) tipsy and/or high on legal or illicit substances, 2) in a foul mood, 3) just finishing reading the newspaper (see #2), 4) tired, and/or 5) cranky. (If you're new at this, you might want to start by setting up one of Grado's inexpensive cartridges.)

Once you've loosely mounted a cartridge on your tonearm using the appropriate hardware, secured the lead wires to the correct pin using needle-nosed pliers or tweezers, and carefully removed the stylus guard (if any), you'll probably have no idea to what weight the downward, or tracking, force has been set. It's always a good idea to carefully move the counterweight back until the arm "floats" horizontally, then forward just enough for the arm to drop down to the platter. (Always remove sticky and/or felt-type mats from the platter during this part of the setup so you don't accidentally rip the stylus from its mooring.)

Then, using a stylus-pressure gauge, measure and adjust to the approximate recommended force for your cartridge. This will change as you move the cartridge forward or back to set the overhang, but it's best to be in the ballpark, both for the health of your cartridge's cantilever and suspension, and to get accurate overhang—the heavier the stylus tracks, the more compressed the cantilever suspension will be and the more forward the stylus will sit.

I like using the Winds gauge. Unfortunately, it's very expensive ($599). A $15 Shure gauge will do in pinch, but Wally Malewicz sent me a sample of the $250 electronic one he's selling (it's accurate to 0.01gm), along with a simple plastic device for lowering the measurement point to the same plane as the LP surface—important for an accurate reading with any scale. The 0.1gm version of the WallyScales costs a very reasonable $150. Both gauges appear to be well-made, are easily calibrated for accuracy, and automatically compensate for the weight of the plastic device used to lower the height. I highly recommended both. But since, within your cartridge's VTF parameters, you'll be using sound as the final determinant, the $150 gauge should be all you need.

Next, if you've bought the WallyVTAGauge ($95), and assuming your tonearm has adjustable VTA, you want to measure the cartridge height: the distance from the record surface to the bottom of the headshell when the cartridge is playing a record. Remove the cartridge, making note of its approximate position in the headshell. (If you're using a WallyVTAGauge, no need to secure tonearm leads in the earlier step until you remount.) Using the supplied shims to equal the cartridge height, mount the VTAGauge and adjust the arm height until the gauge's blade lies flat on the record's surface. Use a 180gm or normal-thickness LP to set your parallel-to-the-record reference point and note what adjustment needs to be made to keep the gauge's blade parallel to the record surface using other vinyl thicknesses.

If you're not using the Wally gauge, leave the cartridge in place and, with your reference-thickness LP on the platter, measure with a ruler the distance from the record surface to the top of the armtube at the headshell and as far back as you can measure, to ensure that the arm is parallel to the surface. Note that position on your arm's VTA adjuster, if that's possible. Later, when you make VTA adjustments by ear, you'll easily be able to return to the reference VTA with the arm parallel to the record surface—a very good idea.

What's equally or more important than VTA—especially with modern "line contact" and elliptical styli—is the stylus rake angle. The SRA is related to the VTA, but when you adjust VTA you're also changing SRA. VTA is the angle between the surface of the record and a line described by the contact point of the stylus in the groove and the cantilever's pivot point in the cartridge. Most experts agree that, ideally, you want to match playback VTA to cutting VTA. The SRA is the angle that the vertical center line of the stylus-contact area makes with the groove's modulation ridges.

As the stylus moves up and down, it is really moving in an arc. That arc determines how the stylus mates with the groove modulations. With a conical stylus, SRA doesn't matter—because the contact area is round, the SRA doesn't change. However, the more extreme the stylus footprint, the more critical the SRA. Of course, you can't change VTA without changing SRA: the angles at which the tip is connected to the cantilever and the cantilever to the cartridge are fixed. Suffice it to say, when you hear the sound lock in, you're more likely to have gotten the SRA correct.

Next, reinstall the cartridge, secure the tonearm leads, and set the overhang using the gauge supplied with your arm, or a WallyTractor. Pages could be devoted to the ideas of the two giants of tonearm geometry, Baerwald and Löfgren, and to whether you should use one or the other's alignment—or something else entirely, depending on where on the record you want to minimize distortion. Remember: LPs are cut in a straight line. Unless you play them back with a tonearm that tracks in true linear fashion, the distortion inevitably caused by a pivoted arm's arc across a record cannot be eliminated. This space is not the venue for that discussion—at least not this month.

Wally Malewicz's gauge allows you to choose the Baerwald or the Löfgren alignment, placing the two zero tracking-error points at 66mm and 121mm from the record spindle. Malewicz cuts his gauges by laser, and assumes your arm has been properly installed and that the spindle-to-pivot distance is correct. But depending on who installed your tonearm, this is not necessarily the case. If it was installed at the factory, or you're sure it's correct, no problem. Otherwise, before Malewicz cuts the WallyTractor for your arm, he'll send you a spindle adapter and a ruler so you can measure your arm's actual spindle-to-pivot distance. If it's spot on or close (±0.5mm), he'll then cut the gauge for you, either as specified or to compensate for the measured error. If your arm is way off, he'll suggest that you reinstall with the correct distance from pivot to spindle. Malewicz charges $95 for a custom-cut WallyTractor, including the ruler-spindle adapter. You pay $5 priority mail for the ruler adapter, and—once you've determined that your arm has been properly installed—another $5 shipping for the WallyTractor itself. Malewicz charges $75 for Rega Tractors, which he stocks (sans spindle adapter-ruler) to keep the cost down.

When you perform this task, be sure to have a good 4x magnifying glass and an adjustable light, preferably a goosenecked LittleLite—it's much easier with the light coming from certain angles and heights. Be sure to secure your platter with a rubber wedge or some other soft material, and disable your antiskating, if your arm is so equipped.

Malewicz provides good directions for correctly setting overhang. Repeat the process until you're ready to scream—or until the stylus travels across the entire surface of the alignment device precisely in the groove of the arc. Do not settle for "almost." When you've got the overhang precisely right, carefully lock down the screws a bit at a time on each side until they're quite secure—but don't overtighten.

The WallyTractor also features four sets of triple parallel lines at four points across the arc to ensure proper zenith adjustment—in other words, the stylus' perpendicularity to the groove wall at the point of contact. If the zenith is off, you'll have interchannel phase error, as well as other problems. When the zenith is set correctly, the cantilever will be parallel to the lines at the null points, and slightly off at the other two points engraved on the arc. Zenith is adjusted by carefully rotating the cartridge around the headshell mounting slots. But this adjustment can easily affect overhang, which you'll have to go back and recheck when you're done. Patience is a virtue in properly aligning a cartridge, but the rewards are worth it.

Next to adjust is azimuth, assuming your tonearm permits it. The idea is to minimize the crosstalk between channels, not to equalize the electrical output of the two channels. That's why playing a mono record, putting the channels out of phase, and adjusting for minimum output doesn't always do the job.

Wally Malewicz has a new and very handy azimuth-adjustment device called the WallyAnalogShop, a $295 box that comes with the most recent Cardas test LP, an Ayre burn-in CD, and a high-quality Tenma voltmeter. Attach the box to your amplifier in place of speakers (8 ohm/25W load resistors are built in) on one side and the voltmeter on the other. Using the test LP, play the tracks that contain 1kHz modulations on one groove wall, then the other. With the meter set to 20V, turn the volume up until it reads about 5V on the modulated channel (a built-in high-pass filter keeps rumble from skewing the output). Flip the L/R switch on the Shop to the unmodulated channel and read the crosstalk voltage, which should read "0" but usually reads somewhere between "0.1V" and "0.2V." Then, when the other modulated track plays, repeat the process. Convert voltages to decibels using the supplied chart.

By subtracting the crosstalk from the modulated channel output for each channel, you get the channel separation in dB. By minimizing and equalizing crosstalk between the channels, you get the maximum stereo separation—about 30dB at 1kHz under "real-world" playback conditions—which yields the widest and most accurate soundstaging and the best imaging. If the crosstalk is much higher for one channel, adjust the azimuth, however that's done with your arm (adjust side weights, rotate armtube, etc.), and repeat the test until you get the desired results.

You can adjust azimuth without buying the WallyAzimuth Shop, of course. Just get a good voltmeter, the test record, and a chart for converting V to dB. But the Shop makes it much easier, and because the Tenma voltmeter has a frequency counter, the Shop can also be used to adjust your turntable's speed: Play the 1kHz test tone, set the meter to "Hz," and adjust your 'table to 1kHz. The deluxe WallyAzimuth Shop ($495) can break in cables and has other features that I don't want to get into here. Contact Wally (footnote 1).

Next, adjust your arm's antiskating. With an offset (headshell angled toward spindle) pivoting arm, forces are created that make the arm want to "skate" toward the center of the record. That puts more pressure on the inner groove wall and less on the outer—not good for vinyl or stylus. The idea is to balance the force with a counterforce applied in the opposite direction. It's tricky to compensate precisely—the groove modulations, the vinyl compound, and probably the cycles of the moon come into play—but I still believe it's better to get it mostly right than not try at all. On this I disagree with my friend Harry Weisfeld, of VPI, but most other tonearm designers are on my side.

The WallySkater ($95) is based on research by Thorens that demonstrates that the antiskating force should be about 10% of the tracking force across most of the record, and increase to 13% toward the center. It's somewhat clumsy to use until you get the hang of it, but once you do, it makes setting antiskating easy and reasonably accurate. (For a fuller description, see the May 1998 "Analog Corner.") Another good antiskating setup tool is on Omnidisc (LP, Telarc DG-10073/74, out of print), which includes a track with a two-tone intermodulation test that rises in modulation velocity and thus gets increasingly difficult to track. One channel will mistrack before the other. Depending on which it is, you'll have to adjust the amount of antiskating force until both channels begin to distort at the same time.

Check VTF once again with your stylus-pressure gauge and you're pretty much done. Now all you have to do is play a favorite reference disc and lock in the VTA/SRA. Since you're starting from a known reference point with the tonearm parallel to the record, you can play around and easily get back to where you started. Once you hit the spot, your LPs should sound spectacular!

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Peter Townshend and Ronnie Lane: Rough Mix (Classic 180gm reissue)
2) Love: Forever Changes (Sundazed 180gm reissue)
3) Wayne Horvitz: Forever (Hi-Res DAD/Songlines CD)
4) Alison Krauss and Union Station: New Favorite (Diverse 180gm DSDA)
5) Creedence Clearwater Revival: First 5 LPs (Analog Productions 180gm test pressings)
6) Jacintha: Lush Life (Groove Note 180gm)
7) Starsailor: Love is Here (Chrysalis 180gm import)
8) Love: Love (Sundazed 180gm reissue)
9) Count Basie: Chairman of the Board (Classic 180gm reissue)
10) Karrin Allyson: Remembering John Coltrane (Pure Audiophile 2x180gm DDA)

mraudioguru's picture Munich or on his way. Give him some slack. I received those same email updates from Ortofon. Nice new carts!

Michael Fremer's picture
In Munich preparing for tomorrow's show.
Michael Fremer's picture
Will have all of the details on this plus an interview with the designer posted late Friday evening. Interview scheduled for Friday.
volvic's picture

He’s ignoring silviajulietta........;)