Vinyl Accessories and Useful Tools for LP Playback – Part I
Published on March 10, 2009
Useful Tools for LP Playback
The amount of products available to the analog record enthusiast is simply mind-boggling. I will try to cover the major areas with the exception of support furniture and feet. Whatever turntable you use it is important for it to be level and on a stable and non-resonant base. The options for table support range widely so they won’t be covered in this article. I separated the article into three parts: one with adjustment/setup tools, one with care and accessory products and one with tweaks.
Levels. In order to check for a level surface a circular bubble level is a good device to have. Rather than trying to adjust the table or support in two directions (one at a time with a conventional level) it is nice to see how far off you are in both directions at once. I haven’t personally tried these, so take that under advisement. Here are the ones that look recommendable:
1) Home Depot used to sell a small plastic circular level for a few bucks. It doesn’t look like they carry such a thing anymore online, but the stores may still have one and other hardware stores may have a similar item. Online I found a Johnson Bubble Level for $2 or a Bullseye Level for $6.50. Both of these are plastic circular levels and the Bullseye has two rings in the center as opposed to one.
2) The Clearaudio bubble level is metal and looks very substantial. It sells for $60.
3) The Avid level 45 is a circular level and 45rpm adapter at the same time and sells for $100. Like the Bullseye it offers two rings to help with the adjustment.
4) The Cartridge man is a digital level that measures in two directions and looks like one serious piece of gear! It has a bright digital readout and sells for $429.
Protractors. Once the playing surface is level the next step is usually to set up the arm of the turntable. This is normally done in conjunction with the cartridge that will be mounted to it. With radial/pivot arms there are a number of adjustments that need to be set. Arm height is first on the list and then, with a pivoting (radial) arm, we need to adjust the angle of the cartridge. Looking down on the cartridge we can adjust it clockwise or counter-clockwise. This is the offset. Looking from the front of the cartridge this adjustment is called azimuth. And looking from the side the adjustment is called VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle).
Rough VTA is set by adjusting the arm height. Azimuth can be set with a mirror (if this adjustment is available on the arm) to make sure the cartridge is leaning to one side or the other when looking at it from the front. Offset is what we need a protractor or similar device to set. On the record surface the ideal would to have the stylus and shaft parallel to the record groove at all times. Only a tangential/linear tracking tonearm can accomplish this feat. With pivot arms we try to adjust for a particular offset angle to have no tracking error at two points on the record surface. (Some products adjust at one point and use a different method.) Everywhere else will be a compromise. The longer the length of the arm, the less the compromise.
Many turntables come with a small sheet/piece of paper that slips over the spindle and has a grid in one or two places for adjustment. You can also download alignment sheets and then print them from the web. The ones I found I couldn’t print to the right size, so I couldn’t use them. Better options are:
1) DB Systems DBP-10 Phono Alignment Protractor. $49. DB Systems was nice enough to send me a sample of the DBP-10 along with a review from 1979! It is constructed of plastic and comes housed in a soft case. There is a white plate with the two measurement points at 2.6” and 4.76”. A transparent plate with lines running across it is placed on top. After aligning those lines parallel with the cartridge housing at both points you can systematically move the cartridge forwards and backwards. Once they are close enough together, the instructions indicate which way to twist the cartridge. For super-fine tuning you turn the white plate over and there is a fine cross grid. There are even null point suggestions for 8” records at 2.253” and 3.02”. I was really impressed with the ease of this tool and its cost is very reasonable.
2) The Feickert Protractor – $250. I tried to email Feickert on two occasions and never got a response to my request for a review sample. Perhaps someone will see this and send me one for a followup review. This product is considered by many to be the crème de le crème of protractors and has a measuring post to adjust for effective arm length and overhang. It looks to be well made and has all that is needed to properly adjust offset.
Scales/Stylus Force Gauges. The next adjustment is stylus pressure force for which a good scale is essential. The simplest method (and least accurate) involves adjusting the weight on the tonearm until the tonearm balances and stays parallel with the record surface. Then turn the appropriate weight on. Much better choices are:
1) Shure SFG-2 mechanical scale—on loan from Shure. $36. The Shure can measure between 1-3 grams and claims accuracy of .1 grams within .5 to 1.5 grams. To operate the scale you slide the indicator up and down the numbers (in grams), set the needle on the 1x or 2x indented line and see if the end of the scale lines up with the preset plastic piece while looking in the little mirror. It works well, but requires some work on the user’s part and it doesn’t measure weight at record height. It is important to determine if your tonearm height affects weight. If not, then no problem.
2) Steve Blinn Designs Digital Stylus Gauge—on loan from Steve Blinn. $89. A 100-gram calibration weight is an option for $6. This scale started its life as a Jennings Mini-300 scale. Jennings makes precision scales and this one is accurate up to 300 grams with accuracy of .1 gram. What Steve does is add a small holder on the side for the stylus with an upside down rubber dimple. This means that measurement takes place very close to record height. The scale comes with a plastic box and instructions on how to calibrate it from Jennings. Setting proper stylus force with this scale was much easier than with the Shure. It runs on 3 LR44 batteries. I used the Blinn most often for the quickest and easiest measuring.
3) Many budget audiophiles suggest that a good conventional scale is perfectly fine for measuring stylus force and cost is much less than “audio” scales. Tanita is one of those well-known scale manufacturers and they were very accommodating with my scale request. They sent a 1579D scale and a 200 gram weight for calibration = $90. If a scale offers no way to calibrate it, then it will be impossible to correct it once it is in your hands. It came in a very nice case. It is accurate up to 200 grams, accuracy is .01 grams(!) and it runs on two CR2032 batteries or an AC adapter. The box says that the adapter is included but my sample did not come with it. When I received the scale it was not reading correctly, but after calibration (a procedure that takes seconds) it read the 100 gram and 200 gram weights within 1/100th of a gram. The scale does not measure anywhere close to record height, so to get it close you’ll need to remove the platter—not really a big deal—and then raise it to the right height—possibly a big deal depending on the height of your platter. The area where the needle sits is quite large and shallow. I would recommend putting a pad on it so the needle stays in place. Although not ideal for its use, the Tanita was incredibly cheap considering its accuracy compared to “audio” scales.
4) Mapleshade Phonophile Nuance Tracking Force Scale. $75. I contacted Mapleshade, but never heard back about a review sample, so I never got a chance to try what would seem to be a huge audio bargain. A scale that measures at record height, handles up to 100 grams, is accurate to .01 gram and only costs $75!
Test Discs. Records can serve as wonderful tools to help set up and assess the performance of turntables as well. The best one currently available may be the Analogue Productions “The Ultimate Analogue Test LP.” After all, what is beyond the ultimate?! I requested one of these and let me tell you, it is chock full of tests including adjustments to azimuth, anti-skate, VTA, cartridge demagnetizing and resonance checks, RIAA adjustments for a phono preamplifier/equalizer and a silent groove to check for rumble and resonance. The kicker is that you really need to have a bunch of different test equipment to make all the adjustments. This one is not for the average hobbyist.
Guides. Rather than break something, consult your knowledgeable neighborhood audio dealer [if you still have one around...Ed]. If you are willing to give it a go yourself you might want to do some reading or invest in a setup guide. I found it very enlightening to read the interview with turntable setup guru Brooks Berdan in The Audio Perfectionist Journal. He goes into all the necessary adjustments required to set up both suspension and non-suspension tables as well as different types of arms (in proper order). It is a good read even for the experienced calibrator. Michael Fremer has an Analog Set-Up DVD. [We reviewed it Here...Ed.]
Oscilloscopes. Considering that some of the analog setups out there are quite expensive a decent scope shouldn’t be out of the question for the serious calibrator. With the proper test record it will be an essential tool to properly adjust anti-skate as well as observe other anomalies which can then be corrected by making the necessary adjustments. A conventional oscilloscope can be had new in the lower range of $200-300. For audio purposes, these should be sufficient. For anyone with a decent audio line input in their computer you can get software that will emulate the function of an oscilloscope. The two that I found on the web are:
1) Zelscope offers one for $10 with a 15 day evaluation period. It has controls like a conventional scope and has an easy way to display both channels or difference signals.
2) Visual Analyser 8.14 has even more options including a frequency response display with noise readings, etc. It is free! This should make adjusting anti-skate a piece of cake.
Aside from some basic tools like screwdrivers and a set of small pinch-nosed pliers, this is all you’ll need (along with a good set of ears!) to get your turntable up and running. Good luck!
- Brian Bloom email@example.com