Restarting the Vinyl Engine

After last month's foray into the esthetics of vinyl collecting and its attendant attributes (read: great sound!), some of you may have trecked up to the attic to unearth that old turntable from years past. Are you ready to restart the vinyl engine? Before you drop that needle (hereafter called a stylus), let's cover some basics.

First make sure the stylus looks to be in good shape. The average life is about 800 LPs or 500 hours before its worn and will actually begin to damage records. If the stylus and cartridge it fits into (yes, they are two separate entities) are over 5-10 years old, you should consider replacing the whole assembly. Companies such as Grado, Shure, Ortofon, Pickering and Stanton make many affordable models that sound wonderful and in the future you will only need to change the stylus itself. There are three basic types of cartridges that we should identify to make sure we are on the same page. The first is the old ceramic cartridge that had a plastic stylus which could be flipped over from one side to the other for 33's or 78's. While this might be a kick to try, forget about fidelity. You need to consider a new setup including turntable: these were bottom of the barrel operations.

The most common type of cartridge and one which can provide affordable but high quality sound is a moving magnet cartridge. These are found on any decent table. They will have a removable stylus and come in two basic varieties differentiated by their mounting mechanism. The oldest is the standard mount that uses screws to attach to the tonearm. These offer the greatest variety and quality from manufacturers and will serve quite well. The variation on this is the "p mount" which was popularized in the late eighties due to convenience. This cartridge did not use screws but was set up to simply plug into the tonearm without any further adjustment. These are very easy to set up, but your choices for replacement are somewhat limited. Finally, there is the moving coil type that the average person seldom encounters. These are the audiophile grade cartridges that start at about $300 each and proceed to climb into the stratosphere. These attach the same way as the moving magnet type but usually will not allow you to remove the stylus. When the stylus is worn on these, the whole cartridge must be removed and sent to the manufacturer for "re-tipping". This is the preferred cartridge type of audiophiles who truly appreciate the amount of sonic information that can actually be retrieved from vinyl.

Once you have identified the type of cartridge you have, we are ready to take a look at alignment and adjustment. Of course on a "p mount" no adjustment is necessary, but on any other cartridge assembly it is critical. Your turntable with not perform well unless at least three parameters are adjusted. The first and most tedious is alignment of the cartridge assembly on the tone arm in relation to the record grooves. To do this you will need a special, but inexpensive, protractor made for the purpose. This device will show you exactly at what angle and position in the vertical headshell plane the cartridge should be attached. Don't let this put you off... it sounds much worse than it really is, and like everything else, once you've done it you will be forever enlightened. To purchase the protractor and many of the other items mentioned here, you can refer to the web page list at the end of this article.

The second parameter is much easier to deal with. Most cartridges of quality track at 1-11/2 grams. This is set up at the back of the tonearm. First you use the counterbalance knob at the end of the arm, and with the cartridge in place, set it up so that the arm floats freely parallel to the top of the turntable platter. Once this is done you simply dial in the correct weight indicated on the incremented knob, also on the tonearm usually right in front of the balance knob. These are usually integral, but be sure the numbered gauge is set to zero before you dial in the tracking weight. Finally, there is an adjustment called anti-skating which diminishes the centrifugal force created as the arm moves to the center of the record. This is the easiest to set as you simply dial in the same weight as the tracking force. If this is all too much for you, you can take the table to a local audio shop and they'll have it done in no time, but you will lose the insight that comes with direct experience.

If you're still with me, we are at the final stage...plugging it in! If your receiver/pre-amp has an input for phono, then just plug in and go. If not, you will need to purchase a step-up transformer and can then plug it into a standard line input such as those used for a CD or tape player. These transformers range from $35 on up. If you do happen to have a moving coil cartridge, you will need a special transformer even with a phono input.

To some this may seem confusing, but once you try it becomes pretty clear and you will have acquired a new, if somewhat arcane, skill that few other possess.

Retailers of Phono Products and Quality Turntables: