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Having An Issue With Your Turntable Playback? It Might Be Your Phono Cartridge Setup

Are you a recent convert to vinyl playback? Are you records not sounding as great as you would have hoped? Your phono cartridge installation might be the problem.

Denon DP-3000NE Direct Drive Turntable Lifestyle

Did you recently buy a new turntable? Are you happy with the playback quality? We sold the record listening experience over the past decade to a new generation of listeners and my inbox is full of questions and complaints from those same people who are not convinced that they are getting the full experience.

We’ve devoted a lot of space to affordable audiophile turntables, phono pre-amplifiers, and all of the accessories you might need to maximize your experience but not enough attention has been paid to phono cartridge setup.

Setting up a phono cartridge correctly is important to ensure optimal sound quality and to prolong the life of your cartridge and records. Here are the steps to set up a phono cartridge:

Choose the right tonearm: Select a tonearm that is compatible with the cartridge you have chosen, and has the right effective mass, compliance, and overhang to work optimally with your cartridge.

Mount the cartridge: Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for mounting the cartridge to the tonearm. Ensure that the cartridge is mounted securely and aligned properly, with the correct azimuth, overhang, and vertical tracking angle.

Pro-Ject Measure It II Digital Force Tracking Gauge
Pro-Ject Audio – Measure it II – Digital Tracking Force Gauge ($129)

Balance the tonearm: The tonearm must be balanced so that it remains level when tracking a record. This involves adjusting the counterweight until the tonearm floats freely with the cartridge in place.

Choose the right stylus force: The correct stylus force will depend on the cartridge you have, but typically, it’s between 1.5 and 2.5 grams. Check the manufacturer’s specifications for the recommended force and use a stylus force gauge to set it accurately.

Pro-Ject Align It Cartridge Tool
Pro-Ject Align It – Cartridge Alignment Tool ($159)

Align the cartridge: Aligning the cartridge correctly is important for optimal sound quality and to prevent damage to your records. This includes ensuring that the cartridge is parallel to the record, and the stylus is centered over the groove. There are several popular alignment protractors available to help you with this step.

Cambridge Audio Alva TT v2 Tonearm rear
Cambridge Audio Alva TT v2 Turntable has a static balanced aluminum tonearm with precise anti-skating dial.

Adjust anti-skating: Anti-skating helps prevent the stylus from skating towards the center of the record, causing unequal wear on the record and affecting sound quality. The anti-skating force should be set to the same value as the tracking force.

Connect to the preamp: Finally, connect the cartridge to a phono preamp, which amplifies the cartridge’s low-level output signal to line-level.

Calibrate the phono stage: Adjust the phono preamp’s gain, impedance, and capacitance to match your cartridge’s specifications.

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Goldring E4 Phono Cartridge Front Under
Goldring E4

Check the stylus condition: Regularly inspect the stylus for signs of wear and replace it as needed. A worn stylus can cause damage to your records and degrade the sound quality.

It’s a good idea to consult the cartridge manufacturer’s manual or seek the assistance of a professional for the best results. Keep in mind that proper cartridge setup is critical to achieving the best sound from your turntable setup.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Mike Cornell

    September 28, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    Hi Ian….a couple of nit piks: I would think you should balance the tonearm before setting the stylus pressure as opposed to the order suggested in the article 😀. Also, as most turntables, especially those bought by folks new to the vinyl experience come with tonearms and tonearms are not easily (if that’s even possible) changed, one should choose the right cartridge for the tonearm, not the other way around. Good points all around though about the importance of setting things up properly to get the best vinyl experience! Cheers!

    • Ian White

      September 28, 2023 at 1:21 pm

      Mike,

      Good catch on #1. It was actually an editing error on my part. I didn’t move the paragraph up as it was supposed to be.

      As far for #2, manufacturers have actually started to listen and now offer tonearms on even entry-level decks that can be adjusted. Are you getting everything? Not really, but I think most of the entry-level decks use either Audio-Technica or Ortofon (hate the 2M Red) cartridges that were selected specifically for that arm.

      I don’t think consumers buying $300 turntables should necessarily drop $500 on a cartridge upgrade (nor do I think most would ever do it) but I do believe that spending a little more on a better cart, phono stage, and spending the time on proper set-up goes a long way long-term.

      Best,

      Ian White

  2. Mike Cornell

    September 28, 2023 at 7:04 pm

    To clarify re:#2….it seemed to imply that you should choose your tonearm so that it would be compatible with your cartridge and I was saying that, as most turntables alsteady come with tonearms, it makes more sense to choose a cartridge that is compatible with the tonearm you already have. Adjustability can only go so far if your cartridge is too compliant for your tonearm or too light/heavy with respect to the supplied counterweight. Anyway, all good points; keep up the great work, Ian!

  3. ORT

    September 29, 2023 at 10:39 am

    One of my ‘tables is a fully frAutomatic Direct Drive Technics with a *GASP* P Mount cartridge.

    It’s looks are mild but I like them better than that “thing” Bro-Ject put on my Essential III Sgt. Poopers 50th setup. The OM10, well…the entire “series” of OM are F U G L Y.

    The OM looks like a fishing lure for catching stoopid fish. If I had now how I would despise it (I have not used the table in nearly a year now after replacing the belt as I cannot look at that “thing” on the bidness end of the arm of tone.

    I would rather have a P Mount than any OM.

    I have not slept in a couple of days now. Yeah…I am grumpy but truth be told the OM deserves derision. The P Mount is nice enough but as I maintain that the majority of frAudiophiles love to self-flagellate and cartridges are but one way of accomplishing their mission. In general they are lost when it comes to beauty in audio equipment.

    Don’t beweive me? Just look at some of their 300lb turntables that look like Robby the Robot humped an off brand Chicom robot vac and forgot to wear his resistor. Contrast that poop with Data from Star Trek TNG hooking up with “Honey West”. No offspring but you can bet they listened to vinyl on a Pro-Ject X2 in walnut…CLASS.

    ORT

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