Fitting a cartridge to one’s turntable may seem to be a dying art in the hi-fi world, but does the nine easy steps shown proof that it doesn’t have to be?
By: Ringo Bones
Given that leading legal commercial digital music download sites have yet to make their music wares sound as good as the Redbook spec 16-Bit 44.1 KHz sampled CDs offered by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs and other music outlets catering to audiophiles, it was the supposedly dead music format – in the form of the vinyl LP – that made the biggest revival in the second decade of the 21st Century. Most entry-level turntables are supplied with a cartridge already properly fitted in by the manufacturer as a complete package. But even if you happen to buy an upmarket turntable without a cartridge from a specialist hi-fi dealer, it’s very unlikely to leave the shop without one being properly fitted – especially if you’re a first time buyer or just a vinyl LP novice.
Fitting a cartridge these day and age can be considered a dying art, but careful installation is vital to ensure a good sound. Simply attaching one at random to the front of the tonearm is likely to do more harm than good, severely damaging your records; So one should follow the proper simple guide for perfect results every time. For the benefit of those who were not yet born – or were too young to remember - during the vinyl LPs heyday during the 1960s and 1970s, here’s nine easy steps to fit a vinyl LP cartridge to your newly acquired turntable.
1 ) Loosely fit the cartridge to the slotted grooves in the headshell of the tonearm. Tighten the mounting nuts and bolts, but leave enough slack to reposition the cartridge by hand.
2 ) Using a pair of tweezers - fit the four color-coded wires from the tonearm onto the appropriate color-coded pins at the rear of the cartridge.
3 ) Place the turntable on a level platform. Remove the stylus guard from the cartridge. By moving the rotating counterweight to be found at the rear of the arm, attempt to balance the cartridge, so that the arm floats freely along the horizontal plane. Set the free-spinning dial on the counterweight to zero and dial in the tracking force of the cartridge by moving the entire counterweight assembly. The tracking force is usually given in the cartridge manufacturer’s specifications and is typically between 1.5 grams and 2 grams.
4 ) Place an old record on the platter but do not set the platter spinning. Place the arm on the record. By sight, try to make the cartridge parallel to the record. Replace the arm on the rest and adjust the Vertical Tracking Angle of the cartridge by raising or lowering the pillar at the rear of the tonearm.
5 ) Adjust the overhang and tracking of the cartridge using an alignment protractor like the Polestar. Take great care to get the alignment correct, as care and attention at this point reaps great sonic rewards. Once this alignment is correct, tighten the cartridge bolts so that there is no more play and the cantilever is the only part of the cartridge that can still move. Re-check the alignment, in case it has been moved accidentally when tightening the mounting bolts.
6 ) Repeat steps 3 and 4 with greater care and attention.
7 ) Position the anti-skating dial (or adjust the hanging weight) to match the downforce of the cartridge being used.
8 ) Clear away all the tools, sit back, relax and play a record. The cartridge will normally take many hours to run in – if you are impatient, leave the cartridge tracking through a locked groove (like The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper) for a weekend. This will help to bed the cartridge properly.
9 ) Remember that most moving magnet cartridge have a removable styli that should be replaced every two to three years, depending on use. Unfortunately, moving coil cartridges do not have removable styli and need replacing – or retipping – every two to three years or so.