For high fidelity fans back in the 1970s and early 1980s, spinning vinyl discs on a turntable was the way to listen to music. And even as LP sales collapsed under assault from digital music from the mid-1980s, there were many who insisted analogue vinyl was still the way to listen to music. Without getting into the digital vs analogue debate, we will note that quality analogue vinyl on a good turntable remains a great way to listen to music.
But for it to sound great, the turntable has to be set up properly. Let’s see how to do just that. Some readers will be beginners, so for older hands some of this will seem unnecessarily detailed. And some new turntables come partially set up. All that’s fine. Just skip to the bits you need. Or read the whole thing to remind you of things you may have forgotten.
Note: pictures at bottom of page.
- Step 1: what do the different parts of a turntable do
- Step 2: have the extras you need
- Step 3: assemble the turntable
- Step 4: set up the cartridge
- Step 5: get the tonearm ready
- Step 6: enjoy!
Step 1: understand the bits
We talk about a “turntable”, but as high-end fans know very well, a turntable consists of several parts that do different things. Now, most turntables come with all or most of those parts, but they are worth understanding anyway. Here they are:
- The turntable – that’s the platter – the round thing that rotates -- the motor, and the plinth into which the patter and motor are set. The turntable is responsible for spinning the record at the correct speed, consistently and smoothly, while keeping it well isolated from things like noise from the motor and other vibrations.
- The tonearm – that’s typically a slender rod, pivoted at the back end, which swings out over the record. Near the pivot it should have some mechanism for adjusting the amount of force it applies to the vinyl – that’s usually an adjustable counterweight – and an antiskating mechanism to counteract the arm’s natural tendency to push towards the centre of the record.
- The cartridge – that’s a small device – roughly one cubic centimetre in size – which is fitted to the front of the tonearm and which is responsible for turning the movement of the stylus into an electrical signal. The stylus is on the underside. At the back are four small metal rods which are the cartridge’s outputs. Four wires connect to these and then snake back through the tonearm where they are eventually connected to the turntable outputs.
- The stylus – that’s a tiny piece of diamond attached near the end of a thin metal bar called the cantilever. It is the stylus that rests in the groove of the spinning record, moving in sympathy with the groove and transferring the mechanical form of the signal back into the cartridge via the cantilever. On some cartridges it can be replaced by the user when it wears, on others the whole cartridge has to be sent away for replacement.
There are different kinds of turntables – belt drive, direct drive, idler wheel – with different pros and cons. Different tonearms – radial and linear tracking. Very different cartridges – moving magnet, moving coil, ceramic. And different stylus shapes (or forms of construction) – conical, elliptical, nude elliptical, microlinear, Shibata. People have been experimenting for decades with the different ways of extracting the purest possible signal from the delicate vinyl groove. Goodness, there have even been contactless turntables which use lasers to read the groove.
Here we’ll only be mentioning the different options where they may affect setup.
Step 2: What else will you need?
There are a few essential extras needed by all turntable users. If you’re buying a new turntable, don’t leave the store without them. First, most mundane, is simple cleaning stuff. Dust on the record surface is the most common detractor to quality vinyl playback. So make sure you have a carbon fibre record cleaning brush, and a stylus brush.
Use the carbon fibre brush on a record every time just before you play it. Hold it so that it stretches across the entire span of the grooves. While in contact with the record surface, keep the pressure light. The fibres should be straight, not bending. Turn on the turntable and allow a few rotations while holding the brush in place, then without changing the angle, bring it down towards the edge of the record so that any dust particles are swept off. A carbon fibre brush will also have the advantage of discharging local electrostatic charges, reducing the amount of dust the vinyl will attract to itself. While the record is playing, keep the lid lowered to exclude dust.
To clean the stylus, first make sure your system is switched off or turned down a long way. Hold the cleaning brush lightly in your fingers and with the tonearm locked in place, gently bring the brush from the back of the cartridge to the front, parallel to it, so that the stylus passes through its bristles without being pushed to either side. It won’t take long to master this. Repeat a couple of times if necessary.
You will also need a phono preamplifier. Perhaps. Moving magnet cartridges are very low output devices, while moving coil cartridges are lower still in output. Not just that, when a record is made, it has the bass reduced by an enormous amount and the treble boosted by an enormous amount. If it didn’t, very little music would fit on the record. When played by, something call RIAA Equalisation is applied to boost the bass and cut the treble. This has the nice side effect of reducing hiss and other high frequency noise that would be just about intolerable otherwise.
So you can’t just plug the output of the cartridge into the regular line inputs of an amp. Thus the special phono preamplifier.
But quite a few modern turntables have a phono preamplifier built in – usually switchable, so you can go old-school if you like. You can just plug those turntables into your other gear.
These days, and back before the late 1990s, many stereo amplifiers had a phono preamplifier built in. Most gear in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when vinyl sales were at their nadir, didn’t. They have since made a comeback. Even many home theatre receivers now have them built in. But few amplifiers have a phono preamplifier built in which is suitable for low output moving coil cartridges. So you may need a standalone phono amplifier, either for a moving coil cartridge or just to use with an amplifier that does not have one built in.
I’m sure that this is quite unnecessary, but just to be safe I will state the obvious: do not plug your turntable into your amplifier until you have completed the setup.
Step 3: Assemble the turntable
Different new turntables come in various states of pre-assembly. Putting them together is easy. There should be simple instructions in the box, but it’s fairly intuitive regardless. Here are the steps:
- Place the turntable plinth – that’s its main body – on the stable, level surface where you intend to use it. Any legs or feet will almost certainly already be installed, but if not, attach them first.
- Usually the platter – the large rotating plate or disk – is packed separately. If the turntable is direct drive, simply place it carefully over the spindle. It should rotate freely.
- If you have a belt drive turntable, you will normally need to install the belt. In most cases there is a sub-platter, a smaller rotating disc upon which the main platter will rest. It it isn’t already installed, place it over the spindle. Look for and find the belt – this is usually a rubbery ribbon-like band. Avoid getting dirt or grease from your fingers on it. It’s best to use gloves or at least use tissue paper or some such between it and your fingers. You will also see emerging from the plinth a pulley. Carefully place the belt around the pulley and sub-platter. If the turntable is plugged in, switch on the motor for a few seconds to make sure all is moving freely and to settle the belt in its proper position. Switch off again and place the platter over the spindle.
- Some belt-drive turntables may not use a sub-platter, but instead have an underside section of platter extended for the belt to wrap around. These platters will have access holes in them as well. Place the belt around that underside extension, then place the platter over the spindle. Rotate the platter until the motor pulley is visible, then carefully reach through the hole and stretch the belt into place over the pulley. Make sure the belt is flat.
- Note: some belt drive turntables have two pulley wheels on the one motor shaft. These are of different diameters to provide for 33 1/3 and 45 rpm speeds. Place the belt around the smaller diameter pulley wheel since most of what you’ll be playing runs at 33 1/3 rpm.
- Locate the round mat in the packing and place it over the platter, gently smoothing it flat if necessary.
- Finally, attach the lid to the turntable. Most have a couple of hinges at the back which slip into fixtures on the plinth. Make sure it’s moving smoothly.
Step 4: Set up the cartridge
If your turntable comes with a cartridge, then it will almost certainly be attached to the tonearm or head shell which plugs into the tonearm. And be properly aligned. But the most common modification of turntables, and often the biggest-bang-for-the-buck upgrade, is to replace the standard cartridge with a better one. One of the most exacting – sometimes infuriating – parts of turntable setup is to “align” the cartridge.
You see, when a recording is “cut” – the groove is cut into the master disk – the arm holding the cutting tool drives the tool in a straight line from the edge of the record towards the centre. But when you play back your record, the playback arm is pivoted at one end. And that means that as the arm moves across the record, the playback tool – the cartridge – is following an arc, not a straight line. Which in turn means that most of the time it will be at an angle to the groove, not directly in line with it. How much of an angle? Well, a lot of smart people have developed ways of minimising this by optimally aligning the cartridge. If you do that, you can keep the angle down to a maximum of 1.5%.
Does alignment matter? Well, yes it does. The greater the error between cutting and playback angle, the greater the distortion during playback, and wear on the both the vinyl and the stylus.
When properly aligned, the cartridge will be at zero tracking angle – that is, perfectly aligned – at two points during playback, with minimum error across the rest of the recording.
The cartridge is attached to the head shell or the arm, whether it’s removable or not, with two bolts and nuts set a standard half-inch (12.7mm) apart. The fore-aft position of the bolts is adjustable. That allows you to adjust how far forward the cartridge is in the head shell, and modestly adjust its angle.
To align the cartridge you will need something called an alignment protractor or alignment tool. Your turntable may have come with one, perhaps plastic or even cardboard in construction. There are plenty that you can buy, such as the Mobile Fidelity GEO-DISC. Or, if you are confident that your printer is accurate, you can download one of many free tools and print it out.
So, let’s go:
- Mount the cartridge into the head shell and carefully slide the four wires over the pins. I find needle-nosed pliers – loosely gripping the tab where the wire is soldered to the connector – helpful here. The colour code is Left Positive: white; Left Ground: green; Right Positive: red; Right Ground: blue. Look for the markings on the back of the cartridge to make sure the correct wires go on the correct pins. Not all are the same. If the head shell is detached, attach it to the arm and tighten the collar to lock it into place.
- Now, partially tighten the screws. You want to allow the cartridge to be able to slide back and forth fairly freely, and the angle to be adjustable, without it flopping around. Slide the cartridge so that both screws are in the middle of their fore-after slots.
- Roughly set the tracking weight as shown in the next step. This is temporary and does not need to be exact. It’s just that we’ll be resting the arm on the stylus a few times in what comes up, so we don’t want too much weight on it. But it must have some weight to remain in place. Make sure that antiskating is set to zero or, if possible, is completely disconnected. Lower the cue level so that the tonearm can go right down to the platter mat.
- Set the overhang. Swing the tonearm so that it’s over the centre spindle. For each tonearm the stylus should be a certain distance beyond the spindle. That’s around 15mm but may be a few millimetres more or less depending on the arm. Check the documentation which came with your turntable for the figure. If there’s nothing there, check the manufacturer’s website. If you can’t find it there – for instance, you may have inherited or bought an old turntable – check to see if it’s at this site, which extensively lists characteristics for many turntables and tonearms. If you still can’t find it, set it to 15mm as a starting point. Consider tightening the bolts just a little more to make sure that the cartridge won’t move easily backwards and forwards, but can still be turned slightly one way or the other.
- Set the tonearm back on its rest. Your alignment tool has two sets of grid markings on it and a hole at one end. Place the hole over the spindle on your turntable and lay out the tool near where the arm will be tracking.
- Carefully lower the cartridge on the tonearm so that the stylus is right at the centre of the marked dot in the grid pattern closest to the edge of the platter. Adjust the angle of the cartridge so that it is square with the grid pattern, lifting the arm as you do so to protect the stylus. Some say that you should align it so that the stylus cantilever is square. That’s true, but it’s typically quite the feat to be able to see that clearly. Be careful. Your cartridge’s sides may not be exactly parallel. It’s the cartridge itself that needs to be square, not one or the other edges.
- Now, repeat this for the dot in the grid closer to the centre of the platter. If the overhang is right, this should already be correct. If the angle is not right, adjust it as in the last point, then go back to the first dot and check.
- If the cartridge won’t align for both grids, then you will have to adjust the overhang by trial and error for a while. Try increasing the overhang by 1mm then go back to the alignment steps. Are they closer this time? Further apart? The same? Keep adjusting the overhang until the cartridge can align at both positions.
- Once aligned, carefully tighten the bolts without allowing the cartridge position to shift. Check to make sure it hasn’t moved.
- Congratulatations! You’ve completed what’s the hardest part of setting up a turntable.
Step 5: Set up the tonearm
Getting the cartridge alignment right is not the end of setup, though. Now you have to set the stylus pressure or force.
Before starting on that, though, there is one other adjustment that some high-end people recommend: stylus rake angle (SRA), sometimes known as vertical tracking angle (VTA). If your tonearm has a vertical adjustment, moving it up or down would change the angle at which the stylus tracks the groove. This is a controversial topic. Some believe that they can hear the difference caused merely due to the fact that modern 180-gram vinyl pressing are thicker than more traditional vinyl weights, slightly changing the SRA. Others dispute this. Cofounder of the famed Rega Research turntable, tonearm and cartridge maker, Roy Gandy, reckons that it’s complete bunk, on the basis of the fact that the angle of the cutting tools are all over the place, but generally less than the minimum possible with most turntables.
We’ll stay out of that one, other than to recommend that if your turntable does have an adjustment for this – it will allow you to raise or lower the back section of the tonearm assembly – adjust it so that the tonearm is horizontal when playing a normal record. That will leave things close to what the cartridge maker would typically recommend.
- Now that the cartridge is mounted and aligned, put the tonearm in its rest and lock it with the clip (or tie it down with a twisty if there isn’t one).
- Remove the stylus protector and lower the cue lever.
- If the counterweight for the tonearm had not yet been installed, place it on the tube at the back of the tonearm and slide it in towards the pivot. It will stop, perhaps straight away, perhaps a little way in.
- In most cases there is an internal thread in the counterweight that engages with a matching thread or lugs on the tonearm. Rotate the counterweight – it’s usually clockwise, looking from the back – to start screwing it in. Just a bit, then stop.
- Now, gently hold down the front of the tonearm and release the clip or twisty holding it down. The front of the tonearm will probably want to rise. Screw in the counterweight further until the arm no longer wants to rise. If it didn’t want to rise in the first place, screw the counterweight back out until just before it does want to rise.
- Now you’re ready to balance the arm. We want it perfectly balanced so that the stylus would be touching the surface of a record.
- Without switching on the turntable motor – you can disconnect it from the power if it comes on automatically – swing the arm out over the platter. Lower it extremely gently. If the cue bar that would normally lower the arm hasn’t itself fully lowered, there being virtually no weight on it, just gently push it down with your finger so it doesn’t interfere with the tonearm.
- When it seems to be balanced in the air, lift up your finger from the front on the tonearm and let it settle down. It should float there some distance above the mat on the platter. Chances are it’s not at the right height, which is the thickness of a typical LP above the mat. Grasp head shell to protect the stylus and rotate the counterweight very slightly in further if it’s too high, the other way if too low. It’ll probably take two or three goes, but soon you’ll have stylus hovering around a millimetre above the surface of the map. The tone arm is now balanced.
- Return the arm to the armrest and lock/tie it down again. In most cases, at the front of the counterweight – that’s the closest end to the pivot – there’ll be a section with numbers and markings on it. It can be rotated freely without turning the counterweight itself. Rotate it carefully – you don’t want to move the counterweight – until the “0” marking lines up with a calibration line or mark on the tone arm tube.
- Now, slowly rotate the whole of the counterweight so that it moves towards the pivot. Pay attention to the calibration markings. You will be lining up the recommended tracking weight with the calibration mark. So, if you the recommended tracking weight is 2 grams, line up “2” with the calibration mark.
- In other cases, after the arm is balanced there may be a separate dial or control that sets the stylus pressure. Do check with the instructions of your turntable.
- Now, finally, adjust the antiskating control to match the tracking weight. In most cases it’s a simple dial or sliding device. In some cases it consists of a weight hanging on a thread, and you adjust it by moving the point of attachment to different notches on a thin arm. For that you will have to consult the manual to determine which notch to use to match the tracking pressure. (You can read more about what antiskating is all about here.)
- Remove the lock/tie on the tonearm and raise the cue lever. And now, the second most fiddly part of turntable setup is complete.
Step 6: Getting going
- It’s time to plug things in. If your turntable has a built-in phono preamplifier and you want to use it, find the switch to make sure it’s on (it may say “Line/Phono” or similar for on/off). If you’re using it, do not connect it to the phono input of an amplifier. It will overload that. Connect it to an Auxiliary, Tape, CD or similar line-level input.
- If you are using a turntable without an inbuilt phono preamp, or have it switched off, connect the turntable to an external phono preamplifier or the phono inputs of an amplifier.
- In most cases (Rega turntables are one notable exception) also connect a wire between a screw earthing point on the turntable and one on the amplifier. Special earthing points are provided near the phono inputs on such amplifiers. If you don’t connect this, you will get a lot of noise, in the worst case so much it will overpower your music.
- Plug in power, place a record on the mat, start it spinning, use the cue lever to gently lower the arm and start listening. Some turntables require you to move the belt from one pully to another to change the playback speed, rather than simply flick a switch.
- Finally, put on an LP and start playing. Enjoy!