How To: Calibrate Your Turntable For the Best Possible SoundS

Did our Listening Test week light up the fire inside to dust off some old records and whip a turntable back into shape to start enjoying them again? It's really easy, and cheap. Here's how.

If you saw our feature earlier in the week, you know Michael Fremer is crazy about vinyl. He's been defending its merits ever since digital formats started to surface, and has published several DVDs detailing how best to set up a number of nice audiophile turntables.

But of course, you don't have to have to have an audiophile turntable to enjoy vinyl—great used tables like the Technics SL-D202 I got in high school (pictured) can be picked up all over the internet, at garage sales or from your Dad's basement for very little dough, and will serve you well as long as they're in decent shape.

Plus, with tons of record labels including a free digital download with the purchase of an album on vinyl these days, it's a great way to give back to your favorite artists—you'll get a cool tangible object that has the potential to sound far better than your MP3s, but with a digital copy for you iPod nonetheless.

So if you have a turntable that's never received a proper tune-up, here's how to set it up to get the best possible sound from it. With Fremer's help, my table is now in tip-top shape, and yours can be too.

What you'll need:
• The manual for your turntable and cartridge (the part with the needle attached)
• A 2mm Allen/Hex wrench for the cartridge screws (most are 2mm, anyway)
• A ruler
• Magnifying glass and flashlight (not essential, but makes things easier)
• Needle-nose pliers or tweezers
• A printout of a standard cartridge alignment ruler (available at vinylengine.com for free)

First thing's first, though—if you're unsure of the progeny of your table, or if it hasn't been serviced in a long time or ever, the easiest upgrade you can make to ensure it's at its best is a new cartridge. This part is almost solely responsible for the sound generated by your table, and you can get a very good new cartridge for less than $100 (try Shure's M97XE for a good one in the $90 ballpark, but there are cheaper options as well).

After that, there are three variables you want to make sure are set, and those are the three variables we'll be covering: cartridge alignment, tracking pressure and anti-skating. While there are tons of other adjustments that can be made, with some tables having more calibration options than others, these three are fairly universal and will get you in the ballpark of calibration, which is much better than fresh-from-the-dusty-garage.

Let's get started!

How To: Calibrate Your Turntable For the Best Possible SoundS


Tracking Pressure
This is what the weight on the back of your tonearm is for—it controls how much pressure is put on the stylus as it tracks the record's grooves. This should be set according to what's suggested in your cartridge's manual. Google around for your cartridge make and model and you should be able to find the manual, or your turntable manual may suggest a baseline range. Again, Vinyl Engine is a great resource for manuals.

1. If you're installing a new cartridge, connect the red, blue, green and white wires to the corresponding marked terminals on the back of the cartridge. If they're too loose and fall off the pins, put a toothpick inside wire clips and tighten it with the pliers. Once it's hooked up, loosely screw the cartridge into the headshell (we'll be adjusting its alignment later) with your hex screwdriver.

2. Set the turntable's anti-skating dial to zero, then turn the weight on the back of the arm just up until the point the tonearm floats on its own. Then, by turning the part of the weight with the gauge but not the entire weight, set the gauge back to zero to "re-zero" the weight.

3. Now, turn the entire weight to the number (in grams) specified by your cartridge's manual. If it specifies a range, stick it in the middle.

4. If you're feeling like getting serious, you can buy a specialized tracking pressure gauge that will tell you the exact pressure. But for most folks, the guidelines on the tonearm's weight are fine—mine was almost exactly correct when measured with Fremer's digital gauge (as you can see in the picture).

How To: Calibrate Your Turntable For the Best Possible SoundS


Cartridge Alignment
Ideally, a tonearm would track across the record from the beginning to the end in a straight line across the surface, so that the stylus was perpendicular to the groove at all times, thus keeping distortion to an absolute minimum. But since the turntable arm is fixed, it traces a parabola across the surface of the record as you play it. Mathematically, the parabola arc has two points where the stylus should be sitting perfectly perpendicular to the groove. These are the points we'll use to set the alignment.

But you don't have to be Pythagoras Jr. to plot them—thankfully, there are protractor PDFs you can print out which will mark the approximate position of these points on most turntables. There are also PDFs for specific tone arms and turntables floating around—Google your model to see, but you should be served just fine by the standard approximation provide by the basic print outs at Vinyl Engine. (We're using a glass version here in the photo, but the paper ones are fine).

1. Many turntable manuals specify an ideal distance from the back of the headshell to the tip of the stylus, so consult your table's manual and screw in the cartridge into the headshell's adjustable slots so this measurement is correct.

2. Now, place your alignment protractor on the platter, and carefully drop the stylus tip onto the first alignment point. The goal is for the cantilever (the metal part that extends down from the cartridge with the stylus tip on the end) to be parallel with the guidelines on the printout. If it's not, loosen one of the screws in the headshell and move it back or forward slightly. This is where a magnifying glass and flashlight can be handy, as the clearance between the bottom of the cartridge and the platter may be slim.

3. Once it's aligned in the first point, test it on the second point. Both are mathematically determined, so it should be aligned on the second point too. If not, try to find a happy medium.

Anti-Skating
Most turntables have an anti-skating dial somewhere. This setting counteracts the vector force that naturally pulls the stylus tip toward the inner lip of the groove as the record spins, because as mentioned before, you want it to track dead-center whenever possible.

1. All you have to do is turn the anti-skating knob so that the number matches the tracking pressure you set earlier. Fremer likes to set it a quarter of a gram or so less, which he feels is more accurate than the scales provided on most turntables. So do that.

More Tips
• Keep your turntable on as sturdy a surface as possible—this will prevent it from warbling or skipping if you walk/dance around near it.

• Keep your stylus and records clean. You can get very inexpensive tools for cleaning both of these parts, and it will keep everying sounding great and will prevent your records from wearing out too quickly.

And that's it. For more info, check out Fremer's calibration DVDs, which many vinyl junkies swear by.

Hope you guys enjoyed our Listening Test audio week as much as we did. If you have any other advice or tips to share, please do so in the comments, and if you're interested, check out last week's audio-related How To on maintaining a lossless music library. Have a great weekend listening everybody!

Listening Test: It's music tech week at Gizmodo.