In over the nearly 40 years of Audible Elegance, I have seen my share of unfortunate mistakes made by turntable owners. I will be doing a top 10 Ten List on YouTube discussing this very subject. But, for those who like to read, I thought I would give you dibs.
The biggest mistake I see on a regular basis is that the cartridge (with stylus) is not even in the right location in the headshell. This includes both removable headshells as well as fixed. This has become particularly troublesome even on used turntables as often times the overhang gauge which was originally packed with the table has gone missing. The position of the cartridge must be exact (forward or back in the slots provided) so that the stylus properly tracks the record from the outside to the label. There are various products out there that help you in this regard but Audible Elegance has two fairly expensive (and one rare) devices to help us properly mount your cartridge.
The next common mistake is, sadly, nothing we can fix but can detect that it has happened. In short, the tonearm itself has been wrecked. This usually happens on fixed headshells but I have seen it on removable ones as well. What is the problem? That the owner attempted to mount the cartridge themselves to save money but applied so much force in one direction or another that it ends up damaging the tonearm bearings themselves. Typical tonearms use 7 micron bearings while more advanced ones can use down to 1 micron size. Stress placed on the tonearm in either downward pressure or the unresolved force of holding an nut in place while tightening the bolt or screw is another. There is no resolution other than replacement of the arm, if at all possible. I’ve flunked over 50% of the tables brought in for consignment for this very issue. Think of it as a broken tripod for a camera. The game is over. My YouTube video will have diagrams of how the force is wrecking your arm. In short, with a removable headshell, the process is slow and steady but the headshell is never fussed with while on the arm. For fixed headshells, in most cases, the arm should be removed first which makes the mounting a bit more tricky as you have both the proper overhang distance and VTA affecting that position. It’s work. Again, we have the proper tools.
Next is an old favorite. If I can not get the arm to stay down, add weight to the headshell. Yep, I’ve seen pennies, quarters, and gobs of goo place on the the headshell to get the stylus (needle) to sit down on the record and play. This is usually caused by the improper choice of a cartridge for the tonearm and, again, done by inexperience and the desire to save money. Well, two things are happening. First, likely kiss your records to hell if the force is nuts and I have seen that. At 1.7 grams, if the cartridge is designed for that tracking weight, it is putting down thousands of pounds per square inch and heating the vinyl to around 600 degrees Fahrenheit. Just imagine those numbers at 3 grams. Even if you can get the tracking weight correct, which it usually is not, then you have the inertia force of that weight way out on the end of a arm (a long stick). This additional weight greatly changes the weight the cartridge must deal with or was designed for. The compliance of the cartridge ends up being ignored and can lead to a collapse of the cantilever, particularly in moving coil cartridges.
My fourth one goes straight at reviews, the web or word of mouth. “Oh, I’ve just read or been told this and I want one.” What is often overlooked is whether or not the required geometry for tracking angle can be achieved with the combination of arm and cartridge. With cheaper turntables, there is no adjustment at the pillar of the arm and so your choice of cartridges demands a certain body – stylus height. Too much height and kiss the bass good-bye and hello treble. Too low, thump therapy and where’s the treble? Even separate arms may require the purchase of a shim to raise the arm high enough to achieve the proper tracking angle. And sometimes, you just can not get the arm low enough to meet the needs of the cartridge. This is, actually, the most common issue I see when people bring in tables for a new cartridge.
The last is a killer. I want to spend a lot of money on a cartridge because that’s the most important thing on a turntable. Absolutely wrong. Why? The better the cartridge, the better it is in picking up all the other defects of the table you are using. It’s like using a video camera on a broken tripod in the middle of an earthquake. It may be a fine cartridge but the fact remains you will not get the full benefit of its abilities because of everything else that is going wrong. So, if you use a cheap camera in place of the Leica, you still get the smear image but at least you didn’t pay thousands of dollars to get the same results. Conversely, a very cheap cartridge, allowed to perform properly on a good turntable, will bury an expensive cartridge on an inferior turntable. I’ve done many demonstrations of that in my store crushing a $2,000 moving coil cartridge with a $50 moving magnet one.
Hopefully you have not done any of these but if you are buying a used turntable, well, you never know about the tonearm bearings. There are ways of checking that in some cases. Again, subscribe to our YouTube channel here. But honestly, we have the proper tools to do most turntables. Most times its not an instant oil change so be prepared to leave your table. Again, as always, it’s your money. But remember, the dog is cheap, the food’s expensive. Think about your records.