In the second part Martin (Modular Audio’s resident turntable expert) shares with us his thoughts and playing experiences and looking back the fun filled years of how it all started.
Question: Can you describe the first time you heard a turntable system? When and what model was that?
Martin: My first turntable experience was a 3-in-1 audio system which my mother used for her Cantonese Opera music. What brand? That’s a tough one because that was over 40 years ago when I was just a kid.
Question: Can you tell us your very first turntable?
Martin: I got my first turntable when I was in college and it was also a 3-in-1 Sansui. I wasn’t too aware of set up or alignment at that time – just plugged and played.
I got my first seriousturntable in 1979 and that was a Thorens TD160 super + SME SIII + Stanton 680. I bought this using my college summer job vacation earnings. Still remembered when I brought it back home, it was around 9:30 pm. After a late shower, I was struggling within whether I should set up this turntable or not as it’s late at 10:30pm. Like all hot-blooded, impatient audiophile, I couldn’t wait and started to set it up.
I can still recall the screws for setting the springs were at the bottom of the turntable. I had to place the turntable on 2 chairs and laid myself down on the ground to adjust the screws and then stood up to check the balancing of the springs. This motion was repeated for at least 6 – 7 times to get it right. If I was asked to do it now, I surely would have fainted after the third iteration. Of course, there are better ways to do so now but as a turntable rookie then, what I did was just clumsy.
Anyway, I completed the set up in some 5 to 6 hours – the alignment was done at that time via a very simple paper tractor. I was really thrilled to play the first note on the same evening (or morning?) and couldn’t believe it worked. By the time I got to bed was almost 4 am.
Question: And the very first LP you bought?
Martin: The Beatles 1962 – 1966 (Red Album). It was a HK press and honestly speaking the sound quality was just so-so but the songs were my favourite.
Question: So what were the turntables, tonearm and cartridges that came after?
Martin: After Thorens TD160, I got a French-made turntable whose name has slipped me. It was a very heavy make using granite as base. Next came the Pink Triangle (Little Pink Thing) and Basis 2001. For tonearms, I can recollect Alphason HR-100S, Moerch DP6 and Graham 2.2. As for cartridges, I was way more generous in this department. So after the Stanton 680 came Shure V15 type III, Suprex 900, Clearaudio Goldmund Gold, Transfiguration Temper V, Benz Micro LP, Clearaudio Accurate and Clearaudio Goldfinger. The very last Clearaudio cartridge was quite a revelation to me.
Quesiton: In your many years of playing, did any single occasion stick to you as having the BEST analogue sound?
Martin: The most impressive turntable based system I have had was one using Pink Triangle Anniversary Turntable with Moech DP6 tonearm with Clearaudio’s flagship cartridge at that time – The Insider. The owner was a doctor and his system was Restek Pre + Power (Germany) driving a pair of Dynaudio Consequence speakers. He’s a classical music lover and this high-end system (really high-end to me at that time especially the Clearaudio Insider) gave me an unforgettable experienced – the most charming violin sound. I fell in love with his turntable system and copied it years later.
Question: What do you think makes a very good turntable?
Martin: The turntable must be stable and has good isolation; low wow and flutter. The bearing must be smooth and of high precision.
Queston: Rank the order of priority – turntable/arm/cartridge? Why do you rank it as such?
Martin: All things being equal, my ranking is #1 Cartridge, #2 Tonearm and #3 Turntable. The tonearm should also match well with the cartridge in order to perform at its optimum.
If my budget is limiting I would buy a very good cartridge, a good tonearm which matches the cartridge and remaining funds to the turntable. Recalled earlier I mentioned the Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge? I was amazed how my little humble system (Basis 2001) was transformed after this upgrade – I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it was by more than 100%
However, one component that is usually neglected by vinylphiles is the phono amp. Phono amp has a big say on the final result too especially if the loading is correctly set or not.
All in all, the most important is still matching.
Question: Is cartridge alignment an art or science?
Martin:Alignment art is the spirit of playing analogue. In pivot type tonearm (over 99% of tonearms are of pivot type), the arm geometry / alignment is very important in determining the null points and underlying tracking angle error.
When the playing stylus begins from the 1st track to the last, the distortion is proportional to the tracking angle error over radius of the track. In geometry calculation, the tracking angle error at inner groove will be the biggest. As the radius at the inner groove becomes smaller, the distortion in the inner groove will the highest. So if the alignment is good i.e. the tracking angle is very close to the lowest you will hardly hear any distortion even at the innermost track. In other words, the sound of the vinyl will remain smooth and steady from the 1st track to the last track. However, if the alignment is no good, the inner groove distortion will become more obvious. This can be tested easily when you play some female vocals and violin music.
Besides knowing the science of alignment geometry, turntable leveling, azimuth, VTA, VTF and also anti-skating all played an important part in this dynamic balance.
Question: We’ve read that there is only 1 optimum point in all alignment. Why?
Martin: Yes there is only one point in the tonearm geometry (formula). The art of alignment is how close one can get the stylus tip to that point (in X-Y-Z dimensions). It is not an approximation. It is not a range of values but an empirical value.
Question: How long does it stay optimum before it runs?
Martin: Assuming the setup was perfect and the playing condition normal, your turntable/cartridge should stay in tune for at least 9 to 12 months before the next checkup.
Question: Last but not least, what is your advice to budding vinylphiles?
Martin: In building your turntable system, unless you really want to fiddle with setup, it’s best to leave it to the experts to do it – propose a matching system (turntable, tonearm, cartridge, phono amp) for you. Take the chance to listen to a varied of turntable systems and learn to distinguish between a very well setup turntable vis-a-vis a so-so setup – regardless of price. Over time your learning would make you better and get closer to perfecting your setup skills. For those who just want to enjoy good analogue music, the best is still to leave it to experts.
Remember that the aim is to enjoy music and so get your hands on good vinyl whenever the opportunity arises. I always believe one becomes happier playing software instead of hardware. But of course, your turntable system should be done right to start.