The Entry Level #23 Page 2
The right tools
My initial attempt at installing the DV 10X5 on my Rega P3-24 was entirely unsuccessful. So were attempts two through six. I began to despair. I even became physically illthe product, I imagine, of stress, exhaustion, and complete vinyl withdrawal. If you know the sweet comfort and relief that a properly assembled turntable can deliver, you probably also know the immense grief and frustration of that same setup gone wrong. I coughed, wheezed, nearly cried. My Rega was dead silent. Before we could start making music again, I had to get acquainted with some turntable basics.
To get the best results from a tonearm and cartridge, vertical tracking angle (VTA) and stylus rake angle (SRA) should be properly set. But what are VTA and SRA? I still don't know. If you'd like to get deep into it, you can search stereophile.com's archives for what Keith Howard, Michael Fremer, and Art Dudley have to say. For now, I've stopped trying to understand; maybe you'll have better luck. In the most basic sense, VTA has to do with the tonearm's height above and angle to the LP surface and how it affects the stylus, while SRA refers to the angle between the LP surface and the stylus. Changing one changes the other. As a very general rule, the tonearm should be in a neutral position, parallel to the record surface, putting SRA somewhere around 90°. But many analog diehards, Michael Fremer included, say an ideal SRA of 92° should be attained, even if it means applying a grossly altered VTA. Mikey uses an expensive digital USB microscope to verify SRA, but he also recommends the Skque 45X pocket mini microscope ($7.49). I haven't tried it yet, but I willin time.
Rega's RB301 tonearm has a fixed VTA for easy setup with Rega's own cartridges. But the Dynavector DV 10X5 is significantly taller than the Elys. Therefore, in order to reach the proper SRA, you'll have to increase the tonearm's height. Mike Pranka recommended a Rega 2mm spacer ($39, footnote 1). In his review of the original DV 10X5, Art Dudley devotes one sentence to installing the spacer, describing the process as "easy to do." And he's right: It is easy to do. But I paid $850 for my P3-24, which, aside from my monthly rent and my horrendously expensive college education, is more than I've spent on anything, and I'm not too keen on tearing that money to shreds. So I hope you'll understand the terror I felt on removing the three screws that hold the tonearm in place, removing the two other screws that secure the long tonearm cables to the underside of the turntable chassis, lifting the entire tonearm mechanism from the small hole in which it rests, pulling the long tonearm cables through that small hole, setting the spacer in place around the hole, and replacing and retightening the tonearm. To get the job done truly easily, I recommend using three hands while floating in air (footnote 2).
With the Rega spacer installed, I could now replace my Rega Elys phono cartridge with the Dynavector DV 10X5. It's important to be extremely careful and gentle while handling the tiny, delicate leads that connect the tonearm cable to the phono cartridgeit's all too easy to break their solder joints (footnote 3). I used tweezers to help get the leads off and on, and was able to attach Dynavector to headshell in just a few moments.
But where on the headshell? For that, an alignment protractor is necessary. My first mistake was in using the simple paper protractor that Rega includes with its turntables. This resulted in a setup that had the cartridge positioned very deep on the headshell. Keeping in mind what others had told me about the Rega Elys's shortcomings, I had expected to hear an immediate and dramatic improvement in the sound. Instead, I heard weak, thin bass, vague imaging, and terrible distortion during loud passages of music. Something was obviously wrong.
Mike Pranka explained that the Rega protractor is intended for use only with Rega cartridges, and recommended that I try a protractor that conforms to the time-honored and popular Baerwald geometry (footnote 4). I had on hand a DB Systems DBP-10 protractor ($49)a gift from John Atkinson that had been sitting on top of my LP shelves, right below Art's DV 10X5. Favored by both JA and AD, the DBP-10 has been around longer than I have. I figured it would do the trick, but the instructions included with my sample of the DBP-10 assume that the user is an experienced installer of cartridges. I sweated over it a good while, but ultimately couldn't fathom how to use the DBP-10. Apparently, I'm not alone: When I mentioned my struggles to a couple of other audiophiles, one simply groaned in sympathy; the other replied, "That thing makes my hair hurt."
It was time to get serious. I called Music Direct's Josh Bizar and begged him to send me whatever tools I'd need to get this job done right. Weeks of sadness, sickness, frustration, and despair were soon wiped away by the Mobile Fidelity Geo-Disc alignment tool ($49.99) and Audio Additives digital stylus-force gauge ($79.99)a couple of turntable-setup accessories that I now consider essential.
The Audio Additives gauge comes in a nice black box and has an easy-to-read touchscreen display and a nonmagnetic case, the latter to ensure that your cartridge won't be suddenly and disastrously pulled into a sharp edge or hard surface. It includes two AAA batteries and a 5gm calibration weight, and accurately measures a cartridge's vertical tracking force (VTF) down to 0.001gm. VTF, the downforce exerted by the stylus on the LP groove, is usually adjusted with a movable counterweight at the end of the tonearm opposite the cartridge. Setting VTF is the first step in installing a cartridge and, arguably, the most important. With too little force, the stylus won't properly settle in the groove, dramatically increasing the chances of groove damage. Too much force will overload the cartridge's internal suspension, decreasing mechanical and thus sonic performance. The Audio Additives removes the mystery and is a pleasure to use: Just rest the cartridge's stylus on the black dot in the center of the gauge's scale, read the digital display, and adjust the tonearm's counterweight until you reach your desired VTF.
All VPI turntables come packaged with Shure's simple SFG-2 balance-beam stylus-force gauge ($36). With the Shure, I found that I could get to within 0.055gm of my intended VTFnot bad at all. At less than half the price of the Audio Additives, the Shure is a great little tool, but the Audio Additives is easier to use, more precise, and provides an extra measure of mental comfort.
Compared to the DB Systems DBP-10, the MoFi Geo-Disc is a godsend, the epitome of clarity and simplicityexactly what I needed. The disc is the size of an LP; it has a spindle hole at its center, and the instructions, written in modern-day English, are printed right on its surface. While I suspect the DBP-10 is more useful for truly hardcore hobbyists like Art Dudley, the Geo-Disc is the only alignment protractor most vinyl enthusiasts will ever need. It's simple, smart, and makes installing a cartridge absolutely painless.
Does it work? VPI's Traveler turntable comes equipped with its own special alignment protractor, also based on the Baerwald geometry. Later, when I was much more comfortable and confident with all of this, I set up the Traveler using its accompanying protractor, then again with the MoFi. The results were identical. I don't know what else to say, except that I love the Geo-Disc.
Making music again
Though the Dynavector's midrange was clean, natural, and impressively detailed right from the start, I noticed that the cartridge gradually opened up, providing a soundstage that was wide and exceptionally deep, and sounding sweeter and more extended on top, tauter and more powerful on bottom. The soundstage was also stable, well controlled, and deeply layered, with remarkable image separation. In Kendrick Lamar's compelling "Buried Alive," from Drake's outstanding Take Care (LP, Cash Money/Universal Republic B0016280-01), bass was more explosive and set deeper in the soundstage, Lamar's richly textured voice was brought forward, and swelling synth lines were nestled in between.
Low-level detail was also more readily apparent: For the first time, I heard subtle dynamic shading in the drum thwacks in Drake's "Take Care," and slight phase shifts in the low-bass synths in "Limit to Your Love," from James Blake's eponymous debut (LP, Polydor B0015443-01).
But most impressive was the Dynavector's crazy clarity, immediacy, and presencemusic was consistently more dramatic and involving, while never sounding unnecessarily harsh, aggressive, or forward. Dean Blunt and Inga Copeland's Black Is Beautiful (LP, Hyperdub HDBLP012) uses mysterious samples, oddball electronics, and field recordings to reference musical styles from free jazz to dub to funk to hazy, lo-fi pop and complete noise. I love it, but it never exactly sounds good. Though the Dynavector didn't turn Black Is Beautiful into an audiophile recording, it made the album sound more coherent, powerful, and musicalinfinitely more enjoyable and rewarding.
When I finally returned to my Rega Elys MM cartridge, I wished I could take a washrag to the dirty pane of glass that now separated me from the music: The Elys lacked clarity, presence, and drama, and music invariably sounded smaller and more distant. (Womp womp.)
Some audiophiles will have you believe that changing a phono cartridge is as easy as changing a light bulb. But that's only because they've forgotten what it was like to do it for the first time. It's not easy. Don't let anyone tell you that it is. Along those same lines, however, don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it, or that it's not worth doing. You can, and it is. Like with most other worthwhile endeavors, installing a cartridge simply requires desire, time, patience, the right tools, and a bit of guidance. I'm glad I went through the pains, because the pleasures were immense. Swapping the Rega Elys with the Dynavector DV 10X5 resulted in the biggest positive change I've ever experienced in my system.
And then I set up the VPI Traveler . . .
Footnote 1: Rega also offers an adjustable spacer with settings of 2, 4, 6, and 8mm, for use with a variety of cartridges.
Footnote 2: Over at AnalogPlanet.com, Michael Fremer recently discussed a very smart spacer that allows the user to increase the height of a Rega tonearm without having to remove the tonearm from the chassis. It's made by the German turntable manufacturer Acoustic Signature and costs around $75, which seems reasonable to me.
Footnote 3: See Ariel Bitran's sad but hilarious blog entry.
Footnote 4: For more on optimizing tonearm geometries, read Keith Howard's "Arc Angels."