Analog Corner #312: WallyTools & the WallyReference

Held every November in normal times, the annual Warsaw Audio Video Show is among the world's largest. I first attended a decade ago, in 2011, and was amazed by both the number of attendees—more than 10,000 people—and demographics that skewed young and included many families. That show was bigger and better-attended than any I've been to in America.

The show organizers had arranged for my travel and hotel accommodations in exchange for a series of turntable setup seminars, which seemed like a fair deal.

Upon my arrival at Frederic Chopin airport, I was picked up not by someone from the show but by an individual who informed me that he and not the show organizers had paid for my trip, in exchange for setting up his turntable!

I was okay with that. For one thing, it was kind of flattering, don't you think, for someone to fly you a third of the way around the world just to set up his turntable? I got to see the beautiful Polish countryside, have a lakeside meal at a fine restaurant, and spend some time in Torún, birthplace of Copernicus. But first I had to set up this guy's turntable.

After an overnight flight in the cheap seats, I was jetlagged, and my ears arrived clogged and ringing—and not for me and my gal. But no matter! I went in for an instrument landing, relying on gauges and not on my ears, though even with blocked eustachian tubes it was obvious that the Ortofon A90 had been set up incorrectly.

Ortofon's Replicant 100 stylus is sensitive to SRA. Incorrectly set up, the A90 can sound hard, bright, gritty, and etchy. More than a few reviews of that revolutionary selective laser–melt body cartridge revealed the reviewer's bad setup and not the cartridge's sonic performance.

Once I'd adjusted everything, using a USB microscope and tools manufactured by and knowledge supplied by my late Poland-born mentor Wally Malewicz, I knew it was going to sound much better before I even played a track. It did. Money well spent, my grateful host said after playing a few demo tracks.

As an audiophile I'm a listener, but when setting up a phono cartridge, I believe in using measurements and not doing it "by ear"—though a final tweak by ear can often be useful, especially setting tracking force (VTF) and sometimes stylus rake angle (SRA). Setting up a high-performance phono cartridge entirely by eye or by ear is not acceptable when you've spent thousands of dollars.

Ideally, you shouldn't even buy a cartridge without an instrument inspection. Without a microscope, you can't even be certain of correct stylus/ cantilever manufacture. When that's out of spec, as it too often is, you can set the arm parallel to the record surface and listen all you want and never get SRA set to 92° or 93°. Furthermore, adjusting the cantilever so that it's perpendicular to the record surface does not guarantee correct azimuth adjustment. And making small azimuth adjustments by ear is hardly reliable.

Tools allow for other critical diagnostics. At a show in Copenhagen in front of hundreds of audiophiles, Wally's original antiskating device demonstrated that the arm I had been given to set up had damage to its vertical bearing: Instead of swinging freely horizontally, it stuck in place, probably a victim of shipping damage. At a show in Trondheim, I discovered, also in front of a large crowd, that the pivot-to-spindle template supplied by another arm manufacturer allowed for far too much play to be reliable. The headshell slots weren't long enough to compensate and properly set overhang.

Back home, I helped a local vinyl enthusiast who'd ended up with a skewed cantilever on a circa $10,000 cartridge he'd twice returned to the factory for "realignment." But it wasn't the cartridge manufacturer's fault: A damaged arm bearing was applying enormous antiskating force, even with antiskating turned off. I discovered this with the WallySkater tool. The WAM Engineering LLC website (wallyanalog.com) is a repository of outstanding science- and mathematics-based turntable setup information, with many useful videos including one that finally explains skating conclusively.

The New Generation of Wallytools
Wally has passed, but today, Wally's part-time assistant J.R. Boisclair and Wally's son Andrzej, a mechanical engineer who in his day job oversees projects more critical than the development and refinement of turntable setup tools, continue to develop new, improved devices that I find indispensable, beginning with the new WallyReference, which is designed to insure that as a setup starting point, the cartridge is parallel to the record surface along both longitudinal and transverse axes, though these probably will not be the final settings of VTA and azimuth.

Here's how I use these tools to produce foolproof setups while at the same time diagnosing any mechanical arm failures and basic cartridge manufacturing issues. If you spend $200 on a cartridge, you're probably not going to spend a great deal more than that on these tools. But if you've dropped a few thousand dollars or more on a cartridge—and especially if you've invested five figures—and you are doing your own setup, buying and using these tools makes a great deal of sense. Every audio club ought to invest in and have them at the ready when a member needs them to set up a new cartridge.

Before I get started, please note that these instructions are simplified for the purposes of this column and do not apply to "rolling" unipivot arms.

The WallyReference
Install the cartridge in the headshell approximately centered in the slots—alignment is not important at this stage, and it's not time yet to attach the cartridge clips—and then place a disposable, average-thickness LP on the platter. If your 'table has a vacuum hold-down, turn it on. If it uses a platter clamp or weight, install it. Using a reliable digital stylus force gauge, set VTF in the middle of the recommended tracking-force range.

821acornw.measheight

Using the supplied "stand up" height gauge, measure the distance from the record surface to the headshell's lower surface.

The WallyReference is a 16mm-tall device that comes with shims. With the cartridge lowered, stylus sitting in the record groove (but turntable not turning!), use the "standup" height gauge supplied with the WallyReference to measure the distance from the record surface to the headshell's lower surface. If the measured height is 16mm, you're all set, but if it's more (I can't recall encountering a cartridge that was less), locate the appropriate shims (supplied) to make up the difference. Now, remove the cartridge and affix the WallyReference (with shims) to the headshell.

821acornw.azoff3

The WallyReference shows transverse (azimuth) at an angle relative to the record surface.

821acornw.azgood4

No space between the WallyReference and the record shows that the transverse (azimuth) axis is now parallel. Notice the shim between the headshell and the WallyReference, compensating for the taller cartridge.

Now adjust arm height so both the front and rear edges of the WallyReference blade rest longitudinally on the record surface. Adjust azimuth (however that's done with your arm) to ensure that the blades sit flat laterally—transversely—on the platter surface and are not lifted on either side.

Now you can remove the WallyReference and shims and reinstall your cartridge knowing that even if your armtube is tapered, the headshell is parallel to the record surface. Note the arm-pillar height and azimuth settings, and if they aren't marked, use a Sharpie or some other marker to mark the locations. Now you can play with VTA/SRA and azimuth all you want and easily and reliably return to the original settings.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
Anton's picture

Also, good motivation to consider SPU units.

I admit to having reached a point that is proximal to the point of "this is more work than fun."

I think I am about one groove width away.

Ortofan's picture

... the cartridge body is properly aligned in the tonearm and that overhang is correct.
It can't compensate, or allow adjustment for, a stylus that is misaligned on the cantilever and/or a cantilever that is misaligned in the cartridge body.

tonykaz's picture

"Back in the day" I sold tons of this type of stuff at my Esoteric Audio Vinyl Salon. I had a complete Wall of Monster Cable Accessories too.

These are great little Cash Sales that can represent half of the Daily Sales for a Retail outfit like us. ( mid 1980s )

Of course we didn't have Streaming's dominant 83% Market Share to contend with.

and..

We didn't have to share media Sales with CDs like today where CDs and $30 Vinyls are neck and neck, sharing 6% of the Phisical Media Dollar Sales!

---

We did have Cassette for what it was....

but we didn't have Vinyl gear costing the price of Cars.

Ahhhhhh those good old days...

Tony in Venice Florida

ps. remember when we could buy limited Edition pressings of Sheffield Labs?

Ortofan's picture

... Telarc recordings on cassettes?

tonykaz's picture

Yes, I recall the incredible excitement involved with Cassettes and the high performance Nakamichi Decks. ( I wasn't one of their Dealers )

If I still owned a Nakamichi Dragon today, I might be trying to keep Tape alive like the 33.3 people are trying to do with Vinyl.

Unlike 33.3, Cassettes worked well for people with a Full Ambulatory Life-styles. ( me with handfuls of favourite travelling Cassettes )

However, Apple iTunes switching to High-res w/MQA & the proliferation of affordable Digital Audio Players pretty much kills a high percentage of future Cassette or 33.3 investments. ( and Tidal too if I'm hearing rumours correctly )

I wonder :

Will the $300 iPad mini become the latest & greatest portable music player?

Cassettes to DAPs: We've come a verrrrrrryyyyyyyy Looooooooonnnnnnnnnnggggggggg way in such a short time !!!

This next Decade is gonna be a THRILLER for progressive Audiophiles and the Music Manufacturing Industry. These next Audio Shows will be exciting.

I'm bracing myself

Tony in Venice Florida

Jack L's picture

Hi

I got 1978 Telarc digitally mastered LP: "Frederick Fennel: The Cleveland Symphony Winds". it sounds pretty acceptable to my criticl ears considering it was only 16bit/50KHz Soundstream recording format back then.

Yet, the 2 CDs also Telarc: "Beethoven Symphony No. 9" (1985) & "Tchaikovsky 1812" (1979) which I got do not impress me at all.
I heard other CDs of same music titles which I own sound much better
Using the same 24bit/192KHz DAC.

Listening is believing

Jack L

mcrushing's picture

These tools are cool but roughly exceed the cost of my cartridge. VTF gauges, USB scopes and protractors are fortunately cheap in this Age of Amazon... For me, azimuth is the tricky thing.

Michael, I wonder if you'd comment on my method. It's similar to yours, but lacking oscilloscope or fancy voltmeter, I use my iphone and a free SPL meter app.

I first get the stylus as vertical as possible using the USB microscope. Then with phone and each speaker equidistant, I play a "balance test" track (1 kHz tone modulated one channel at a time) and measure the SPL of the crosstalk in the opposite channel. I adjust azimuth and repeat the process until the crosstalk levels are as equal as I can make them. I then use each tone in its proper channel to reset the balance knob. In theory, the difference in dB between the full-blast tone and the crosstalk tone in each channel should roughly tell me what my channel separation is – but this number tends to be MUCH higher than the manufacturer's spec. This has me suspicious.

This being a tedious process, do you think an iphone running the dB Meter app is accurate enough to use for this purpose, or am I wasting my time?

Jack L's picture

Hi

All roads lead to Rome.

Some can afford a Mercedes. But you don't have to follow.
I can always afford one but I don't want to spend the huge ongoing garage maintenance fees. So I own an all-wheel drive made in Japan, excellent for tracking icy roads up in the North here for 20 years now. Affordable but save driving.

Likewise, some TT/tonearm/cartridge alignments done is better than nothing.

My homebrew way is even simple & sorta 'primitive'. No need whatever
band-name expensive scientic tools. The first thing first : to ensure the whole TT is spinning perfectly level : surprised I seldom read this TT ABC mentioned in any TT/tonearm/cartridge alignment reviews. In fact, this 100% TT levelling is so easily taken for granted. I always get a featherweighted bulleye spirit level indicator on my TTs. Check the speed of the TT with a stroboscope disc to ensure correct spinning speed. I don't think our ears can detect micro-decimal speed variation. Let's be realistic.

Simple paper tracking protractor to align correct stylus position.
Small bead spirit leveller placed on top of the tonearm tube to ensure tonearm/cartridge parallel to the record surface. The most critical test, IMO, is to ensure the stylus is touching the record all-direction level. My simple way is to place the same round featherweight spirit bulleye leveller on top of hardshell indicating DEAD centre spirit bubble position. Done !

Go without saying : digital stylus tracking pressure & anti-skating alignment using blank groove tracking test record.

So simple, easy & efficient. I repeat such test frequently.

This homebrew thing works fine in tracking my some 1,000 LPs,
99.5% preowned from theft stores. If I can hear the soundbox articulation difference between the young L. Pararotti & Mario del Monaco, I believe my simple tracking method works big time.

Listening is believing

Jack L

~

Old Audiophile's picture

Please excuse this, no doubt, very basic but, I think, very practical question.

For those of us who love vinyl and do not own uber-expensive turntables (say... something in the 3 to 5 thousand dollar range, US) or all of the gauges & gadgets necessary to precisely mount a new cartridge or check the installation of our own, how would one go about finding a trusted expert who could do that for us? Would this be as simple as taking our TT to a trusted high-end shop? Is there a price point below which this level of precision is superfluous? Do most manufacturers do a good job mounting cartridges bundled with the TT's they sell? In fair comparisons of well recorded and well engineered recordings of the same CD and vinyl albums, is the fact that I invariably prefer vinyl over CD any indication that my cartridge is probably set up correctly?

Mike, do you make house-calls? I'm not that far away and I make a mean barbecue! I also usually have a fine single malt on hand.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Don't sound so helpless! "Old" guy (I am "old" too by age).

Read my post just above yrs & get it done yourself so sweat.

The level indicators are available instore or online from any hardware & auto parts stores dirt cheap.

Take it easy. The sky is not falling down.

Jack L

shawnwes's picture

One simple way to check if your turntable is set up close to ideally is to use a turntable set up disc such as the one Acoustic Sounds sells. Easy to use and will confirm if the basic setup is accurate. It's about $40. Here's a link to the one I've mentioned: https://store.acousticsounds.com/d/35532/Analogue_Productions-The_Ultimate_Analogue_Test_LP-Turntable_Set_Up_Tools

There is a fellow in the New York area name Michael Trei who does offer set up services. He's considered one of the best. I have no idea what he might charge. The only contact info I have for him is via Facbook: https://www.facebook.com/michael.trei

mcrushing's picture

Thanks, Jack L. I'm maybe overthinking azimuth, but I'm positive the effort I've put into DIYing my setup pays off in sonics, and in a better understanding of how all this works. If you're the sort who's reading this comment you'll likely be glad you tried it, even once.

To Old Audiophile's specific questions, here's my $.02:

I think setup is critical at all price points/levels of high-end-ness. (It'll also better preserve your records.) If your table came with a pre-installed cartridge, it's reasonable to assume the setup was done correctly, IMHO. But in the $3-$5k range you mention, it's also *very* reasonable to expect the retailer to confirm that.

Even then, you're still at the mercy of entropy once you get it home. For some reason – or perhaps thousands of tiny, accumulating reasons - your setup may drift over time. For me, the ability to self-diagnose that is worth the price of admission. Your mileage (and interest in futzing with microscopic objects) may vary.

Most dealers I know of will do setups for a nominal fee or even for free. One may even be willing to let you watch. I'd just call around and find one you click with. Or perhaps Mikey will be enticed by your kind offer of liquor and BBQ. Although the story he tells in the lede of this column sounds less like a house call and more like a kidnapping...

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