Analog Corner #322: Another Angle on Vinyl Playback & the Massif Audio Design Prime Reference Record Weight

The stylus that cuts the grooves in your favorite records is best described, in simple terms, as "chisel-shaped." The most accurate playback styli—the "extreme" ones that extract the maximum amount of information from the grooves—have a similar shape, with sharper and more severe contact edges than a standard elliptical stylus, itself an advance over spherical styli.

These extreme shapes, with names like Line Contact, Fine Line, Gyger, Replicant, Shibata, and van den Hul, have complex geometries with long, narrow vertical contact patches that sit deep within the groove, can better trace the deepest lateral modulation crevices, and beat the fastest, most efficient path up and down those modulation hills. I'll refer to these, collectively, as line-contact styli (lowercase). Figs.1, 2 and 3 show different stylus types and how they sit in the groove, from two angles.


Fig.1 Conical stylus tracing error with vertical groove modulation, showing contact patch (footprint) shift from reference position.


Fig.2 Conical stylus, side view through groove.


Fig.3 Conical stylus tracing error with lateral groove modulation, showing contact point skew relative to cutting stylus. First published in Audio magazine; used with permission.

Spherical styli, by comparison, sit high in the groove valley and are incapable of precisely tracing tight lateral modulations. They respond sluggishly to vertical modulations. Think of dragging (not rolling) a bowling ball up a hill: It ascends on one ball surface and, following a time-wasting handoff at the top, descends scraping a point on the ball's opposite side. That short lag is a distortion and a significant response-time loss.

An elliptical stylus's handoff will be faster, but faster and more responsive still would be one of the extreme profiles with the narrowest width contact patches. The figure on the right shows a conical (spherical) stylus tracing a groove vertically; the figure compares lateral groove-tracing for line-contact and spherical styli.

Yet, despite all this microscopic evidence, the spherical stylus fans, with their romantic, Vaseline-on-the-lens notions of how music really sounds, appear online in force, commenting on every article like this one—even on AnalogPlanet, where I thought serious vinyl fanaticism ruled. That's one of the virtues of this hobby: Whatever you like.

Many just don't want the hassles involved in correctly setting up an extreme-profile stylus because when it's done wrong, it really sounds wrong.

Last month on AnalogPlanet, I made available for download an Excel-based program created by J.R. Boisclair that simplifies using an oscilloscope to set azimuth. The blowback about making cartridge setup complicated was intense. The spherical stylus enthusiasts came out to play, claiming their balls get it all without having to worry about azimuth or SRA. They don't know what they are missing, or they do but don't care.

Until very recently, none of us knew all of what we were missing. In Analog Corner #316, I described WAM Engineering's cartridge inspection service (footnote 1) and how it makes perfect cartridge installation possible—and relatively easy—without a digital microscope, oscilloscope, or a Fozgometer V2, and how WAM's J.R. Boisclair had discovered zenith-angle variations up to 7° even on very expensive cartridges (although most errors are smaller). It's similar to the situation with SRA: Manufacturing disparities go from "somewhat off but salvageable" to "send it back and demand another one."


A modern-profile stylus mounted not quite straight on the cantilever.

Zenith error is a fact of life when using a line-contact stylus and a pivoted arm. Even with a perfectly mounted stylus, the stylus sits tangential to the groove only at the two null points; that's why we've traditionally used the cantilever to guide us to produce that tangent. But it turns out that the cantilever is not an accurate tangency guide (footnote 2).

In that column, after using the Wally-Zenith tool to correct for zenith error, I wrote, "How did the Haniwa CO Mk.II cartridge sound after being set up automatically with zenith-angle compensation? Tracking well at 1.2gm, it sounded as liquid and effortless as I remembered it sounding. I cannot say if the zenith correction produced a noticeable difference, because I didn't have time to reset it to normal and do an extended A/B comparison before deadline. Maybe next time." That comparison did not come "next time," but it has come finally, now. The experiment occurred in early March, when I reinstalled the Haniwa CO Mk.II, this time on the Acoustic Signature TA-7000 arm on the Acoustic Signature Montana NEO turntable.

First, I set the cartridge up using the WallyZenith device to correct the cartridge's 4° zenith-angle error. I recorded "Navarraise," the finale of Massenet's Le Cid–ballet music, from a 1973 Klavier Records reissue of an original EMI recording (Klavier KS 522), at 24/96. This is a certified "audiophile classic," limited to 1000 copies per lacquer; it's a "One-Step," similar to Mobile Fidelity's current offerings. "Navarraise" is at the end of the record side.

Then I reset the zenith angle "old school," using the cantilever to align with the null-point hash marks on the Wally-Tractor—the way we've all been doing it since forever—and recorded the same piece of music. The unidentified files and the story were posted on March 9, and AnalogPlanet listeners were invited to listen.

So far, opinions are mixed, with three listeners choosing the corrected file, three preferring the uncorrected file, one listener ambivalent.

What did I hear? The zenith-corrected playback was texturally supple, timbrally colorful, and 3D-vivid. The uncorrected playback was hard-sounding, grainy, and timbrally drab, and the perspective was flat. The differences were not as great at the beginning of the record, but as it got toward the center, the differences were unmistakable—at least to me. By next month, hopefully there will be many more responses to report, or you can check the website.

Perhaps next should be a comparison of a complex musical passage played back with a "severe" stylus versus a spherical one. It's certain that, zenith angle corrected or not, the spherical stylus will sound pleasing.

One last thing about this experience: To back up what I wrote in the original review, the Haniwa CO Mk.II phono cartridge/HCVC01 current-to-voltage converter is a superb-sounding combo, and the cartridge cleanly tracked every record I played at 1.25gm. It stayed in the grooves of every test band on the tracking tests on the Ortofon test record. It buzzed on the final two, highest modulation ones, but by that point most cartridges give it up and slide. Such tracking ability is unique in my experience for a low-output moving coil cartridge.

The Massif Audio Design Prime Reference Record Weight
Classically trained Canadian carpenter/ woodworker Trevor Doyle began business life manufacturing billiard tables. He made 5000 of them. Now he builds racks and amp stands and other products for the audio world (footnote 3). He recently sent me one of his beautiful Prime Reference Weights made of mpingo wood, with a cocobolo top level, finished and buffed with German hard wax 10 times at 4000rpm. The record weight costs $895 (US) and weighs around 11.4oz (325gm). Doyle believes his to be "the finest record vibration mitigation devices on the market." There's another, less costly version.


The sonic difference between an unsecured record sitting on a platter and one damped with a weight should surprise no one. I did not compare the Prime Reference Weight with other weights on hand; rather, I listened with and without it on the Acoustic Signature Montana NEO. I played one side with it, then one side without it. It tightened but did not overdamp bass, clarified but did not parch the midrange, and improved high-frequency transient focus and clarity. These improvements were subtle, not mind-blowing, and they were better appreciated over time—over the side of a record.

This weight works, but in subtle ways. Screw-down clamps do a better job of flattening warps, but that's a different task.

The combination of the Sublima Research Mat Chakra (see my May issue column) and the Massif Audio Design Prime Reference Weight brought to the Montana NEO an extra level of sonic pleasure. The weight also added a bit of aesthetic enhancement and visual pleasure.

Footnote 1: WAM Engineering Ltd., Santa Rosa, CA. Tel: (707) 210-6345 Web:

Footnote 2: Imagine owning a "tangential"-tracking tonearm and using the cantilever to set tangency—only to discover that, because of lax manufacturing tolerances, your arm/cartridge combo produces nontangency at all points across the record surface!

Footnote 3: Massif Audio Design, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. Tel: (416) 420-4462. Email: Web:

Jonti's picture

Good points all round about the differences that stylus profiles can and do make.

I was quite happy with a wide range of eliptical and spherical options in the past, but these days I use a London Decca Super Gold, which has a "line-contact, polished, grain-oriented diamond stylus", and the sheer quantity of liquidy high-frequency information is astounding.

I used to think that musical involvement was mainly dependent upon the lower frequencies and that too much top end could be annoying, but thanks to the Super Gold I feel like I'm hearing (and engaging with) music as I did decades ago as a teenager. In short, it's like I've won an extra life with a fresh new pair of ears!

*Turns out information overload can be a good thing.

Jack L's picture


Sorry, no vinyl "fanaticism" for me, my friend.

My skeptical ears love the music transients tracked by my MM cartrdige with conical stylus: "Also Sprach Zarathustra" played by Boston Symphony
conducted by William Steinberg (DGG 2535209). One of my reference LPs !

The 20Hz floor shaking subbass starting notes followed by sharp & powerful kettle drum beats - tracking such poweful LF/HF transients no sweats !!!!! The LP is still available from Amazon for 28.99 today !

It's real, repeatable & sustanable ! No "fanaticism".

With HD Vinyl arriving soon, LP master stampers cut by chisels will be history - replaced by laser.

Listening with own ears is believig

Jack L

Jack L's picture


I just can't play any vinyl withOUT a damper weight.

Mine is a stylishly hand-crafted wooden damper weight, shaped like a cup lid. Metal interior for its 1-lb or so weight. The damper is a layer of dense cork-like material forming an integral flat bottom of the 'cup lid'.

It indeed works to weigh down the LP with adequate spinning vibration damping. Yet it only cost me like peanut vs the $900 waxed wooden damper.

Shop smart !

Listening is believing

Jack L