The Importance of Tells: Installing a Phono Cartridge By Ear

In poker, "tells" are subtle physical or verbal actions that give away the strength of players' hands.

I am not a poker player, but I am an audiophile, and I use a variety of "tells" as my prime tools in critical listening. You know my worn-out line: "You can't hear what you're not listening for."

I use tells extensively during speaker placement. I use them most extensively, though, when installing and aligning phono cartridges. In that process, tells are a necessity because achieving the best possible sound depends on knowing when I have achieved the best possible sound.

For decades, I've known and worked with people who install expensive audio gear for a living. I've been one of those people myself. Today, I am fortunate to know a small cadre of highly skilled listeners who work professionally as turntable setter-uppers. Some of them design and manufacture tonearms, turntables, or cartridges. I've made it my job to wrangle setup tells out of these high-grade–cartridge whisperers.

More than steady hands, installing and aligning phono cartridges requires a few installation tools, some of which I'll mention below. The tools need not be expensive. You can set up a cartridge just fine with just a stylus pressure gauge and the free alignment protractor that came with your tonearm.

Long ago, my turntable setter-upper friend Michael Trei taught me to start every installation process with a visual inspection of the cantilever's relationship to the cartridge body. If the cantilever is not perfectly parallel to the cartridge body's sides, zenith must be set using only the cantilever (not the body) as a visual guide.

Some cartridge installers go one step further with their cantilever examination: They start their install using a microscope to verify that the contact patches on the diamond are positioned at an exact right angle to the cantilever's centerline (footnote 1). If they spot a deviation, they compensate for it during zenith adjustments by counter-rotating the cartridge by the same amount. This zenith-fixing solution is by necessity approximate, like every other cartridge alignment strategy—except setting VTF, which is precise.

Setting VTF is always critical, so the first thing I do after tightening the cartridge screws—snug but not tight—is set the tracking force to the exact center of its recommended range. I use a Riverstone Audio Precision Record-Level VTF gauge because it accurately measures tracking force at LP surface level. Measuring at the record surface is important because with some types of tonearms—and with ferromagnetic turntable platters like the one on the original Thorens TD-124—the force can vary dramatically with height.

To set overhang, azimuth, zenith, and VTA (approximately, by eye), I use one or more LED flashlights, the magnifier on my iPhone, and either the sturdy, lasts-forever aluminum protractor supplied with the Dr. Feickert Analogue Blackbird turntable or the Acoustical Systems SMARTractor cartridge-alignment tool. The SMARTractor's bright, reflective surfaces and high-quality magnifier aid my eyes and show me more of what I need to see, improving my confidence that the alignments I make are true.

After setting overhang to within a quarter of a millimeter, I set null points using Löfgren "A," which is identical to Baerwald, with nulls at 66.0mm and 120.9mm. Then, with the headshell level and the cartridge and cantilever looking plumb and square with the right marks on the alignment jig, I snug-tighten the mounting screws and readjust VTF.

A few years ago, one of my German brothers, a tonearm designer, admonished me to use less antiskating force, saying that too much antiskate damages the stylus and the record grooves. I should get away from automatically adjusting side bias for modulation levels one rarely encounters in actual play, he explained. Instead, I should use a "softer" setting, one that results in even pressure on both groove walls during average modulation levels. To achieve that soft setting, he taught me to use a blank, groove-free record, adjusting the force until the tonearm moves slowly toward the record label. No tells needed here.

After setting the cartridge plumb on the alignment jig, I use tracks 2 & 3 of Analogue Productions' The Ultimate Analogue Test LP to fine-tune azimuth with a Musical Surroundings Fozgometer. The Fozgometer measures channel crosstalk, allowing users to accurately achieve electrical symmetry, which means the setup is also geometrically correct, assuming the cartridge is built accurately. If, however, the diamond's orientation is set out of square with the coil assembly, as sometimes happens, an additional tiny nudge adjustment will be necessary.

Footnote 1: See this month's Analog Corner.

tonykaz's picture

With the importance of proper set-up, it's surprising how little reporting is done on the techniques involved. This piece is lonnnnnnng over-due, nice work !

You might also report on Phono cartridge's Life Span and how to listen for a deteriorating suspension .

Audiophiles, I've professionally encountered, seem to consider Phono Cartridge Set-up needing the steady hands & vision of a Watchmaker. Considering the cost of high quality Cartridges today, the process might better be left in the hands of someone with considerable history and experience . ( Analog reviewers do $10,000 phono carts like they're disposable desk drawer clutter -- which they turn into when they fail )

So ? where are the jeweller skilled cartridge repair people and why aren't they ever mentioned ?? ( they are out there )

Then again, cartridge set-up probably isn't anywhere-near as important as it once was to audiophiles who now seem to be record collectors of all the latest re-issues in triplicate.

We at Esoteric Audio had a dual trace Tektronix Scope ( mostly for showy BS purposes ) thanks for not recommending that sort of trickery.

Tony in Florida

volvic's picture

I enjoyed this very much. I have a Fozgometer and calibrate it several times before using it. Inevitably, after each measurement, I believe it has to be recalibrated again. It would surprise you how off some cartridge manufacturers are with their setups. Also, what are we to do if we have a tonearm with a fixed headshell?

The AnalogMagik has always fascinated me, despite the manufacturer's steep learning curve and cautionary clauses on getting exact measurements. I wish Mak would loan one out to Stereophile for a thorough review. If found to be an excellent tool, I think most of us would drop our hard-earned cash for one.

TanakaS's picture

You cannot calibrate the Fozgometer using a cartridge that is not perfect. Think about it!
You have a cartridge that has an unknown azimuth - how can you use it to calibrate the Foz meter?

volvic's picture

You recalibrate or check your fozgometer with test tones either downloaded or through a cd. I do it before and after each cartridge.

You’re welcome.

TanakaS's picture

No CD player or preamp has perfect balance. What’s the L-R output of your CD player? Or your preamp? Were your components measured at the factory? Probably not. Nothing has perfect balance. Even world-class CD transports and preamps have a small deviation in output. That small deviation is actually a big deviation when setting Azimuth.

So your Foz meter is AWALYS OFF! It’s so lame that Foz does not calibrate their meters precisely and individually before they ship.

If you want to rely on a tool - use an Oscilloscope. You are doing more damage with a POS like the Foz meter.

It’s so stupid to use these cheap tools to setup a TT precisely.

volvic's picture

I think you’re ALWAYS OFF!

TanakaS's picture

Hahaha, “good comeback”.
I’m sure you’ve twisted and turned your cart into oblivion, relying on a meter that is always off. Put it back to how it was, and LISTEN. Stop relying on cheap tools - you’re only making matters worse.

volvic's picture

I’ve done this much longer than you have, you probably haven’t, and I can tell simply by reading your posts that you probably haven’t spent much time setting up a table and trying to get the max sonic bliss out of it. I doubt you’ve ever adjusted or even experimented, or even setup a turntable with these tools.

The advent of new materials and tools to setup a turntable has grown by leaps and bounds, from the days when I first started with my trusty Dennesen alignment gauge forty years ago. Nowadays, the Fozgometer, Wally Tools, Feickert and so many other great instruments allow us to accurately adjust a cartridge with greater precision than ever before. You would be surprised how poor a table sounds if the overhang is slightly off, or if the SRA or horizontal tracking angle is too low or too high.

All these tools along with cartridge improvements contribute to a cumulative improvement that wasn’t possible thirty years ago. If you don’t believe any of this makes a difference, too bad for you, throw away your gear and go live in a cave, not going to tell you to go listen or experiment a little because, I could care less. You’re no expert, and you’ve offered zero arguments or anything so far that adds any value to the conversation, except negative Nellie nothingisms.

TanakaS's picture

You’re a complete Moron. Wally is garbage. Wally feeds on insecurities from clients like you. All that stuff takes you further from the optimal setup than you will ever know.
The tolerances in Wally’s tools make them useless. If you have a low grade system (I.e., yours), the inaccuracies of your components + Wally’s (often) 3D printed cheap parts will get you further from ‘optimal’.
I was offering a suggestion to help you improve, but you clearly are too Dumb and Ignorant to understand that. Ignorance + Low IQ - not a great combo.
From how you have responded, I can tell I hit a nerve. Rather than changing your ways, you’re now going to be even more paranoid, listening on the edge of your seat… rather than throwing out those cheap tools and trusting your ears.
I warned you… Better go and “calibrate” that Foz meter again ;)

volvic's picture

Wow! Looks like I hit a nerve. I don’t own the Wally tractor yet, but I might speed up the purchase hearing your negative blather.

You offered no suggestions, just obnoxious comments, and I didn’t ask for any suggestions from you.

I am in a good place right now with my rigs. I trust my ears but cannot make all adjustments that way; I need the measuring tools mentioned to know I am headed in the right direction; the sonic results have been very reassuring.

You need to wind your neck in and stop coming across so pompously, it's also not good for your blood pressure.

TanakaS's picture

Oh don’t worry about me, I am totally relaxed and enjoying my nearly $1M system.
Point 1- you cannot rely on a Foz meter that was calibrated with an uncalibrated source! That’s science 101. Your CD player (no CD player) is perfectly equal in output, neither are any preamps. Even a small unbalance <0.5dB will make a big difference in Azimuth. Unless you have a really expensive CD player or preamp, you are likely off by 1dB or more— that’s HUGE! So now you’ve calibrated your Foz incorrectly and your AZ is way off.
Point 2- AS can only be set correctly by ear, through a few hours of trial and error. Wally may get you close, but “close” doesn’t cut it.
Enjoy! (Glad I don’t run into you anywhere else. You seem like a crusty old man. I’m sure you’re balls of fun at a party.

volvic's picture

I’ve considered what you said registered it, but in the end, I’ve calibrated the Foz with my computer every time I need to use it, and the results are good enough for me. So go howl at the moon and self-titilate with your $1 million system; mine’s worth $1.5 million. Did you notice how implausible and silly you sound?

I use many tools to confirm and narrow down when setting up. It’s worked well all these years, and I am open to new entrants to improve the sound. I am old enough to know that there are different ways of pursuing excellence and sonic bliss, and the notion that there is some absolute scale of values or methods is anathema to rational and reasonable discourse, which you lack.

Unfortunately, you won’t run into me as I don’t visit flyover states. Given your youthful arrogance, I am sure you will run into someone with a soured disposition who you will find very very irritating at your next party.

TanakaS's picture

I don’t live in the US, you couldn’t pay me to; but that’s another topic.

Do you think your sound card has a L-R channel balance of 0dB? Your (I’m sure Windows) PC certainly does not have a precisely calibrated output balance, especially on a throw-away sound card that no laptop maker cares enough.

I would end with you’re a perfect of example of why ‘Ignorance is Bliss’ — but you’re clearly all riled up with the thought that *maybe* your Foz meter is off…

volvic's picture

Yep, measured it with a friend's software audio analyzer years ago. Like I said earlier, I sleep well.

curmudgeon47's picture

This article simply confirms my long ago decision to abandon vinyl:
it's too fiddly (whatever happened to straight line tracking tone
arms and plug-in phono carts?). Spend hours mounting a phono cart?
You gotta be kiddin' me. Recalibrating your calibration tools?
Cleaning records in expensive cleaning devices with expensive fluids? Rice paper record sleeves and plastic outer sleeves?
Adjusting rotational speed (belts stretch and wear out, dontcha
know ... ). And, best of all ... only 20 or so minutes of music
per side! Then you get to jump up (if you're young enough to jump,
that is ...) and turn the record over for another 20 minutes of
music (this is especially wonderful for symphonic music).

But this rant isn't going to cure any vinylphile of their addiction
to never-ending fiddling.

I shall stick with digital. I have a great DAC and many, many
shiny silver discs containing music not available on vinyl - or
at least new vinyl. I don't have to jump up every 20 minutes to
flip the disc, either. And lastly, I can buy CDs for $12-$15 new,
as opposed to double or treble that price for vinyl. I am happy
being a digiphile who doesn't have to fiddle with anything in order
to hear great music; I presume the vinylphiles are happy having to
fiddle with lots of things in order to hear great music.

Oh ... I forgot ... vinyl sounds soooooooo much better. Right? The
great god Fremer will reassure you in that belief should you have
any doubts ...

volvic's picture

Your name says it all.....

MatthewT's picture

Where the tonearm touched you.

Oldsoul's picture

I grew up with vinyl and yes, I too set it aside when CDs became all the rage, but I have always had a respect for vinyl and have dove back into it deep some 21 years ago. Did I get rid of my CDs then? No way!

I'm not interested in converting anyone, that is not what music is about, but I do want to present some facts if I may.

"Plug in phono carts" are still around, they are called "P-mount". Even if your tonearm is made for standard mount carts, there are adaptors.
While P-mount carts are not popular, the prices are not much different from standard mount. Speaking of prices, the price of all audio gear and everything for that matter has gone up lately in the worst recession since the 80s or ever and everyone but the deepest pockets feel it. That said, it does not change the fact that there is a selection of phono carts at every price point starting well below $100.

"Spend hours mounting a cart"? I have to give you that one, but with a detractor, which is the fact that the first time or two you do it, it can take a couple of hours (I know it did for me). By the time you do your third one you will be twice as fast. Average time to properly mount a cart and setup a table if you know what you are doing is about 30 to 45 minutes initially. After that the only thing left is double check your work by listening, make any necessary tweak if at all and you are done for the next 1000 hours of play time.

"Calibration tools"? You actually don't need expensive calibration tools. All you need is a stylus alignment protractor, a little level, a lined index card, a tracking force scale and a screwdriver. That whole kit can cost as little as $46 or less if you already have the screwdriver and index card.

"Cleaning records with expensive devices and fluids" - Again, not necessarily. This is an area I got extremely deep into, including a two-year academic study, but no need to bore you with that. You can clean a record with a $100 SpinClean. If you want to get fancy you can get a vacuum RCM for as little as about $200. You don't need to buy a $5000 or $6000 ultrasonic RCM. In fact, I would recommend against those. (One can get a better built US RCM for a small fraction of $5000)
As for expensive fluids, you don’t need those either. The only thing you need to know there is to stay away from improper fluids (bathroom cleaner, lighter fluid, undiluted alcohol, window cleaner, dish soap, etc.) For example: If you only need something quick and simple a bottle of MoFi Superwash will cost you all of $20 and does at least 300 to 400 records.

“Rice paper sleeves and plastic outer sleeves” = Those are choices only, not mandatory. “Rice paper” sleeves are not really around anymore, that term is just a tossed around inaccurate descriptor for quality inner sleeves. Again, inner sleeves are a choice, but the right type will keep the records clean and forever. For example, all you need are poly-lined inner sleeves, which can be had for pennies on the dollar. Outer sleeves are also not mandatory. They are just for those of us with a little OCD who want to keep the outer jacket nice for longer. They are inexpensive as well.

Ok, if you have a belt drive table, you do have to keep an eye on the speed, but you really need only check it every few months at best unless you notice something off. Also not expensive, if you have a smartphone, you likely already have an app for that. If you are like me (those who do not and never will have a smartphone), you can get an RPM meter for $10.

“Only 20 minutes of music per side” – ok, could be. Could also be 30 minutes or 15 minutes or only 8 minutes. I also have two crates of classical records and I have yet to run into a problem with the composition being split mid-stride. Good classical records are made so that doesn’t happen. I have classical records that have one big track on one side.
Also, one does not need to “jump up” and do calisthenics to turn over a record. One can just get up normally, go over, turn the record over, drop stylus and sit back down.

Overall, a good digital setup will cost more than a good analog set up.

That said, you may stick with digital as much as you like and you will not hear me complaining. I have room for analog and digital in my life. Along with my 700 or so vinyl records, I have around 880 CDs and a subscription to Spotify as well. For formal listening I prefer vinyl and CD. I use Spotify and streaming for background music and it is invaluable for research!
As for cost of CDs, vinyl, etc. It runs the spectrum. I buy used mostly, so I get CDs for anywhere from $3 to $12. New CDs are also rather affordable depending on what it is. If it is limited or out of print, CD prices can be eyepopping as well. I happen to have around 6 or so CDs that now go for no less than $200 a pop! I got lucky when I got them, but due to them being rather limited production, they soared in value. It is said that CD is a dead format. That seems to be the case. However, they are still around in the new market somewhat and the used market is saturated! Will CD make a comeback? I say possibly. However, I personally don’t care what the price is, I’m far more interested in the music. I don’t buy records or CDs as investments, I buy to play them!

I agree about new record prices although I also know why they are what they are. However, I only buy used vinyl records (I like original pressings). I call myself a history rescuer. To me, records are historical documents that tell a lot of what was happening in society at the time (they also bring back memories). I buy used not only because it is “cheaper”, but also because most of the music I grew up with has not been reissued. I also like original pressings because one has a better chance of knowing the provenance. Also, some CD versions of vinyl LPs are horrific sounding. (I have also heard some horrific sounding vinyl copies). For example: Jethro Tull on CD is sonically horrifying. The original vinyl pressings are sonically fabulous. Some artists are extra smart. For Example: Tori Amos made two separate recordings of her LPs, one digital and one analog. Her vinyl records and CDs sound exactly the same, which is excellent. She did not take the lazy road of just slapping a digital recording onto an analog medium. She kept them separated. I have heard both and am happy having her albums on CD thank you very much.
So no, vinyl does not always sound better, but neither does CD. Another example, electronic music such as Tangerine Dream is awful on vinyl, it is much more suited for digital. I also prefer bands like U2 on CD over vinyl even though I have pristine vinyl copies of their first three LPs that sound great. One of my favorites is Rush and I have four of their earlier LPs on vinyl, but I also have all the 90s remasters on CD and they are the best recordings I have ever heard in Rush (I have heard almost everything except the metal disc produced records).

So really, I don’t fiddle much when playing vinyl, most of my time is spent sitting and listening. With CDs one needs to fight the temptation to skip around and such. I am a more disciplined listener, but on occasion when listening on CD, that temptation is just below the surface.

I hope I have cleared up some myths and misinformation just for shits and giggles, not to convert. The most important thing is listening to music that makes you happy, that you enjoy, no matter what the format or gear it is on. It is the only thing that matters at the end of the day.

Briandrumzilla's picture

Can’t argue with your points on analog. I keep a nice vinyl playback system for special vinyl releases like the upcoming MOFI Van Halen catalogue thru 1984. Probably around $125 each. Now if there will be a concurrent sacd release, I would opt for the sacd versions.

Glotz's picture

I tell all friends that want to get into analog to think hard about the time and money investment.

Your last comments, though, expose a bit of ignorance to high-performance analog. Spend a lot of time listening before making big pronouncements. Sarcasm is just childish and communicates nothing in today's online world.

Vinyl owners need to consider their existing collection regardless of their current love for digital.

shawnwes's picture

Curmudgeon 47 - Just curious as you don't mention models & it's all relative to the overall experience. I agree vinyl isn't very convenient and there's a learning curve and investment in both time &$ to get it right.

FWIW I don't find a few hours of setup labour to get a few years worth of very high playback quality much of an inconvenience. It took me a couple of months to ultrasonically clean my 1k lp collection but it took me that long to rip all my cds to FLAC as well (actually not finished yet)

TanakaS's picture

Why mess with vinyl? Because even the best digital cannot compare. I have over $750K invested in a digital and vinyl front ends - among the best available. I am not biased: I have both.
Vinyl wins, hands down.

Anton's picture

I don't have the time to waste on wine with corks and such, and the stemware matters not. Aging wine? Fuggetabout it.

Give me a screw top and let that God Bacchus try to reassure you otherwise.

Epicurianism is too fiddly.

I do admit to getting a chuckle from people whistling in the digital graveyard, so to speak.

Curmudgeon, don't let people enjoying vinyl bother you so much.


"God Fremer?"

Please, only three people think that. And, other than you, two of them share his last name! :-D

(Harmless Mikey joke.)

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Be careful what you say about whistling... ;-) I'm all digital and I'm not dead yet.


Anton's picture

It's a shame you are missing out on all that great sound, but we couldn't have Ludd without Luddites!


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Could you please send me a link to that album?

Anton's picture


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Dear Yenta Claus,

Please bring me a Ludd-filled needle drop USB stick for Solstice.

Thank you,

Doctor Fine's picture

I've been saying for decades Stereophile needs more emphasis on set up expertise.
And here YOU come with an entire list of "tells" to add to my tool kit!

I will list yours alongside my own equivalents as I may not actually own all your records used for tests.

But the very IDEA I now can benefit directly from a buddy---that's what keeps me in this hobby.
The human side of the industry.
Sharing tips, joys, ups and downs.

It's more fun having you along on the ride.

Glotz's picture

Well put... These columns and focus are just a great diversion from reviews, no matter how well they are written.

MinimalTheory's picture

The blank record recommended in the article calls for the cartridge to remain motionless when placed on the record (not moving towards or away from the spindle), while Herb says it should move slowly towards the spindle. Is the manufacturer wrong? If so, why?

Anton's picture

That pic looks like it was taken from the bar in the movie "Book of Eli."

It's got a post-apocalyptic dustiness to its appearance.

Maybe we should get Kirmuss to invent a room cleaner!

nidaje's picture

Great article HR. Taking us through Your tells and experience never forgetting what the hobby is all about and what great moments of joy it brings when we succeed. A tribute to late AD.
I look forward to revisit this article, when refurbishing of my Thorens TD124 Mk II has ended and alignment of tonearm and pickup need a calm hand and breathing.

herman's picture

after going through all of the "tells" you ended up with

"we measured intermodulation distortion at 10% in one channel and 11% in the other. I freaked! "

So the article is about setting it up by ear but at the end you tell us that didn't work, you needed Analog Magik to complete the task?

As a recent convert to the Analog Magik way I am firmly convinced that there are just too many interacting variables to do this properly with mechanical devices like protractors and listening "tells". It seems your findings collaborate this. After years of sitting and wondering if I had VTA, and VTF, and azimuth, etc. optimized I now have a scientific way to measure the outcome of these adjustments. My ears confirm to me that AM is telling me the truth. I simply don't see any other way to get it right.

While AM is not "cheap" by most people's standards it is relatively inexpensive by audiophile standards, and if it is the only way to be certain you have it correct, it is actually priceless.

Yes, it takes a bit of getting used to, and Yes, you need to use traditional methods like protractors to get you close otherwise you are too far out for AM to bring you back in, and Yes, you have to spend a bit of money, but AM is a fraction of what I have invested in my rig and my vinyl so for me... a no brainer. Buy it, learn to use it, you will be amazed.

As for the curmudgeon who dismisses vinyl, sorry for your loss, but that means more used records out there for the rest of us to buy, which I will gladly take the time to clean. On that subject, I recommend George Merrill's system. It is a bit messy so a utility sink is good to have, and I hit them with a blast of steam too, but it is cheap and effective.

shawnwes's picture

Thanks Herb. Another enjoyable read. For those sitting on the fence the AnalogMagik software is excellent for verifying that the setup is correct. I wouldn't be w/o it now that I've used it for a few setups.

TanakaS's picture

Issue with Analog Magik is that it uses a pretty cheap A to D converter, so you don’t know if you’re fixing issues introduced by the DAC or by the cartridge.
Drop all the tools and experiment and listen by ear.

shawnwes's picture

Ignorance is bliss I guess. You are so far off the mark. I've now upgraded to the V2 of AM and couldn't be happier. It allows me to perfectly dial in my XV-1s cartridge and Audiomods Series 6 arm using precise small adjustments that are visible on the laptop AND are audible and correlate well to the measurements I'm seeing.