Listening #191: The Smartractor

I have flip-flopped between these points of view: that some audio products or technologies are better suited than others to specific styles of music, and that any good product or technology should be equally at home with rock'n'roll, chamber music, large-scale classical, hard bop, techno, ragas—even George Crumb.

At age 19, in my first job as a hi-fi salesman, I was asked to adopt the first of those views. The shop I worked in carried only two loudspeaker lines—EPI and Ultralinear, both long gone—and the owner urged me to push the former on lovers of classical music, and the latter on rock fans (footnote 1). So I did. To paraphrase Jiang Qing, I was the shopkeeper's dog: What he said to bite, I bit.

At various times in my life as an audiophile, I have tried to adopt the other, more absolutist point of view—sometimes for good reason, sometimes just for the fun of it, never with lasting success: I persist in thinking that, when choosing playback gear, it's best to bear in mind one's favorite records. And now I've discovered that a setup technology I've used for decades itself depends on the music I play, if obliquely. (There's a joke in there. Sort of.)

Angling for complements
By now, most serious phonophiles recognize the need to properly align a phono cartridge relative to both the tonearm that holds it and the center of the turntable's platter, to minimize lateral tracking error. LTE is created by discrepancies between the radial line traveled by the cutting stylus when an LP's master is created, and the arc traveled by the playback stylus of a cartridge mounted in a pivoting tonearm—discrepancies that result in measurable and audible distortion.

In the 1920s, it was suggested—by an audio journalist! (footnote 2)—that a pivoting arm's LTE could be minimized by modifying the cartridge's position in two ways: angle its body laterally so that the cantilever and stylus point inward toward the record spindle by a precise angle called the offset, and position the cartridge so that the arc traced by the stylus has a radius longer than the distance between the spindle and the tonearm's pivot. The latter ensures that the stylus of a cartridge so mounted extends beyond the center of the spindle by a similarly precise distance called the overhang.

In 1938, that suggestion was refined by an engineer named Erik Löfgren (1896–1987). He modeled the problem as one in which playback alignment is defined by a series of triangles on a lateral plane, each comprising one moving point (the position of the playback stylus) and two fixed points (the center of the record and the point around which the tonearm pivots). From that, he devised a series of geometric calculations, weighted to take into account the record's dimensions (I'll come back to that in a moment) and the preemphasis/deemphasis curves used in its making. The result was an alignment scheme in which the playback stylus exhibits perfect tangency—and thus zero LTE—at two null points along the tonearm/cartridge's arc of travel, and minimal LTE everywhere else along that arc.

It caught on: 80 years later, we're still using Löfgren's alignment, or variations thereupon (footnote 3).

The story doesn't end there. As hinted above, phono-cartridge alignment is also governed by the points at which the modulated portion of the groove begins and ends. The beginning point, typically 146mm from the center of the spindle, isn't crucial, but the ending point surely is: as groove radius decreases, distortion goes way up. The apparently popular explanation—that a tightly curved groove impedes tracking by means of a "pinch effect"—has merit but is incomplete; arguably more critical is the fact that, despite the disc's unchanging speed of rotation, the linear velocity at which the groove is dragged under the stylus is considerably slower at the end of the groove than at the beginning. As the record-mastering lathe nears the end of the groove, it crams a consistently complex signal into an increasingly small expanse of vinyl, setting the stage for a progressive rise in distortion upon playback.

Recognizing this, Löfgren put the innermost of his two null points at the innermost modulated groove of the record, about 60mm from the center of the spindle (but see below!). To some observers, that's small comfort: with Löfgren's alignment, the increases in distortion before and after the outermost null are abrupt, and the rise in distortion as the stylus travels from the innermost null point toward the spindle is even steeper: for the stylus to continue even a few millimeters beyond that inner groove is to see a drastic jump in LTE-related distortion. And as Keith Howard brought to light in his article "Arc Angles: Optimizing Tonearm Geometry," in the March 2010 issue of Stereophile, records with modulated grooves nearer to the spindle than 60mm are not uncommon.

And here we arrive at the program-specific part of this scenario: In the world of classical recordings, the need to fit an entire three- or four-movement work on a single LP is obvious. Except when it's unavoidable (eg, the first movement of Mahler's Symphony 3), record producers are loath to begin a movement on one side of an LP and continue it on another.) And in the standard repertoire there's no shortage of symphonies and concerti, not to mention individual movements within those works, that end with a climax, often played fortissimo. Thus the most complex, high-amplitude passages wind up being pressed into the parts of the groove that are the hardest to trace.

And here we arrive at a discrepancy that's been hiding in plain sight all along: In 1938, when Erik Löfgren published his work, there were no such things as LPs.

Enter the Smartractor
In 1938, there were only monophonic shellac discs that spun at a high-resolution–friendly 78rpm, and whose jumbo grooves—more than twice as wide as an LP's microgroove—were, in some instances, modulated to within a few millimeters of the paper label. Before the microgroove LP, which Columbia Records introduced in 1948, classical record producers had no choice but to stretch a single movement across multiple sides or even multiple discs; in fact, before 1947, during the era when all commercial recordings were made direct-to-disc, producers and engineers got pretty good at it. (The art of acoustic orchestral fade-ins and fade-outs is now surely lost to us.)

The discrepancy of using a 78rpm-era phono-alignment scheme to optimize the sound of 331/3rpm stereophonic microgroove LPs did not go unnoticed by Dietrich Brakemeier, of the German firm Acoustical Systems (footnote 4). Beginning in 2010, Brakemeier set about creating a new alignment scheme tailored specifically to stereo microgroove LPs. The result of his work is a curve he calls UNI-DIN, the first three letters of the name being derived from universal, the last three standing for Deutsches Institut für Normung (German Institute for Standardization), one of the organizations that establishes, among other things, the standard characteristics of commercial LPs.

As Brakemeier suggests on the Acoustical Systems website, he developed his alignment scheme with some specific goals in mind, not the least being even lower distortion from an LP's innermost groove—for which the UNI-DIN curve trades "slightly higher [deviation] at the beginning of the groove—where the overall working conditions for the stylus are the best." Arguably more important was Brakemeier's goal of creating a curve in which increases in distortion are less drastic than in any other alignment—something he says is critical because "the human ear . . . is very sensitive to changes." Brakemeier suggests that the UNI-DIN distortion curve is "actually flatter than the other curves, in the sense that the inevitable dips and peaks of [deviation] in the tangential curve are smoother—less steep/fast in both directions."

To achieve these goals, Brakemeier used a design approach that, while it does involve two null points, differs from those employed by H.G. Baerwald, J.K. Stevenson, B.B. Bauer, J.D. Seagrave, M.D. Kessler, and B.V. Pisha—all of whom have proposed alternative phono-alignment schemes—in not being based on Löfgren's alignment. "I did not base UNI-DIN on Euclidean calculations," he told me via e-mail. "[It] was first planned, then designed, and then calculated." Brakemeier has not published his data, and regards his alignment scheme as both his intellectual property and the commercial property of Acoustical Systems, of which he is the chief design engineer. That choice has led to at least one clash: Not long ago, against Brakemeier's wishes, a competitor published a graph purported to compare the distortion curves of various alignments, including UNI-DIN. But the graph was based on an incorrect guess at UNI-DIN's underlying calculations, and thus misrepresented Brakemeier's curve—to the advantage of the competitor's preferred alignment, of course.

Footnote 1: Not that anyone ever heard rock in that shop. It had been banned by the owner, a born-again Christian who ordered me and the store's other employees to put religious tracts—crazy little wads of fevered bigotry that equated long hair on males with homosexual tendencies and the "devil's beat" in black music with drug abuse and violent crime—in with every piece of merchandise that left the store. I can laugh about it now.

Footnote 2: That would be Percy Wilson (1893–1977), professional engineer, amateur spiritualist, and Gramophone magazine's original technical editor, who also conceived of the first wet-wash, vacuum-dry record-cleaning machine.

Footnote 3: In 1941, Erik Löfgren's work was translated from German into English by H.G. Baerwald, whose name was thereafter associated with what we now refer to as either Löfgren A or Baerwald alignment.

Footnote 4: See my review of the Acoustical Systems Arché headshell in my May 2018 column.


volvic's picture

I have had my metal Dennsen protractor since 1989 and it has served me well. I did notice though that once I got it an obsession with getting it right to the point where I was always checking and rechecking cartridges I had installed on my tables was becoming an unhealthy obsession . To break out of this "sickness" I did two things; I purchased a Shure V15 MK V which had an ingenious way of aligning the cartridge using the Lofgren technique, applying the cartridge against their template and checking against the Dennsen I found it was always spot on and very accurate, hence stuck with the cartridge and still use it today. The other thing I did was purchase and use SME tonearms, I find their method of setting up to be quite easy provided you use the right size screws to provide a nice snug fit. Toyed with the idea of getting the Smartractor but in the end I wouldn't want to start adjusting and readjusting cartridges again and again. Been OCD cartridge free for decades.

Anton's picture

I wish all cartridges worked that way!

volvic's picture

I have asked in other vinyl forums if anyone can think of any other manufacturer that offered something similar or as elegant. Nope, no one. I should move on to a MC but that Shure tracks like no other and I know is perfectly aligned so why bother.

Herb Reichert's picture

Sure V-15 Vs simply because they came with that snap in alignment tool.

But I loved the sound of the Type III more . . .


volvic's picture

When I tried the Jico sas stylus I was amazed how it opened up the sound from the standard Shure stylus. Jico keep telling me they will be producing more shortly as they have been inundated. Might have to grab a few, I should upgrade to MC but it tracks oh so well and is set up so optimally I just keep putting off an MC purchase.

mrounds's picture

My old Dual 1245 came with a little plastic slide-on clip for the cartridge shell, with a notch it in that makes it quite simple to visually align a cartridge. It's certainly not perfect, and could certainly be improved with a good protractor (and this seems like a good one, though costing more than a whole turntable!), but it's easy to use.

As for shops and speakers, I think you were undersold when you thought of EPI as being good only for classical. That might have been true of AR with those cloth-dome tweeters, but EPI had a considerably hotter tweeter and worked well for rock. Still does in fact. I still have my pair of EPI 100 from my first system after college (1973), rebuilt a couple of years ago using Human Speakers components. The original 100 components were well-balanced, with just the slightest rolloff at the high end (which I can't hear any more anyway). The Human components seem to be just a little hotter at the high end (probably because they couldn't get the old tarred inverted domes any more and had to use aluminized material), and a little more solid at the low end (original test strip showed the speakers rolling off seriously at about 50 hz; Human woofer seems to go a tad lower, perhaps by 1/3 octave or so). Still well balanced, very accurate (after resetting my ears' calibration at a concert) for classical, but also quite good for rock in general and absolutely nailing it for acoustic rock/jazz/folk.

Robin Landseadel's picture

Interesting article, but:

" . . . any good product or technology should be equally at home with rock'n'roll, chamber music, large-scale classical, hard bop, techno, ragas—even George Crumb. . ."

I'm one of those musical omnivores who requires playback gear that does that very thing. Fortunately, I've found a way to do that.

" . . . despite the disc's unchanging speed of rotation, the linear velocity at which the groove is dragged under the stylus is considerably slower at the end of the groove than at the beginning. As the record-mastering lathe nears the end of the groove, it crams a consistently complex signal into an increasingly small expanse of vinyl, setting the stage for a progressive rise in distortion upon playback. . . "

I'm getting rid of all my LPs, every one, no room for nostalgia, Mr. Dudley nailed it for me. I listen to a lot of classical music. The climaxes tend to be next to the deadwax. On the highest-end gear the sonic effects of having the distortion inevitably increase as one gets to the end of a side might not be as bad as on the record-eating gear we boomers were raised on. In any case, reproduction of Redbook-level digital files has improved to the point where I can't stand to listen to records at all. On my cheap DAP I'm getting a better sense of room sound, of rests playing out, of the complex intermingling of tones on a grand piano or the interplay of Bach's textures than I have ever encountered on any LP playing gear I've owned, up to and including a Linn LP-12 with Ittok arm, Valhalla mods and an Audio-Technica high output moving coil cartridge, set-up by a lute player with mad skillz. The lack of surface disruption, of speed variation, of time limitations that are baked into the LP's formula, that's all out the window now.

I can't help but see LPs as a pure nostalgia exercise. I guess if one lives in the further reaches of the high-end there would be a "sound" that one couldn't get any other way. But where I live, I'm getting a lot more music out of something that fits into my pocket.

volvic's picture

Where do you live? If you have a decent classical collection I might want to purchase a few if you have some interesting titles. Unfortunately/Fortunately for me, I am working on a fourth turntable, maybe it is nostalgia, maybe I don't have your golden ears, have over 5,000 cd's and just as much in vinyl but I find the vinyl of the same 16 bit recording far more satisfying, and the Shure cartridge sure (hah) as heck tracks as well as anything. I see the benefits of streaming and having everything on the palm of your phone, but listening to Karajan conduct Sibelius as I type, on my SME table & Linn (not at the same time of course) I rarely turn on the CD player or the computer. To each his own.

Robin Landseadel's picture

I live in Fresno, California. Have plenty of Sibelius on Lp. Also Beethoven, lots of Beethoven. Willing to ship.

I don't think of it as a "Golden Ears" issue. In my case, I've had a little side enterprise, transferring discs of various sorts to digital formats. I re-arranged all my gear to minimize the issues of the typical and generally awful examples of shellac or vinyl I was presented. That high-school choir record their uncle conducted. Some acetates that run from center to edge. Home recorded 78s. This semi-occupation demonstrated to me that the second law of thermodynamics + time equals degradation. Very audible degradation.

And this is after Neil Young erased my top octave over at the "Fabulous Forum" back in 1978.

Worn records sound a whole lot better via a Shure M-44-7. Just sayin'.

You haven't heard "worn" 'til you've heard a "Pepsi Recording Booth" record to home from a soldier in Europe in WWII. Acetate on paper, about 6". More noise than signal. Guy did a passable Matt Monroe.

So, you might say that I'm "triggered" by surface noise. But it's the speed variation that really gets to me.

ok's picture

..average vinyl records tend to sound considerably worse when played on highest end analog rig setups.

Metalhead's picture

Have had records I purchased over fifty years ago. As turntables, arms, and higher quality cartridges have entered my old records sound better than ever.

Vinyl has been very rewarding to this listener.

Old "average" records can sound great on modern gear.

Happy listening

ok's picture

to question anyone’s taste or personal experience; what I do sometimes question are the uninvited generalizations and unfounded explanations of an otherwise totally legitimate indulgence. I hold nothing against analog per se soundwise either, since I always used to love my long lost hard-earned cassette tapes when all else failed. Anyway I never managed to get into the whole vinyl cult despite my best intents and efforts. It's not merely about inherent noise, clipped dynamics, counter-equalization or pitch drift – to only mention a few of many a handicap (by the way an average vinyl pressing of yore more often than not stems from some n-generation tape copy); to my poor old ears modern digital mastering can sound “sweet and warm” in a way that most legacy analog recordings (there practically being zero contemporary ones) could only dream of – although I'm fully aware that in this particular matter I may belong to an audiophile minority of one. As for the all-celebrated “human”, “lifelike”, "natural" analog thing, for all that's worth, vinyl theorists should sometime consider the fact that human beings and life in general have always been digitally reproduced by nature – and for good reasons alright.

tonykaz's picture

Does anyone sell Red Baseball Hats with MVGA stitching, there must be a few buyers for them?

Talking about Alignment Tools takes me back to Raymond Cooke, KEF loudspeakers still being Made in England ( instead of China ) and 1982, phew, a short meander down memory lane, those "good ole days" .

We need a Charismatic Vinyl Guru promising to lead us back to our, forever lost, greatness.

but then....

Stoddard Y Moffat are about to release a Record player with a Uni-Pivot Arm. Hmm. ( for $699 ? ) It's definitely gonna need an alignment gauge cause it ain't com'n with a phono PU.

However: The Chinese KEF LSX is providing stiff competition in that it plays straight-off a young person's iPhone. It's a complete HiFi system in a Box. ( just like the dam Apple Loudspeaker thingys ) and it comes in a whole bunch of Colors.

In Chicago, Craigslist Hunter's Peter ( just today ) turned down a 3,000 Vinyl Record Collection "Buy" because of the way they've been stored. Seems that Vinyl is dam hard to nearly "give away".

Vinyl is more pain in the Ass than I am. Vinyl guys have to put up with a whole lot of agonizing bother. I'm happy that I'm no longer afflicted and am still alive enough to say a small prayer for those long-suffering "true believers".

Now-a-days, somehow, Vinyl has become Collectable in the same way that "Sing Along with Mitch Miller" has become "Mid-Centruy". Unfortunately the Marketplace is saturated because the industry made billions and every household had 10, 20 or more for the Grandchildren to sell at every Garage Sale but a super good EAGLES Hotel California might fetch $100 bucks with a Chad New re-Release maybe fetching $500. hmm.

Will Lawrence Welk ever be re-issued?

Tony in Michigan

funambulistic's picture

He does not really do it for me - I am anxiously awaiting the Montovani and Perry Como remastered box sets!*

*Echos from my youth as those were two of my mother's favorites...

volvic's picture

Tony you remind me of my GI Joe doll with its pull string, every time I pulled that string GI Joe would say the same thing, over and over. We get it, you tired of vinyl, maybe you weren't adept at setting up like some of my former dealers who would install the cartridge, but never adjust the arm height. But in the end you just sound like a jilted ex-boyfriend who bad mouths his ex, but deep down just loves him/her too much to let go. Just let go. I will conclude by saying that thanks to the likes of Fremer and Dudley vinyl replay and adjustment has improved tremendously in the last 20 years. You don't like it like Robin Landseadel who makes a convincing case, that's fine, it's cool. But time to let go dude. No need to remind us thank you, we get it.

Robin Landseadel's picture

And I noticed that no one appears to be interested in my collection of classical LPs, which have a good chance of being left out in the street for someone to take off my hands.

volvic's picture

Hah! Do you have an email? I suppose if they have a good chance of being left out on the street then the price will be very competitive ;)

Robin Landseadel's picture

tonykaz's picture

I've been an Industry Participant for Decades. I share a useful point of view with the majority of the Audio Industry.

Today, I'm pointing out that Vinyl is a Component-part of the Mid-Century Collector marketplace focus. ( a part that has nearly no dollar value or appeal )

Vinyl reminds us of our happy lifetime, like 35mm Kodachrome Slides of our vacations.

So, a counterpoint needs presenting: Vinyl isn't mainstream, it still needs careful instrumentation for the important regular maintenance and servicing including a microscope that none of the dedicated 33.3 Vinyl reporters seem to own or reference to. ( I kept a B&L Stereo Microscope on my Turntable Set-up Bench, back in the good ole days ).

Vinyl is a dam good writing topic filled with wonderment and enjoyment.

Vinyl is also a place where nearly FREE is the price for an entire Album Collection.

I admire those who still write about their love of 33.3, these are wonderful people telling wonderful stories about our common history, especially Steve Guttenberg who, just today, beckons us to peacefully co-exist.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I still own an extensive Vinyl Collection & some 78s from my youth. I no longer own any of my vast Koetsu collections.

volvic's picture

It's deja vu all over again, or Groundhog Day. Take your pick.

tonykaz's picture

....forgotten Mid Century memories collecting.

It's time for a brief pause, 5th Generation Phones are just around the corner.

Will Apple finally embrace 24-192? or does it even matter?

Did Smartractor sell thru their first batch of 100 will be a question that no-one will remember to ask!

Tony in Michigan

ken mac's picture

What shall we do with you? The only nostalgia surrounding the ever increasing popularity of vinyl is endless Miles Davis reissues. The bulk of vinyl sales are not to geezers but below 30-somethings. There are so many new vinyl-only stores in Manhattan that I can't get to them fast enough.

"2017 only saw a 7% decrease in physical album sales according to Buzzangle. This could be due in part to the continued increase in vinyl sales. According to Nielsen, vinyl saw its 12th consecutive year of sales growth, rising 9% over 2016. The medium made up 14% of all physical album sales in 2017, the highest Nielsen has recorded it at since they started keeping records in 1991, and 8.5% of album sales in total. Buzzangle was even more generous, reporting that vinyl made a 20% leap over the previous year.: --
Nostalgia? That's purely a compact disc phenomenon.

Robin Landseadel's picture

. . . what price, you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."

"The only nostalgia surrounding the ever increasing popularity of vinyl is endless Miles Davis reissues."

And the Beatles reissues, and the Dylan reissues, And the Doors reissues, and the Stones reissues and the Creedence reissues and the Eagles reissues, all those "Shaded Dogs" that used to be collectible in their original, often badly cut, issues, all those Mercury "Living Presence" LPs that got their climaxes blown out on the first play because nothing one could buy in 1961 could successfully track them, even Judy Sill reissues that no one was playing "back in the day" . . .

Yeah, there's some young folk who play their White Stripes on their Crosleys. And I see that the LP section at Barnes & Noble has taken over the section that used to be filled with Classical CDs that stopped selling around 2007. Does not alter the reality that LPs really are a nostalgia exercise, bad value for money and mighty inconvenient. And as I already pointed out, LPs can never be SOTA due to the many inherent faults baked into their design.

JohnG's picture

...could write about a subject as esoteric and geometric as cartridge alignment models and make it (1) comprehensible without graphics, and (2) entertaining—and include a reference to Donovan's "I Love My Shirt," a song so terrible I thought I must be the only person who remembers it.

Jack L's picture

...a cat is black or white, if it catches mice it is a good cat"—a statement that put him at odds with Jiang Qing, whose mistrust of all things Western never dimmed." quoted Art Dudley.

That's why Mr.Tang Xiaoping became the China's true leader respected by billions of his people till todate while Madam Jiang Qing ended herself up in jail !

Was it the difference between a communist leader with open mind & a die-hard communist follower with closed mind ?

Jack L.