Tweaking your Record-Player Page 6

Whether to damp?
If the arm requires viscous damping fluid, add the manufacturer's recommended amount.

Some audiophiles prefer not to use tonearm damping at all, even when the arm has provision for it, arguing that the sound is "better" without it. You may agree with them (I certainly don't), but if you do, you should understand that damping acts mainly to suppress the low-frequency arm/cartridge system resonance, and that an undamped arm's "richer, warmer" sound is a coloration, whether you consider it euphonic or not. A tonearm will always provide more accurate and stable disc reproduction with damping than without it. It may, in fact, make the difference between groove-skipping on some discs and unflappable tracking of every disc you own.

Those who worry that viscous damping increases arm friction need not. The right amount of it adds friction only to rapid arm motions, and is essentially frictionless in the subsonic range of disc warps and eccentricity.

And now to tweak
A tweak is defined as anything you do to improve sound quality after your system is up and running. And there's hardly anything you can do to a record player that won't affect its sound in some way.

Because it is mechanical in nature, analog-disc reproduction is a veritable treasure trove of resonances, which is precisely what makes it so eminently tweakable. Loudspeakers—the other tweaker's delight—are even more notorious for their irregular frequency response, which is then made even more so by their interactions with the listening room and with each other. The combination of these with the record player's resonances is so bewilderingly complex and so completely unpredictable that the odds against an analog system sounding even reasonably musical by mere chance are incalculable.

The user's role in high-end audio is not to try to tame these resonances (although anything along those lines will certainly help), but to change them in such a way as to make the whole system sound recognizably like live music. This is why system tweaking is the key to what we think of as high-end audio reproduction, and why it can only be done by ear, through a lengthy process of trial and error. The justification for spending more on loudspeakers or a record player is only that, since the costlier models tend to have fewer imperfections, they are easier to tweak into line, and will probably end up sounding more realistic (or "musical," if you will) than lesser products ever can.

With tweaking, the trick is to try everything, and try to retain every change that, in your opinion, effects an improvement. I stress your opinion because it is in the area of subtle differences where most listeners will disagree about what is better and what is worse. And since this is your system, it should suit your taste, rather than that of any of your opinionated friends (footnote 10).

Don't dismiss a possible tweak just because science and logic tell you it can't possibly have any effect. The scientific community really knows much less about audio and aural perception than it pretends to, and its inclination is to pooh-pooh anything which cannot be rationally explained or incontrovertibly documented. If a small change makes your system sound better to you, then it is worthwhile, whether or not you can explain why it works, or even demonstrate its effect to someone else. The phenomenon that I call autohype—hearing something that may or may not be there, because you expect it to be—is common in audiophilia, but as long as you don't try to proselytize your unorthodox observations, what does it matter? Without getting into a tangential discussion about the nature of reality, suffice it to say that you are into high-end audio for your own personal satisfaction, and if a little self-deception helps to achieve that goal, fine.

Now, let's have at it!

Vertical tracking angle
Of all the things you can't measure, this one has by far the most effect on LP reproduction.

Because a disc-cutting head rides above the surface of the disc, the cutting stylus must extend downward from it. The cutter's pivot point—the fulcrum about which it vibrates—is above the disc surface, and the pivot must couple to the cutting stylus via a downward-angled rod (fig.4). Because of this configuration, vertical motions of the stylus will also cause some front-to-back movement—called "scrubbing" when it happens in playback. If the playback stylus is to trace these vertical modulations accurately, it must move through the same arc as the cutting stylus, which requires that its pivot point be raised and moved to the rear by the same amount. The angle of its cantilever, relative to the disc surface, is the cartridge's vertical tracking angle.

Fig.4 The downward tilt of the cutter head cantilever (left) should be duplicated by that of the playback cartridge.

Footnote 10: It's very difficult to ignore peer pressure. All of us are just insecure enough that we want our friends to be as impressed with our systems as we are. Nothing takes the wind out of an audiophile's sail like a guest who says "Yeah, it's great, but it doesn't do [fill in the gap] very well, does it?" If what your friends seem to want runs counter to your own goals, try to resist their helpful suggestions. After they leave, it is you and only you who must be satisfied with the sound.