WallyTractor cartridge-alignment tool

Analog maven Wally Malewicz is no stranger to these pages. His first commercial product, a cartridge-alignment tool called the WallyTractor, became a hit among the vinyl cognoscenti after Michael Fremer wrote about it in "Analog Corner" in the November 1998 Stereophile, and Malewicz's full kit of Wally Analog Tools was the joint winner of our Accessory of the Year award in 2002.

The basic WallyTractor remains the same in 2005: In a departure from previous such devices, like the Dennessen Soundtraktor, Mobile Fidelity's Geo-Disc, DB Systems' DBP-10, and the boomerang-like Cart-A-Lign, each WallyTractor is individually keyed to the effective length (pivot to stylus) of a specific tonearm model. There's a Linn Ekos WallyTractor, a Rega RB-300 WallyTractor, an SME V WallyTractor, and so forth.

What we're talking about here is a flat, rectangular piece of reflectorized plastic, precisely engraved with a scheme of fine lines—all rather like the Cart-A-Lign. Where the WallyTractor breaks new ground is in ease of use: Because each one is made for a specific tonearm, the user is spared the tedium of aiming the thing at the exact center of the arm's pivot. Instead, the adjustment process is begun by placing the WallyTractor on the spindle; moving it slowly and carefully until the stylus can be lowered to the outermost end of its radial line; noting whether the stylus lands ahead of or behind the line when moved to the innermost end of the same arc (the platter and protractor both stay still, of course); and adjusting the position of the cartridge in the tonearm's headshell until the stylus can perfectly trace the arc's full length.

Doing all this establishes the correct pivot-to-stylus distance, which needs to be done before setting the correct zenith or lateral angle. (You could regard the former as a coarse setting that influences the fine tuning of the latter.) But once that overhang is dialed in, and with the platter and WallyTractor in the same position, the user repositions the stylus on a series of grids to see whether or not the cantilever lines up with them. According to the people whose original math forms the basis of all this WallyWork—the most famous being H.G. Baerwald, who published his thoughts on the matter in 1941—a properly aligned phono cartridge will be in a state of perfect tangency to the grooves at two points along this arc. Two of the grids on the WallyTractor represent this state of affairs, and allow the user to ensure that his or her cantilever is parallel with The Ideal. But to make doubly sure, the WallyTractor gives you the two corresponding points of maximum error, how far the cantilever diverges, and in what direction.

All well and good. But what about those tonearms whose effective length is unknown, or that have a limited range of cartridge adjustment? For owners of such products, a new WallyTractor is available—something closer to a universal model. For the same $149 as any other WallyTractor, Malewicz can now make you one that omits the overhang guide and substitutes a straight line for the arc described above, engraved with the appropriate rotational adjustment grids.

I dare say this new WallyTractor will find its most appreciative audience among owners of the Naim Aro tonearm, the headshell of which provides simple bolt-holes instead of the usual adjustment slots. But between that interface and the one at the base end of the arm (depending on the turntable in use, of course), there's just enough wiggle room (but not sinister piffle) to optimize the tracking angle, at least a shade. It's tedious. It's imperfect. It's better than nothing.

But the new WallyTractor isn't limited to that. Because its grids are laid out on a clear, straight line as opposed to the arc the stylus traces, its tracking-angle alignment guides are easier to use and interpret. Call it the WallyChecker: I recently used mine to fine-tune the position of my Lyra Helikon Mono cartridge in a Linn arm, after using the regular Linn WallyTractor. And the sonic difference was...

Let's just say that my appreciation of the difference wrought is a work in progress. In his original paper on the subject, Baerwald's general concern was to point out the precise correlation between small amounts of tracking-angle error and distortion—which his contemporaries had regarded as insignificant. The specific task that Baerwald set for himself was to mathematically prove that a given amount of tracking-angle error doesn't always result in a directly proportional amount of distortion—groove radius is also a factor. A certain number of degrees of tracking-angle error will produce distortion where the groove radius is relatively large, but x times that amount of distortion if the groove radius is smaller—say, toward the spindle. The increase is mathematically predictable: a function, a curve. (Incidentally, it's in the precise nature or weighting of that curve where lie the differences between Baerwald's alignment recommendations and those of other theorists.)

All of that implies another, arguably more serious concern: record wear. Even in the days when phonography experts weren't worried about distortion, they were worried about destroying records by the very act of playing them. Consider the work of another needlemeister, one B.B. Bauer of Shure Brothers, who suggested in 1949 that the real problem with a continuously changing tracking angle was the fact that it increased the efficiency with which a once-spherical stylus tip—now ground to something other than a perfect circle by just the first few grooves—would then chisel away at an increasingly more vulnerable vinyl path as said target did nothing but cooperate. Think of a woodchuck turning its soft underbelly toward, rather than away from, an attacking dog with self-sharpening teeth. (Well, Bauer didn't put it quite that way.) As with the distortion dynamic noted by Baerwald, it's the element of change that concerns us.

So as far as I'm concerned, no evidence is necessary: When it comes to warding off premature wear, good cartridge alignment is one of those things I take on faith—faith in the notion that, at the very least, I'm doing no harm.

At $149, this and the other WallyTractors may seem expensive for what is essentially an engraved plastic mirror. But as with Vladimir Lamm's astounding amplifiers, a large portion of what you're paying for is the experience distilled from the designer's life work—and in this case, that's considerable.