Sunday, September 23, 2012

"Oh, another thing about stylus down-force..."

Collecting again. Stop it.

Those who watch my random musings on Facebook will know that I have been buying and inheriting more and more old vinyl from charity shops, friends and colleagues. My small collection of old 80s records has now grown to about 5 times the size in the last few months. So, I'm going to slow down with collecting more as there is simply neither enough storage space nor enough listening hours.


One thing I do with all records before they get played is to clean them with my low-tech Knosti Disco-Antistat. This is a simple plastic bath with a spindle and protective cover for the label area. What's cool is their special fluid that's mostly alcohol but with some added helpers that means it dries with almost no residue and also leave the records genuinely static-free. Living with three semi-longhaired cats means this is important. Trust me on this one.

Just to emphasise this, the fluid starts out completely clear. You use about 1/2 litre to fill the bath. After cleaning about 65 12" records yesterday the fluid came back out - even after filtering - a dark grey colour. Leaving the bottle on the side overnight lets the tiny particles of dirt settle but the fluid still stays yucky. If you want to explore this method I recommend keeping a bottle of unused fluid on the side for new records (I clean these too, for the anti-static properties) and decanting the used solution into a separate bottle. Then after letting the crap settle out for a few days and carefully re-use this used fluid for most records, keeping the clear fluid for topping up and new records only.

While I am not into advertising much, I did quite a bit of searching so if the Knosti interests you I have found the best sources are Conrad UK for the base unit (about £37 with shipping) and Analogue Seduction for the fluid. I worked out that if you buy a base unit and two extra bottles of solution then Conrad are the cheapest (even at a pound more for the fluid) as delivery becomes free over £57. So I bought a second base unit - good for an extra drying rack and spares. And as a bonus I only realised later you get a "clean" bath for new records as the brushes are mint on a new unit!

Turntable Upgrades

Well, I couldn't well gather all this media without starting to think about how I listen to them. I know that audiophiles can spend really stupid amounts of money on very much diminished returns. I would like to take myself out of that category and rather consider myself as someone who is willing to spend money on incremental improvements but not getting drawn in by the snake oil and the self-delusion that seems very much part and parcel of that category.

I started my most recent round of upgrades after catching up on stylus lifetime and maintenance. Most sources seem to advise between 1,000 and 2,000 hours of use before a stylus should be replaced. I am deliberately ignoring those audiophiles and their dealers who have written about 250 hours and similar. Let's be frank: A fool and his money is easily parted. I tend to resist just a little before handing mine over.

Back to stylus wear anyway... I've had my Pro-ject Debut III for a few years and to be honest I don't know how much I had used it. So I thought I should start looking for a good source of replacement styli. This was an expensive mistake, as you can imagine. My turntable shipped with an Ortofon OM5E "bulk" cartridge and stylus although they were better than the really cheap stuff. The same cartridge, with stylus, can be bought complete for about £50. Turns out that the stylus on its own is £45. "OK, that's odd?" I thought but it turns out that in modern times this is the case generally and the cartridge tends to be a fraction of the price of the stylus, even at the high-end. So, like with everything, I started looking at what I could get for "just a little more". This lead to reading about how to adjust and align cartridges and all that stuff. The Internet is a great source for advice, stories and more information than you can process. I found out about how fragile the wires attached to the cartridge were which was a good warning, about alignment protractors and how important it is for the stylus to be vertical - no, really.

You're getting bored already so I will jump ahead and say that I settled on a (physically identical) Ortofon Super OM10 (pdf) which is not generally available as it appears to have been rapidly replaced with the 2M series. I chose this primarily because all the Super OM series are actually the same cartridge and it's only the stylus that different and range from the OM10 up to the OM40. I suspect this simple upgrade path is what caused Ortofon to replace the range with the less straight forward 2M series. This means that one day, either when I see a good deal or the OM10 is wearing out I can hop to the OM20 stylus without much work. I got the cartridge from Record Pusher in Denmark for about £65 delivered. Took 3 days with normal post too.

After this I ended up being tempted by the Pro-ject acrylic platter upgrade which is 12" diameter instead of the standard 10" of the steel one, looks prettier and doesn't require a mat. This cost more that the cartridge at about £85 from Analogue Seduction again. They seem like a nice bunch for prices and range.

Cartridge set-up

Now came the fun part, fitting the new cartridge. I'd been reading a lot about this and developed a mixed sense of worry about the amount of work involved and some of the more pointless sounding things. Both of these worries turned out to be completely the opposite. It was easy but the little things were important.

I am not going to go through the process as there are many other pages out there on how to install and align your cartridge - go search and read lots of contradictory sounding advice and form your own opinions - but what I will describe are those things that turned up in the wash, so to speak. 

First, the difference between overhang (how far the stylus is in-front of the ideal arc described by the tone-arm) and the cartridge angle is a big deal. Read up on this and grok it before beginning. Get a proper, professionally made cartridge protractor and don't try to print one out as your print will be not to scale, regardless - mine was £12 and worth it. Check how vertical your stylus is. Turns out that my turntable shipped with a poorly adjusted tone arm and the stylus was leaning over. This explains why the needle dropped diagonally (seen from above) when I lowered the tone-arm onto a track midway through an album. Now, after finding my tiniest Allen key, it goes straight down. Probably better for the stylus and (more importantly) the records!

Finally, what I didn't quite get but I think I have a better idea of now and also forms the title of this posting is the stylus tracking or down-force. The cartridge/stylus comes with a recommended range of down-force. For mine the range is 12.5-17.5 Nm (1.25 to 1.75 grammes) with the recommended starting point being 15Nm / 1.5g. I had read that too little force can actually cause more damage to records as the stylus "jumps" around in the groove and I has also experienced excessive sibilance on some female vocals which is another symptom described by too little down-force - so I dialled it up to the maximum in the range and left it at that. That was a mistake but luckily not permanent I hope.

I was playing some of my newly acquired and cleaned records yesterday and I noticed that the base of the cartridge almost appeared to be touching the surface of the vinyl. Occasionally there was also a strange noise in the silence between some tracks which I now realise was the base of the cartridge actually doing just that, riding the vinyl. I checked and cleaned the base of the cartridge thinking this was dust and dirt. Removing and replacing the stylus also helped but the gap was still far too small for my liking and then it struck me! The down-force wasn't just about the weight on the stylus in the groove but about the weight of the whole arm including the force on the cantilever (the tiny arm the stylus point sits on). D'oh!

I immediately dialled the down-force down to the recommend 1.5g and suddenly I could see a gap. In the few minutes of listening I couldn't hear it being worse so I am going to do more listening now and see what the ideal down-force is for my set-up. There is quite a lot of leeway between 1.5g and 1.75g and I may even try going down a bit with this new cartridge and stylus to see if the sibilance is still an issue.

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