Product: Stylus Guage and Turntable Level
Manufacturer: The Cartridge Man - UK
Cost: £200 each
Reviewer: Geoff Husband
Reviewed: September, 2001
These two little devices have one function each - the stylus gauge measures the weight pressing down on your stylus - glorified scales. The second tells you when your turntable is level - glorified spirit level. For this you pay something in the region of 300e a shot.
So why is the existence of these two items so interesting and why are they going to form one of the essential components of my forthcoming series of turntable tests?
We start from the proposition that to work properly a turntable must be level. This sounds obvious but by level I mean ABSOLUTELY level. I suppose it's evident that a sloping record surface will make the stylus tend to try to run down the slope, causing it to press harder on one groove wall than the other. But if a turntable is out of level there are other problems.
Suspended turntables are designed so their suspensions work in the vertical plane to give "pistonic" motion usually tuned well below audio frequency. If the table is out of true the "pistonic" motion picks up all sorts of parasitic motions, wobbling all over the place sometimes in the audible range (>20hz) and at the frequency of record warps. This is why quality suspended tables take so long to set up - to get the bounce spot on - if the turntable isn't level the bounce will NEVER be right. Next time you are in a hi-fi shop selling pricey turntables give their demo model a slight tap on the platter (when no-one's watching) and watch it wobble.
And whilst all you owners of non-suspended tables, Regas, Nottingham Analogues etc, are feeling smug there's another snag just for you:-)One of the critical components for a turntable is the main bearing which must offer minimal friction and hold the platter fixed in all planes except rotation - all this with minimal play and as little vibration as possible. All such bearings are designed to work with the turntable level with all forces acting vertically downwards. Tilt the table and you add a horizontal force which will compromise performance and over the long term cause the bearing to wear unevenly, non-suspended turnables often have very heavy platters which exacerbates the problem…
It's a black perspex cylinder with a digital readout. Inside (see photo) is a surprising amount of electronic gubbins. The heart of it is a level that Len Gregory (AKA The Cartridge Man) saw in use in GM cars in the US as a way of regulating self-levelling suspension. A little light bulb appeared over Len's head and voila a new use was found for an automotive spare part. It's slightly more complicated than that in that the environment of a car engine compartment required more damping and thicker oil, but the basic design remained.
I have a "Stanley" level which consists of a couple of "bubble" levels at right angles to each other, it cost about £10 and I've used it for years. The snag is that as you move it all over the platter and pinth it gives different 'levels' as the surfaces aren't totally flat, or the weight of the level effects the platter or whatever. Anyway it's a fiddle and I'm never sure it's right.
So to the "Cartridge Man" level. It fits directly over the centre spindle and weighs 180 grms, a significant figure - that of a quality record. Switch it on and you get two digital readings to give slope within 0.1 of a degree and arrows to show the direction of slope. I then turned the Orbe's wonderful adjustable feet and in 30 seconds I had the table 100% level - and yes my old settings had been slightly out in both directions. Rotating the gauge 90 degrees gave identical results showing perfect consistancy. And whatdoyouknow… the bounce, previously not too bad, was spot on too, the last traces of parasitic wobble banished.
I was in two minds over this to begin with. It costs a lot of money and though I expected it to work well I was sort of happy with 'Stanley'. However now having used it for the last few weeks on several turntables I'm starting to see it as less of a luxury. Certainly any professional (or journalist) in the turntable set-up field should have one, it'll save hours and looks the biz. But for the private individual there must come a point with an expensive turntable set-up where the accuracy of the gauge and its consistency make it worth buying. It's a unique product and has many uses outside turntables - CD players, book shelves, etc etc -
Stylus pressure is critical (that word again). It has two widely understood effects. If it's too low the stylus will fail to hold on to the groove wall and mistracking will occur, damaging both stylus and record. Too high and the pressure of the stylus on the groove wall will increase thus wearing both stylus and record faster than necessary.
Less well known is that any cartridge is designed to be tracked at a precise downforce, that which places the coils or magnets centrally in the generator assembly. Any deviation from the recommended weight will cause unpredictable anomalies in the performance as the generator becomes misaligned and the suspension is working outside optimal ranges. The result can be an edgy or "slugged" sound, mistracking etc.
And perhaps most important of all, the downforce effects the angle at which the stylus sits in the groove - commonly called VTA. As the cantilever acts as a very short arm, if it is forced upwards the stylus will lean back in the groove, if the weight is too low the cantilever will move down through an arc to make the stylus lean forward. In fact 0.1 of a gram deviation can make more difference than a mm of arm height, especially with a very compliant cartridge. If you run a quality cartridge, especially line-contact then this angle is criti.... very important.
So if we accept that getting the tracking force right is important let's look at the alternatives before we shell out £200…
Ok for less than £20 the "Cartridge Man" will sell you a Shure gauge (see review) which is good for 0.1 gr but is a bit of a fiddle to use. Or you might be lucky - 18 years ago I bought a second hand LP12 and with it came a little gadget from Technics - one of their famous electronic stylus gauges. This too is good for 0.1 gr but is just as much of a fiddle (but looks better) but is as rare as hen's teeth....
Lastly (you're feeling smug again) your arm may have a downforce dial a la ITTOK, SME V etc. Well these spring loaded designs are not the most accurate things in the world, in fact the old graduations on a counterweight that cheaper arms use are a better bet. The SME IV uses a little vernier and you count the turns, using this I got easily down to 0.1 gr accuracy making the SME 5's spring dial superflous.
These things are also a bad idea because they apply the downforce by a spring, which is inevitably uneven in operation. If you own an arm so equipped, it's better to simply balance the arm then apply downforce by moving the counterweight towards the bearings and read off the downforce on a gauge. As well as being more accurate this brings the counterweight closer to the bearings which is a good thing...
This is a simply wonderful device, again lots of electronic bits and strain gauges etc... It uses a rechargeable battery. Switch the thing on, place it on the platter and drop the stylus onto the little white pad. 2 seconds later the downforce comes up to +/- 0.02 gr. Put the thing away and try an hour later - bang - same reading... Tomorrow? Same reading so the thing is consistent...
And that is really all there is to say about it. It works, better than anything else, and it's nearest rivals cost 4x as much...
"Ah!" I hear someone say: "the absolute downforce should be set by ear". OK - granted, so the Shure gauge gets you to a ballpark figure and you then spend many (many) happy hours fiddling with downforce with different records, VTA setting etc etc. And in the end you think it's spot on. Now you listen and begin to wonder "could it do with another tadge of downforce?" and you give it another tweek. "Nope worse", how do you get back to the original 'perfect' setting? With this gauge you measure BEFORE fiddling, and remeasure and remeasure so you can always find that optimum setting you had an hour ago - it's here that the 0.02 gr accuracy is essential.
It's hard to justify this sort of expense to someone with a cheap turntable and a handful of records. But as in the current market a £2000 TT/arm/cartridge combo is seen as mid-market it starts to make a lot more sense to try and get the best out of your investment - and prolong stylus life. Used in conjunction with the HFNRR test record you have all the tools needed to set up a turntable system to perfection. ALL professionals/shops should own these. If someone comes to set up your megabuck turntable and doesn't have them ask why not - it's like a doctor without a stethoscope.
Personally if possible I would get a few friends together to share the cost and do it that way, after all you'll only need it every so often (though I now do a weekly check) so why not? Alternatively they make a good gift for someone, how often do you see a missbought hi-fi component advertised as "unwanted gift" - well no vinyl nut is going to give these back:-)
And for the reviewer? In the next year I shall be reviewing a series of hi-end turntables. In order to make it as scientific as possible I've assembled duplicate cartridges, (Cartridge Man's Music Makers), and duplicate phono stages (Graham Slee's Gram 2's), so I can do definitive back-to-back comparisons with my own Orbe/SME4. Without being sure that each cartridge was tracking at exactly the same downforce and on a precisely level surface the comparison would be invalid, only the Cartridge Man's pair allow this.
© Copyright 2001 Geoff Husband - http://www.tnt-audio.com
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