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Determining VTA

A Foolproof Method

[Setting up VTA on a Schroeder tonearm]
[Italian version]

Author: Hartmut Quaschik - TNT Germany
Published: November, 2009

For long time, I did not believe that precise VTA adjustment is necessary, and I very much agreed with Geoff Husband on his article about the VTA myth. As long as the tonearm wand was level, it was OK for me. I always have known that lowering the tonearm makes the sound dull, while setting it to a higher position gives a leaner sound, in general. This can be experienced simply by setting the tonearm 2mm lower or higher than the level position. Though when it comes to precise VTA adjustment, as I said before, it has been OK to me that the tonearm is level, so I was sure that I was in the correct ballpark.

A local buddy, Bernhard, worked out a method with one of his favourite recordings: a Callas mono record, and he claimed that the VTA is correct if the mouth of Mrs.Callas gets smaller when louder. I never subscribed to that method, for several reasons: I do not own a Callas mono record, then I do not care about the Callas singing, and at last I know that old mono records often need different VTA settings than modern stereo records. Then this method is very time-consuming, it takes many steps and iterations, as this method does not tell whether VTA is too high or too low. If you want to read further on this subject, you can google for this method using the keywords Callas, VTA, and DICE45.

One evening when I was sitting at Bernhard's place and listening to music, he put "Flying Fish HDS 701, Sauerkraut and Solar Energy" on the platter and said to me that with this record, VTA adjustment is much easier, and there was a guy named David Shreve, who had worked out that method. So far so good, but it took another year or two to convince me. Enter David Shreve, who participated in a Munich audio event organized by the Munich DIY high-end audio community. When David entered my listening room, he pulled a record out of his bag, and asked if he could adjust VTA at my place. I said yes, and he showed it in every single step, what to listen for and how to refine the steps. It was simply amazing. This method works and is foolproof.

It goes like this: on this track "Sauerkraut and Solar Energy", there is an acoustic bass plucked by hand. When the VTA is too high, the bass is thin and not deep. When the VTA is too low, the bass is muddy. The second component to listen to is the plucking sound, it gets sharper and more precise when the VTA is set higher until the VTA is too high and the plucking is too sharp. So the optimum VTA is as high as possible without losing the full body of the bass. The plucking will sound natural and the bass will be more dynamic. As the method tells whether too high or too low, start with two VTA points, one too high and one too low. Divide this range at the middle and then decide whether the middle setting is too high or too low. If the middle setting is high, use it as the new high setting and repeat the procedure with this new high setting and the original low setting. But if the middle setting is low, use it as the new low setting and repeat the procedure with this new low setting and the original high setting. Starting with a range of say 8mm you are inside a 1mm range after three iterations, and after another three iterations, you may not be able to hear a difference. In a system with high resolution, it may be possible to hear smaller changes.. David was able to set the VTA of my Schroeder No.1 - a tonearm with reference VTA tower - to 1/16 of the turn of the VTA screw, this is less than 0.1mm. BTW, in mathematics this method is called "linear optimisation".

Dynamics, particularly in the bass, are the most subtle effect. If the VTA setting is far off from optimum, small changes in VTA may not be audible. If the setting is very close to optimum, extremely small changes may be audible.

[Sauerkraut and Solar Energy on Flying Fish HDS 701]

[Sauerkraut and Solar Energy on Flying Fish HDS 701]

Once I understood this method, I was able to set up VTA in a hifi setup completely unknown to me to within 1mm using a tonearm without fine VTA adjustment, a Manticore Musician. So this seems to be VTA for dummies, really.

Some questions remain. First, will the optimum found with this record be valid for other records? Second, are there other records which may also be used for setting up VTA?

In the meantime, David sent me an article about his method. He mentions there a list of records, most of them popular music, which are suitable for setting up VTA using his method. For your eyes, I simply reiterate this list here:

Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert, ECM 1064/65

Gordon Lightfoot, If You Could Read My Mind, Reprise 6392

Simon and Garfunkel, The Concert in Central Park, Warner Bros. 2BSK 3654

Will the Circle Be Unbroken, United Artists UAS 9801

Joan Baez, From Every Stage, A&M SP3704

The Weavers, Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard VSD 2150 (higher VTA)

Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, RCA Victor, LSO-6006 (higher VTA, same as Vanguard)

William Bolcom, Heliotrope Bouquet Piano Rags 1900-1970, Nonesuch H-71257 (lower VTA)

Marie Claire Jamet, Four Centuries of Music for the Harp, Nonesuch H-71098 (lower VTA)

At the time, when David visited me at home, he showed me a graphical representation of optimum VTA settings for different labels (for stereo records), and on first glance it was clear to me, that all modern records are within plus or minus 0.5mm of this Flying Fish HDS 701 record.

You may email David by using dcshreve together with mindspring-dot-com.


So ... everybody happy? A foolproof method using standard records. Wait, I still have one thing to consider: if you reset VTF (or simply said: if you change the tracking force), the SRA changes a lot, and you have to readjust VTA again. But with a procedure this simple, this is an easy job.

Copyright © 2009 Hartmut Quaschik - www.tnt-audio.com

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