I’m having trouble aligning my cartridge, why does each tool seem to give a different result?

This is a really good question, variations of which I hear a lot. Let’s look at this in a little more detail as there’s quite a bit to understand.

Cartridge alignment is a technical process. I’m presenting you with the facts, from a specialist’s perspective, as always. Do with them what you will.

First, we need to clear something thing up: There is only one factory-correct alignment and that’s the one made to factory specifications. Note: I’m not saying there is only one possible alignment, I’m saying there is only one factory-correct alignment.

What is factory alignment? Factory alignment is a cartridge alignment done exactly as the tonearm/turntable manufacturer recommends, to the exact specification described by the manufacturer. It’s achieved using a factory alignment tool, overhang gauge, or protractor and usually involves setting the correct overhang and/or cartridge offset at one or two null points.

This is typically how I align cartridges, my thinking being that the designers probably knew what they were doing when they specified the alignment. I like to honour those design decisions, plus I get a kick out of doing things correctly when I know most don’t. In rare cases where the original set-up data is not available, I’ll select an alignment tool most appropriate for the job, based on experience.

The alignment misunderstanding occurs due to a misunderstanding of the cartridge alignment process and what alignment is. When a cartridge is factory aligned, it may appear misaligned when checked with any of the multitude of cartridge protractors and alignment gauges available. Likewise, if you align with a Shure paper alignment gauge for example, when you check with a factory tool, the alignment will often appear wrong.

How can both be right, or wrong..?! See the problem? The simple answer to this is that each tool delivers a different alignment. Generic tools don’t deliver the correct factory alignment for your deck. They deliver an alignment. These generic alignments are approximations based on a ‘standard’ tonearm and ‘type’ of alignment, not necessarily your tonearm.

Which do you think is most likely to give the correct alignment for your deck: a generic paper gauge designed for “every” turntable (which is technically impossible) or the factory specified gauge/alignment for your tonearm? Generic protractors have a role in ‘quick and dirty’ alignments and work well in cases they were designed for, but they are no substitute for the correct factory alignment.

Time for a breath… If this is now starting to make sense, then you are on the right track.

Confusingly, various alignments are possible, each sounding different, and none of which are technically wrong. Baervald, Lofgren and Stevenson alignments are the three common alignments. Each yield measurably different total ‘area under the curve’ distortion. Your arm will likely use one of these alignments or a variation of it, but ultimately this doesn’t really matter. Which is correct? Perhaps we’d be better off asking which is most correct. The factory alignment is technically the correct alignment and as the designers intended.

So, there’s granularity to the conversation a lot more to understand than most realise. Certainly there’s a bit to consider before taking a screwdriver to your headshell. You need to know if the current alignment is correct and what the alignment actually is. The only way to know that is to understand and be able to measure your current alignment. A generic protractor is not the solution. Unless these conditions are met, I strongly suggest you don’t change anything.

To summarise: Your cartridge needs to be correctly aligned with the correct overhang, azimuth, offset, VTA, plus the right tracking force and anti-skate. You should only adjust your cartridge alignment if you understand and can measure the current alignment. To align a cartridge correctly, you need tools to measure and set each of the parameters mentioned.

It’s like your car’s wheel alignment. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) ever change things without a way to assess the validity of the current set-up, that you understand, know how to use, and a way to get back to where you started. This is why I recommend expert fitting and alignment – of your wheels AND your cartridges!

PS: Do you appreciate the time and effort I put into writing these FAQs and explaining sometimes tricky technical concepts? I hope so, this one took me over two hours!