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.

First up, cartridge alignment is a technical process. There’s not a lot of room for opinion on cartridge alignment, it’s really about understanding the process and how to do it. As always, I’ll present you with the facts, from a specialist’s perspective. What you do with them is up to you!

Next up, we need to clarify something: There is only one factory-correct alignment and that’s the one made to factory specifications.┬áNote: I’m not saying there is only one possible alignment, I’m saying there is only one factory-correct alignment. Again, not opinion.

So, what is a factory or manufacturer specified alignment? A factory cartridge alignment is an alignment:

  • Done exactly as the tonearm/turntable manufacturer recommends
  • Made to exact manufacturer-recommended specifications
  • Achieved using an originally-supplied alignment tool, overhang gauge, or protractor

Factory alignment usually involves setting the correct overhang and/or cartridge offset at one or two null points, but can also include setting a stylus tip distance with respect to the headshell, which is how Denon, Technics and many other manufacturers do it.

I typically use factory/manufacturer specified alignments and tools on turntables I set up because the design engineers knew what they were doing when they specified the alignment and I like to honour those design decisions. Plus I get a kick out of doing things correctly and most decks I see are far from correctly set up.

In rare cases where the original set-up data and/or tools are not available, I’ll select (or make) an alignment tool and spec appropriate for the job, based on familiarity with the arm design and its specifications and on experience aligning and calibrating thousands of turntables, tonearms and cartridges.

Alignment confusion occurs due to not really understanding what alignment is. When a cartridge is factory aligned, it may appear misaligned when checked with any of the multitudes of cartridge protractors and alignment gauges available. Likewise, if you align a 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. Don’t expect five different alignment tools and methods to get you the same alignment because they will not. It’s actually possible that not one of them may be correct for your deck.

Generic tools rarely deliver the correct factory alignment for your deck. They deliver an alignment, but these generic alignments are approximations based on a ‘standard’ tonearm length, mounting distance and ‘type’ of alignment, not necessarily your tonearm.

So, 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 there is no substitute for the correct factory alignment and alignment gauge, or a custom-made gauge specified with factory alignment parameters for your deck.

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

Various alignments are possible, each sounding different, and none of which are technically wrong, though random owner made alignments can be appallingly bad! Baervald, Lofgren and Stevenson alignments are the three common types, each yielding measurably different total ‘area under the curve’ distortion. Your arm will likely use one of these alignments, but ultimately this doesn’t really matter.

Which alignment 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, best set with a factory gauge, protractor or tool.

So there’s 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 that alignment actually is. The only way to know that is to be able to measure it and interpret the result. A generic protractor is not the solution. Unless these conditions are met, I strongly suggest you don’t change anything.

It’s like your car’s wheel alignment. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) ever change things without a way to measure and assess the current set-up that you understand 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!

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.

Thanks for reading!

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 over two hours from brain to page, all for the benefit of my readers. If you’d like to show some appreciation, you can shout me a drink!