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 a bit to unpack.
First up, cartridge alignment is a technical process, but a straightforward one, once you understand it. There’s not a lot of room for opinion on cartridge alignment. It’s all about understanding the geometry and how to accurately measure and set it.
I’ve written more about the key parameters involved in cartridge and tonearm set-up, so check that out too.
We need to clarify that 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. This concept needs to be very clearly understood, yet an astonishing number of folks who ought to know better, don’t.
The Rabbit Hole
Can you believe, for example, that there is a guy in Queensland who inhabits a certain well-known turntable forum and who tells people not to use Technics’ cartridge alignment geometry and tools because he knows better?! A colleague told me about this and I nearly choked on my coffee!
How these characters can do this whilst keeping a straight face is beyond me, but an inflated sense of self-importance drives this sort of thing. The real problem here, and one that I’ve been fighting for years, is that there are too many opinions and not enough real knowledge and science in the world of hi-fi. This is just an example.
Do randoms in forums know more about the turntables and their alignment than the turntable designers themselves? Is it sensible to trust this sort of armchair expertise over the manufacturer and original design engineers? If you even have to think about your answer, you need to stop and re-evaluate your position, seriously.
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, recommended specifications
- Achieved using an originally supplied alignment tool, overhang gauge, or protractor, or one that accurately replicates the original design and/or measurement capability.
Factory alignment usually involves setting the correct overhang and/or cartridge offset at one or two null points. This is most often achieved by setting a stylus tip distance with respect to the headshell-arm junction, which is how Denon, Kenwood, Sony, Technics and many other manufacturers do it.
I typically use manufacturer-specified alignments and tools because the design engineers knew what they were doing and I like to honour those design decisions. In rare cases where the original set-up data and/or tools are not available, I’ll select (or make) an alignment tool appropriate for the job, based on the arm design, its specifications and experience aligning and calibrating thousands of turntables, tonearms and cartridges.
Cartridge alignment involves setting the precise geometric and positional relationship of a cartridge in a tonearm. This ensures correct geometry as the stylus traverses the surface of a record. The stylus describes an arc of a precise radius as it moves, calculated to yield the best (or a particular) total area under the curve distortion result.
The factory-prescribed alignment is designed to generate the lowest distortion at a significant place on the record surface, often an outer track, or the inner grooves where distortion tends to be higher. Change the radius or this arc and/or angle of the cartridge, ie its alignment, not to mention tracking force, anti-skate and VTA, and you will change the result, and how the turntable sounds.
At this point, I need to mention that most owners aren’t the best people to be aligning cartridges. This is simply because it’s a technical process that requires some knowledge, tools and experience to complete successfully. If you want to have a go, by all means, do, but have this knowledge beforehand, so you can make an informed decision.
Generic vs Factory Alignments
When a cartridge is correctly factory aligned, it may appear misaligned when checked with any of the multitudes of cartridge protractors and alignment gauges available. If you align a cartridge with a Shure paper alignment gauge for example, when you check with a factory tool, the alignment will very likely appear wrong.
Why? Because those others are the wrong tools for the job. The simple answer 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 won’t. It’s actually possible that none of them may be correct for your deck.
A generic paper gauge “designed for every turntable” (which is technically impossible) cannot render the correct factory-specified alignment for many turntables. Generic tools deliver generic alignments, approximations based on a ‘generic’ tonearm length, unspecified alignment geometry, mounting distance and type of alignment. A factory-supplied template, tool or protractor on the other hand is designed to give the precise alignment specified for your deck/arm.
An example some might better understand would be getting a car wheel alignment done using data from the wrong vehicle. This actually happened to me years ago when I took my car to a supposed wheel alignment specialist who actually had no idea what they were doing. My car’s wheels were technically ‘aligned’, just to the wrong specifications for my vehicle.
Generic protractors have a role to play in ‘quick and dirty’ alignments and work well in situations they were designed for, but there is no substitute for the correct factory alignment, tools, or a custom-made gauge specified with factory alignment parameters for your deck.
Multiple Alignment Syndrome
There are three common alignments – Baervald, Lofgren and Stevenson alignments – each yielding measurably different total ‘area under the curve’ distortion. Your arm will likely use one of these alignments. These alignments each sound different, some good, some not so good and random owner and retailer-made alignments can sound really bad!
Which alignment is correct in your case? The factory alignment is technically the correct alignment, as the designers intended. It is always best set with a factory gauge, protractor or tool, or a precisely calculated and printed arc-type protractor. Other alignments are possible as we’ve discussed, but in my opinion, it’s preferable to stick with the factory-specified alignment.
Now, it’s technically true that one can improve on some alignments, in certain circumstances, but this is definitely the tweaker’s territory. Some tonearm alignments are designed to perform best on 45s and on the inner grooves of 12-inch vinyl, where classical music crescendos often appear. Maybe you don’t listen to 45s or classical?
Is it worth deviating beyond factory recommendations for most users though? No. We’re interested in getting 99% of turntables working perfectly for 99% of owners. If someone tells you they know better, ask how many tonearms they’ve designed and how many thousands of turntables, cartridges and tonearms they’ve set up before you rush into making adjustments.
There’s a bit to consider before taking a screwdriver to your headshell. You need to know what the current alignment is and that means being able to measure it and interpret the result. You should never change things without a way to get back to where you started if needed.
- A cartridge must be correctly aligned for maximum performance
- Correct alignment mostly refers to the correct cartridge overhang and offset, but azimuth, VTA, tracking force and anti-skate must also be considered and set correctly as part of the set-up process.
- The best alignment in most cases is the factory/manufacturer-specified alignment, made with the correct tools.
- You should only change cartridge alignment if you understand everything so far and can accurately assess the current alignment and any changes made to it.
Need More Advice?
No problem, check out other FAQs, and reviews for more. For those needing more specific assistance, I offer an advisory service where I can provide you with factual information, rather than opinions and pseudoscience.
Learned something? If you appreciate FAQs like this one, you are welcome to shout me a drink 🍻