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, and bear with me as there’s a bit to unpack with this one.

Alignment Basics

Cartridge alignment is a technical process, but a relatively straightforward one, once you understand it and how to do it. There’s not a lot of room for opinion here, it’s all about understanding geometry and how to accurately measure and set things up. I’ve written more about the key parameters involved in cartridge and tonearm set-up too, so check that out.

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 don’t seem to, including many who ought to know better.

Rabbit Holes

Once you get into turntables and vinyl, you can potentially enter one of many rabbit holes from where it can be hard to re-emerge, without help. We provide that help, of course. For example, there’s a guy on a turntable forum telling people not to use Technics’ cartridge alignment geometry and tools because he knows better. Sure. Perhaps Matsushita will give him a job seeing as they got things so wrong with their turntable designs…

The internet is broadly problematic in terms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people tend to over-rate their level of understanding of topics they in fact understand very little about. This gives us the classic: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, “You don’t know what you don’t know”, the Darwin Awards, many humorous memes and tragedies like the space shuttle disasters.

The problem here, one that I’ve been fighting for years, is one of too many opinions and not enough knowledge, facts and science in the world of hi-fi. I have a science background and I’m all about facts, and applying them to this wonderful hobby. One thing you won’t read is me telling you that I know better than the designers or engineers who created this equipment because that would be stupid.

Do folks in hi-fi forums know more about turntables and their alignment than the turntable design engineers? Is it sensible to trust people you don’t know writing from their mum’s basement over the manufacturer and designers? If you have to think about your answers there’s a problem, but it might not be too late!

On that note let me leave you with this fact: Out of maybe 1000 or more turntables that I’ve worked on over the years, only a handful came correctly set up, including many straight from stores. Every deck that left here however left perfectly set up. I don’t mean close or nearly right, I mean spot-on, per the manufacturer’s specifications. Very few can make that claim.

Manufacturer-Specified Alignments

So, what is a factory or manufacturer-specified alignment? It’s an alignment:

  • Done exactly as the tonearm/turntable manufacturer recommends
  • Made to exact, recommended specifications
  • Achieved using a manufacturer-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 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 almost all manufacturers do it. They achieve this by supplying an overhang specification and/or a paper or plastic gauge or protractor that is unique for the arm.

I use manufacturer-specified alignments and tools wherever possible 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.

I must 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.

Generic 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. 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 happened to me years ago when I took my car to a supposed wheel alignment specialist who 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 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 tweaker’s territory. Some alignments (Stevenson) are designed to perform best on 45s and on the inner grooves of 12-inch vinyl, where classical music crescendos often appear. 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 exactly how they know better, and have them explain that to you. This explanation needs to be more than “I read online that blah, blah, blah.”


There’s a bit to consider before taking a screwdriver to your headshell:

  • 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 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 tailored to you and your equipment.

Learned something? Good, that’s what articles like this are for and no, we don’t pull punches or indulge in BS here. If you appreciate FAQs like this one, you are welcome to shout me a drink.

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