I’ve been listening to music on vinyl for decades, and I’ve gone through a huge amount of turntables, cartridges and phonostages to try and find a good compromise between price and quality. I should preface this by saying I am no audiophile, nor millionaire, so my setup will seem modest by some standards but I think the reproduction from it is excellent.
Right now, and probably until I find myself with either a lottery win or a job, my setup is the following:
Audio Technica AT440MLa -> Technics 1210M3D -> Cambridge Audio 640P
Everything besides the cartridge was second hand, and saved me a small fortune.
Technics 1210 M3D: There’s little new you can say about the 1210, it’s older than I am, and one of the most iconic pieces of audio equipment ever manufactured. Many talk about about the ruggedness of the machine, or the speed and feel of the platter under load. Neither of these areas are of interested to me, as I don’t plan on abusing it nor using it as an instrument.
However, the one thing people miss about the 1210 is it’s adjustability. This is what separates a good turntable from a bad one. Cartridge height, position, azimuth, tonearm height, anti-skate, weight can all me adjusted without special tools or techniques. You can, with a little time and patience, make it sound and track wonderfully.
I paid £150 for mine, used and abused. Cables cut, missing mat, loose tone arm etc., it had not had a good life. It literally took me about ten minutes to fix all of these problems with nothing more than a screw driver. Everything is so well documented and easy to work with. This is what consumer level devices should be.
So, important factors to consider when setting up a turntable, in order.
1) Make sure the device is level. Sit the table where you want it, grab a spirit level and start adjusting the feet to ensure that the x and y axis of the chasis is perfectly level. This has a huge effect on tracking, record wear and sound quality.
2) Headshell position. It’s important to use the original Techniques headshell and ensure your cartridge is sitting square. Don’t bother with awkward alignment tools, just buy the original Techniques head shell and overhang gauge, they are life savers and make frustrating adjustments a breeze. Azimuth is more difficult to measure, but personally I do this by keeping the arm on the rest, and using the small amount of play where the headshell connects to the tone arm to twist it into position. Again, measure with a good spirit level.
3) Weight. Use whatever the catridge manual tells you. If you need more down force than 2g (roughly speaking), then something is wrong. Either the cartridge is fitted poorly or the record is damaged.
4) Anti-skate. I find that this wears out on Technics turntables really quickly, so needs to be set high – usually 2.5. This isn’t easy to set audibly, unless you have access to a blank disk or a Hi-Fi News setup record.
5) Tone arm height. This needs to be changed until your tone arm is perfectly parallel to the surface of the record. For me, it’s 1.
Just in case anyone has a similar set up to me, I’ll list the settings I currently run. The cart is setup with Technics Overhang Gauge, 52mm. Tracking force is 1.5g and anti-skate is 3. Arm height is 1, but this will change dramatically if not using the original rubber mat.
Audio Technica AT440MLa: This is an excellent little cart for the money. It tracks beautifully, sounds so vibrant and lively. One thing to look out for is that the needle is almost the same price as the entire assembly, DO NOT risk damaging it. Always use the cue arm to lift and drop the needle.
Cambridge Audio 640P: Another second hand buy, but a good little investment. It’s a strong and thick sounding little thing, and can change between moving magnet carts and moving coil. It also features a subsonic filter which gently rolls off any frequency below 20Hz. Word of warning though, the power supply is a 12V AC. It was a nightmare to replace – do not buy one without the power supply. There’s no need to throw huge amounts of money at a phono stage, they are a necessity, but the range in quality is not dramatic. If you have a built-in phono fucntion, it’s probably good enough for most things.
Keeping Things Clean: I use a “Super Exstatic” carbon fibre & velvet disc cleaning pad. No fancy solutions or water baths. Just put the disc on, start the turntable and gently wipe the disc with the edges of the brush. If you’ve got the money for a vinyl cleaning machine, like a Nitty Gritty Mini Pro definitely invest. They can make an impressive difference to old and abused records. Sadly, I don’t have a spare £1000 knocking around, so if I have anything that is extremely filthy, I’ll give it a wipe with a micro-fibre cloth. Not exactly rocket science.
Things to avoid: Anything with the words Pro-Ject written on it. They make some of the worst, record ruining, mistracking, nonadjustable turntables known to man. How they got such a fan club I’ll never know. I went through three of them assuming each one was defective. Also, cartridges that mount directly to the tone arm – I think they are referred to as concord style. You lose a lot of adjustment when fitting one of these, and they are mainly meant for the DJ market, when quick swaps are important, not sound quality.
I’m not a fan of anyof the digital utilities that are available to remove rumble or pops and clicks. They all damage transients of the recording and leave you with, at best, weird sounding results. Hand editing is really the only way to remove clicks, but on some discs that can prove to be a bit too labour intensive, even for me.
So there you have it, after years of messing about with these things I finally have a setup that satisfy me. It didn’t cost the earth, and I can take a little pride in knowing that I saved an old 1210 from certain scrappage.