Dial In Your Stylus Tracking Force To Get The Best Sound From Your Vinyl

In the 2 months that I've had the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC turntable I've had a lot of fun spinning the various vinyl records that I've managed to acquire so far. I'm really enjoying the sound and the "ceremony" that goes with playing music on a turntable. I have also spent some time tweaking the turntable to try and get the best sound out of my spinning plastic discs and have learned a lot in the process. One of my biggest "ah-ha" moments came when I took the time to properly adjust my stylus tracking force. The difference in sound quality was fairly dramatic.

How I discovered this

The reason I started to look at the tracking force of my stylus was because I was having problems with the stereo imaging (sound was mainly coming out of the left speaker) on a few records. My initial thought that maybe it was the record itself. But after the same problem happened on 5 or 6 records I figured something else was wrong because I knew I wasn't buying that many crappy records! I did a quick Google search which indicated that the stylus tracking weight might be the cause. Based on this I went back to the turntable setup instructions to make sure I had done things correctly. I re did the tonearm balance and tracking force setting and the result was a little better but not what I thought it should be. A little further Googling suggested that I should use a more accurate measuring device to make sure that the tracking force was within the range indicated by Ortofon for the 2M Red cartidge (15-17.5mN). I did some searching for "digital stylus tracking force gauge" and came up with a few options, ranging in price from $10 to several hundred dollars. I settled on this one:

Signstek Blue LCD Backlight Digital Long-Playing LP Turntable Stylus Force Scale Gauge Tester

I got the gauge for $19.99 which was very affordable, much more so than the others I saw for upwards of $250+. Now the test was to see if my $19.99 gauge was going to work.

The weigh in

Once I got my digital stylus scale from Amazon I set it up on the platter of the turntable and let the stylus down slowly to see what it measured. The result was 1.09 grams, well under the minimum of 1.5 grams that Ortofon recommends. "How did that happen?" I thought to my self. I thought I had followed the setup instructions correctly. Obviously not...so I redid everything again and got a lot closer (1.4 grams) to the suggested force but I was still off. I carefully redid the setup procedure yet again and really paid attention to how the numbers on the tonearm's force scale lined up with the markings. The result was a 1.6 grams force measurement on the scale. The interesting part was that the markings on the tonearm indicated 1.7 grams to my 50-year old eyes so there was a 1/10th of a gram discrepancy between the digital scale and the tonearm markings. I fiddled around/adjusted a bit more and got this measurement:

The 1.63 is almost exactly between the 1.5 and 1.75 grams tracking force that Ortofon recommends for the cartridge. The result was a much better sound with a nice stereo image and a bit less "pops and crackles". My guess is that the slightly heavier tracking force keeps the stylus in the groove better, reducing "slop" in the tracking across the vinyl.

Since this image was taken I have dialed in the tracking force a bit more by testing various settings with the offending vinyl discs and have settled on a tracking force of 1.69 grams which is at the high end of the range but still within spec. The result has been a much more consistent sound improvement across the entire range of records. Audible pops and crackles are now much less and imaging is much better.

What I learned

This whole experience/process has taught me that getting the best possible sound from your turntable takes a little bit of work. Just setting up the turntable right out of the box based on the user's manual will get you close, but not as close as you could be, to the level of sound reproduction that your turntable is capable of. It will take a small investment in your listening experience in order to get the most out of it. And having an accurate stylus tracking force is one of those things that can contribute greatly to the final sound. In most cases a "too light" tracking force will be worse for your listening experience (and records) than a heavier tracking force. So my suggestion is to invest in a basic digital tracking force scale (the one I link to above is a solid choice) and take the time to make sure that your stylus is putting the proper amount of pressure on the vinyl to get good sound.

Next up in my quest for the "perfect" vinyl sound is cartridge alignment............. Stay tuned for a post on my experiences with that.