Cartridge Setup and Phono Stage Shoot Out, June 19, 2021, by Larry Deniston
Don Naples was kind enough to host the second post-COVID in-person SFAS event at his beautiful home in Healdsburg on June 19, 2021. We had about a dozen members invited by Don who were able to observe a cartridge setup demonstration by J.R. Boisclair of WallyTools in the morning and then have a listen to 7 different phono stages in the afternoon.
Using some visual aids and drawing pictures, J.R. began by talking about how important the alignment of the stylus in the record groove can be, especially for fine-line contact styli. Alignment is less important for elliptical and conical styli. When a stylus is not aligned properly, sound quality suffers due to both tracing error (the inability of the stylus contact edge to always touch the groove surface rather than skipping from peak to peak) and tracking error (the inability of the stylus contact edge to maintain collinearity with the radial line of the record). Tracing error and tracking error sound similar to each other:a collapsing of soundstage, loss of image specificity, loss of separation between instruments, lack of information, less detail. It does not sound like brightness, “tizzyness” or high frequency distortion. Those symptoms are usually a gummed-up stylus or poor anti-skate forces applied.
Stylus alignment consists of azimuth (left-right tilt when looking at front of cartridge from record level), rake angle (up and down from the tonearm base), zenith (contact edges of stylus are collinear with the record’s radial line) and overhang (distance stylus overhangs center of record). Also, very important in cartridge setup are tracking force and antiskating.
Because most tonearms have a fixed pivot point at their base, the arm tracks across the record surface in an arc allowing for at most, two points in the record where the stylus has perfect zenith alignment. As with many things HiFi, there are several ways to set up the overhang and zenith – the two most popular are Lofgren and Baerwald – J.R. prefers the Lofgren geometry. WallyTools’ WallyTractor also has a modified geometries for newer records which have playing areas that do not get as close to the center of the record when compared to older records.
Zenith is a difficult parameter to measure and currently there isn’t a means for one to make this measurement at home. WallyTools has this capability and has found some tremendous discrepancies with various manufacturers’ products.
WallyTools have tools that will help anyone adjust the azimuth, rake, overhang and antiskating. Currently, one must send their cartridge in to J.R. for zenith analysis. With this analysis, J.R. produces a shim that will adjust for azimuth, rake angle and, with the WallyZenith tool, one can feel assured that their cartridge will be set up to provide maximum performance. For a complete list of WallyTools and instructional videos, please visit the WallyTools website: https://www.wallyanalog.com/
A couple of side comments:
- JR likes shorter tonearms because they have lower effective and inertial mass and are more rigid.
- JR says you need to wet-clean your stylus every 2-3 weeks.
- Most cartridge makers purchase their cantilever/stylus assemblies from one of three manufacturers: Ogura, Namiki or Gyger; each has a different way of mounting the stylus to the cantilever. Ortofon and Soundsmith make their own assemblies.
Phono Stage Shootout
The attendees were able to listen to seven different, well performing phono stages on Don’s system*. We began with the least expensive phono stage and worked our way up to the most expensive phono stage listed below. We used the track “Caverna Magica” on the Andreas Vollenweider album of the same name. This piece is quite interesting with the sounds of shoes walking on gravel, then walking into a cave while a man and woman are talking (played backwards), drops of water in a cave that transition into a rhythm, the faint flapping of a bird’s wings, drums and finally a modified harp and some vocals. While the track may seem like a strange choice, it does provide an excellent means to sonically distinguish the different phono stages.
Below the listing of the phono stages are comments collected from the attendees at the event. All the attendees appeared to enjoy themselves immensely.
- PS Audio Stellar
- Parasound JC3+
- Pass Labs XP-17
- Boulder 508
- Aesthetix Rhea Signature
- Boulder 1008
- CH Precision
Some comments on the sound quality of the different phono stages by the attendees:
PS Audio Stellar- Closed in and flat. Dry, detailed midrange. Veiled.
Parasound – Much bigger soundstage and frequency extension with tighter bass, not quite as refined as the more expensive ‘stages – more real sound – good with music – trouble with noise with proximity to the preamp, one of the best bangs for the buck.
Pass Labs – conveyed the timing almost as well as any other phono stage, but did not have quite as good a sound stage.
Boulder 508 – wow for the price.
Aesthetix was warmer, less tight, and some liked the sound – beautiful sound.
Boulder 1008 – phenomenal – more musical with shimmer.
CH Precision – most detailed, musical and biggest sound stage, the most information with the least amount of noise.
Additionally, here’s a nice write-up by Alex, providing his thoughts the phono stages (note much of the comments are from additional listening and comparisons using some different music tracks after the initial comparisons):
I preferred the Pass Labs because of its timing, the presentation of Miles Davis So What from Kind of Blue, had a driving undeniable beat, I was out of my chair swinging to it. Does it have the clarity of fine detail that the Boulder 508 can present? I don’t know. The 508 was very close to the CH in that regard. The Nana Mouskouri track “Song for Liberty” has a minute or so in which she is accompanied by 5 or 6 other singers. Played through the CH it was easy to hear the individual voices, the 508 with Fred’s power cord (covered in ferrite blocks from end to end,) was very close. I would have liked to hear that track with the Pass Labs, the Parasound, and the Stellar. The 508 seems to lack a bit of weight compared to the bigger Boulder 1008 (My vote for best overall, but so overkill for the rest of my system.)
If you have time, play the Nana Mouskouri track through each phono stage, can you hear each voice clearly or is it a blur? Then play So What, does it have a driving beat to the end or is it overwhelmed by the beautiful playing of extraordinary musicians. These two recordings are perfect for this because the results are obvious, the singers are clearly audible or a bit of a blur, the beat holds up or it doesn’t. I look forward to hearing about your observations.
My guess is the Stellar may present the multiple voices clearly but with less weight than the 508, and drops the beat on So What.
The Parasound may be the sweet spot, rendering the voices with a very slight blur and maintaining the beat during So What. And the Pass Labs, how does it present the voices?
For me, I am willing to give up a bit of clarity for more drive. Dennis A. would prefer the opposite, more resolution and clarity and less of the beat. His favorite was the 508.
All the best, Alex”
* Haniwa HCTR Mk 1 cartridge (very low impedance with a suggested load at about 100 ohms) mounted on a Basis Audio 2500 Turntable with the Calibrator Base and Synchro-WavePower Supply. Pass Labs XP-32 preamp, two Pass Labs XA-30.5 amps and one Pass Labs X-250.5 amp powering Linkwitz Orion 4 speakers.
Signature Series Hybrid power cords and Mamushi magnetically shielded Hybrid XLR interconnects supplied by Snake River Audio were used to power the preamp and some of the phono stages, and to connect the phono stages to the preamp.