On experiments with a record player
This post is supplementary to this one on vinyl… which explains what drew me to buying one in the first place.
The last time I looked at buying a record player was somewhere between 15 and 20 years ago. I decided then that what I was looking for was out of my reach – I was not long out of University, I had a few records I’d enjoyed but wasn’t entirely sure of the condition of, and most things I’d read suggested that for a really decent audiophile experience I’d be better off finding something with direct drive.
Fast forward to 2021 and a bit of research suggested that my best option might be a Lenco L-3808 which I could pick up for around £200. I bought mine from Bax. From what I’d read, I’d expected that out of the box I would probably be pleasantly surprised, but if I was prepared to tinker a bit, I could get incremental improvements that would bring it punching above it’s price bracket.
I was very pleasantly surprised with it straight out of the box… enough that I’m convinced that the old Amstrad hi-fi I once owned probably didn’t have the RIAA EQ curve applied. The low-end response was well beyond what I’d expected, and this was listening in the setup I usually use for mixing – a couple of Alesis Monitor One Mk2 nearfield monitors and optionally a pair of AKG K712 headphones which particularly help me make judgements at the low end of things as the cube room I usually work in isn’t particularly helpful in that regard.
So… it was good already, but I could tell there was more clarity to be had, and in my research I’d come across a few suggestions.
Firstly I had learned about balancing the tone arm and setting the stylus pressure / counterweight, then a corresponding estimate for the zero-skate… this before playing anything. I just followed the quick guide to getting set up and had a listen. The fine pitch control needed a nudge away from zero to get the spin speed just right.
One of the first things most people seem to do is to exchange the felt mat that it comes with for a cork one. I picked one up for a tenner and sure enough, the sound was tighter and the stereo image sharpened up. I could hear that the sound was a bit more distorted nearer the middle of the record and learned that I should align the stylus cartridge within the headshell using a protractor, of which there seem many varieties and varying opinions, particularly with regards to this model of turntable being slightly unusual. I also read a suggestion about the height of the tone arm and bringing it up more level.
To tackle that last point first, I bought a second cork mat and tried that… and I didn’t like the result. The tonality changed to being unpleasantly weighted more to the high end and while the top end was clear, this resulted in a very “hard” sound.
I had trouble printing one of the freely available protractors – I’m guessing some of the pdf documents I tried to print were in letter size and because of this I had trouble with the scaling. Whatever the reason, following a suggestion in a forum, I had a look at a bit of software offered up here and the output it sent straight to the printer worked first time (wonderful, thank you Conrad) – I run Ubuntu as my main operating system and it ran fine under WINE. Contrary to the manual, I found the spindle to pivot distance was 205mm. I selected to produce a template for a Stevenson A alignment (IEC) but altered the outer groove radius setting to 117.4mm in line with a couple of the other templates I had attempted to print.
After this I then reset the counterweight and experimented with setting the stylus pressure. In the end I found the optimum for me was 2.2g – very slightly more than the initial recommendation for the supplied cartridge. In the course of my research, I ended up watching this helpful video and, while I’d already covered a lot of ground by this point, I found the most helpful new bit of advice was to use your ears when setting the anti-skate… I did just this, listening for the setting that gave me minimal distortion in either channel across the disc and ended up adopting a setting closer to 1.7 than the initial suggestion to match it to your stylus pressure.
At this point, the result was way beyond what I’d imagined or hoped for and to my ears it holds up very well against digital. I have a few recordings I’m able to compare directly with a CD rip in the studio, but I haven’t done that so far.
From what I’ve read, the supplied cartridge (AT3600) is pretty good, but I’d get better results from a higher up model with an elliptical stylus. At the moment, I’ve spent 200 on the turntable, 20 quid on cork mats and 20 quid on a vinyl cleaning kit (it works very well). A new cartridge would set me back at least 70 and I’m not convinced I will get the best out of it without having a dedicated listening space… I’m already very impressed.
The other recommended upgrade is an external phono amp. To me, the internal one supplied is more than adequate, and with both this and the cartridge it’s down to personal use. I was after a result good enough to produce a decent transfer to digital and being able to enjoy random second-hand vinyl has proved an unexpected bonus.
One thing I haven’t tried is the usb output to transfer to digital. It isn’t going to be better than the converters in the audio interface in the studio – I’ve tried running the output into there and the results are great.
So there we have it. I’m never going to be one of the “analogue is always better” brigade, but I’m definitely convinced of the value of vinyl.