Here I try to answer as many questions as I can. Some questions will be answered with the help of your audiophile virtual friends. Please know that everything here is copyrighted by SORAsound. No parts of this website can be copied without SORAsound’s written permission.
When it comes to installation, most of us like to set our table/tonearm/cartridge once and forget about it for a few months if not a few years. This is possible. Below you find some information and suggestions for your bedtime reading. If you think I need to add other stuff here, please let me know and I do that.
Everything is system dependant, person dependant, etc. In the great tradition of ours, please accept our disclaimers and please do everything and anything with care. Whatever you do, please keep the stylus guard on as you install and when you are not playing records.
Please ask cleaning ladies, kids with balls in hands, and unknown people/animals to stay away from your analog rig. You are responsible for use, abuse, mistakes, successes and the ultimate joy of your ZYX and audio equipment. Love from SORAsound.
Cartridge Output and Phono Stage Gain
A line stage preamp needs to see about 325 millivolts (mv) from a source component. If the incoming signal is much lower, the line stage won’t produce realistic listening levels while maintaining a quiet background.
CD players, tuners, tape decks and such all produce 325mv or above, so they drive your line stage just fine. However, most phono cartridges (including all the good ones) output far less.
ZYX’s output only .24 or .48mv, literally 1/1000th the voltage of your CDP. Phono stages, head amps and step-up transformers all help boost this tiny output up to the 325mv that your line stage needs.
So the next question becomes, how much voltage gain do I need before my line stage for a particular cartridge? This question is usually answered in decibels (db). db are simply a different way of expressing voltage, db gain is a log function of voltage gain. As such, a .24mv cartridge needs 63db of gain before the line stage. A .48mv cartridge needs 57db.
The recommended VTF range for ZYX cartridges is 1.75-2.25 grams.
Many cartridges are very sensitive to every parameter, including VTF (tracking force). Depending on your climate, a good starting point for ZYX cartridges would be anywhere from 1.95-2.10g (colder climates need more VTF).
It’s safer to start with higher VTF’s and move downward than to start with a VTF that might be too low. Inadequate VTF’s cause mis-tracking, which is the number one cause of irreparable vinyl damage. Also, VTF’s near the top of the suggested range helps new cartridges settle in faster.
2.00g is a reasonable starting point, but the optimal VTF for any particular ZYX will vary with the system and the environment. Some ZYX users play as low as 1.85g. Others play as high as 2.15g.
Most fall between those extremes.
Many people find VTF needs to be slightly higher in cold weather, slightly lower in hot weather. It is useful and educational to experiment with small VTF changes. ZYX’s are quite sensitive to this, especially the UNIverse. In my experience, ZYX 4D and ZYX Omega are the least sensitive to such changes. Again, please try and enjoy it.
I always recommend that a new ZYX user begin with a level cartridge (not armtube). View the cartridge from the side. You’ll see a ridge in the acrylic body a mm or so above the bottom. Make that ridge parallel to the record and adjust by ear from there.
Don’t worry about the angle of the arm. On most records it has little if any effect on sonics.
Input Impedance for ZYX
Some general comments, pertaining to more than ZYX phono cartridges obviously. Assuming you’re not using stepup transformers, the optimum impedance for a LO (.24mv) ZYX will usually fall somewhere between 50 and 200 ohms. The ideal value will vary from system to system, since it depends on the electrical characteristics of the tonearm cable, phono cable and other components. Experimentation in-system is the only way to determine the optimum impedance for any MC. I’d suggest starting at around 100 ohms, then moving up or down from there depending on sonic results.
If you are using step-up transformers, I’ll need to know your step-up (turns) ratio or gain (in db) to make a recommendation. MC’s are extremely sensitive to impedance loading when the signal is going into a step-up, so more experimentation will be required.
Cartridge Alignment, Protractors
Proper cartridge alignment is obtained by aligning the cantilever. Therefore, it is unnecessary and a waste of time aligning the sides or body of a cartridge. That really serves no purpose.
The easiest cartridges to align are the “nude” (body-less) designs. Their cantilevers are fully exposed and easy to see. Cartridges with smallish bodies like a ZYX are also quite easy, for the same reason. The hardest cartridges to align (properly) are those with long, square bodies, like many Koetsu’s. You can square the body easily enough, but you can hardly see the cantilever at all.
The two trickiest aspects of using an alignment protractor effectively are:
- making sure the protractor is aimed correctly (if the design requires it) and;
- making sure you’re viewing exactly down the center of the alignment grid when squaring the cantilever. The tiniest head motion will throw you off, and with most protractors you won’t even know.
If a protractor requires aiming, it usually has a line you’re meant to point at the tonearm’s pivot point. This is easier said than done (accurately), yet even a small error will throw your results off. If your protractor has such a line, there’s a good trick for aiming it accurately.
Tape a piece of thin thread to the end of the line that’s further from the tonearm pivot. Aim the line roughly and then pull the thread taut, holding it directly above the tonearm pivot point. Now view the thread and the protractor’s alignment line from directly above. If you keep the thread taut and move the protractor slightly back and forth, you’ll be able to judge when the line and thread are parallel. This is more accurate than merely aiming the line itself at some point in space.
MAKING SURE YOU”RE LOOKING SQUARELY DOWN THE CENTER GRID LINE
This is readily solved, but not with just any protractor. To be certain you’re viewing squarely, the only really effective tool I know is a mirrored protractor. There is a very expensive ($150) one that can be custom made for any tonearm and that takes months to get, but for just $20 you can have a similar one in a few days.
The TTB protractor is based on the widely recommended Baerwald two point geometry, which is quite similar to the geometry of most Helius tonearms. The TTB should be compatible and I highly recommend it.
A mirrored protractor makes alignment much more accurate. The built in parallax (dual images) effect makes it easy to tell when you’re sighting exactly down the centerline of the grid – and when you’re not. It also makes the thread trick explained above still more effective. With four images to square up (the thread and its reflection, the printed line and its reflection) it’s almost impossible to mis-aim the protractor. I recommend this tool for any compatible tonearm.
Beyond the above, the best way to become comfortable and adept at cartridge alignment is (you guessed it!) by doing it… repeatedly. Align a cartridge. Then loosen it and align it again from scratch. Practice really does help with this delicate but critical task.
Note: make sure your VTF (downforce) is close to correct before beginning, then fine tune it after the cartridge is snugged down in place.
Installation of ZYX Cartridges on a Linear Tonearm
As always, I invite customers/audiophiles to send me emails with their experiences. I will be happy to post their comments here.
The parameters that differ when mounting a cartridge on a linear arm are:
- Overhang (the distance from the arm’s pivot point to the stylus),
- Zenith (the angle of the cartridge when viewed from above) and,
- Anti-skating (which does not exist on linear tracking arms).
Most linear arms come with a jig or protractor for adjusting cartridge overhang and zenith. (You can also DIY one easily with a sheet of paper and a straightedge.) The alignment protractors sold for pivoting tonearms cannot be used with linear tracking arms.
These parameters remain the same on any tonearm:
- VTA (the angle of the cartridge when viewed from the side),
- Azimuth (the angle of the cartridge when viewed from the front) and,
- VTF (downforce on the stylus).
Trust your instincts, they’re on the money with one exception…..
PLEASE NOTE: there is NO SUCH THING as a “perfect” or “consistent” antiskate setting. That has never existed on any tonearm or with any cartridge. It never will exist, so stop hoping for it. The skating forces we’re trying to counter VARY, constantly. They vary with groove dynamics, with the arm’s position across the record, with the formulation of vinyl from one LP to the next. We’re trying to hit a moving target with a fixed adjustment so a COMPROMISE setting is all we’ll ever achieve. You must accept that.
Some customers who have used the HFN&RR record say its antiskate tracks are cut far more dynamically than real music. If so, this will cause you to set antiskate too high. They’re also cut entirely on inner grooves, which ignores the fact that skating forces vary across the record. No test track cut entirely on inner grooves can emulate real playing conditions.
Simple and fun test. Choose a very dynamic LP. Make sure VTF is optimized just barely above the mistracking point. Set antiskate to zero. Play the record listening for mis-tracking in the R channel (HF fuzziness or, worse, the static-like bursts at dynamic peaks that indicate actual stylus/groove mis-contact). Increase antiskate in small increments until you can play the toughest passages cleanly. TA-DA! You’re done.
You should be able to play any less dynamic record at this setting. You could probably reduce antiskating a touch for those if you want to get super-critical. Just remember to bump it back up a notch for the toughest LP’s.
That’s what my real perfectionist friends do. Their arm lets them make tiny antiskate adustments quickly and repeatably (more O-rings!). They use one setting for 95% of our LP’s and another (slightly greater) setting for the toughest, most dynamic 5%. Once you find your “normal” and “high” settings you can probably use them forever, for your particular cartridge.
Excessive antiskating sounds almost exactly like excessive VTF, for exactly the same reason. The arm is applying pressure to the suspension/cantilever interface. This inhibits HF response, microdynamic speed and fine detail. Too much VTF or antiskate makes the music sound dull, lifeless, bland, flat, etc.
There are two parameters we’re adjusting for: perfect verticality of the stylus and perfect electrical balance in the generator.
First, adjust as close as you can visually, to get the stylus looking vertical under normal playing conditions. (Azimuth should be tackled last, after VTF, VTA and antiskate are all well dialed in).
Fine tuning to get the cantilever/generator exactly balanced has the sonic effect of reducing crosstalk between channels. As an example, I hear Wally makes his Analog Shop to actually measure this (I have not used his tools). That would give you actual measurements so you’d know you were as close as possible.
To set by listening, what you’re seeking is the tightest possible imaging. Some people hear it easier with a mono record. I’ve never compared mono vs. stereo, I just use whatever record is handy. Something well recorded with a good center imaged instrument or vocalist is best. It’s easier to hear imaging and directionality on higher pitched sounds than lower pitched ones, so if you choose a vocalist choose an alto or soprano, not Paul Robeson.
Make EXTREMELY SMALL adjustments. The adjustments for azimuth are the finest adjustments you’ll ever make on a tonearm. Tiny changes can take you from too far left to too far right and fly right past the sweet spot. If you think the VTF setting on your cartridge, whatever the brand is touchy, Azimuth changes are ten times touchier.
Fortunately they are also less significant, sonically, and it’s pretty much set and forget. There IS one optimal position for azimuth and once you’ve found it for a given cartridge you can usually lock it in and forget about it.
Every arm is different. The only way to know is by trying and listening.
- Make sure VTF, VTA, azimuth and impedance loading are all dialed in first. Trying to adjust damping if those parameters are off is very difficult.
- Start with no damping, then add fluid in small amounts. When you get near the sweet spot, one full drop from the end of a pin would be a LARGE amount to add.
- At some point you’ll hear a good balance of energetic transients and clear, extended highs vs. full body and weight. As you add still more fluid (now in really tiny amounts) transients will start to dull and highs will start to be muffled. That’s when you’ll know you’ve gone too far.
- Remove fluid (in tiny amounts, of course) until you get back to the sweet spot.
You’ll probably find that different cartridges require different levels of fluid. Measuring the tiny difference needed for one cartridge vs. another is probably impossible, which makes cartridge swapping on arms which require fluid damping a more time consuming process than those arm manufacturers would have the customer believe.
(in Progress. I will add more info here).
Many of our customers use Zerodust. This is not a long term solution. best solution is ZYX’s own cleaner. It is not inexpensive but neither is your cartridge investments. For our ZYX customers we always offer them as an add-on bundle.
Please avoid using liquids in particular alcohol based liquids for cleaning.
Any ZYX (even the Bloom) is among the quietest cartridges anywhere. This is largely due to the ZYX micro-ridge stylus, which is finer than any other I know of. When it encounters a scratch or other flaw it plays it cleanly and quickly, without blooming or exaggeratingt. Of course it does the same with fine musical details and HF’s too.
Keep that stylus clean!