In the second post in this series, I alluded to system issues that can fool you into thinking you have a setup problem with your turntable. I’ll cover a few of these situations in this post.
If you know me, you also know that I’m wary of trying to fix problems with tweaks, tube swaps, and cables (see situation #4 below, however).
My approach has always been that a fundamentally sound system architecture will benefit from such changes but will not require them. I know this is a gray area, and I promise to cover this in more detail in the near future.
Secondly, performing a “perfect” setup takes time, dedication and tools. One of the biggest “value adds” of our turntable sales is our in-home setup. I don’t want to trivialize the importance of this.
Having said that, here are situations that can lead you to think that your perfect setup is lacking, when in fact, it isn’t.
Situation #1 – Slewing phono stage.
Designing a phono stage is not a trivial exercise. I’ve experienced quite a few highly regarded phono stages that dramatically magnify tracing distortion and transient pops and ticks.
Keeping it non-technical, circuits can be slow to respond, and you can experience the electrical equivalent of a resonating mechanical system. You’ll hear the term “ringing” used to describe this. Tracing distortion and ticks/pops become much more attention grabbing.
Poor slew-rate is one culprit. Broadly stated, slew rate is a measure of a circuit’s ability to respond to transients – expressed as either voltage or current per unit of time (e.g. volts per second, amps per second, etc.) A bigger number is better (more volts or amps per second).
If you’re struggling with your analog setup and experiencing mis-tracking issues. Borrow (if you can) a buddy’s phono stage to see how things change.
In a recent listening session at a customer’s house, we were auditioning drive belt materials. You wouldn’t be wrong if you guessed that the differences were dramatic, and I suspect some preferences were influenced by his phono stage.
Situation #2 – Speed Stability
I frequently point people to Peter Moncrief’s review of the Rockport Sirius turntable (archived on the wayback machine). His language is verbose, but the key takeaway is that there are fine levels of speed instability that are well below the threshold of audible and measured pitch stability (wow & flutter).
These micro-instabilities are perceived as distortion, which in fact they are (intermodulation distortion). Think of jitter in the digital domain for a similar effect.
Every generational improvement we’ve made to our drive systems has resulted in more extended, purer high frequencies, richer fundamentals, and quicker transients. Bowed double bass and cello has improved richness, and quicker attack.
Now, you can’t do much about your turntable’s speed unless your manufacturer offers upgrades (and we’re considering returning to offering aftermarket drive system upgrades of other manufacturer’s turntables).
Still, it’s a good idea to understand the source of your system’s shortcomings. If your turntable is belt driven, you might want to try different belts if possible.
Situation #3 – System Adjustments
This one is open ended, and you can no doubt come up with additional examples.
A customer called to relate a recent change he made. He owns high efficiency speakers and a directly heated triode amplifier. The speakers are nominally specified at 8 ohms, and he had been running off the 8 ohm tap of his amplifiers. He decided to try the 4 ohm tap, and his experiences were very much parallel to the types of changes he experienced when we updated his drive system – extended (and more pure) top end, quicker dynmics, and lush harmonics.
Of course, this isn’t the kind of thing everyone can experiment with (and you may have already optimized it), but it’s worth pointing out.
Situation #4 – Tweaks & System Tuning
The last step involves cabling, room treatment, etc. I know this comes off as self-serving in stating this, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you how proud we are of our new line of cables.
Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve been a bit of a curmudgeon regarding cables – not because I don’t believe in them, but primarily as a visceral reaction to this being the first thing most audiophiles are prone to change (and they do so, all too frequently).
To a man whose only tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail. I get that, and am sympathetic to your plight. I’ve been more fortunate than most, in that I can wield a soldering iron to tweak circuits.
It was only when I felt that our NiWatt amplifier design matured, that I turned my attention to cables. I’m glad that I followed this sequence, even though it took me quite a bit longer. In the end, the NiWatts are a stronger design because they don’t depend on the best tubes or the best cables. They absolutely benefit from them however (noise floor, tonality, transient response, etc.), and that’s my point.
The above situations only scratch the surface. Feel free to comment below, or e-mail me with your experiences. I’d be happy to discuss them privately with you.