High End Cartridge Industry – The Current State of Affairs
For those of you following our work at WAM Engineering / WallyTools, you know that we offer a popular - and one of a kind - service of analyzing cartridges for their optimal playback alignment parameters. This service includes the creation of an optional customized corrective shim that the cartridge owner can use to very quickly, accurately and easily attain two of the otherwise tough-to-get alignment targets (SRA/VTA and azimuth).
Because we have now analyzed a few hundred cartridges and databased the results for each cartridge analyzed, we can now report with a good deal of statistical significance as to how far off ideal alignment cartridges generally are. The results are likely to surprise you – as they certainly do us – and are likely to make you think hard about how much more performance your cartridge is capable of, but you aren’t getting.
Though there are seven alignment targets in cartridge/tonearm setup, there are five that are “built into” the cartridge and are independent of what tonearm you put the cartridge on. A more detailed discussion of each parameter, its alignment target and *how we can know what the alignment targets are* will be the subject of an upcoming video series. Those five cartridge-specific parameters and their targets are:
Vertical Tracking Force (VTF) – manufacturer determined
Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA) – Target <20°
Stylus Rake Angle (SRA) – Target 92.5° to 90.5° (prefer 92° if VTA is at or close to the VTA target)
Azimuth – 0° (Level headshell when looking at front of cartridge on tonearm at cartridge height)
Zenith Error – 0° (cantilever centerline perpendicular to left/right stylus contact edges)
For this article on our measured variance from alignment targets, we will focus on the last four in that list. 
The table below shows the average and maximum error for all cartridges analyzed in the WAM Engineering lab.
Less Sensitive to Angular Error More Sensitive to Angular Error
What does this mean?
On the face of it, these small angular deviations from perfect might not seem to be significant but we have performed multiple subjective evaluations of zenith, azimuth and SRA/VTA for audibility with all other setup/alignment variables remaining constant and have always found each of them to be very clearly audible. As you might imagine, these angular deviations are also easily measurable for their distortion characteristics.
It is worth noting that for the 3.2° of SRA or 8.9° of VTA error adjustment, very few tonearms will offer this amount of correction. Even if the tonearm could offer this amount of adjustment, you would not want to operate it so far from level due to new vector forces at play – a subject that merits a blog post of its own.
It is very important to note that being out of ideal alignment does NOT mean that your cartridge will sound bad. We have all been out of alignment at one point or another yet we still enjoyed the wonderful sound of vinyl playback. It is a very forgiving medium. However, what is certain - and can be easily proven - is that it is not mechanically possible for the cartridge stylus to faithfully read the groove walls when stylus/cantilever misalignment exists.
However, we audiophiles don’t often notice what we are NOT getting from our system performance, but once we have it there is no way we want to give it up. In other words, errors of omission are far more tolerable to us than errors of commission.
The increased likelihood of mistracking caused by misaligned stylus contact edges has been known and studied over decades. However, it is important to note that misalignment itself does not CAUSE mistracking as it almost always takes an out-of-control tonearm to create the conditions for mistracking to occur. Again, this is a matter for another discussion but you can learn more about this from our video entitled “Measuring Tonearm Behavior”.
By the way, the rejection rate of all cartridges we see is almost 1 in 7. This means that almost 1 in 7 cartridges we analyze are outside of manufacturing specifications in one way or the other, requiring the cartridge to go back to the factory for repair or replacement. So far, most of the manufacturers/distributors have been very good with their responses and will work with us to get our clients a cartridge that is within manufacturing specifications. In most of these "reject" cases, had the owner of the cartridge not known of the problem they might have gone on for years listening to the cartridge - even enjoying it - but never knowing that the cartridge should have been capable of even better performance.
What does a cartridge that is out of alignment sound like when it is aligned optimally?
There are a few subjective descriptors that we continually hear from clients upon experiencing their cartridge optimally aligned. The terms “Clarity” and “Focus” are almost always at the top of the list, but you can expect more inner detail to emerge, better transient attack and the cartridge will almost certainly track better than before. The presentation sounds more “relaxed” and the soundstage becomes much more layered with much better pin-point imaging.
What cartridge brands get it right more often?
We get this question often and will answer it obliquely. First, there are only three manufacturers of stylus/cantilever assemblies for high end cartridges – Ogura, Orbray (Namiki) and Gyger. Almost all cartridge manufacturers source from one or more of these three vendors. We MUST expect to live with tolerances and a degree of variation from perfect. This is simply the nature of machining and assembly and it is unreasonable to expect a consistently perfect product.
The question is: should we not expect tighter tolerances than exist today given the lofty prices we often pay for such products or at least be given the specs on our own particular cartridge so that we might better achieve optimal results from it? (Using WallyTools to hit the marks, of course!)
Cartridges made with Gyger Replikant styli tend to be the best aligned but this improved accuracy is really a function of how the stylus itself is cut. Its very shape and larger size makes it easier to align properly on the cantilever and the stylus/cantilever assembly within the cartridge body. However, as with all things engineering, there are some downsides including the fact that Replikant contact edges wear out much faster than the Japanese stylus profiles.
I would not recommend purchasing a cartridge based upon the manufacturer’s ability to tighten its assembly accuracy. Stylus/cantilever assembly mount accuracy is hardly the only factor in determining how a cartridge will perform and sound. In 87% of all cases we see, the cartridge can be aligned optimally (or near optimally) once you know what the angular deviations are. Our favorite sounding cartridges frequently need a great deal of correction to sound their best. There is nothing wrong with that!
It is interesting to note that the most perfectly aligned cartridge we have ever seen is from the same brand that also had the worst aligned cartridge we’ve ever seen. It’s really a toss-up!
How to get my cartridge aligned for optimal results?
That is what WAM Engineering has been focusing on for decades. We offer the best alignment tools in the world to get the job done. Our cartridge analysis service is unparalleled in its accuracy, comprehensive scope and sonic value and puts you in a position of CERTAINTY that you have everything you need to optimize the performance of your investment in your cartridge and tonearm.
Watch our videos and continue reading articles in the WallySchool blog. As always, contact us with any questions and…
ENJOY ANALOG FOREVER!!!
 Note that VTA and SRA are quite obviously “tied” together as you cannot change one without changing the other on a 1:1 basis. However, what is not commonly understood is SRA and VTA are each important for different reasons and each has its own optimal targets. SRA and VTA are also the only two of the seven alignment targets that have an acceptable target *range* instead of an absolute target figure. This subject will be laid out in greater detail in the previously referenced upcoming video series.