Over the past couple of months I’ve been experimenting with every possible cartridge alignment scheme/approach possible for my Project Xpression II with an Ortofon 2M Black (originally a Bronze body upgraded with a 2M Black stylus). I decided to write this message to share my experiences/musings so far and get some feedback/thoughts/suggestions from a couple of the forums I read.
I tried various arc protractors, Baerwald, Lofgren B, Stevenson, but I discovered that my Project 8.6 arm simply would only allow the stylus to reach the arc for Stevenson. Project specs that 8.6 arm with an effective length of 218.5mm, an overhang of 18.5mm and an offset angle of 25°. My spindle to pivot distance is thus 200mm (confirmed to be accurate by measuring my tt). Unfortunately, this turned out to be the absolute end of the slots in my tonearm. Placing my 2M Black as far as it would go resulted in the stylus setting down exactly on a 218.5mm arc and lining up with the grid for a 25° offset. Baerwald was just out of reach at 219.04mm (0.604mm seems really tiny when you look at it on a ruler but it look like a huge distance between an arc and a stylus!). Lofgren B was a full mm away so that was out of the question! As an aside, why would a company the stature of Project design turntables, even entry-level models such as the Debut and Xpression, where two of the most popular alignment strategies are not possible? If I understand the calculations correctly, simply mounting the tonearm just 1-2mm closer to the spindle would have made all three alignment strategies possible.
So I settled on the Project spec alignment (218.5 effective length, 18.5mm overhang, 25° offset). It didn’t sound bad at all. Everything seemed to fall into focus and the background was very quiet (I’m amazed at how much alignment impacts blackness of background). However, the highs sounded a bit grainy and harsh. Plus, I had a “torture test” of several favorite LPs containing spots where sibilance “bursts” bugged the heck out of me, all of them recent reissues that seem to have been cut with a lot more dynamics than back in the day (The 30th anniversary Dark Side of the Moon, Rickie Lee Jones’ self-titled LP, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Dire Straits Communiqué, Classic Records Led Zeppelin II). As long as these didn’t track smoothly, I just couldn’t move on from my obsession with alignment. With the Project spec alignment, they were better than before, but still bugged me. As for the Stevenson alignment, it didn’t sound too bad, per se, but the highs seemed a bit unfocused and increasingly strange sounding closer to the inner grooves (strange since Stevenson is supposed to be the most accurate in that area). I found the guru protractor at one point and initially I was astonished at how good that seemed to sound, calculations and negative comments of the regulars here and on other forums be damned! Eventually, however, I noticed some tracking problems and finally came to the conclusion that it seemed to mask alignment problems rather than cure them.
Finally, I think it was while reading somewhere around the net (possibly here), that I saw a suggestion by John Elison of changing the offset value to 24.858°. I fired up Adobe Illustrator and drew myself a new arc protractor, carefully checked the printing accuracy and proceeded to align the 2M yet again. This time, my rig is sounding better than ever before.
As for the torture test records, they’re all sounding better with a couple of exceptions. I’m wondering if maybe my having played some of them frequently before using bad alignment might have permanently etched the sibilance into the grooves.
Am I simply reaching the limits of a 2M Black on an Xpression II? Would moving up to a better turntable improve this situation? For example, those of you with the bigger Project tables, are you able to reach a Baerwald or Lofgren B arc?
Or is it a case of a flaw in the 2M design, i.e., the stylus is too bar back in the cartridge assembly (unlikely given Ortofon’s experience).
Or am I simply expecting too much perfection. I see it often said on various forums that not all records will track perfectly. Could it be that these new reissues cut without the compromises done in the past for consumer level devices simply require a high end rig to track well?
I might add that VTA comes into play in this story as well. I always tried to set mine with the line on the side of my tonearm parallel to the LP surface or slightly tail down. However, I looked carefully one day where the at the actual top edge of my cartridge was sitting and it occurred to me that the mounting “plane” of my tonearm is pointing down towards the front and is not at all on the same plane as that line on the side of the tonearm! I found that dropping my tonearm VTA as far down as it will go seems to line up the top of the cartridge parallel with the LP surface and the difference in sound is astonishing. Cymbals are gaining that sweet, ringing “brush-like” clarity they have in real life. I also notice the sibilance problem is reduced on those few remaining “torture test” records. Combine this with the Project motor noise problem I’ve always had (reinserting the transit screws is the only thing that helped mine and only at 33. When I switch to 45, even those screws don’t help. Plus the tweaks I’ve seen around the net of putting foam, etc., between the motor sling and the plinth body didn’t work for me). Needless to say, I doubt my next turntable will be a Project!
Anyway, this is a lot longer than I intended, but it’s all been on my mind over the last couple of months. I’m getting closer to the sound I always hoped vinyl would give me, but I still need to get the remaining issues out of the way. Eventually I’ll upgrade the turntable/cartridge, but for now, I’m stuck with it (a part of me wonders if ordering an AT440mla or 150MLX and putting up with the brightness for the sake of tracking might be a cheaper short-term solution. I used to have a 150MLX until the stylus came off and I decided to go for the 2M Bronze. It didn’t track as well but I put that down to my not having lined it up properly).