They come in all shapes and sizes, they have many different names. Their price can vary by over a few hundred percents, and yet price does not correlate with performance...
No, I’m not talking about condoms, tampons, pens, or chocolates. I’m talking about the single most indispensable tool which every turntable owner must buy regardless of whether you own a $ 100 dollar or a $ 100,000 dollar turntable: The Stylus Vertical Tracking Force Gauge.
Without a stylus force gauge, you simply cannot mount a cartridge, so whether you like it or not, if you’re into vinyl you have to buy one. You can also call it the cartridge scale, VTF gauge, stylus force gauge, stylus pressure meter, miniature digital scale or the turntable needle weight thingy. They all do the same thing, that is to measure the amount of force the cantilever suspension is experiencing.
Tracked too heavily and you run the risk of breaking the cantilever, compressing the cantilever suspension, skewing the cantilever to one side over time, or causing premature wear on the stylus. Sonically, it translates into a sound which is forceful, forward, and with reduced high- frequency extensions.
Tracked too lightly, and the cartridge may skid across the record surface, scratching the LP or worse, breaking the cantilever. Sonically, it translates to a sound which is thin, reduced dynamics and possibly with audible distortions.
All manufacturers will specify an “optimal” range in grams, they usually fall between 1.6 to 2.2g, but some cartridges require a heavier tracking force such as the Clearaudio Goldfinger (+/- 2.8g) or the Ortofon SPU (approx. 3 or in some cases even 4 grams).
I have spoken with many cartridge manufacturers, “analog experts”, turntable designers as well as cartridge rebuilders. So far there is no universal consensus on how to choose a specific optimal number within that range. The majority of them will tell you to “go by your ear”, or in some cases, people will adhere to a number which they read off internet forums and taken as gospel, a wrong and risky undertaking.
One thing is certain, of the hundreds of cartridges which I have owned, and of the thousands of cartridges which I have mounted, there are no two cartridges which will require the exact same tracking force. Two cartridges of the exact same brand, model number, and production date, will require a slightly different tracking force, that is to say, one may require a force of 1.93g and the other 1.95g. This variation is often greater than variation in accuracy between different gauges, which is why I think the absolute accuracy of a gauge is less important than the ability to measure incremental changes. In other words, the gauge is used to establish a baseline and to use that baseline for repeatability.
While developing my own cartridge calibration software “AnalogMagik
”, we have discovered that a change in tracking force will result in a change in the Total Harmonic Distortions between test tones of different frequencies. For example, when you increase the tracking force, THD% may go down on a 1 kHz test tone, but up, on a 300 Hz tone. We have proposed a theory to optimize the tracking force by observing the change in THD% and to find a point where there is the lowest for both high and low-frequency test tones. AnalogMagik does provide for a VTF optimization function
in our program.
However, a statistically significant correlation can only be established for some but not all cartridges. We do not fully understand why it works for some cartridges but not for others; sometimes changing the tonearm or the turntable table, will also influence the results for the same cartridge. This is why we have it called it a “proposed theory” rather than a confirmed methodology. We have received feedback from customers all over the world, that our proposed theory has worked marvelously for some users, but not for others.
But let’s get back to our regular programming… Over the years, I have owned a dozen or so VTF gauges. From the $ 448.00 Cartridge Man Digital Stylus Force guage to the Ortofon Gauge
($109), to this OEM gauge
which has appeared under different names, with prices as high as $129 under a well-known brand name, to less than $5.00 under a no-frills label on DealExtreme.com
. They all do similar things. It is just a matter of who’s got the best mousetrap marketing.
There is one particular cartridge scale which stands out amongst the pack, and it is the Riverstone Audio VTF Gauge.
Rather than telling you the disadvantages of all the other gauges, I’ll give you 7 reasons on why I believe this is the best VTF gauge under the sun.
1. The Price: At $ 28.95 USD, in today’s audio world where the norm is in the tens of thousands, it is a breath of fresh to know that there are still products out there which are priced reasonably. Considering the Cartridge Man Scale is $ 449 USD, I’ll gladly take the Riverstone for less than 1/10th the price.
2. The Packaging: It comes in a nice “Tin Can”, with a super detailed instruction manual which even the dumbest can comprehend.
It is sold through Amazon.com All ye OCD audiophiles who want everything like yesterday, can take advantage of Amazon Prime and have your cake like NOW, well maybe like tomorrow by 9 pm.
4. It uses 1 single AAA battery: Have you ever paid more for button watch batteries which cost more than the VTF gauge itself? Or have your button batteries ever ran out of juice just when you’re about to mount that $ 17,0000 cartridge? Now you can steal the AAA battery from your TV remote control so that you can again, have your cake now.
5. It has the same thickness as a 200G record: The laws of physics dictate that if the measuring height changes, the measured tracking force will be slightly different. So if you are that anal and OCD, like me, and are preoccupied with the slight change in measuring height’s effect on the resultant VTF, now you may sleep well tonight. The picture shows the gauge’s actual measuring height vs a 180-gram record, as you can see, it is close enough. So you get the idea……
6. It can be re-calibrated easily: The gauge comes with 2 calibration weights, 5g and 20g. Out of the box my gauge was out of calibration by 0.04 grams, so I recalibrated 5g to read 5g.
Just keep pressing the power button with the weight on and it will re-calibrate itself. I didn’t even have to read the manual to figure that out.
It can handle more than 100g: If you are worried about accidentally smooshing the gauge with a 24g force, damaging the delicate internal components, know that it can safely handle up to 100g. It will also come in handy if you finally discovered the Heart of the Ocean
and want to see if it is actually 11.2 grams as proclaimed.
8. A Perfect gift which looks expensive: Visiting your audiophile buddy and do not yet feel he deserves that $ 150 dollar Bordeaux? Well, now you can rest assured that he will appreciate and love this item. It looks expensive, and it is actually useful.
So your honor, based on the above 8 pieces of evidence presented to the jury, I hereby strongly urge you to consider pulling the trigger, like now below...
Richard H. Mak
Analog Editor, Mono & Stereo