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phono amp issue

TG1

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#1
It's never a good idea for a new member to jump right in without first testing the water, but here goes.
I have a turntable which I have isolated as much as I possibly can (sandbox, slab, squash balls cut in half, and in a separate room) and I have the other components on partially inflated bicycle tyres on a fairly decent set of shelves. I can't go much further with that without becoming too obsessive, but I would like to solve one problem:
I can't get proper clarity when instrumentation and voice reach what I would call crescendo level. Think opera when everyone including chorus and orchestra is going full blast - it all becomes muddy, compressed and distorted.

I am thinking it may be because the phono amp I am using doesn't have enough headroom. Unfortunately that is based on googling and reading material I don't really understand. Looking at some of the threads on here it is clear people here do understand this.
I'm asking for help on this because I don't want to waste money buying phono stages one after the other if that is unlikely to be the problem. I would also like to buy and forget - i.e., not worry about compatibility issues if I change the cartridge.
I'd be grateful for any tips, even if it is a link to a thread where this has already been dealt with.
TIA.

Maybe I should add I have EDL compact studio monitors on limestone blocks, and I don't think there is any issue with the speakers not being able to handle the volume.
 

RayDunzl

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#2
What are "EDL compact studio monitors"?
 

SIY

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#8
Ortofon FF15E MK11.
Thanks.
That's an oldie! Styli can have suspensions that stiffen over time (regardless of whether they've been used), cutting down the trackability. First thing to try (IMO) is replacing the stylus, and you should consider a new cartridge if the replacement styli are old as well. Double check the cartridge alignment. I would doubt that phono preamp overload is the issue here.
 

LTig

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#9
It's never a good idea for a new member to jump right in without first testing the water, but here goes.
I have a turntable which I have isolated as much as I possibly can (sandbox, slab, squash balls cut in half, and in a separate room) and I have the other components on partially inflated bicycle tyres on a fairly decent set of shelves. I can't go much further with that without becoming too obsessive, but I would like to solve one problem:
I can't get proper clarity when instrumentation and voice reach what I would call crescendo level. Think opera when everyone including chorus and orchestra is going full blast - it all becomes muddy, compressed and distorted.
There are several possible causes for distortion in vinyl playback:
  1. turntable not properly levelled
  2. misaligned cartridge (overhang, offset angle, azimuth, vertical tracking angle)
  3. not enough tracking force
  4. wrong antiscating force
  5. needle wear
  6. vinyl wear
  7. phono preamp overload
  8. microphonic feedback (when using valves in amplification)
First you should check whether the distortion depends on the play back volume or not. Either play at low volume via speakers or better at any volume via headphones. If there is no distortion then microphonic feedback is the culprit, otherwise we can skip it as cause.

The next easy check is to just increase the tracking force by 0.5 g. If this reduces the distortion then tracking and/or antiscating force are not correct.
Many people believe that running with low tracking force is better for the records. Unfortunately it's just the opposite because the stylus looses contact with the vinyl, jumps around in the track and destroys it doing so (diamond is much harder than vinyl). If you did this than vinyl wear may be an additional cause of your problem.​

If those two checks didn't improve the situation let's see what we can find about possible phono preamp overload. According to the specs the MF V90 LPS has an input sensitivity of 3 mV with 15 dB headroom. This not much headroom especially when standard MM pickups deliver 5 mV. I couldn't find any specs about your pickup but I saw specs up to 6 mV for the VMS 5E MkII and VMS 3E MkII. This gives you a headroom of 15-6 = 9 dB. This is too low and may be the culprit.

Let's also look for the adjustment related causes. Unfortuately you need some equipment to proper adjust a phono cartridge, the tonearm and the turntable. I use these tools:
  • a very light water level bubble, for levelling the turntable
  • a schoen cartridge alignment tool for all cartridge adjustments
  • a record with special test signals (tracking test) for adjusting tracking force and antiskating.
  • a tracking force scale may be helpful to check the tracking force as set at the tonearm. I did this once with a borrowed scale and made a correction table.
I'm not going further here since there are several places were you can find good descriptions how to adjust a turntable, tonearm and cartridge. A quick duckduckgo delivered these pages:
A misaligned cartridge will definitely increase distortion, usually dependend on the position of the track. Even on a proper aligned cartridge the tracking error is biggest at the end of a record, especially if the record has a playing time of more than 25 minutes per side.

Without using the tools mentioned above we need a lot more information about when and where the distortion is worst. But even then you will need these tools to fix it. I recommend to buy them because nowadays I do not trust any dealer to have enough knowledge how to correctly setup a turntable and its cartridge.
 

TG1

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#10
That's an oldie! Styli can have suspensions that stiffen over time (regardless of whether they've been used), cutting down the trackability. First thing to try (IMO) is replacing the stylus, and you should consider a new cartridge if the replacement styli are old as well. Double check the cartridge alignment. I would doubt that phono preamp overload is the issue here.
That's great, thank you. A stylus is an easy replacement. I did have it looked at under a microscope at a local dealer and he said it was fine, but that was to check for damage to the tip.
 

TG1

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#11
There are several possible causes for distortion in vinyl playback:
  1. turntable not properly levelled
  2. misaligned cartridge (overhang, offset angle, azimuth, vertical tracking angle)
  3. not enough tracking force
  4. wrong antiscating force
  5. needle wear
  6. vinyl wear
  7. phono preamp overload
  8. microphonic feedback (when using valves in amplification)
First you should check whether the distortion depends on the play back volume or not. Either play at low volume via speakers or better at any volume via headphones. If there is no distortion then microphonic feedback is the culprit, otherwise we can skip it as cause.

The next easy check is to just increase the tracking force by 0.5 g. If this reduces the distortion then tracking and/or antiscating force are not correct.
Many people believe that running with low tracking force is better for the records. Unfortunately it's just the opposite because the stylus looses contact with the vinyl, jumps around in the track and destroys it doing so (diamond is much harder than vinyl). If you did this than vinyl wear may be an additional cause of your problem.​

If those two checks didn't improve the situation let's see what we can find about possible phono preamp overload. According to the specs the MF V90 LPS has an input sensitivity of 3 mV with 15 dB headroom. This not much headroom especially when standard MM pickups deliver 5 mV. I couldn't find any specs about your pickup but I saw specs up to 6 mV for the VMS 5E MkII and VMS 3E MkII. This gives you a headroom of 15-6 = 9 dB. This is too low and may be the culprit.

Let's also look for the adjustment related causes. Unfortuately you need some equipment to proper adjust a phono cartridge, the tonearm and the turntable. I use these tools:
  • a very light water level bubble, for levelling the turntable
  • a schoen cartridge alignment tool for all cartridge adjustments
  • a record with special test signals (tracking test) for adjusting tracking force and antiskating.
  • a tracking force scale may be helpful to check the tracking force as set at the tonearm. I did this once with a borrowed scale and made a correction table.
I'm not going further here since there are several places were you can find good descriptions how to adjust a turntable, tonearm and cartridge. A quick duckduckgo delivered these pages:
A misaligned cartridge will definitely increase distortion, usually dependend on the position of the track. Even on a proper aligned cartridge the tracking error is biggest at the end of a record, especially if the record has a playing time of more than 25 minutes per side.

Without using the tools mentioned above we need a lot more information about when and where the distortion is worst. But even then you will need these tools to fix it. I recommend to buy them because nowadays I do not trust any dealer to have enough knowledge how to correctly setup a turntable and its cartridge.
That's a very generous reply, thanks very much. The turntable I have made sure is level already, and I did have the alignment done at a dealer. However, I have no way of telling how well he did it, so I will get the bits together so I can do it myself.

I struggled for a while trying to get rid of distortion at the upper end - say a soprano voice hitting high notes - but have mostly got rid of that by isolating everything I can as much as I can. Of course, I am flying blind as far as the science goes so am only assuming the isolation helped. I am still chasing that 'blackness' though, or was until I decided enough was enough. This distortion comes in when there are a lot of elements to the music and when the music hits crescendo. A single voice does not deliver distortion. So the vocal solo on side one of dark Side of the Moon is crystal clear all the way through. I also have quite a bit of Joan Baez on Vanguard, and her vocals are always clean.
It did occur to me that not all recordings are made equal (I have found Vanguard typically very good) and wondered whether it might have been down to the recording, but I have some EMI Angel series recordings, which I think must be among the finest, and I get the distortion on these when the music is at crescendo levels.

Subjectively speaking, it sounds as if the equipment isn't coping with the mass of instrumentation..

I have read that valve phono amps have more headroom, but then also read reports about a 'whoosh' noise.
 

LTig

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#12
I struggled for a while trying to get rid of distortion at the upper end - say a soprano voice hitting high notes - but have mostly got rid of that by isolating everything I can as much as I can. Of course, I am flying blind as far as the science goes so am only assuming the isolation helped. I am still chasing that 'blackness' though, or was until I decided enough was enough. This distortion comes in when there are a lot of elements to the music and when the music hits crescendo. A single voice does not deliver distortion. So the vocal solo on side one of dark Side of the Moon is crystal clear all the way through. I also have quite a bit of Joan Baez on Vanguard, and her vocals are always clean.
Does the distortion on sopranos happen with every record of such kind or only on a selected few? Did you buy those records used? It is possible that those records have been destroyed by earlier playback, either too many playbacks (normal wear) or with too less tracking force or a worn out stylus.

However this is not necessarly the end. When I switched my cartridge to one with a Shibata like stylus cut I recognized that records that sounded really quite distorted before sounded much less distorted (and also more free of noise and clicks - what you called black).

I'm not sure whether my following explanation is correct but I think that the sharper cut stylus has more contact to the flank of the groove. When a part of the flank has been destroyed by a round stylus with shorter contact range the sharper cut stylus still follows the part which is not destroyed. Analog to the broad tire of a car which passes tram tracks without notice while a narrow bicycle tire leads to an accident...
I have read that valve phono amps have more headroom, but then also read reports about a 'whoosh' noise.
Both can be true but there are enough solid state preamps with lots of headroom. No need to buy valve phono amps.
 

TG1

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#13
Does the distortion on sopranos happen with every record of such kind or only on a selected few? Did you buy those records used? It is possible that those records have been destroyed by earlier playback, either too many playbacks (normal wear) or with too less tracking force or a worn out stylus.

However this is not necessarly the end. When I switched my cartridge to one with a Shibata like stylus cut I recognized that records that sounded really quite distorted before sounded much less distorted (and also more free of noise and clicks - what you called black).

I'm not sure whether my following explanation is correct but I think that the sharper cut stylus has more contact to the flank of the groove. When a part of the flank has been destroyed by a round stylus with shorter contact range the sharper cut stylus still follows the part which is not destroyed. Analog to the broad tire of a car which passes tram tracks without notice while a narrow bicycle tire leads to an accident...

Both can be true but there are enough solid state preamps with lots of headroom. No need to buy valve phono amps.
Thanks, that's new info about the sharper cut stylus - had no idea there was such a thing. i think I have found cases where record wear has aided distortion. As I said, that kind of distortion has virtually gone. I have enough clean records to test that. I don't know what it;s like where you are, but here the charity shops are full of secondhand vinyl now, and some of it is almost pristine. Now you mention it, though, I think perhaps a more thorough test would be in order.
To illustrate it a bit more, I have a decent copy of La Traviata, and for most of the record all is good - vocals and instrument fine, everything separated nicely, good sound stage etc. But when the opera reaches a climax when everyone is pitching in, then the distortion kicks in.
Of course, for all I know the signal might be compromised somewhere else in the chain, but if it were a question of insufficient isolation i surely ought to hear the distortion at other times. It sounds like overload, but maybe the cartridge can't handle it at those peak moments. That;s more of a question than a statement.

Out of interest, how much headroom is plenty? I don't want to waste money but then again no point upgrading to something that is only just acceptable.

While I am on the subject, I don;t see how on a lot of these phono amps how the ground connection works. There is usually a ground connection on the back of the phono stage but then the plug is two pin. Is the noise going to earth via signal cables instead of the power supply?
I mention it because I am living with a bit of low level hum I would like to get rid of.
 
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#14
Thanks, that's new info about the sharper cut stylus - had no idea there was such a thing.
It is indeed a thing. The problem is people have forgotten it is a thing even though highly advanced stylus shapes were invented 30-40 years ago. It's the reason I spend most of my time listening with a cartridge that has a Namiki Microridge shape. I have no use for elliptical styli anymore for a few years now because of tracking deficiencies. I do like a cheap conical stylus for records in rougher condition.
 

sergeauckland

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#15
I have a theory that there a benefit to using a line contact stylus on a worn record. My rationale is as follows:-

A record that has been played on a old player, with a heavy arm is most likely to have used a spherical stylus. This will have worn a pattern in the groove walls, where the spherical stylus contacts the groove walls. A line contact stylus has a wide contact line with the groove wall, not just a point, and so will bridge the wear pattern and play the unworn groove above and below the wear.

I have no proof that this hypothesis is sensible, but it seems logical, albeit there are many reasons why a record may have been worn by more than one stylus, or may have extreme damage. For a record that hasn't been excessively abused, just played with a heavy spherical stylus, there may be merit in my suggestion.

Certainly, I have lots of old records bought in charity shops and the like that are over 50 years old, yet play well with my line contact cartridges.

Any views?

S
 
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#16
I have a theory that there a benefit to using a line contact stylus on a worn record. My rationale is as follows:-

A record that has been played on a old player, with a heavy arm is most likely to have used a spherical stylus. This will have worn a pattern in the groove walls, where the spherical stylus contacts the groove walls. A line contact stylus has a wide contact line with the groove wall, not just a point, and so will bridge the wear pattern and play the unworn groove above and below the wear.

I have no proof that this hypothesis is sensible, but it seems logical, albeit there are many reasons why a record may have been worn by more than one stylus, or may have extreme damage. For a record that hasn't been excessively abused, just played with a heavy spherical stylus, there may be merit in my suggestion.

Certainly, I have lots of old records bought in charity shops and the like that are over 50 years old, yet play well with my line contact cartridges.

Any views?

S

I have around 1300 LPs, many bought new and many bought used. My experience with advanced stylus shapes is that they can be a double edged sword and it really depends on the nature of the damage done by the previous owner. I have used records that sound quieter in terms of surface noise with the advanced stylus while other used records I have sound worse. So I would say it depends, but yes, in theory an advanced shape can sometimes ride below the wear pattern and play back the record with less noise. One thing I don't like doing is subjecting my "good" cartridges to records with heavy wear and scratches so those always get played back with the cheap conical cart. For example, a friend sent me a country LP from the 50s and there are no nice condition copies in existence anymore. Think G+ on the Goldmine grading scale at best - that one is a conical only LP for me.

I've also found that the different advanced shapes don't all behave the same way. If you look at the patent documents you will see why.
 
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#17
I have around 1300 LPs, many bought new and many bought used. My experience with advanced stylus shapes is that they can be a double edged sword and it really depends on the nature of the damage done by the previous owner. I have used records that sound quieter in terms of surface noise with the advanced stylus while other used records I have sound worse. So I would say it depends, but yes, in theory an advanced shape can sometimes ride below the wear pattern and play back the record with less noise. One thing I don't like doing is subjecting my "good" cartridges to records with heavy wear and scratches so those always get played back with the cheap conical cart. For example, a friend sent me a country LP from the 50s and there are no nice condition copies in existence anymore. Think G+ on the Goldmine grading scale at best - that one is a conical only LP for me.

I've also found that the different advanced shapes don't all behave the same way. If you look at the patent documents you will see why.
What I would probably do in the case of the country LP would be to record it onto my computer, with the cartridge that makes it sound the best, and then only play the recording from my computer rather than the actual record. But I do understand that not everybody would want to choose that option for various reasons.
 

Frank Dernie

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#18
Your description sounds like groove damage or amp clipping to me.
Don't forget that a carefully looked after secondhand LP with visually undamaged surface can, and often does, have groove wear on the high modulation parts due to previous playing, particularly if the record player used wasn't a particularly good one, or if the stylus used was worn.
Your speakers are not iirc very efficient and may cause your amp to overload when played loud. Does this poor sound still happen when the loud bits are played back at a low volume setting? If not clipping is another possibility.
Unless you are using particularly microphonic valve electronics I would be amazed if vibration isolation was even a part of the solution from my experience.
 

Frank Dernie

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#19
One thing I don't like doing is subjecting my "good" cartridges to records with heavy wear and scratches so those always get played back with the cheap conical cart. For example, a friend sent me a country LP from the 50s and there are no nice condition copies in existence anymore. Think G+ on the Goldmine grading scale at best - that one is a conical only LP for me.
If you have a well made cartridge from a reputable manufacturer and the stylus is properly bonded groove wear won't damage it. A very deep scratch (deeper than the groove) may dislodge a poorly attached stylus though.
 

TG1

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#20
Your description sounds like groove damage or amp clipping to me.
Don't forget that a carefully looked after secondhand LP with visually undamaged surface can, and often does, have groove wear on the high modulation parts due to previous playing, particularly if the record player used wasn't a particularly good one, or if the stylus used was worn.
Your speakers are not iirc very efficient and may cause your amp to overload when played loud. Does this poor sound still happen when the loud bits are played back at a low volume setting? If not clipping is another possibility.
Unless you are using particularly microphonic valve electronics I would be amazed if vibration isolation was even a part of the solution from my experience.
It's not so much the loudness as the amount of instruments in the mix. Or seems to be. For example, if I play Siegfried's funeral march the 'big' bits come over loud and clear - so clearly in fact that I nearly jumped out of my chair first time of playing. This congestion is happening when there is full orchestral sound PLUS full chorus, such as happens in bits of La Traviata. It's as if there is a breakdown and everything gets mushed up together. I can play a solo female voice and hear the high notes clearly.
That said, I have not been in any way thorough in my recording of what is happening and when. I suppose the thing to do is test the limits a bit and make notes.
 
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