The second “big” adjustment variable and hopefully also screw on the tonearm is the height adjustment, the adjustment of the so-called “Vertical Tracking Angle”. This is not very comfortable with some tonearms (Rega, for example, works with washers; but these arms are usually only interesting as a complete package with pre-installed cartridges). With others like the Reed 3P mentioned above or the Aquilar from Acoustical Systems, the whole thing is done “on the fly” and extremely comfortably and sensitively via a rotary wheel.
What the height adjustment of the tonearm is actually about is to trim the dipping angle of the needle into the record to the angle specified during vinyl cutting. This actually corrects the SRA (the stylus rake angle). The standard for this (exceptions prove the rule) is around 92 degrees, if the needle dips with the correct contact weight. Why not 90 degrees? Because the cutting stylus scrapes out material when cutting vinyl; and to prevent this from accumulating in front of the stylus, you add a few degrees, so you mill at a slight angle. 92 degrees it is. Now there are people who actually spend a lot of time in your life measuring pickups and evaluating the results.
The bottom line: reality is complex – here, too.
Mounting angles from 87 to 97 degrees are an enormous range that opens up here. Now let’s assume that the needle is mounted in the needle carrier at 97 degrees and we want to correct the “misalignment” by 5 degrees to 92 degrees. You can now reach for the set square and draw the whole thing enlarged on graph paper for a 12 inch arm – or you can watch the videos above. You would have to correct the tone arm upwards by centimeters (!!!).
With this in mind, evaluate some statements in forums/test reports: “I always adjust the tone arm height in relation to the thickness of the record, so with 200 gram pressings I hear with a different height than with 120 gram pressings.” Or, “When I corrected the tonearm height upward by 1 mm, everything then clicked into place, the proverbial curtain fell, and I could immerse myself infinitely in the music.” Fantasy meets physics, a delightful argument!
Setting the tone arm height and the SRA in practice
So how does one approach the right SRA professionally? It’s almost impossible without a USB microscope and subsequent measurement of the image if you want to play it safe. Or is it? Again, Dietrich Brakemeier, mastermind at Acoustical Systems, has created a helpful tool, the “SMARTstylus”. Like all products from Acoustical Systems, this auxiliary template is not positioned in the low-price segment, but the approach is great: you place the template directly next to the headshell and read off the angle of the needle on a scale. This can then be corrected by adjusting the tone arm height.
With the Aquilar tonearm from Acoustical Systems and the Arche headshell mounted there, there is also a very intelligent feature: when the tonearm height is “horizontal”, you only adjust the mounting plate in the headshell on which the pickup hangs. On the one hand, this allows for greater corrections, and on the other hand, you turn exactly the screw that matters, and not 30 cm further back with the corresponding lever.
At this point we would like to emphasize once again that you can make the described settings as always by ear and gusto, also test records provide valuable clues for this. Those who have trained ears can and should use them. In the end, it is the same as with frequency response perception: what you really hear, you can also measure. What cannot be measured is often only anchored in the human psyche.