No country for old geezers. Azimuth is a nice segue to the joys of setting up a turntable. Whilst the arrival of a new cartridge is always sure to be a celebratory occasion in my home; and however much I like handling cartridges - I regard installation procedure as enjoyable as an extended visit from an incontinent relative. As one young audiophile buddy said to me recently, "that's your lot for continuing to get your music fix by dragging a hunk of mineral through a piece of plastic". He's right of course because if "bits" and "bytes" are an integral part of the modern audio lexicon, "VTA", "azimuth", tracking angle", "tracking weight" and "bias" are increasingly not. Even so, to get a cartridge singing, it's mandatory to get the stylus aligned relative to the height of the arm and the record groove and apply the matching tracking weight and bias setting. But don't do that before each cartridge is checked under a stereo microscope to see how aligned the stylus is on its cantilever and moreover, whether the cantilever is straight. I've seen many cartridges with slanting styli and slightly twisted cantilevers. It's mandatory to also look out for overly judicious amounts of glue. You'd be surprised how many brands leave dabs of glue where the stylus binds with the tip of the cantilever.


Even a minute amount of this adhesive is enough to interfere with the stylus as it tries to navigate the groove. Worse, the enormous pressure exerted by the stylus on the vinyl ensures some glue is almost certainly melded permanently to the groove I think. The microscope is also handy at revealing the QC of the pitch of the cantilever relative to the cartridge. It must enter the cartridge stylus assembly without as much of a twist left or right relative to the stylus, which should be perched at 90° to the cantilever; unless the design calls for something different.


The microscope also reveals the rake of the stylus. Some are installed with a slight offset to the cantilever. This means you might need to raise the back of the cartridge before you achieve the correct vertical tracking angle. So if you want to amass a collection of cartridges, splash a little money on a quality second-hand ex high school science lab stereo microscope. eBay has plenty for about $90-$175.


Temperature comes into contention as well when you're setting up a new cartridge. My experience here in Oz suggests a room temp of 22-32° Celsius is okay. But if it dips to say 18°C, you'll hear the cartridges differently. In general and in my opinion, you can expect to hear a brittle treble, constricted mids and less than perfect tracking at very cold temperatures. In extremely high temperatures, you can expect a thickening of the sound, less precision, less attack, ill-defined imaging and wallowing bass. Interestingly, the effect of climate extremes seems to be greater on moving coils than any of the moving-magnet family. And don't get me started about the effects of climate change on audio/video components.


As for the dark arts of applying the correct tracking force and bias for individual cartridges, I have my own mantra, which may not work for you. I use a test disc for the initial tracking force and bias settings. Final adjustments are done by ear and feel using a range of familiar but challenging music tracks. I know when tracking and bias are right for me, when the sound seems to lock in. But be aware that what sounds just right to your ears can contradict what your test record tells you. Sometimes you just have to trade off textbook tracking and bias for the sound that pleases your ears the most.


Cast assembled. Despite all the self-congratulatory hype of a manufacturer's marketing department, one thing is clear: all cartridges are variations on one basic theme. Each is a miniature electromagnetic generator that converts the mechanical movement of a stylus in a groove into an electrical signal. Period. Yes there are infinite variations and engineering implementations between cartridge models. And for those interested in this type of admittedly important minutia, I suggest a long visit in this case to the Soundsmith, Ortofon and Garrott websites. Enjoy. For everyone else, with apologies here is my meager take of the approach taken by each of the review cartridges to generate a signal.


Zephyr MMIC and Otello technology. Both are moving-iron designs that derive from a 1978 B&O technology that back then was called 'moving micro cross' or MMC. The Soundsmith generate a signal using an exquisitely crafted iron cross wound onto the stylus assembly end of the cantilever. As this cross moves between the stationary magnets and coils in the cartridge body, it creates an electrical signal. The Zephyr MMIC has an output voltage of 0.4mV, a Boron cantilever, a "selected contact line low mass nude stylus" and a recommended tracking force of 1.8 to 2.2 grams (2 grams was ideal with the Kenwood). The Zephyr is a medium compliance model, has a frequency response of 15-45'000Hz +/-2dB and is heavy weighing 10.25 grams. I opted for a 500Ω loading. Perceived build quality is top notch and the styling including a speckled finish is as delightful as it is reassuring.