Checking Alignment with the Mint LP Best Tractor

Due to problems with headshell leads, I didn’t quite have the reserve of patience I’d been hoping to have when aligning my Dynavector XX-2 mkII cartridge in the Ekos when I installed it last week. Since then, I’ve had the nagging suspicion that I’d accepted “good enough” rather than getting truly obsessive about alignment. So I decided to take some time this morning to get properly obsessive.

The Mint LP Best Tractor

I’ve been using the Mint LP Best Tractor to do my alignment. These are custom made by Yip Wai Hon, who is based in Hong Kong and also makes record cleaning solution. (His website also turned me onto using magic erasers to clean styli — a cheap and effective solution.)

Each best tractor is made specifically for your turntable/tonearm configuration. Common combinations like LP12/Linn arm are always in stock. Rarer combinations like LP12/Roksan Nima are made as one-offs. I ordered both of these back in October. Unfortunately, Yip made a mistake on my Nima protractor, so that I wasn’t able to properly align the XX-2 when I installed it in that arm. He was apologetic and offered to send a new protractor, which — again unfortunately — is going to take over a month. But the LP12/Linn Best Tractor was fine and ready to use.

Using the Best Tractor

The Best Tractor comes with very detailed guidelines, as well as a couple of loupes. I read over the instructions many times before trying alignment. Once I’d internalized them and played with the loupes a bit, it wasn’t terribly difficult. And the precision of the protractor — along with the fact that it’s custom-made for your tonearm/turntable combination — gives you confidence that, if you follow the instructions carefully, you’ll have perfect alignment.

The instructions recommend working in natural sunlight. As I’d done when I put the XX-2 on the Nima, I set up my LP12 jig in the brightest spot in my house: right over my sink in the kitchen. It was also a glorious, bright morning. The lighting was indeed great. I didn’t need to use my LED headlamp or my S.A.D. lamp.

The first thing to do is to totally immobilize the platter. This is harder than you might expect. Yip recommends using erasers cut into wedges. These work (as long as they’re sufficiently tall and the angle is sufficiently relaxed) though they have a tendency to move and come loose. So I lock mine in place with blue tack.

As with any arc protractor, setup is a two-step process. First you set the overhang: adjust the cartridge forward and backward in the headshell until it follows the arc drawn on the Best Tractor all the way from innermost to outermost point. This is pretty fiddly and involves lots of loupe action. The arc line on the Best Tractor is very fine, and you want to make sure that the actual diamond tip is exactly on top of the line at the innermost and outermost positions. Thankfully I’d gotten this almost right in the previous round and only a tiny adjustment (pushing the cartridge a tiny bit back in the headshell) was required. Once that was set correctly, I followed the instructions by taping the best tractor to the platter to keep it from moving.

The second step is getting the angle of the stylus set correctly, by twisting the cartridge in the headshell (always moving one bolt forward and one bolt back, so as not to mess up the overhang). The Best Tractor has a particularly ingenious solution to this part of the setup; this is where it shines versus other arc protractors. It incorporates a mirrored back on a glass surface that allows you to correct any parallax error in your viewing angle (see the instructions on the Mint LP website for details). Looking dead straight on, you want the stylus to be perfectly centred between the Best Tractor’s two thick black lines. It took a wee bit of adjustment to get this absolutely perfect.

This is a really tricky thing to photograph. Above is my best attempt, photographing the cartridge through the 1.5x loupe. It still looks slightly misaligned in this photo, but you get the point — and trust me, in real life it was totally spot-on at both points.

As you can see in the photo above, perfect alignment places the XX-2 at a very slight angle in the headshell (look at the two little white spots above the headshell screws: they’re not exactly the same size, as they would be if the cartridge was absolutely straight in the headshell). That means the stylus is at a very slight angle relative to the body of the cartridge. This is one possible explanation for the poor sound of the XX-2 in the Nima: I had it totally straight in the headshell, which would have placed the stylus slightly out of alignment.)

Photo session in the sun

You don’t see a lot of photos of LP12s in sunlight — for obvious reasons: they’re indoor cats. But I thought I’d take advantage of the lovely weather and beautiful sun to snap some well-lit shots of my current setup.

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