New to vinyl? Here’s the humble hi-fi accessory you never knew you needed

Vertere Dark Sabre MM cartridge
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

So you’ve unboxed your new turntable and have set it up according to the manual in the box or, let’s face it, one hidden within some QR code. Your twenty-quid-a-pop records are nicely stacked and you’re ready to spin away with the enthusiasm of a dog during Zoomies. Or are you?

Don’t let us get in the way of playing your first record(s), but we do have a word of advice for some time early on in your record player journey: double-check your cartridge’s tracking force.

The amount of pressure a cartridge’s stylus (the needle-thin part) puts down in the groove of a record is known as 'tracking force'. If that force is below the ideal measurement, your turntable’s sound will sound thin and insubstantial and you run the risk of the stylus mistracking and possibly damaging the record groove. If it’s above the ideal force, however, the sound can be ponderous and in the most extreme cases also ruin your twenty-quid-a-pop record. So it’s a pretty important aspect of turntable set-up to get right.

Now, you have probably addressed this already, whether you realise it or not. The manual will almost always state a suitable tracking force of, say, two grams, or perhaps just a suitable range, typically between 1.8g and 2.3g, in which you should shoot for the middle figure. If it somehow doesn’t, or your dog has eaten it in a fit of post-Zoomies hunger, check the manufacturer’s website.

A Fluance turntable counterweight

(Image credit: Fluance)

You may well have then set this tracking force by, as per the manual instructions, turning the counterweight at the rear of the turntable's tonearm to the right number, marked on the weight. (See the image above.) Done deal. 

Still, there’s one inexpensive tool you can buy (or, if you’re lucky, borrow) that we recommend you use to double-check the force: cartridge scales (otherwise known as a stylus pressure gauge). Team What Hi-Fi? has years of turntable set-up experience under its belt and yet still uses a scale to check every record player under review – and it comes in handy for minor adjustments more times than not. 

A variety of plastic scales can be picked up online for less than a tenner on Amazon (though super accurate ones for higher-end turntables can cost far more) and don’t look too dissimilar to a handheld luggage scale. Simply place the gauge on your turntable platter and rest your cartridge’s stylus on the gauge's measuring pad – it will display the cartridge's tracking weight, allowing you to check it’s within the recommended range. Simple.

It’s unlikely you’ll be too far out if you’ve turned the counterweight properly, but for the minimal price and effort, we think it’s worth going through with this extra validation for any level of turntable. And if you’ve just bought an all-in-one, plug-and-play turntable solution that is all ready to go, no counterweight adjustment available, we would still check to ensure it isn’t set too heavy – we’ve come across more than one of this kind which had a downforce force three times the usual measurement.

Spend the price of a pint, and much less time than it would take to drink it, on double-checking your turntable cartridge’s tracking force, and you'll spin records by day and sleep easy at night.


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Becky Roberts

Becky is the managing editor of What Hi-Fi? and, since her recent move to Melbourne, also the editor of Australian Hi-Fi magazine. During her 10+ years in the hi-fi industry, she has reviewed all manner of audio gear, from budget amplifiers to high-end speakers, and particularly specialises in headphones and head-fi devices. In her spare time, Becky can often be found running, watching Liverpool FC and horror movies, and hunting for gluten-free cake.

  • My2Cents
    OK, so you can get the three for 55 quid at HMV, but really, "twenty quid a pop"?
    More like thirty five quid and up.
  • podknocker
    I've heard there's a new music format just arrived and it's easier to handle and set up than vinyl and some say it even sounds better than vinyl. I think they call it Compact Disc and it's amazing according to a few reviews I managed to find, amongst mountains of vinyl reviews. There is a vinyl revival and some people are militant in their support for this format. I find it incredible. I was a big fan of CD until I moved to streaming. Anything else is too much like hard work for me now and I love playing any track, from over 80 million tracks online, within a second or so. Modern technology. Brilliant! Vinyl lovers think easier access to higher quality music is a bad thing apparently. It's incredible this vinyl revival. People are willing to pay more for music on this ancient format, when CDs sound better and are cheaper. Crazy world. The vinyl revival will end eventually and then people will say 'do you remember CDs, they sounded really good and were really shiny'? You'll then see a CD bandwagon to jump on, with retailers upping their prices and CDs will cost £15 to £30 again and idiots will pay it. I'm paying £11 for my streaming access and I don't have to pay anything more when I fancy another album. I have access to more than 80 million tunes and podcasts, for £11 a month. Bargain.
  • My2Cents
    podknocker said:
    I've heard there's a new music format just arrived and it's easier to handle and set up than vinyl and some say it even sounds better than vinyl. I think they call it Compact Disc
    It's funny, Hi-Fi is supposed to be about purity of sound right? But a phono pre amp has to add the RIAA eq curve back to the signal from the vinyl groove (boost the bass and cut the treble). And so the signal is already being re-manipulated before it even gets to the pre amp. because of the limitations of the vinyl medium.
    And so much is cut from the sound during vinyl mastering, especially in the 70's when they were trying to get more time on each side of the vinyl record (grooves getting smaller) and popular music was becoming more bass heavy which made it even more challenging to master.
    Hence, a lot of old heavy rock sounded thin and lacking in bass.
    With digitally re-mastered classic/heavy rock (on CD and streaming) you can now hear the kick and the bass line more clearly.
  • Rui
    I some years ago bought the Grado prestige II Gold ,the specifications were looking perfect , now they are even selling it almost 200€ cheaper and my only problem is that they ofered me the part where you install the cartridge,

    for the price of a cheap technics one but a nice aluminium part from Ortofon(i keep calling it part because in English i can´t remenber now how it´s called),

    had to put extra weight for it to level in 0 grams before i could set 1.8 grams as they asked , the turntable i choose to put it on a 77, SL-3100 what i´ve notice at the time was the level of sound output being a mm cartridge ,incredible low volume ,

    i like others bought a pre-amplifier with tubes , but with a frequency response inferior to the cartridge in question but ok either than having a lot of high´s ,

    i had it conected to a 77 top of the line integrated amplifier from HH SCOTT , i notice it didn´t work ok for some type of recordings ,ended up taking the pre-amplifier conected it to the phono input as it as two and with the tape monitor increased the level using the rec level of a cassette deck ,

    much better and now i really like it´s sound, also remenbered others in youtube video´s complaining about perfect sounding records like " Television"´s "Marque Moon" saying that it was unheardable ,well it´s one of the best produced records in the year it was released as it happens with "Before We´re So Rudly Interrupted" from "the Animals" .

    I think i undertsand why it was said , many pre-amplifiers till 100€ are very bad as a good one is almost 500€ but i still have in use some old cartridges and no need for pre-amplifiers only one from technics the SL-1000MKII had a pre-amplifier from the brand to use with a technics MC cartridge and it was perfect, still is.

    this show how diferent cartridges are today and a lot of less hours of use and before cartridges were also expensive, the good ones but today i think most of the people don´t understand how good can a record sound but as they spent a litle fortune in the new turntable +pre-amplifier and cartridge they think it sounds very good but in reality , not even at 50% of the real quality,

    as turntables and cartridges are so bad that one as to spend a lot of money to have the sound it could be heard on a 500€ technics bought in early 90´s at today´s money , i call to this Snake Oil .
    I myself never stoped hearing records as i have good albuns not only for my taste as i never had a style of prefered music but what is good one hears it.

    I ,last December bought a new turnatble but i´ve been looking for one since 2017 when i bought for the first time two old records released recentelly from "Joy Division"´s "Unknown Pleasures" and "The Cult "´s "Electric", this because my old copies were filled with a white dried mould that i couldn´t find yet a good cleaning records machine, i cleaned some in a friends machine´s , a water one and a Ultrasonic one by only using both i got satisfiable results ,

    Last December after hearing lot´s of new record players and catridges bought the Rega P10 but i had three cartridge options ,i kept the alpheta 3 but having access to hana cartridges by a much lower price i install on it a Hana Umami red and sounds real good, but instead of conecting it to a pre-amplifier i put it on a old Pioneer amplifier that had proper input phono for MC cartridges and a knob to increase the sound .

    I had bought recentelly a new receiver so i had to put it like i said before using the monitor of a cassette deck to increase it´s sound and even with this the sound it could be more higher in volume ,as the receiver as good output power i can put the volume higher and the turntable sounds perfect, but i´m thinking on wich pre-amplifier could i buy to put it sounding to a regular level with the cartridge quality in frequency response and with the right impedance.

    What makes me sad is knowing that some think they have better sound with a old bad recorded new compact disc , which is the main reason i kept playing records since 1993 when starting to buy more cds and having also bought a cd player said to be good,

    but no matter the price old recordings converted to compact disc sounds horrible not just a litle worse but sad to hear destroyd sound on cd, and i´m not saying i don´t like digital as i have thousands of cds also vinyl records that were recorded from DAT decks recordings of live shows but the record sounds amazing good and the cd version is unheardable, garbage.
    Hearing records for me is not a new fashion just what i do since i was a kid in early 80´s i started to buy my own records and all sound perfect today