As I get older one of the things that becomes increasingly obvious is that ones body starts to let one down and sometimes with the kind of speed that inertia of age brings, like a car running down a hill somethings get worse.
In my own case my eyesight is no longer what it once was, being frankly honest its not what it was even three years ago and aligning cartridges as I once did by eye alone, is no longer a possibility as my close up sight becomes increasingly blurred.
Looking for ways to improve this deficiency has seen me relying on a mixture of stronger glasses and watch makers loupes, both illuminated and not – with varying degrees of success. This comment regarding success doesn’t apply to cartridge alignment, as I always make sure my cart set ups are spot on but relates to ease of use.
My mainstay cart set up protractor I have owned for many, many years is a two point protractor that requires the cartridge stylus to be exactly aligned and in alignment with straight line grids at null points A and point B. I have no idea which tangential alignment scheme this particular protractor uses but it has served me well and despite its age has seen me through many cartridge changes and set ups – except once.
That occasion was the set up of a Jelco 750D, Denon 103 on a Technics 1200, where no matter how I went about it I could not align the cartridge cantilever to that grid to my satisfaction. This was the first time I looked elsewhere and that investigation took me to the Mint LP Best Tractor (1) which I wrote about several years ago on AIHFA, which was specifically made for that arm on a Technics 1200. Yip of Mint specifically makes protractors for arm, turntable combinations and that wonderfully made protractor helped with that set up in away my old one had failed.
It was supplied with various loupes, required to align accurately to the thin etched curved line on the Mint Tractor which I suspect even someone with perfect vision would struggle to align accurately. It was at that point I realised that my eyesight was not as good as I thought it was -these days its poorer than it was back then.
Using my original alignment protractor with the loupes was useful but getting the illuminated loupe at the right angle and close up enough to see most cartridge cantilevers (2) often mean’t the loupe touching the protractor and moving it – hardly ideal.
Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor
I had read a fair bit about this device online, forum talk and the odd professional review and I liked what I was reading, and felt that this alignment device would be a good addition to my turntable setup tools and on paper it looked like its clever design would help with my less than great eyesight. So I opted to get one, along with another item which I will mention later on in the review.
Acoustical Systems are a German company founded by Axinia Schäfer in 1998 supplying NOS valves and from 2004 have been supplying systems. From that starting point they now supply a turntable the Apolyt, various headshells, tonearms, cartridges and the topic of this review the Smart Tractor alignment device.
Acoustical Systems say this about the Smart Tractor, their more affordable protractor device (3) .
‘While the UNI-Protractor represents the most universal and versatile phono alignment tool ever introduced in high-end audio, it is an instrument which – due to it’s complexity and versatility – appeals more to professional users.
The serious audiophile who is interested in aligning – if only periodically – his analog front-end to the utmost precision does look for precision which comes handy and which is easy to operate.
To answer this request we have designed the SMARTractor – a direct off-spring of our UNI-Protractor.
The SMARTractor brings the same unparalleled precise tangential alignment for which the UNI-Protractor earned it’s laurels – PLUS the 0.05mm precise mounting distance measurement of the UNI-P2S.
And a unique bundle of features:
‘The SMARTractor comes with 5 (five) tangential curves combined in 1 (one) template.
- the SMARTractor’s template is made from 3mm (= same thickness as 180 gr LP) strong premium grade german XT mirrored acrylic supplied by Evonik.
- no-error-possible single-point alignment with 3mm deep parallax (for ALL helping lines) – an extreme precise, easy and fast alignment.
- super easy to use with 1-point fixed setting for every tangential curve.
- all alignment lines are cnc-laser cut hairlines.
- incorporates real glass aluminum-frame magnifier with automatic focus jig for unrivaled precise magnified view during alignment.
- all 5 tangential alignments are based on true triangular positioning and thus are independent of effective length and thus suitable for ALL pivot tonearms, no matter what their effective length or mounting position.
- The SMARTractor further comes with in-built direct mounting distance – P2S -measurement with 0.05mm accuracy.
The total of 5 tangential options of course includes the old audio phono standards set by Loefgren and Baerwald in the late 1930s and 1940s in both – IEC and DIN – norms.
* Loefgren A / Baerwald DIN * Loefgren A / Baerwald IEC * Loefgren B DIN * Loefgren B IEC
and: furthermore the SMARTractor features the critically acclaimed UNI-DIN tangential curve.
An all new tangential curve which is the latest calculation and the first one which does really take into account the special requirements and circumstances of a stereo stylus tracking a non linear stereo groove with increasing differences between the two groove walls.’
The Smart Tractor works on the basis of a single alignment point which is unusual among alignment protractors most favouring two null points and this did trouble me a little, however more on this anon.
This particular device offers a new tangential scheme called Uni Din and Acoustical Systems say this about Uni Din –
‘The SMARTractor features the critically acclaimed UNI-DIN tangential curve.
An all new tangential curve which is the latest calculation and the first one which does really take into account the special requirements and circumstances of a stereo stylus tracking a non linear stereo groove with increasing differences between the two groove walls.
In the last 2/3 of the record’s groove, the UNI-DIN curve offers significant (18-45%) less average – as well as less total! – distortion than Baerwald or Loefgren.
Sonically this gives you less stress on human (female) voices, more subtle details, less “grain”, increased “air” and considerable more “headroom” in critical passages and especially so in climaxes.
the UNI-DIN tangential alignment is available only in the SMARTractor and the UNI-Protractor.’
Acoustical Systems say this about their reasons to include 5 alignment schemes.
‘The vast number of tonearms introduced in the past 40 years not only displays a large number of different concepts, but also a considerable diversity in geometries.
Furthermore it makes a significant difference whether the record we want to track with best possible results is a modern pressing with a very long run-out/lead-out (‘unmodulated groove’ or ‘dead wax’), or whether the record’s groove is cut close to the paper inner label.
The later is often found with countless records made in the early stereo years from 1958 up till 1974.
The SMARTractor takes into account the diversity of geometries found in pivot tonearms – as well as the different situations in records past and present.
The SMARTractor offers the best possible tangential curve for every request.
For every pivot tonearm – as well as for every record collection.
And it makes sure that the serious audiophile gets the most perfect, utmost precise alignment possible.
Even more important, this ultra precise result is achieved swift, with ease and free of any possible error.’
Certainly every angle is covered by this device, and with a lot of praise online this alignment protractor looked like a good choice for an addition to my cartridge set up tools.
Arrival and the Ghost.
I will make no bones about it my analogue vinyl play back system had to a degree dissatisfied me since a certain listening experience ghost refused to be excised by subsequent listening to my turntables. No matter how good these are, that bloody ghost would not leave me and it has haunted everything since. What is the name of that ghost ? Giro, AMG Giro.
Since the out of the blue visit of the AMG Giro (4) back in May 2015, and the resulting review (mine was I think the first published online) nothing has really satisfied. Best analogy I can give is listening to that turntable in my system, which I stated was the finest analogue vinyl replay I had ever experience in my system was akin to visiting the finest restaurant in the world, eating the finest meal in your life and then going back to eating stodge. The memory of that meal, so transcendent as to go beyond simple sustenance that nothing again came close and so it was with the Giro, everything I owned was stodge in comparison.
Recently an opportunity arose to swap some audio gear for an AMG Giro, AMG Reference arm cable, Benz Wood SL and a Smart Tractor (5) and after some thought (not a lot if I am honest) I jumped at this chance, and so the Ghost became flesh.
It dawned on me that with the arrival of these items there was an opportunity to revisit the AMG Giro, and combine that with a review of the Smart Tractor.
The AMG Giro comes in a very compact box, which includes the 9W2 tonearm and all the tools one needs to set it up, though one will need extra tools to fit your cartridge of choice, including a means to set the tracking force and align the cartridge – it is this latter part of the set up where the Smart Tractor will come into its own.
Setting it Up
Removing the Giro from its Tardis like box was an all to familiar process, and it didn’t take me that long to assemble the turntable. Putting the platter on this time round, after levelling the turntables circular plinth, was a painless task, previous lessons regarding this recalled and avoided (6)
Next was fitting the Benz Wood SL to the 9W2 tonearm, which was straight forward enough, I left the nuts in the headshell tight enough to stop the cart moving except if I put a little gentle pressure on it to move it back or forwards as part of the alignment procedure.
Next in the set up process was fitting the arm in to its mounting hole. Part of doing this is putting the tonearm cable into the receptacle in the base of the arm. The Cardas cable plug is a tight fit so fitting before the arm is in place makes sense, as trying to fit it from underneath is pretty awkward and if the arm isn’t fully tightened there is every chance the arm will move and the tightening screw in the mount scratch it. This was a mistake I made first time round.
Once the tonearm cable is fitted and the arm roughly aligned to the edge of the platter. Then the arm height was roughly set, with the locking screw tightened but not too tightly – but tight enough.
Next I set the tracking weight, as having it set roughly helps with the rest of the initial set up, as having a nearly correctly weighted arm makes cartridge alignment a more stable process. Before the Smart Tractor was used I adjusted the arm height properly so that the height of the tonearm and bottom of the Benz Wood SL was exactly parallel to the surface of the record (7). I then rechecked the weight readjusting as required.
I use a set of electronic scales from Roksan than a bought a fair number of years ago, which are more accurate than non electronic types. Once I was happy that the tracking weight was correct I then used the Smart Tractor to align the cartridge, as that process would more than likely change the position of the cartridge in the headshell, so I kept the Roksan to hand as more than likely those shifts of the Benz would result in the weight going lite or heavier.
After familiarising myself with the Smart Tractor instructions and parts I brought it over to the turntable.
Using the Smart Tractor
The Smart Tractor comes in a nice box, with all the parts nestling within shaped cut outs in foam. The Smart Tractor is a nicely made item, with a clearly etched mirrored surface comprising of straight lines and small indentations for the stylus to sit in at the null points for the various offered tangential alignment options.
At the back of the half mirrored circle upon which the tangential points are etched there is an adjustable tower which can be swivelled, after removing a bolt from behind the tower, which allows the tower and the section that the loupe sits in to be moved and aligned with the tangential point the user decides upon.
The slider in the top of the tower must then be set to match the centre of the turntables record spindle to tonearm mounting pivot point. Care must be taken when setting this as you want the Locator Pin to just rest above the pivot of the tonearm and not scrape the top of your arm. Once done, and the platter prevented from moving, the correct orientation of the Smart Tractor is achieved so setting the cartridge up can begin.
Acoustical Systems offer suggestions for which tangential option, Loefgren A / Baerwald DIN, Loefgren A / Baerwald IEC, Loefgren B DIN, Loefgren B IEC, or the new UNI-DIN, will suit based on the age of your record collections pressings and with Uni Din that if you listen to mostly classical music and or human voices they feel that is your best choice.
As my record collection is mostly from the 1990s back with the bulk in the late 60s to mid 80s I selected Loefgren A / Baerwald DIN.
Once the Smart Tractor was set for my tangential choice the rest of the process was pretty straightforward, simplicity itself. You move the box section with a metal rod fitted in the far right end to align with the tonearms pivot point, lock that off using the screw tightener so it can’t scratch the surface of the tonearm. The box section needs tightening in place too, and a screw in the front of the tower provides this. Once this is done and you then (in my case using some folded paper pushed gently under the platter) need to take steps to prevent your turntables platter moving. If it were to move while adjusting things your set up would be flawed as the Smart Tractor would be out of alignment.
One of the selling points of this alignment protractor, the thing that appealed to me, then comes into its own and that is the dedicated slot in the tower assembly where the supplied powerful square loupe is placed (with side to side adjustment) which offers the ideal position – head on – to view the stylus and cantilever of most cartridges with ease, thus making seeing and adjusting the exact position of the cantilever relative to the alignment lines etched on the Smart Tractor a straightforward thing to achieve. Of course one will need a steady hand for doing this part of the cartridge set up. (8)
From my point of view using the Smart Tractor to achieve this was a joy compared to my old way of doing it and a moment of concern regarding the single null point of the Smart Tractor was dispelled by quickly checking the Benz Wood by using the old protractor and low and behold the stylus cantilever was correctly aligned via its two null points, my fears dispelled I finished the set up by checking the tracking force again which did indeed need tweaked to account for the moving of the cart in the tonearms headshell.
And at that point I had intended to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labours but life got in the way and I never did get to hear the Benz Micro Wood SL. I won’t go into the ins and outs of this hiatus except to say that what came next I was not expecting at all and frankly I still don’t entirely believe what occurred. After a short phone call wherein I was made an offer I couldn’t really refuse I was offered a swap for the still new Benz Wood SL for a used Air Tight PC3.
Coming Full Circle
Setting this cart up was exactly as easy a process as it had been with the Benz Wood SL and using the Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor I was fairly quickly able to set things up. However unlike the Benz cart the cantilever and stylus of the Air Tight is a little harder to see, set back further under the body so having the Smart Tractor was a real blessing as its unique design made it much easier to set things up than it would have been other wise.
As mentioned earlier on in this review its vital to align the cartridge via its cantilever, not the body of the cartridge as often the cantilever won’t be parallel to the body of the cart – they should be but often they are not – the only accurate way to align a cartridge. Without the Smart Tractor I would have struggled to a degree to see the cantilever and thus align to it. As it turns out in the case of this particular Air Tight PC3 the cantilever was perfectly aligned to its body, however I still aligned via the cantilever and not the body.
Years ago when I was taught to set up turntables it was suggested to do it via the body, but as not every cart body is a regular shape often that wasn’t possible or practical, so I tended to use the cantilever anyway.
As I had with the Benz Wood SL I aligned using the Lofgren A/Baerwald DIN.
I know there will be those who will think I should have listened to all the tangential settings the Smart Tractor offered, but as the Lofgren A/Baerwald DIN one suits my record collection more, and the records I would be using for the review, rather than the other options on offer – so I decided to stick with the choice I had made.
The system used was my living room setup which comprised of the following components: Balanced Audio Technology VK300SE integrated amplifier, Balanced Audio Technology VK10s SE phonostage (later on PassLabs X Ono), AMG Giro turntable, AMG Giro SW9 tonearm, AMG Reference arm cable. Speakers Anthony Gallo Reference 3.1. Cabling: Interconnects Audience AU24 balanced and speaker cabling QED Genesis. Equipment Stands Base and Target Audio. Mains cabling was TCI Boa Constrictors with a Mark Grant distribution box. No mains filters or conditioners were used. Electrical supply was from a dedicate consumer unit and separate spur.
I played numerous albums but this was my main selection for critical listening.
Dead Can Dance – Into The Labyrinth
Hawkwind – Warrior on The Edge of Time.
Return to Forever – Music Magic
Yello – One Second
Thomas Dolby – Aliens Ate My Buick
Saga – Behaviour
What can I say, the ghost was back, my listening environment once again feeling the presence of the magic the AMG Giro had created first time round. Certainly this time it was more like greeting a delightful friend who has come not just to stay, but to live, rather than having a brief guest who could never outweigh their welcome but had to go home.
One of the experiences that most impressed me last time, was how the AMG Giro so effortlessly dug deep, and unravelled the mix of swirling sounds that makes up Hawkwind’s – Warrior on the Edge of Time album. As before all the various elements of the mix were there to be heard and clearly, but also as before without any undue spotlighting, the music simply opened up, Hawkwind in all their mid 70s glory in my living room.
As I said last time the AMG Giro was able to unravel the somewhat over populated and potentially confused morass that can, well on a lesser turntable, be this album. As one track slid into another I revealed in the wonderful sonic soundscape, only breaking that reverie to change album sides.
Moving on to Dead Can Dance I was simply stunned, once again, by the way this turntable was able to reproduce the music locked within the grooves of the vinyl. Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry’s album was simply breath taking, and beautifully haunting, all the compositions sounding natural and alive, the ebb and flow of modern western instruments, juxtaposed with those more ethnic in origin in a very real and three dimensional soundscape.
My first port of call, as usual was The Carnival is Over and the way the Giro naturally, and effortlessly painted the tracks acoustic and instrumentation with a clarity I had never heard before. Instruments and Brendan’s vocal all occupying their own very dimensional space.
Moving onto Thomas Dolby – Aliens Ate My Buck I was equally impressed by the Giro’s resolution of detail, but managed in a very natural way. The same was also true for all the other music I listened to.
I am not going to draw this out, everything I listened to was magical, there were no downsides to listening to music via the AMG Giro, Air Tight PC3 combination.
There will be those wondering if this is a review of the Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor or the AMG Giro, and truth be told I am very conscious that what I have done here is both – well revisited the Giro. Thing is, I feel, hence what I have done here, that while I could say yes the Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor is a wonderful, well made, does what it says on the tin, is very flexible aid to the setter up of turntables, amateur and professional alike but that would be a short review, and I feel a bit dry and boring. The Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor is all those things by the way and a wonderful addition to my turntable set up kit, but linking what it did for my set up of the AMG Giro by relaying how it sounded seemed to me a bit more interesting as a way of rounding the review out than not including that aspect.
I am aware that most of the listening to the AMG Giro this time round was done with the Pass Labs X Ono phonostage and with the AMG Reference tonearm cable. but I feel despite the slightly inferior phonostage, instead of the BAT VK 10se, that it is likely that my cart set up this time was somewhat more accurate than last time and – in the round – this may well explain why the performance was better than I expected particularly with the change in phonostage.
Unfortunately I don’t own a time machine so can’t pop back to check the phonostage swap and better arm cable with the previous cart set up against the current one, but as unscientific as this will be for some I expected things to be not quite as good as last time, not better, as was the case.
Anyway I am delighted with the AMG Giro and the Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor and award both the Highly Recommended comment.
As an aside I also used the Smart Tractor during setting up an Origin Live turntable and found it a joy to use in these circumstances as well.
Acoustical Systems Smart Tractor
Source of loan – me, putting my money where my mouth is.
Manufacturer – Acoustical Systems – https://www.arche-headshell.de/
UK Distributor – Select Audio http: //www.selectaudio.co.uk/
UK Retail Price £425
AMG Giro/SW9 Tonearm
Source of loan – me, putting my money where my mouth is.
Manufacturer – AMG http: //www.amg-turntables.com/about-amg/
UK Distributor – Select Audio http: //www.selectaudio.co.uk/
UK Retail Price (including arm, but excluding arm cable) £7500
AMG Reference Tonearm cable £1300
(2) As most cantilevers are not mounted totally symmetrical/parallel to the cartridge body the only alignment reference point that should be used is the cantilever itself.
(3) Acoustical Systems also make the PAS Protractor, a cover all bases device – https://www.arche-headshell.de/alignment-tools/p-a-s-the-professional-phono-alignment-set/
(5) I was unable to afford to buy a Giro, so swapping excess equipment was an option.
(6) See original AIHFA review.
(7) I set this to reflect a mid point between regular vinyl pressings and 180 gram modern pressings. Unfortunately 200 gram pressings will have to be off, as I have no way of setting the arm to be mid way between regular and 200 gram without making the playback for regular vinyl pressings off, so I opted in favour of a set up that reflects the majority of my record collection. Folks with the ability to adjust arm height on the fly won’t have this potential problem but as all things in audio are a compromise I opted for my best compromise.
(8) If your hands shake find someone else experienced to do this for you. Shaky hands can result in disaster for a cartridge stylus.
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