21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up DVD Review

Anyone that owns a turntable not made by a large Asian electronics conglomerate like Sony, Denon or Onkyo must buy Michael Fremer's 21st Century Vinyl. The DVD is just over two and a half hours long and is packed with useful information on how to get the most out of your vinyl playback system. In less time than it takes to watch Return of the King you can learn why Michael Fremer loves the LP record format, how a record is cut and how to properly install a cartridge on three popular turntables.

I was ready to cringe at bad jokes and a mad man flapping his arms up and down like a chicken at a wedding because other reviews described Fremer as "wacky." Luckily, Fremer is just a charming New Yorker, engaging the viewer with his passion for vinyl. Sure you have to sit through brief American Southern, British and German accents as he describes vinyl packaging from each region but the speech so informative that the voices are tolerable. I would like to meet Michael Fremer after spending almost three hours with him.

Fremer visits the Sterling Sounds vinyl mastering lab and interviews mastering engineer George Marino. It's great to hear an oral history and opinion of the vinyl industry covering more than my lifetime. Plus you get to watch a record cutting lathe operate. The interview and lathe spinning are more fun than they sound.

In the second half of the DVD Mr. Fremer demonstrates installing cartridges on a Pro-Ject RM-5, Rega P5 and VPI Scoutmaster.

Before any cartridge is bolted to a tone-arm Fremer surveys the tools essential (and many optional) to setting up a turntable from a flimsy paper protractor to a custom made WallyTraktor. Tools I need to buy: small fold out 5x magnifying glass (3/4 inch diameter), mirror glass with the approximate thickness of an 180 gram pressing, hobby needle nose pliers, a plastic ruler, toothpicks and small rubber wedges. I already have an overhang and zenith protractor, the Shure VTF gauge and voltmeter.

Fremer demonstrates setting up the three turntables following these same basic steps:

  1. Attaching the cartridge to the tone arm with only one head shell screw so you can turn it sideways
  2. Adjusting the delicate tone arm lead clips to fit snugly on the cartridge pins (I actually marveled at how a toothpick was used for this procedure)
  3. Attaching the other head shell screw.
  4. Adjusting the tone arm's counter weight until the arm floats
  5. Dialing in Vertical Tracking Force with a VTF gauge
  6. Securing the platter before you adjust the cartridge for overhang and zenith with a protractor
  7. Tools and strategies for measuring and eyeballing the tone arm's Vertical Tracking Angle
  8. Eyeballing azimuth with a mirror and getting it exactly right with a voltmeter hooked up to your amplifier
  9. Setting anti-skate with a Wally Tool and by ear
  10. If you don't know what many of the turntable specific terms above mean and you have a passion for vinyl, you definitely need to buy this DVD.

    Each of the three tables has different set up quirks. Though Fremer did not cover setting up my turntable, a Music Hall MMF-5, I recognized similar features on two of tables and tone-arms covered. I am confident that by following Fremer's techniques I can vastly improve my vinyl playback system (especially since this video made me realize some of my current adjustments may be off because I missed some minor details like securing the platter and removing the anti-skate mechanism while making all the other adjustments and measurements).

    By the end of the instructional sections of the video I felt like I was Michael Fremer's apprentice for a day. The constant commentary and over his shoulder camera reveal every slight of hand years of experience bring and no matter how good you are some points of cartridge set up require patience and finesse. As a bonus the DVD contains a twenty page PDF with deeper explanations of some of the set up procedures.

    Like Mr. Fremer warns in the video: Even if you are confident that your turntable is set up properly by your dealer every vinyl lover should know how to install their cartridge for optimum quality because one day you'll have to do it yourself.

    I highly recommend the 21st Century Vinyl DVD for anyone already into vinyl or considering checking out the hobby. It is as essential to my reference DVD collection as the Avia Guide to Home Theater or Digital Video Essentials.

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