Monday, February 3, 2014

Small things matter

Well, we hear that statement lot in audiophile-land,  it's the small set up tweaks that make a difference, the last half-inch of toe-in that completes the picture, and we all love a giant-killing or free adjustment that brings it all into place. Today, I am slightly kicking myself for not installing this sooner but having ordered a new belt for my SME 20/2 a couple of months back, I let it sit there waiting for the right time. The belt had to come from the UK, as best as I could find, but even with shipping and conversion to dollars it arrived for about $40. I only got around to putting it on now but wow, what was I thinking by delaying the installation? I know belts matter and people always talk about the precision that AJ Conti has pursued to improve those on his wonderful Basis tables but I used to look at mine, check the speed and generally feel all was as it should be. Now that I've made the change, I remind myself once more to never take my eyes off the important things.

Changing a belt on the SME is pretty straightforward, you lift up the weighty platter and there it is running around the sub-platter and the small motor to the left. Once removed I was pretty surprised to see the gunk that had gathered around the pulley. I guess this belt had seen better days (and certainly some warmer ones) as little bits of rubber residue were melded to the shaft on which it rides. Hmm, a few Q-tips and alcohol wipes later, it was clean but not perfect. I had to go at it with a micro-fiber cloth, a sharp point and apply some real finger pressure to get everything clean. Routine housekeeping perhaps?

The trickiest part is getting the belt on flat around the sub-platter and the motor, especially without wiping residual dust or oil from your fingers. I tried the spare white gloves that came with my PS Audio PWT (a nice touch to ensure you don't put fingerprints on the glossy top but good luck with those, I can't grip anything, never mind at weighty, shiny component with gloves that risk everything sliding through your grasp). I gave up the gloves and just washed my hands before using my fingers. Once on, I ran the very handy iPhone RPM app to check platter speed and while this is not stable enough (at least as far as I can set it up) to lock it onto one measure, I got the platter running at 33.2-33.4 rpm with some minor trimming and left it at that. Still a bit easier and probably as precise methinks as staring at the lines on those strobe disks under fluorescent light.

Anyway, the point of all this is really the sonics. Think a belt change cannot matter too much? Think again boyo. The bass on the SME just dropped down a level and came through with punch and clarity like I'd made a major change. Details emerged, transients snapped, and the soundstage was just better defined. An easy to hear difference without doubt.  This is the best $40 I have spent since I bought a cheapo Blue Jean coaxial cable for my secondary rig (that's another story but I have to say, the word on Blue Jean cables' value is probably correct). I don't feel the need to say more other than if you have belt-driven table and have not changed belts in a while, do yourself a favor.  Of course, it's bad enough to count records spun to estimate cartridge wear, I now have to use that to estimate belt age too. Record playing might just feel like it's a constant reminder of the aging process as you wear things down by use but it's also those small changes and adjustments that make vinyl in particular such an addictive pleasure. Hail the tweak!

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