The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXIII: Tonearm 101
In the more than twenty years Iíve been writing this column, Iíve never really discussed the basics of the tonearm. Iíve done Turntable 101, Cartridge 101 and Little Black Boxes, a primer on the phono preamplifier and why you need one. Iíve talked about stereo components that are only indirectly related to the enjoyment of vinyl, such as amplifiers and speakers. I seem to have forgotten about the tonearm, however. Without one, you would not be able to listen to LPs at all.
Many people are unsure what a tonearm is, much less why it is important. In my nearly two years working with a local dealer here in New York, Iíve mentioned tonearms to a variety of customers looking to get into vinyl, and more than once Iíve received a blank stare. ďWhatís a tonearm?" they ask, much to my surprise. Thatís when I usually point it out to them. There it is, right there. I canít really do that here, but Iíll try to explain those basics the best I can.
A tonearm is the wand, so to speak, that connects the phono cartridge/needle/stylus to the actual turntable. In most cases itís mounted on a pivot so that the arm swings the needle across the record on an arc. There are variations on this basic design, of course--a tonearm might be a linear tracker, which means the arm travels on a track straight across the record without an arc. There are other types of designs, such as unipivots, where a single point on the arm rests on some sort of a cup affixed to the turntable. That means the needle only comes in contact with the rest of the planet at one single fixed point.
To tell you the truth, discussions about tonearms can get very complicated very quickly. From an engineering standpoint, they are usually more complex than either a turntable or a cartridge. There are a lot of different ideas about tonearm design out there, and it would take a lengthy series of columns to even scratch the surface. There are two reasons, however, why I want to bring up tonearms after 122 of these columns about turntables and vinyl.
First, Iíve found that for most people getting into vinyl for the first time, the tonearm usually isnít part of the equation because itís usually included when you buy a turntable. So when the subject of tonearms comes up, most people are ill-prepared to deal with it.
Iíll explain with a very specific example. Over the last couple of years, Iíve been approached by a number of people who had a beautiful old Thorens turntable up in the attic and they want to start listening to LPs again. Of course, they need a new phono cartridge because the needle is worn, so they bring it to me. Now thatís a great idea since old Thorens turntables are built like tanks, sound great and are really worth keeping. Thereís only one problem with several models of Thorens turntables--the tonearm, while basically decent, is not truly compatible with modern cartridges.
Iíve repeatedly run into two problems--the headshell on that old Thorens tonearm has tiny little screws and nuts that wonít work with modern cartridges. Thatís okay, youíll think, since the Thorens headshell is detachable and many companies offer replacement headshells. That leads to the second problem, which is that the connectors on modern headshells donít fit the old Thorens tonearm. Now Iíve had a few people tell me about work-arounds that will allow you to mount a new cartridge on an old Thorens tonearm, but every one of these solutions seem to be a compromise to the integrity of the tonearm-cartridge interface. This is such an important link in the chain, and I just donít vouch for that approach to the problem (feel free to contact me if youíve figured this out yet). That leaves one solid option, and thatís to buy a new tonearm for the Thorens, which will solve the problem.
Thereís only one problem with that. Those old Thorens had a retail price of a couple of hundred dollars at most back when they were new. Itís hard enough to get a vinyl newbie to spend $100 for a new cartridge on an old turntable. Todayís stand-alone tonearms, however, are expensive. Affordable tonearms, once common, are now relatively rare, and for the reason Iíve already suggested--buying a separate tonearm is something you usually do when youíve bought a super Ďtable and youíre itching to fine tune the performance. The more affordable turntables, ones under $2000 or so, usually have that arm thatís been included. In many cases, you canít buy the arm by itself.
Companies like Pro-ject, Rega and Jelco sell entry-level arms that start in the $300-$600 range, but thatís still a ton of money for that Thorens customer who is one step away from saying ďScrew it" and buying a cheap all-in-one record player for $99. Iím a distributor and importer of high-end audio, and my cheapest tonearm starts at $1350. Even used tonearms on eBay and Audiogon are still pricey. This is why many vinyl lovers will eventually need to think about tonearms if theyíre thinking about following any substantial upgrade path on their turntables.
The second reason I want to talk about tonearms now is because Iíve recently had to buckle down and install one on my existing turntable. Sure, Iíve mounted tonearms before, but these were usually arms that came with the turntable and were designed to fit neatly on the turntableís base without fuss. For many years, I owned Rega turntables, and while thereís seldom a reason to remove the arm, itís a very simple procedure--just unscrew the big nut on the underside of the base and slide it on out through the big hole thatís been pre-drilled in the base. I did own that SME V tonearm for many years, and itís one of the finest and most complex tonearms on the market. But my dealer originally installed it and when I had to uninstall it to transport the Ďtable across the country during my many travels, I kept it as intact as possible. Whenever I glanced inside the SME Vís box, revealing all the tiny pieces and hardware and assorted bits for different types of installations, I usually thought ďWhew, good thing I never have to deal with that."
Well, I recently decided to upgrade the tonearm on my Unison Research Giro turntable. It comes with its own arm, which is removed by simply undoing four screws in the base. Thereís a nice little foam cocoon for the entire arm assembly in the original packing materials, so itís always been a breeze. A couple of years ago, however, we started to import and distribute a high-performance tonearm from New Zealand called The Wand. Iíd been meaning to mount one on the Giro for as long as we carried the line, but I never had the right length.
Oh yeah, thatís another thing you should know about tonearms--they come in different lengths. Many turntables have bases that are different sizes, and some of them donít even come with that pre-drilled hole. If thereís enough space on the base for a longer tonearm, you can drill that hole anywhere you want. The most common size is 9" to 9.5" long, which is appropriate for the vast majority of turntables out there. Turntables like the Linn Sondek LP-12 and the Technics SL-1200 can accommodate a slightly longer arm of 10.3", so that size is available. 12" tonearms have been quite popular over the last few years as well. Iíve seen tonearms even longer--as long as you can affix it properly to a solid base, the skyís the limit.
Why would you need different lengths? Well, now youíre getting into math and physics. The longer the tonearm, the better the geometry--the arm will track more accurately as it glides along its arc from the beginning to the end of a record. The only problem is that the longer the arm, the less rigid the arm tube, and that can cause resonances and flex and a bunch of new problems. So itís a matter of taste. Itís also why thereís a 10.3" arm--itís a compromise between the two extremes.
Every time I had an extra Wand tonearm available, it was the wrong size for the Giro. I finally decided to buy the 9.5" version for myself once the Master Series, the flagship line for The Wand, became available. Simon Brown, the designer of the tonearm, had to research the Giro a little bit before he could ensure that I had the right hardware for installation. He does that for every arm he sells and has a whole line of accessories just to make the installation successful, including custom arm boards pre-drilled for certain Ďtables. When I received my tonearm, the box contained what seemed like hundreds of individual pieces. That took me back to my days with that SME V, and how all those extra parts scared the bejeezus out of me. But then I laid everything out, read the instructions, and discovered I only needed SOME of the pieces. Once I figured that out, it was pretty easy to...
Wait. Who am I kidding? It was tough, tougher than I expected, much tougher than merely mounting and aligning a phono cartridge--and I know plenty of people who are too scared to do even that, which is why they always show up at my door with an old Thorens. It wasnít The Wand that was so complex, it was just that I realized that mounting one high-quality tonearm on another high-quality turntable wasnít the slam dunk I thought it would be. I had so many fine adjustments to make, and so many false starts where I had to take everything apart because I forgot a step. Itís easy when a tonearm is made to fit a certain Ďtable, but quite an adventure when you have to take two unrelated pieces of precision machinery and make them work flawlessly as one.
You know what? Iím not complaining. That new tonearm took the performance of the Giro to a whole new level, and Iím at the point where I believe this is that last turntable Iíve been talking about, the one Iíll have for the rest of my life. It was worth the sweat and the blood--paper cut from the instruction manual--and I know I made the right choice.
The point, however, is that vinyl lovers should never take the tonearm for granted. There are so many variables you need to know such as arm-cartridge compliance--whether the mass and weight of that combination is matched properly so that you can properly set tracking force and other parameters. If you always choose the arm that comes with the Ďtable, is the turntable and the cartridge reaching their true potential?
Some people believe that in the analog chain, the turntable is the most important component because it provides a stable platform for everything else to shine. Others believe the cartridge is very important since the end result--the sound--can be radically different from one design to another. I, however, cling to the notion that the tonearm is most important, because Iíve heard the results. That reminds me of the Breuer tonearm I used to rave about--I kept falling in love with turntables such as Wilson-Benesch ACT One and a few others, claiming they were the best analog rigs Iíd heard, but they all had one thing in common--the Breuer.
If you want to take it to the next level when it comes to analog playback, you need to start with the tonearm.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org and see his Blog site
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