How to Set up a Turntable Tonearm

In spite of their apparent simplicity, record players can actually be quite complicated in some areas, like setting up a turntable tonearm.

We have the experience with record players to boil all this information down and explain it to you accurately and informatively. Read on if you want a thorough, uncomplicated explanation of how to set up a turntable tonearm.

Out of all the various parts that combine their special purposes to create a functioning turntable, the tonearm seems to receive the least attention. Every record player since the gramophone has come with a tonearm, and the role it performs has been essentially the same from the production of the first one. Perhaps because the requirements are so fixed, the basics of most tonearms have been decided for about just as long.

There is much to say about how to set up a turntable tonearm. It may not be apparent at first, but don’t allow this to discourage you from tackling the job. Once you’ve done it, you will continue to get better at it each time you have a need to perform this task.

How Does a Turntable Tonearm Work?

A tonearm has the job of supporting the cartridge in the correct position over the record and allowing it to move inward to the center of the record while staying in this position. To do this, it has to accomplish several tasks at the same time.

  1. The cartridge has to be held in the proper position- height and angle- above the record, and it must be able to trace the groove in towards the center of the record.
  2. It also applies the correct weight to the stylus and sees to it that the anti-skate force is there to keep the cartridge from just shooting off toward the inside of the record. It makes the actual playing of the record possible without damaging the record. Finally, it carries the cabling that sends the signal from the cartridge out to your system.
  3. The output from phono cartridges is relatively small; thus, every detail concerning the arm’s operation will affect it. As the lion’s share of the weight is at either end of the arm- the cartridge at one end and the counterweight that balances it at the other- the body of the arm itself— the arm tube— has to be extremely stiff and strong. The slightest flex or movement in the tube while the cartridge is on the record will result in interference in the audio signal. At the same time, the arm itself has to keep its overall mass reasonably low, so the materials used have to be relatively light. Various metals are often seen in tonearm design, but carbon fiber has been growing in popularity more recently. The challenges continue from there. It might start to try your patience but hang in there because all of this is really doable.
  4. The arm has to be able to move in such a way as to make sure that the cartridge travels across the record in a uniform fashion but again, too stiff an arrangement will affect the signal itself. The balancing act that results has forced some people to take the radical step of eliminating the bearings altogether and balancing the arm on a single point. This practice- called a unipivot- ensures that the arm is largely free of mechanical noise, but it places further demands on the cartridge and necessitates extremely careful setup.

Design Options

The essentials that influence the design of arms mean that, like many other parts of the playback chain, improvements in the quality of the materials used in their construction will usually provide immediate and notable benefits to their performance.

One more thing that determines the cost of some arm models is that they are designed to work on a variety of turntables. This ultimately means that they have to feature sufficient adjustment to be positive that they will work on different models with different heights of the platter and a vast selection of cartridges.

Of course, there is also lots of room for manufacturers to take their own areas of concern and develop them into very distinctive ideas of their own.

For example, American brand VPI produces some of the most extreme examples of the unpivot arm available – there are no points of contact between the arm tube and the rest of the turntable beyond the top of a metal spike on which the arm balances (this is why the arm cable is there via a loop at the top of the housing as it is impossible for it to be passed through this spike).

If you get the opportunity to listen to the different designs and form any personal preference for one makeover another, it is likely that the design of the arm and the materials used in it influenced you. If you like what you hear, you can continue to opt for products with tonearms that are made that way.

If you buy a turntable with a free choice of arm, you can put these preferences in action to choose manufacturers and designs that you like. Although many turntable tonearms can be expensive, this doesn’t have to be the case if you shop around.

When all is said and done, the tonearm is just one of the many areas where you can improve vinyl playback. Learn about the various technologies and your own likes and dislikes, and it is one more part of the chain you can choose the correct part for and thus get the sound you want.

Rapping Up

Setting up a turntable tonearm may sound like a lot of work, and it can be the first time you attempt to do so. But once you learn precisely what’s involved and how to do it properly, it can prove to be a worthwhile skill to have acquired. It will save you the trouble and expense of having to go to a professional to do the job if your turntable tonearm breaks and requires replacement.