Tonearms: What are they and How To Balance One
Learning About Your Turntable Makes Vinyl Collecting Even More Rewarding.
Record players are intricate pieces of audio technology that are absolutely fascinating. Each of the components of your turntable plays an important role in the listening experience that you get from your records. Learning how your turntable works will make you appreciate the vinyl listening experience even more, and exploring the intricacies of record players and audio gear can turn into a great hobby or even a lifelong passion.
Using your turnable the right way takes a little bit of practice, and it can be tough at first to get used to interacting with analog sound equipment. If you’re used to listening to music on a streaming platform on your phone or laptop, listening to vinyl can be an unfamiliar experience at first. We’re here to help you navigate the early stages of your vinyl listening journey, and it all starts with understanding how your turntable and audio gear work.
Record Player Parts 101
Before we get started with learning how to balance a tonearm, a good place to begin is with a brief introduction to the components that make up your turntable. Your record player is made from a combination of intricate, interconnected parts that make it work. Below are some brief, easy-to-understand descriptions of some of the most important parts of your turntable, including the tonearm.
- The stylus, often referred to as the needle, is a small piece of unrefined diamond that rides in the grooves of a record as it spins on your turntable. The hard, unrefined diamond starts the process of translating the vibrations picked up from the grooves of a record into electrical signals, which can then be amplified by your speakers.
- The cartridge houses the stylus and is attached to the tonearm. Inside the cartridge, a magnetic coil attached to the stylus generates an electrical current, which is then carried through the tonearm and amplified to produce sound. The cartridge is one of the most important parts of your turntable, and without a good one, you can’t get great sound quality.
- The tonearm is attached to the cartridge, and it carries the electrical current created in the cartridge to a source of amplification. The tonearm also keeps the cartridge stable and held in place. An unstable, wobbly tonearm can significantly detract from the sound quality that you get from a record. The steadier and more stable your tonearm is, the better your records will sound.
- The preamp amplifies the electrical signal carried from the cartridge to the tonearm. Sometimes built into your record player, sometimes included in speakers, and sometimes used as a standalone piece of gear, the preamp makes the signal picked up by the cartridge audible. Without a preamp, your record player will still work, but can’t produce audible sound.
Why Balance Your Tonearm?
Keeping your tonearm steady and held in place is one of the most important steps you can take to get the best possible listening experience. An unstable tonearm skates, wobbling and moving and causing the cartridge to waver as a record spins. When your tonearm is unstable, you’ll hear a noticeable decrease in audio quality when you listen to records.
Now, let’s find out how to balance a tonearm and get your turntable sounding great.
Check For An Anti-Skating Mechanism On Your Turntable
Many turntables are equipped with a mechanism that is attached to the tonearm and designed to prevent skating. An anti-skating mechanism holds your turntable in place and can usually be loosened and tightened using a small knob. Most anti-skating mechanisms are designed with numeric settings, with a higher number corresponding to a looser hold on the tonearm. Setting your anti-skating knob to zero should minimize the amount that the tonearm can move while a record spins.
To start the process of balancing your tonearm, set the anti-skating knob on your turntable to the lowest possible setting. You’ll adjust this setting later to correspond with other parameters that you can change on your tonearm.
Time For Liftoff
To adjust your tonearm, you’ll need to lift it off of its resting place temporarily. The tonearm typically sits in a small cradle called a yoke when it is not in use. The yoke is where you set the tonearm any time you are not spinning a record to keep it from sitting directly on your turntable.
After you lift the tonearm out of its resting place on the yoke, it’s time to zero out the other settings on the tonearm to get it to a state of complete balance.
Zero Out The Weights
Your tonearm contains a counterweight and a tracking weight, two mechanisms that help the tonearm hold itself in place. By adjusting these weights, you can get your tonearm to a balanced position so that it is not bent upwards or downwards. These adjustments will help to stabilize the tonearm and get you better sound out of your records!
The counterweight sits on the rear-end of the tonearm, and it can be adjusted with a gentle push. Moving the counterweight back and forth will shift the weight on the tonearm, causing it to even out. To get your tonearm tracking weight to zero, shift the counterweight so that the tonearm is sitting completely straight, not tilting up or down.
Next, you’ll make a quick adjustment to the tracking weight. The smaller of the two adjustable weights on the tonearm, the tracking weight typically has a numeric dial on it similar to the one found on your tonearm’s anti-skating mechanism. To balance out your tonearm, the number on the tracking weight should read zero.
Find Your Ideal Tracking Weight
Your tonearm’s counterweight should have an indicator on it that points to what its ideal weight is. Once you have zeroed out your counterweight and tracking weight, use this indicator as a guide to help you set your tonearm’s weight to the right setting. If your tonearm doesn’t have a labeled indicator on its counterweight, you can pick up an inexpensive tool called a tracking weight that can give you an accurate indication of the ideal setting for your tonearm.
Another way to determine what setting your counterweight and tracking weight should set to is by referring to your cartridge. Turntable cartridges are designed to be used with a tonearm that is set to a specific weight. Your cartridge’s instructions will let you know what weight to set your tonearm to, and you can use the numeric dials on your tracking weight and counterweight to adjust accordingly.
Reset Your Anti-Skate Control
Once you have gotten your tonearm to the right weight setting, it’s time for the final step – matching your anti-skate mechanism to your tonearm’s weights. The counterweight and tracking weight should now be on a specific numeric setting. Most tonearms have weights with numeric labels between 1 and 10. If your turntable’s cartridge works with a tonearm that is set to a weight of 2, match up your anti-skate mechanism with this number.
When the anti-skate mechanism is set lower than the weights on your tonearm, your cartridge will not work as well as it should. Keeping all of your tonearm’s settings lined up will ensure that the cartridge does not wobble as a record spins or sits too tightly to work properly.
How Else Can I Improve My Turntable’s Sound Quality?
In addition to balancing your tonearm, there are several other simple, practical steps you can take to get better sound out of your turntable. Below are just a few.
- Invest in a new cartridge. Like your tonearm, your turntable’s cartridge plays a key role in getting good sound quality out of a record. A subpar cartridge can ruin your listening experience, making it tough to enjoy your favorite albums. Since cartridges are modular and can be replaced, picking up a new cartridge is often a better choice than getting a completely new turntable. You’ll be amazed by how much a great cartridge can change your listening experience.
- Keep your records clean. Record maintenance and routine upkeep can help to minimize noise and distortion caused by dirt, dust, and damage. Keep your records safe from household debris like dust and dirt by putting each record in a protective cover inside its jacket. You can also use a dry brush to gently clean and buff out dusty, dirty records and restore them to get better sound quality.
- Speakers make a big difference, too. A great set of active or passive speakers combined with a high-quality cartridge and tonearm can do your favorite albums justice. If you want to get the best possible sound quality, position your speakers strategically against a wall in a symmetrical room!