The tonearm on your turntable may not seem to make a big difference during record playback, but any audiophile will tell you when there is an issue with the tonearm.

To overcome any audio challenges, you need to make sure you have a stylus with an effective length and a tonearm that is well-balanced.  The many parts of a record player, like a solid plinth or base, will keep the record player from wobbling, but the tonearm you select is even more important for optimal playback. 


What Does a Tonearm Do?

A tonearm is designed to support the phono cartridge that holds the stylus.  Most cartridges are designed to attach to a headshell or a similar connector that allows the tonearm to support the cartridge as it moves inwards towards the record’s center. The height and the angle of the armtube is critical. If the cartridge adds too much weight on one side of the tonearm, you will need to provide a counterweight from Pro-Ject on the other side to balance it.  The size of the counterweight you need will vary based on the weight of the tonearm, the cartridge, and the type of turntable you are using.


Tonearm Designs and Shapes

Xtension 12 - Gloss Olive w/ Ortofon Tonearm

Depending on the phonograph or the record player you are using, different shapes of tonearms will affect the type of hi-fi sounds that you get out of your analog vinyl record collection. Knowing how vinyl works will help you decide on the perfect tonearm. The most common shapes include:

  • A Straight Tonearm: A straight tonearm will be available in a variety of sizes. Longer options rely on anti-skate to function properly. They are designed to counteract the inward friction that the spinning of the vinyl creates. There are also shorter options that are more stable, so an anti-skate mechanism is not needed, which means less chance of arm vibration during playback. 


  • A J-Shaped Tonearm: A J-shaped tonearm is very similar to a straight one, but the most notable difference is that the headshell juts to the left a bit, giving it a J-like shape. The purpose of the tonearm being this shape is to allow an arm that is slightly longer to fit in the same space as a straight tonearm. It will give the arm additional weight to prevent the stylus from bouncing out of the grooves as the music plays.


  • An S-Shaped Tonearm: The final design you will want to consider to optimize your tonearm’s balance is an S-shaped one. This option eliminates vibrations in the chassis and the records that may cause tracking errors. This design has a fulcrum point in the middle of the arm that provides a resting point for better azimuth and stability. Azimuth helps keep the cartridge’s needle in the center of the groove so that you experience a smooth audio experience whether you are playing through basic speakers or amplifiers.


Tonearm Materials

Just like the tonewoods used for a guitar creates a unique resonating sound, the materials used to create the parts of a record player will make or break the sound of the music. The higher the quality of the materials, the better the audio experience that you are creating will be, even without the use of amps. 


The primary “tonewoods” of tonearms that help with sound quality are located in the armtubes. These are typically made of metals, like aluminum, titanium, or steel, but there are also models with armtubes made of wood or carbon fiber. Effectively, the materials used in this portion of the arm reduce the impact of the plate and cartridge vibrations, which affects the quality of the sound being produced.


Here’s a breakdown of some of the materials found in the armtube and how they dampen vibrations that would affect sound quality.

  • Wood: This includes teakwood, rosewood, red cedar, panzerholz, Pernambuco, and Australian jarrah woods. As a rule, the harder the tonewood, the better the acoustic performance. Wood needs surface treatment for the best sound quality, but when added, vibrations are reduced greatly, and these materials perform well for balancing the tonearm.


  • Metal: As a general rule, aluminum is the most common armtube material used in the tonearm. Aluminum works well because it’s both lightweight and strong, and its material breakdown helps to dampen vibrations as the record spins. 


  • Carbon Fiber: Lightweight and strong, carbon fiber armtubes also perform well by redirecting parasitic vibrations into the mounting board. This is because they typically are even lighter than aluminum or other metals while precisely tracking the record groove.


Tonearm Resonance 

debut pro tonearm

Tonearm resonance is the frequency that you get from the interaction between the tonearm and the cartridge. The compliance or the springiness of the cartridge will differ based on the parts that you are using. This springiness allows the cartridge to move along the record grooves while being stationary enough to allow the cantilever to move enough to produce sound. 


The resonance frequency is the amount of force that the needle needs to move the tonearm. Amplitude results from tonearm damping, which is achieved with either silicon fluid or magnets. Energy is created as the stylus traces the vinyl. This energy then can be absorbed or used to color the sound and create low-frequency resonance. Ideally, you want your resonance frequency between 8 and 12Hz. Most audiophiles prefer a smaller range that is between 9 and 11Hz. 


This means that if the resonance does not fall between these frequencies, the music will be affected. Too much resonance causes that cartridge to skip, and too low of a frequency causes the record player to vibrate.


Tonearm Distortion 

Inner groove distortion is also something that you will have to contend with when trying to get the best sound. This is a deterioration of the sound that is often heard at the end of a record. Usually, it’s noticed more at higher volumes, especially when the record player connects to a phono preamp with an RCA cable. 


Some songs will have a lower volume at the end to prevent distortion from occurring, but you should also make sure that your cartridge and stylus alignment is correct.

What’s so important about the alignment? Because the vinyl grooves are very narrow, it’s easy for the stylus to misread the information when the parts are not aligned properly. This creates distortion and less natural-sounding music that hums during playback. Fortunately, there are tools like Align It that make the process of getting the full sound out of your records on every playback.


Balance Your Tonearm for Optimal Performance

Balancing is not something that you will want to overlook when you choose a tonearm for your system.

Of course, you need to select a tonearm that fits your record player, but creating optimal-sounding music requires a balancing act that is not always easy to maintain. Once you balance your tonearm, vinyl records will sound much better with that warm, authentic sound that many audiophiles look for from their systems.  

If you’ve aligned your tonearm and still aren’t getting the sound you’re looking for, consider whether or not you’ve got the right turntable cartridge for your system.