In order to get the best sound out of your turntable, you have to carve out time to set it up. Making sure your tracking force is on-point and your tonearm is balanced is essential if you want to enjoy high-quality sound and give your hi-fi gear a long shelf-life. A little bit of attention to detail goes a long way when it comes to both the set-up and maintenance of your record player. Luckily, even the most meticulous parts of the process can be easily broken down into simple steps, like trying to balance a tonearm.
If you’ve ever wondered what the term “tonearm balance” means, how to balance your tonearm, and why it matters, you’ve come to the right place. Keeping your tonearm balanced is a crucial part of turntable maintenance, and will make your vinyl records sound far better during playback. So, let’s jump into a beginner’s guide of how to balance your tonearm, and why it even makes a difference in the first place.
What does a tonearm do?
In order to dig into why the positioning of a tonearm matters, it’s helpful to refresh ourselves on the role it plays during playback. The tonearm, as you likely already know, is the long suspended arm that carries the cartridge on one end, and has a counterweight on the other end. The tonearm’s main role is to support and hold the cartridge at the ideal height over the record. Sometimes, the tonearm’s role is to keep the cartridge as still as possible, letting the grooves pass under it. Other times, it helps facilitate the slow inward movement towards the center of the record (while keeping the turntable cartridge at a steady height).
While this may sound simple enough, the tonearm has to perform a special dance of lightness and steadiness in order to prevent the cartridge from skipping while it moves. This delicate dance of movement and consistency is precisely why it’s important to balance your tonearm.
The types of tonearms
There are a handful of different tonearm shapes, each of which have their pros and cons. These are the three most common.
A Straight Tonearm
Straight tonearms come in all different sizes. The longer tonearms need the anti-skate setting in order to work well (anti-skate helps prevent tonearms from wobbling or skipping). The short tonearms are generally more stable and don’t require anti-skate to function without risk of arm vibration.
An S-Shaped Tonearm
The S-shaped tonearms come with a fulcrum point in the middle of the arm, which provides a resting point for stability. The design is built to eliminate vibrations in the chassis and eliminate tracking errors triggered by old or damaged records. The shape is supposed to add extra balance so the stylus remains as close to the center of the groove as possible during all parts of the playback process.
A J-shaped Tonearm
At first glance, you can easily mistake a J-shaped tonearm for a straight one. But upon closer inspection, you’ll see the headshell extends a little to the left, giving it the J-shape. The slighter longer design of a J-shaped tonearm gives it more weight than a straight tonearm, this weight is used to stop the stylus from jumping out of the grooves during your favorite song.
While both S- and J-shaped tonearms might have designs that automatically bolster your cartridge against skipping, straight tonearms come in a variety of shapes and in some cases are easier to find. The shape of your tonearm will depend on the turntable model you have, when it came out, and of course, your own preferences.
What is the ideal weight for a tonearm?
As with all things turntable-related, the answer to this question is going to change depending on your model of cartridge and turntable. Luckily, manufacturers include a recommended tracking force with each model (and you can plug your turntable information into Google if you don’t have your user guide handy). The main rule to remember is that you should set your weight in the middle of the recommended range. So if the tracking range is 1.2 – 2 grams, you’ll set your tracking force (the weight pushing on the cartridge) to 1.6 grams.
What happens if the weight is too heavy?
If you set the tracking weight too high, the stylus will push down too hard on the grooves. This increased weight will cause the stylus to lose nuanced musical information, which can cause distortion and bad sound quality. Over an extended period of time, heavy stylus tracking force could also potentially damage your records.
What happens if the weight is too light?
If the tracking weight on your stylus is too low, there won’t be enough weight for the tonearm to keep the cartridge at a consistent height. This lack of weight will cause the needle to jump around, skip, and damage your record with potential scratches. Obviously, the ideal setup is to have your tracking weight set within the recommended range. But if it’s going to be too low or high, it’s far safer for it to be heavier vs. too light.
What tools should you use to balance your tonearm?
Your process will be far easier if you have a stylus force gauge on hand. The Pro-Ject Measure It S2 stylus force gauge measures the grams weighing on your cartridge, effectively giving you a way to know for sure your tracking weight is on point. A turntable protractor, like the Pro-Ject Align It is also a great tool to have on hand if you want to align your cartridge while balancing your tonearm. You can read more about the pros and the process of cartridge alignment here.
A step-by-step guide to balancing your tonearm
Now that we have the basics of what a tonearm does, and why the weight of it matters, let’s jump into the balancing process itself.
1. Power off the turntable.
2. Make sure the counterweight is properly installed on the end of the tonearm so the numbers face the front of the turntable. Make sure the anti-skate is set to 0.
3. Use the cueing lever to lock the tonearm in the rest position (on the armrest). While it’s resting, gently remove the protective cover from the stylus. The safest way to do this is by sliding the cover straight forward off the front of the cartridge. Be very careful.
4. Gently hold the headshell to keep the tonearm stable while releasing the tonearm locking clamp. Now, the tonearm will swing freely since it’s unbalanced. You still want to hold the headshell so it doesn’t crash into the turntable platter.
5. Keep the cueing lever in the down position, while you gently hold the headshell above the rest position.
6. Carefully turn the counterweight on the rear of the tonearm until the tonearm is horizontally balanced. This means the headshell won’t be moving up or down, but will naturally float above the rest position.
7. Now that you’ve found the beautiful balance spot, set the counterweight to zero.
8. Now, you’ll want to set the proper tracking force for your phono cartridge. Turn your entire counterweight counterclockwise to adjust the weight in grams, and gently place the stylus and entire cartridge onto the stylus force gauge (which will clamp to your turntable platter, details here), to measure.
9. Once you’ve set your tracking force, you can now turn the anti-skate setting back on. Match it in grams to your tracking weight, so if your tracking weight is 1.5 grams, you’ll want anti-skate on 1.5 grams.
10. Enjoy your beautiful vinyl records on your freshly calibrated record player!