As you go deeper into your analog journey and your record collection grows, you may choose to move beyond your first turntable into a higher-performance model, especially if you notice tonearm resonance.
We’re going to try and demystify one of the most complex audiophile subjects – tonearm resonance, compliance of the cartridge, and tonearm/cartridge compatibility. These parameters all affect the frequency range your vinyl playback system can achieve.
If you get really hardcore about hi-fi, deciding to mix turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges to maximize your setup, there are a few things to contend with.
When you buy a Pro-Ject table with a Sumiko cartridge, nearly all of the guesswork is done, and you can rest assured it will all work in harmony. Should you take off into a more complex and distant orbit, mating the right cartridge with a tonearm becomes more involved.
Cartridge Compliance, Tonearm Resonance, and Flexibility
Think of your tonearm, cartridge, and stylus all as a symbiotic system, much like the suspension on a car or motorcycle. As you approach a turn at a high speed or go over large bumps, if the suspension is too soft you bounce around and perhaps lose control.
Equally, if the suspension is too stiff, the vehicle can skid off the road with equally disastrous results. Your turntable faces the same issues when it plays the twisty grooves and bumps (record warps) of an album.
The goal of this compatibility is to assure the cartridge can track your records as true as possible. When the stylus does not contact the records fine grooves positively, distortion and even undue record wear can occur – audiophiles refer to this as mistracking.
Once those fragile grooves are damaged, they will be permanently distorted. You’ll regret it if you step up to a better system, years later, only to find your records irreversibly distorted.
Get To know About Cartridges
Cartridges are usually grouped into low, medium, and high compliance types. Again, if you’ve driven a car with electronic damping, you usually have settings for comfort, sport and perhaps sport plus (the most firm settings) High compliance cartridges have an easier time moving with less effort than low or medium. Neither is inherently bad, they just need to be matched with the right tonearm to make sure the entire system works together.
Tonearms from other manufacturers like Triplanar, SME, or Graham to name a few, are divided into three groups as well. Low, medium, and high mass. As a general rule, high compliance cartridges work best with low mass tonearms (medium always goes great with medium) and low compliance cartridges work best with high mass tonearms.
Juggling the resonance frequency of the cartridge, and optimizing its dynamic compliance to workable figures that are compatible with the widest range of tonearms is the challenge that all cartridge designers face. They even experiment with different cartridge body materials to minimize resonance. Some are made of plastic and others are made out of wood.
There’s even a very high-end cartridge with a body carved from solid gold! While manufacturers do their best to dampen tonearm and cartridge resonance, by changing arm tube material, and increasing or decreasing the mass of the arm, they sometimes rely on external methods such as additional counterweights or dampening fluid to reduce the amplitude of low-frequency resonant peaks, which allow better, more accurate reproduction of bass frequencies. This can also go a long way to reduce acoustic feedback, which lowers the level at which you can play your music.
Pairing Your Tonearm and Cartridge is Elaborate
Once you’ve landed on a suitable combination, you’ll need some tools, a stylus force gauge, and an alignment protractor at a minimum. A few good test records won’t hurt either, and maybe even a stylus microscope too. You can spend more on setup tools than on a decent turntable if you really want to get serious about this.
It’s worth mentioning that if you only want to double-check your cartridge alignment on your current table, or perhaps upgrade the cartridge you have, Pro-Ject makes a couple of great inexpensive tools to help you accomplish this task. You might even consider a test record or two. It’s all about the combo.
Setting tracking force is your first priority. The counterweight at the rear of the tonearm’s arm tube will counteract the headshell and cartridge weight, leaving the tonearm’s total effective mass as low as possible. However, we don’t want an overly heavy cartridge at the front end of the cartridge and a massive weight at the other end. When the cartridge/tonearm mass gets to a certain point, it can no longer deal with warps or the really large record grooves representing the loudest passages of the music.
At this point, the suspension attached to the stylus/cantilever assembly will exceed its limits and severe mistracking, or distortion will result. The techie term for this is exceeding the moment of inertia. Think of that car on a slippery road again, you go around a corner too fast and your car’s weight and force exceed the grip provided by your tires and suspension. This is the same thing, just on a microscopic level!
Tonearm Resonance Requires Cartridge Matching
We could write a book on this subject, but there are a number of great reference articles out on the internet that go into the most minute aspects of matching your tonearm and cartridge. This is an advanced project and your success will depend on how much you enjoy adjusting (and re-adjusting fine details) the fine details.
There are a number of cartridge databases, such as Vinyl Engine that list nearly every cartridge made. This is a catalog of all essential cartridge parameters; dynamic compliance, resonant frequencies, and the frequency ranges said cartridges are able to reproduce.
Should you decide you’re a destination person instead of a journeyperson, there’s a great chance your Pro-Ject turntable dealer can help you choose the right cartridge combination to install the cartridge of your choice. They may even have turntables with different cartridges on display for you to compare. Some Pro-Ject turntables even ship with a cartridge pre-mounted. If that’s the path you choose, it’s easy. You can get to playing records right now.