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The Best Tonearm Is …

Galibier Design - Generic Tonearm PhotoIn a recent conversation with a customer, it occurred to me that I haven’t consolidated my tonearm advice in a single place.

Apart from all of the usual considerations, there’s something that never gets discussed when considering the ideal tonearm for an individual.

The usual considerations in recommending a tonearm include:

  • System configuration (strengths, weaknesses opportunities for improvement):  What do you like about your system?  What would you change if given an opportunity?  What have you learned from previous experiences?
  • Planned upgrade path:  we don’t want to compensate for a weakness that is going to be addressed by another planned upgrade.
  • Cartridge compatibility:  think of this as a subset of your upgrade path, but it’s an important consideration to bring to the customer’s attention.  If the only cartridge you ever plan on using requires a high mass tonearm, then you need to be aware that such an arm might not be compatible with a more “mainstream” cartridge should the urge strike you.
  • Musical taste:  a system should play all types of music.  That’s a given.  I also recognize (for example) that a “metal” record will never find its way onto your platter.  Given that no arm is perfect, I’d consider biasing an arm selection toward strengths that are consistent with your tastes.  I would be careful about this however, and in general, I’d try to accomplish more of this “tuning” via cartridge selection.

All of these considerations are fairly obvious, and I spend quite a bit of time discussing them with my customers.  There’s one consideration that never gets mentioned by most people …

The best tonearm is the one you set up the best.

Huh?  While this sounds obvious, the implications are critical to listening enjoyment.  What do I mean by that?

Simply put, analog tools are to a greater or lesser extent quirky devices and if you can’t operate them or you have difficulty adjusting them, then the quality of the arm is wasted.  Some highly regarded arms are dramatically more difficult to adjust than others.

I’ve yet to encounter the perfect tonearm (from both a sonic and ergonomic perspective).  We all interact with our tools differently and this might be the most important consideration in selecting a tonearm, which is why the majority of my customer contact time is spent on tonearms.

A real-world example (names withheld to protect the innocent) …

  • Tonearm X is a perfect match for your system, your tastes and your anticipated upgrade path.
  • Tonearm X is very difficult to set up accurately.  Azimuth adjustment is quirky and VTA adjustment is imprecise.
  • Tonearm Y is sonically close, but slightly missing in one or more areas.
  • Tonearm Y is much more easy to set up accurately.

For the experienced analog setup guru, Tonearm X is the clear choice.

For someone with less experience, they will achieve the best sound with Tonearm Y.  This is where is where getting a good read on the customer is important, as they may be not have much experience, but are mechanically inclined and quick learners.  If this is the case, I’d  likely steer them toward Tonearm X.

There are no absolutes, but as much as all of the primary considerations are important, if we don’t get the user interaction part right, my customers won’t enjoy their analog experience as much.