Apart from all of the usual considerations in selecting a tonearm (cartridge compatibility, ergonomics, etc.), one key factor is almost never discussed, and no two individuals are the same in this regard.
Let’s first review some of the common selection criteria …
Common considerations for a tonearm upgrade:
System configuration: strengths, weaknesses opportunities. What do you like about your system? What would you change if given the chance? What have you learned from previous experiences?
Planned upgrade path: take future upgrades into account, and adopt a strategic approach to addressing current system shortcomings. Don’t compromise long-term goals to solve a current problem.
A common pitfall is a tonearm with a resonant bass signature. Several British arms fall into this category for two reasons: (1) many suspended decks have a lightweight bass response, and (2) many British audiophiles use mini-monitors. An arm like this may compliment these situations nicely, but result in a muddy, sluggish presentation in a full-range system.
Cartridge compatibility: think of this as a subset of your upgrade path. 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.
Parenthetically, I would be remiss if it I didn’t mention how I continue to be amazed at the wide range of cartridge compatibility the Kuzma arms exhibit.
Musical taste: in a perfect world, your hi-fi should be genre-agnostic, but achieving this goal may be a target that has to be addressed incrementally. The goal is to have as neutral a turntable and tonearm, and to perform “tuning” via cartridge selection.
Cartridges and speakers (at any price) are the most imperfect components in our signal chain, and building an analog front end around a cartridge is putting the cart(ridge) before the horse.
This leads us to …
The upgrade hierarchy: this is real, and it’s always wise to optimize your turntable, then tonearm, and finally, your cartridge.
Don’t expect a cartridge to solve issues with your turntable and tonearm. As we’ve refined the design of our drive systems over the past 20 years, distortions we previously ascribed to cartridges and tonearms suddenly vanished.
Obviously, a cartridge change can yield an improvement, but bear in mind that a cartridge is a “measuring device” and without a solid platform (turntable and tonearm) it can’t “measure” the information in record groove accurately.
As mentioned above, no system is perfect, but it’s much easier to reduce colorations in turntables and tonearms, and then season to taste with a cartridge.
You likely have considered most of the above criteria, and I spend quite a bit of time discussing them with my customers, but there’s one consideration that is almost never mentioned …
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 very good tonearms are considerably 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.