How To Set Up A Tonearm – A Comprehensive Guide

If you’re a vinyl enthusiast, you know that setting up a turntable can be a bit of a daunting task.

One of the most important aspects of turntable setup is getting the tonearm just right. The tonearm is responsible for holding the cartridge and stylus, and it needs to be balanced and adjusted properly in order to get the best sound out of your records.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the process of setting up your tonearm, step by step. Whether you’re a seasoned audiophile or just starting out with vinyl, this guide will help you get the most out of your turntable.

So grab your favorite record and let’s get started!

How To Set Up A Tonearm

First things first, make sure your turntable is set up on a level surface. This will ensure that your tonearm is able to move smoothly and accurately across the record.

Next, take a look at your tonearm. Most turntables come pre-fitted with a tonearm, but if you want to change it or have bought a deck without one, you’ll need an appropriate armboard. Turntable manufacturers should be able to supply a range of armboard options that will suit just about any tonearm out there.

Once you have your tonearm in place, it’s time to start making adjustments. The height of the tonearm needs to be set so that it is parallel to the record’s surface when the cartridge sits in the groove. This can be fine-tuned for optimal performance by altering the height of the arm bearing slightly higher or lower, but it’s best to start with it level.

Now it’s time to set the tracking weight of your cartridge. This is the amount of pressure that the stylus exerts on the record as it plays. Most manufacturers publish recommended tracking weight for their cartridges, which can be found in the manual or online.

If you have a stylus pressure gauge or precision scales, these tools can be very helpful in setting the tracking weight accurately. With the tonearm in its rest position, tape down the platter to prevent it from rotating and carefully place the stylus pressure gauge or scales somewhere centrally in the arc that the stylus follows across the record. Using the cue lever, raise the tonearm and slowly lower the stylus onto the centre point of the gauge/scale. Rotate or slide your tonearm counterweight backwards to add less weight and forwards to add more until you reach the recommended tracking weight.

If you don’t have a stylus pressure gauge or precision scales, you can still set the tracking weight fairly accurately using the markings on the counterweight which indicate grams of tracking force. First, set the anti-skate to zero and tape down the platter as before. Then, hold the tonearm firmly using the finger lift and use your other hand to rotate or slide the counterweight backwards or forwards until you find the zero balance point of the arm. This means that the arm is balanced in mid-air flat parallel to the body of the turntable without being supported by anything. Now rotate the plastic ring on the counterweight until ‘0’ is at 12 o’clock and then rotate the counterweight itself anticlockwise until you hit the recommended tracking weight for your cartridge.

Understanding The Anatomy Of A Tonearm

The tonearm is a crucial component of a turntable, responsible for accurately tracking the record’s grooves and producing high-quality sound. It consists of several parts, including the tonearm tube, cartridge, headshell, and counterweight.

The tonearm tube pivots from the edge of the record towards the center, and at the end of the tube is the cartridge. The cartridge contains the stylus, which is responsible for tracking the record’s groove. The headshell holds the cartridge in place and can be detachable or a single piece of tubing with no break.

At the other end of the tonearm is the counterweight, which needs to be set correctly to apply the proper amount of tracking force. Most tonearms pivot from a full bearing, but some use uni-pivot designs that seek to reduce bearing friction and keep moving surfaces to a minimum.

The tonearm must be extremely stiff and strong while also being light in weight. Materials such as aluminum and carbon fiber are popular for their strength and rigidity while remaining nimble. A lighter tonearm with less inertia will respond better to groove modulations and slight changes in the record surface, resulting in more accurate tracking.

Tonearms can be either straight or S-shaped, with pros and cons to both designs. S-shaped tonearms have equal mass distributed on either side of the pivot point, resulting in better balance. However, they can have greater mass due to their longer arm length. A longer tonearm allows for less tracking error as it moves across the record in an arc.

Understanding the anatomy of a tonearm is crucial for properly setting it up and achieving optimal performance from your turntable. By making sure each component is correctly installed and adjusted, you can ensure that your turntable produces high-quality sound with minimal distortion.

Preparing Your Turntable For Tonearm Setup

Before you start setting up your tonearm, it’s important to prepare your turntable. Firstly, switch off the turntable and protect the stylus with its guard. Next, lift up and remove the platter to expose the motor drive and belt. Move the belt up or down the motor pulley to select the alternative drive speed if necessary. Place the platter back onto the spindle and return it to its original position. Then, switch on the turntable and place a record on the platter.

Now that your turntable is prepared, you can move on to setting up your tonearm. The first step is to adjust the tracking weight, which is the amount of pressure that the stylus exerts on the record as it plays. This should be set according to the cartridge manufacturer’s recommendation, which can be found in the manual or online.

To adjust the tracking weight, remove the stylus guard and make sure that your turntable’s anti-skating dial or weight is set to zero. Use the weight on the back of the arm to balance the tonearm until it floats on its own. Turn the number dial until it reads zero and then turn your counter-weight until the dial reads the correct number for your cartridge.

If you want a more accurate weight, you can use a stylus tracking force gauge. With the tonearm in its rest position, tape down the platter to prevent it from rotating and carefully place the gauge somewhere centrally in the arc that the stylus follows across the record. Using the cue lever, raise the tonearm and slowly lower the stylus onto the centre point of the gauge. Rotate or slide your tonearm counterweight backwards or forwards until you reach the recommended tracking weight for your cartridge.

Once you have set your tracking weight, you can move on to adjusting other aspects of your tonearm such as bias and alignment. It’s important to take your time with these adjustments as small changes can make a notable difference in sound quality. With all adjustments made correctly, you’ll have a deck working at its best and ready for you to enjoy your favorite vinyl records.

Adjusting The Tracking Force

Once you have set the tracking weight of your cartridge, you may need to make some adjustments to achieve optimal performance. The tracking force is the amount of pressure that the stylus exerts on the record as it plays. It’s important to get this right, as too little pressure can result in distortion and skipping, while too much pressure can cause excessive wear on both the record and stylus.

To adjust the tracking force, you’ll need to use the counterweight on your tonearm. This is usually located at the rear end of the tonearm and is likely to have numbers detailed along it. You can adjust the weight of the tonearm by turning the counterweight to a specific number. The numbers are represented in grams, so if the counterweight is set at 2, the weight of the stylus on the record would be 2 grams.

To start, reset the tonearm so that it can balance in mid-air on its own, much like a seesaw. If your turntable has an anti-skate setting, set this to ‘0’. Now, adjust the counterweight so that the tonearm balances in mid-air. By this, we mean that the cartridge and stylus are floating without touching the platter/record but also not falling upwards. Your counterweight is now set to zero.

Next, you’ll need to find the correct tracking force for your cartridge. Each cartridge will have a recommended tracking force weight, which can be found in the manual or online. For example, if you’re using an Ortofon 2m Red cartridge, then the recommended tracking force is about 1.8g.

To set the counterweight to the correct tracking force for your records, all you have to do is turn or adjust your counterweight to the appropriate setting for your cartridge. Set the numbered dial on your counterweight to the required weight for your specific cartridge that you have already looked up. This should then make the cartridge move downwards towards the turntable platter or record and sit at the correct weight when you play music.

If your tonearm also features an anti-skate control, adjust this to match the counterweight setting. So if it’s set at 2g, also set the anti-skate to 2g. The anti-skate function helps counteract the tendency of the tonearm to move inwards as the stylus gets closer to the centre of the record, thus keeping your music sounding its best.

If you want to further check that the weight of your tracking force is correct, you can buy a digital gram scale. With one of these, you can just lower the stylus onto its platform and a digital readout will tell you exactly how much force is being applied. You can then check this against the dial on your counterweight and adjust accordingly.

Setting The Anti-Skate

The anti-skate feature on your turntable is an important setting that helps maintain good channel balance, minimize distortion, and reduce stylus and record wear. To set the anti-skate, start by adjusting it to the same value as the vertical tracking force (VTF) used. This will get you in the ballpark.

Listen carefully to the last few minutes of a record to determine if more or less anti-skate is needed. Inner groove distortion, in particular, can be quite noticeable. Listen for distortion, perhaps most notably in the form of sibilance, and determine if it appears to be louder on one channel, the left or the right. Adjust the anti-skate value until the distortion is minimized.

Now listen carefully at two or three different points across the record. If you used an alignment protractor to align your cartridge, listen at the alignment points. Listen for any differences in tone, dynamics and soundstage at these points. If there are differences, some tweaking of the anti-skate adjustment may be needed.

It’s important to note that the amount of anti-skate force required will be different depending on the relative location of the cartridge towards the record spindle. The curve is somewhat of a parabolic shape, with the skating force higher at the outer groove than at the inner groove, and lowest in the middle. Some tonearms designs have a mechanism which will increase anti-skating force gradually to counteract the non-linear nature of the centripetal force.

Remember that no setup parameter can be optimized in isolation. One must try to achieve optimal settings in as many setup parameters as possible. For example, when meaningful numbers cannot be achieved under the Anti-Skating test, it could be caused by an incorrect VTF, Azimuth or even alignment. You may have to go back and forth different parameters to achieve meaningful results and optimal setting.

Aligning The Cartridge

Once you have set the tracking weight, the next step is to align the cartridge. This is a critical step in achieving optimal sound quality and reducing wear on your records and stylus.

Begin by locating the two screws at the top of the headshell where the cartridge mounts to the tonearm. Loosen the cartridge enough to allow it to slide back and forth with gentle resistance.

Next, set the stylus overhang by getting the distance from the center of the tonearm pivot to the tip of the stylus to the manufacturer’s specified length. This will make for the least distortion and widest null points. Move the cartridge forward so that the tip of the stylus will lower into the corresponding dot in the alignment tool. Using the grid lines on the Align It, square up the cartridge body so that it is parallel to the lines.

If your tonearm has a removable headshell, you can move the cartridge on the tonearm’s axis to ensure that it is at a perfect 90-degree angle to the groove. Once you have set the overhang properly, recheck the tracking force as it may have gone up or down slightly. Adjust the counterweight slightly to bring it back to where it was before.

The next adjustment is VTA/SRA. If you do not have access to a stylus microscope or sophisticated cartridge alignment tools, then visually aligning the bottom of the cartridge body so that it is parallel to the surface of the record is your best bet. Your instruction manual will tell you how to set this for your turntable, but again, think small increments.

Once you have set VTA to the best of your ability, check tracking force one last time and move onto anti-skate. The centrifugal force wants to pull the stylus to the inside of the groove when your cartridge is playing through a record groove. This can cause premature wear on your records, stylus and cause a channel imbalance from left to right. Setting anti-skating force properly will keep your stylus where it belongs.

Using a two-point protractor with dot for stylus tip and grid with lines running parallel to sides and front of cartridge will help you align your cartridge properly. With cartridge mounting hardware loose enough to allow forward and backward movement of cartridge in headshell, position cartridge within headshell so that stylus tip rests on protractor’s outer dot (the dot farthest from center spindle). Align sides of cartridge body with lines on grid which run parallel to its sides. Carefully move cartridge forward or backward (adjust overhang) within headshell so that sides remain parallel while front of cartridge becomes parallel to lines on grid that run across cartridge’s front.

Once aligned with outer dot/grid, move tonearm to inner dot/grid and check alignment there. If alignment is off on inner dot/grid, adjust overhang by moving cartridge forward or backward until sides and front are parallel to their respective lines. Recheck alignment on outer dot/grid until both grids show same alignment.

Once aligned, tighten mounting hardware until snug and enjoy listening to your favorite vinyl records with optimal sound quality!