Are you a vinyl enthusiast looking to upgrade your turntable setup? If so, you may have heard the term “low mass tonearm” thrown around.
But what exactly does that mean?
In this article, we’ll explore the world of tonearms and break down the benefits and drawbacks of using a low mass tonearm.
From understanding effective mass to finding the right cartridge compatibility, we’ll cover everything you need to know to make an informed decision about your turntable setup.
So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of low mass tonearms.
What Is A Low Mass Tonearm
A low mass tonearm is a type of tonearm that has a low effective mass, typically rated at 10 grams or below. The effective mass of a tonearm refers to the total mass of the tonearm, including the cartridge and headshell.
The main benefit of using a low mass tonearm is that it can reduce the amount of force applied to the groove walls of a record, which can help minimize wear and tear on your vinyl collection. Additionally, low mass tonearms are less likely to cause resonances in the audible range, which can result in a cleaner and more accurate sound.
However, it’s important to note that using a low mass tonearm may not be suitable for all types of cartridges. Cartridges with very low compliance may require a heavier arm to prevent undesirable resonances from occurring in the audible range. On the other hand, cartridges with high compliance may work best with a lighter arm.
Understanding Effective Mass
Effective mass is a crucial factor to consider when selecting a tonearm for your record player. It refers to the total mass of the tonearm, including the cartridge and headshell, as seen by the stylus. A low mass tonearm typically has an effective mass of 10 grams or below.
It’s important to note that different cartridges have different mechanical compliance (elasticity) levels, which need to be taken into account when selecting a tonearm. Cartridges with very low compliance may require a heavier arm to prevent undesirable resonances from occurring in the audible range. Conversely, cartridges with high compliance may work best with a lighter arm.
Low mass tonearms are typically preferred because they can reduce the amount of force applied to the groove walls of a record, which can help minimize wear and tear on your vinyl collection. They are also less likely to cause resonances in the audible range, resulting in a cleaner and more accurate sound.
However, it’s important to strike a balance between effective mass and cartridge compliance to ensure optimal performance. If a low compliance cartridge is used with a low mass tonearm, undesirable resonances can occur in the audible range. Conversely, if a high compliance cartridge is mated with a moderate mass tonearm, resonances in the infrasonic range may occur.
Benefits Of Using A Low Mass Tonearm
There are several benefits to using a low mass tonearm. Firstly, a lightweight tonearm is more likely to move with the record surface, rather than digging into it. This means that the stylus will maintain tracking force and Vertical Tracking Angle (VTA), resulting in a more accurate and consistent sound.
Secondly, low mass tonearms are less likely to cause resonances in the audible range. This is because the arm’s lower mass reduces the amount of force applied to the groove walls, which can minimize unwanted vibrations and resonances. As a result, the sound produced by a low mass tonearm is often cleaner and more accurate.
Thirdly, low mass tonearms are generally better at handling eccentric records and disc warp. When playing discs with eccentric holes, the arm has to follow the eccentric groove and its movement must be forced by the walls of the groove. A lighter arm is better suited to this task as it can move more easily with the record surface. Additionally, when a record is warped, the tonearm gets pushed up and is allowed to fall down as the warp passes by. The more warp, the more force is required. A high mass arm requires more force, but stylus compliance minimizes this problem.
Finally, using a low mass tonearm can help improve high frequency response. Low output Moving Coil (MC) cartridges have coils attached to the internal end of the cantilever plus far less metal wound thereon, which reduces effective tip mass and affords the stylus more wiggle room. This comes in handy especially in the high frequency range which is more demanding of a nimble stylus (low frequencies exhibit longer groove modulations, high frequencies short, more rapid ones). Sonically this amounts to ‘sweeter’ highs that portray more extension and ‘air.’
Drawbacks Of Using A Low Mass Tonearm
While a low mass tonearm can offer certain benefits, it’s important to consider the potential drawbacks before making a decision. One major drawback of using a low mass tonearm is that it may not be as effective at tracking warped records. The lower mass of the arm can make it more difficult to maintain contact with the groove, which can result in skips or other playback issues.
Another potential issue with using a low mass tonearm is that it may not provide enough damping to effectively control resonances in the infrasonic range. This can result in unwanted vibrations that can impact the overall sound quality. Additionally, using a low mass tonearm with a cartridge that has very high compliance may lead to undesirable resonances in the audible range.
Finally, it’s worth noting that low mass tonearms may not be suitable for all types of music or listening preferences. Some audiophiles prefer a warmer, more full-bodied sound, which may be better achieved with a heavier tonearm.
Finding The Right Cartridge Compatibility
When selecting a cartridge for your low mass tonearm, it’s important to consider the mechanical compliance of the cartridge cantilever system. Cartridges are typically grouped into low, medium, and high compliance types. High compliance cartridges have an easier time moving with less effort than low or medium compliance cartridges.
To ensure that the entire system works together, the cartridge should be matched with the right tonearm. Tonearms from other manufacturers like Triplanar, SME, or Graham 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, while 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.
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. This allows for better and more accurate reproduction of bass frequencies and can also go a long way to reduce acoustic feedback, which lowers the level at which you can play your music.
When selecting either MC or MM cartridges for your record player, total effective mass of tonearm (including cartridge and headshell) has to be taken into account in relation to the mechanical compliance (elasticity) of the cartridge cantilever system. A phono cartridge with a compliance in the range of 5 to 10 μm/mN is considered as a very low compliance cartridge, a cartridge with a compliance in the range of 10 to 20 μm/mN is moderate compliance cartridge and a cartridge with the compliance value above 35μm/mN is very high compliance cartridge.
How To Choose The Right Tonearm For Your Setup
Choosing the right tonearm for your setup is crucial in ensuring the best possible sound quality. When selecting a tonearm, it’s important to consider the effective mass of the tonearm, as well as the compliance of the cartridge you plan to use.
As mentioned earlier, low mass tonearms work best with high compliance cartridges, while high mass tonearms are better suited for low compliance cartridges. It’s important to match the compliance of your cartridge with the effective mass of your tonearm to ensure optimal performance.
Another factor to consider is the material of the tonearm itself. Tonearms made from materials such as carbon fiber or aluminum tend to have lower mass than those made from materials like steel or brass. Additionally, some tonearms have adjustable counterweights that allow for precise tracking force adjustment, which can be beneficial in achieving optimal performance with your cartridge.
When setting up your tonearm, it’s important to ensure that it is properly balanced and that the tracking force and anti-skate are set correctly. This will help minimize wear on your vinyl and ensure accurate sound reproduction.
In summary, when choosing a tonearm for your setup, it’s important to consider the effective mass of the arm, the compliance of your cartridge, and the material of the arm itself. Proper setup and adjustment are also crucial in achieving optimal performance.