How important is the tonearm?


I am presently shopping for a new tonearm for my new turntable. I looked at basic arm like the Jelco (500$) but also at arms like Reed, Graham, Tri-Planar all costing over 4000$.

The turntable is a TTWeights Gem Ultra and the cartridge I have on hand is a brand new Benz Ruby 3.

Here is a couple of questions for the analogue experts.

1. Is the quality of the tonearm important?

2. Is it easy to hear the difference between expensive tonearm (Ex: Graham Phantom) vs a cheaper Jelco (Approx. 500$)?

3. What makes a good arm?

Any comments from analogues expert?
acadie
I can't tell you the difference between the two arms mentioned. I can say that most including me now believe that the tonearm just might be more important than the table itself. The table needs to be stable and rotate at proper speeds with very heavy platter. I know I am simplifying. But I think that might be major consensus.The tonearm's mass should be low as possible to avoid unnecessary wear on the grooves.There is to much here and you could fill a bible..there is a lot of great people here with enough knowledge to put you on the right track.
It is my firm belief that the arm matters more than the cartridge. I think it is indisputable that a bad arm will negate most if not all the virtues of a cartridge. I have used many, presently have a Graham 2.2 set up and a Jelco 750 awaiting the restoration of a Linn LP 12. As to which arm and what design characteristics should matter there is little agreement. Choice will be governed by the compliance of your cartridge, compatibility with your table, and personal preference. Do not equate price totally with performance, companies like Jelco have economies of scale and give great value for the money. Arms made by them have sold for high prices under famous names in the past and may still for all I know. If you want the most out of your cartridge a good arm is essential; the choice is up to you: air bearing, linear tracking , unipivot, conventional. There are good arms using all these configurations.
I am with Stanwal!
It is my firm belief that the arm matters more than the cartridge

But I disagree with the other poster's statement of
The tonearm's mass should be low as possible to avoid unnecessary wear on the grooves.

I will bet all I have that a cartridge with low compliance will not sound as good when installed to low mass tonearm compared to a high mass tonearm. Why? Because it is designed with highmass tonearm in mind. So not all tonearm should have low mass. It depends on the application/cart being use. Besides, VTF dictates the force that the groove "feels" from the stylus not the tonearm mass.

If I am the one shopping for tonearms, I will buy the best that I can afford and be done with it.
The arm should be somewhere near the table in value. With a $5,000 table, a $500 arm just does not make sense. And with a $3,000 cart?
Anyway I do not have an answer. This is confusing. If you bought such an expensive table, and cart.. why don't you have the dealer offer advice?
Was this an estate sale or something?
Anyway, the arm I would buy is a SME 309, with the thought of upgrading later.. to a V series. but that is not the arm you should buy..
Amandarae" what I should have said is that most designers try to keep The tonearm's mass has low as possible to avoid unnecessary wear on the grooves..
Actually, the mass of the arm has very little if any effect on groove wear and designers do not attempt to keep it as low as possible. The mass of todays arms is higher than it was in the 70s in general. Something like the Transcripters VESTIGIAL arm with its mass of 3 grams or less would be laughed at today. The SME 3 arm had a mass of something like 4.5 grams, the 5 is 12 or 13. Low compliance cartridges will not work well in low mass arms in general. The critical factor in groove wear is the shape and polish on the stylus. Long ago there was an experiment in which an LP was played several hundred times tracking at 3.5 grams with a high quality stylus; there was no wear when it was examined under a microscope. Badly polished styluses with irregular shape are the most danger to grooves. I remember it the 70s HIFI News had a cover showing the magnified stylus of a group of top cartridges; many were obviously misshapen. I don't know what todays would look like; better I hope, given current prices.
Scipo said
... most designers try to keep The tonearm's mass has low as possible to avoid unnecessary wear on the grooves.
I do not agree with that statement. What does tonearm mass have to do with tracking force, in and of itself? Tonearm mass is a the main determinant of resonance. Is there a difference in groove wear if the same cartridge was mounted on a Grace 707 at 7g and an Origin Live Silver at 14g, assuming that both were adjusted for 2g or tracking force?
The job of the tonearm is to hold the cartridge in the groove with the grip and determination of The Incredible Hulk while maintaining the finesse of Tinkerbell.

That table deserves either the Triplanar or Graham. My personal preference would be for the Triplanar. TTweights also has the Talea, which is expensive, but will leave you speechless, even with a "lowly" 103r. You should try to hear one even if you have no intention of buying it.

(fill in your own TV voice talking really fast for this last part)
disclaimers: I also sell Taleas, but have no association with TTweights, other than we both sell that arm. I've owned a Graham 2.2 in the past. I currently own and use a Triplanar along with a Talea. I don't have any association with Wheaton or Graham.
Well I'm going to be the odd one out here.
To me it's the cartridge that determines the sound which comes from the vinyl groove.
I've got 8 arms and 16 cartridges and most of those cartridges will sound their best in many of the arms (value from $460 to $10,000).
It's really only if you want one arm to go with many cartridges that the arm cost may (and it's a big may), equate to a more universal application...ie high compliance MM/MI and low compliance MC?

But many of the high-end current high-mass arms do NOT sound well with high compliance MM/MI cartridges.
If you believe that only low compliance MC cartridges qualify for the high-end, you are deluding yourself.
A question worth to think about, there are differences in Design (not every Arm is done perfect), the ability to guide a cartridge, to handle the resonances coming from the cartridge, the quality of the internal cable, the quality of the bearing, the material from the Armtube (wood, composite, Aluminum ...).

The better your System is (has nothing to do with price) the more you will hear the differences. The main problem is the table (and the connected electronics). Most are nothing special in vibration control and based on this, most think, the cartridge or the Arm has to be replaced when they don't "like" something in the listening..
Next is the Phonostage, most can only do 100 Ω because that is easy to design and with such a damping the higher frequencies are dead anyway.

When you have absolutely no idea from anything, go for a Graham Phantom Arm, it is clever made, works with very much cartridges on a superior level and you can concentrate the later upgrade bugs to other objects.
Very. SME, in my opinion makes the best arms, but pricey. However setup support is excellent. Overall I am a fan of VPI, in terms of sound delivered, value and support it is hard to beat. The dealers are very knowledgeable and Harry goes the extra length to support his products. Great efforts are made to integrate the arm,table and cartridge at the factory, providing less hassle that you get with other arms when trying to marry them to other tables. It leaves you more time to enjoy the music, and not be fussy with the gear.
When I upgraded tonearm from Rega RB250 to Kuzma Stogi Reference I heard a substantial sound improvement. When I replaced Benz ACE H with Benz LP the same happened. Now I am waiting Benz Lukaschek PP-1 to replace Pro-ject Phono Box SE II. I am expecting sound improvement again.
I don't disagree at all that it is the cartridge that is the main focus in getting the music from the grooves. In the context of this thread, however, the device that is responsible for allowing the cartridge to work the best it possibly can is the arm. I have never seen or heard a cartridge work without an arm of some sort. (Those little VW microbus toys don't count!)

Obvisouly, we're leaving out every other link in the chain from cart to speaker, but why cloud the issue when the question here is about the arm.

I prefer the Triplanar to Graham because of the PITA of adjusting the damping fluid on a Graham to get it to sound it's best. The Triplanar is much easier and faster to get set, i.e. it is more user friendly IMO. Still, Graham arms are excellent. The Talea outperforms both of these right out of the box, is the easiest of all three to setup, and will allow one to really hear what a cartridge can do.

SME?!?! Give me a break.
With respect and deference to all the learned responses above, I think it's safe to say that, like everything else in our hobby, ultimately it is synergy that will yield the best results.

A top-shelf arm with a low end cart or a low-end arm paired with a top-shelf cart will both probably be bettered by a mid-grade arm and a mid-grade cart whose mass and compliance are optimally mated.

So neither the arm nor the cart can claim top billing!
Deare Acadie: For many years I " supported " that the tonearm and cartridge are one and only one audio item not two audio items.

The in between relationship is so critical on quality performance level that made a hard " task " try to separate one each other.

Yes, there are different build quality level tonearms and differences on " user/cartridge friendly " set up level in its design.

I think it is easy to hear the difference between and expensive tonearm vs a cheaper Jelco if the cartridge is a wrong/bad match with the cheaper tonearm but if the cartridge makes a good match with this tonearm then it is not so easy to heard/hear differences.

I like Benz Micro cartridges that I own and I agree with Elizabeth the SME is a good option with that cartridge.

Now the Jelco is so unexpensive that if I was you I will try the SA-750E witn that Ruby 3 and if you don't like it you always could put on sale and sold it very easy.
The Jelco is a removable ( universal. ) headshell design and you could try with different buil material/weight headshells to know which one mates better with the Ruby 3. In the other side you can buy a good IC cable for the Jelco that degrade the less the cartridge signal.

All options named here are good.

Btw, I agree with Halcro: the source is the most important link in an audio chain, either digital or analog.

I posted elsewhere that the source ( any ) is the EMPEROR and all the other audio links ( including our system set up skills. ) in that system audio chain are mere subdits/slaves working in favor of the source signal trying to lose the less and adding the less ( any degradation form. ) to that source signal.

+++++ " I have never seen or heard a cartridge work without an arm of some sort. " +++++

me either, well I seen it but not heard it with out an " arm of some sort " in the same way that with out IC cables/TT/PS/speakers/etc " of some sort ", all of them are only cartridge's slaves.

IMHO as better synergy between slaves ( each to other ) and Emperor/slaves as better system quality performance.

Regards and enjoy the music,
Raul.
I forgot, that was at hardware level we can't forget that all that system hardware ( including cartridge. ) works in favor of software/LPs.

Raul.
The question was NOT what is more important, rather HOW important is the tonearm. And I think we all agree that the arm is very important.

Soulbrass, all things being equal, etc., the low-end cart on the high-end arm will sound better because the arm is providing more complete support to allow the lesser cartridge to sound its best.
VERY!!
out of my league
Matching a cartridge to the tonearm then choosing the right table to hopefully hear the arm,cartridge and your music at their very best. It's all important this far up the stream.

Remember when Ivor Tiefenbrun popped onto the scene back in the 1970s preaching about the source ,.......whom here bought into that back in the day? :-o
As Raul says....the Jelco is inexpensive.
It doesn't mean it's a bad arm. If you find a cartridge that you like and which is a good match, you don't have to pay more for an arm.
I worked a number of years ago in a speciality business where all we sold were phono cartridges and tone arms. There are some basic principles

1)matching a tone arm and cartridge is like matching a car and a shock aborber... what you want is for the arm to "hug the road". That translates into lightweight soft suspension cartridges should be in light tone arms, heavy stiff suspension cartridges should be in heavier arms. A mismatch means wow and flutter, poor tracking, a suspension that bottoms out on imperfectly flat vinyl.

2) the bearing assembly is critical, arm should move easily up and down, no wobble. the meet point for the bearings should be machined to high tolerance with the highest durability steel

3) the easiest test of a tonearm/cartridge match is a female vocalist on direct to disc. My favorite used to be Amanda McBroom on West of Oz (Sheffeld Labs) With a bad match the voice will become edgy or break up, with a good match the voice will remain smooth in the most intense passages. This tests for two things, trackability and tone arm resonance. Note that the more complex stylus shapes require correct VTA adjustment for this test to be valid but elliptical and hyperelliptical shapes are fairly forgiving.

As to importance, the tonearm is secondary to the turntable. A spring suspension turntable like Linn or Sota with an entry level tonearm will reveal much more than if you buy a better arm but compromise on a non spring suspension turntable.
Oh, now you aren't saying non suspended tables are inferior. ;-) Are you?
Dear Davide, You wrote:
"As to importance, the tonearm is secondary to the turntable. A spring suspension turntable like Linn or Sota with an entry level tonearm will reveal much more than if you buy a better arm but compromise on a non spring suspension turntable."

I and many others, like Dan_ed, would strongly disagree with this wild generalization, to the effect that suspended turntables are better inherently than unsuspended ones. Can you amplify on this thought?
Lewm, i was in audio at the hey day of vinyl and my college education was physics. The assertion is fact based from comparison in the early 80's with reference systems in the $20K range, trying various TT solutions at the time, Rega, Denon, Sota and Linn Sondek. The basic reason why is this:

A vinyl recording is a physical transcription of the audio sound wave in a circle spiraling inwards. For absolute fidelity the stylus must trace the signal with no other superimposed vibration in the range of human hearing and with no sympathetic vibration from the tracing tonearm assembly. It is also a stereo ( or quad) signal so that difference in relative motion exists between left and right side of the stylus. These physically transcribed vibrations are the key to what we call imaging; the more exact they are followed, the better the tonal resolution (timbre) and the more we get a sense of instrument spatial location.

The problem with playing an LP is external vibration; you are vibrating right now in your seat (heartbeat, many other vibrations exist from motors, vehicles, building construction). Assuming that you have a top notch TT and tonearm so that it creates no vibration and does not vibrate sympathetically you have to filter and damp out these external vibrations from reaching your stylus playback or your stereo image collapses, low volume detail becomes vague, muddy.... basically the external vibration changes the electrical signal transduced from the stylus and it affects the oh so important low level transient detail.

Rigid, non suspended turntables like the Rega and Denon have mass damping chacteristics only so that even the best arm in the world can only bring so much into focus and less than perfect arms are small ships tossed around in a storm of vibration.

Turntables like the Linn and Sota when properly balanced have a suspension resonance point below the audible range of human hearing, vibration from the surface the TT rests on is damped by the suspension above the resonance point.
They are not perfect but they acchieve an order of magnitude greater success than turntables who don't use basic automotive physics for a soft stable ride. Because they dampout external vibrations so well before they affect stylus tracing, cheaper arms have a calmer environment to trace in and their deficiencies wont be seen without more extreme musical passages to excite the arm assembly resonance deficiencies.
I note also dialogue about whether to spend more money on tonearm or cartridge. note this metaphor... the arm is the chassis of the automobile, the cartridge is the engine. Its more fun to have a cheap chassis with a high powered engine than to have an expensive chassis with an underpowered engine. Cartridges have distinct sound characteristics, arms help refine and dig more detail out of the cartridge playback... they can't add what isn't there to begin with.
Ah, I see. We're not thinking apples and apples. Have you heard a modern, mass loaded, non-suspended table? I'm not talking about Rega, Denon, etc.
This is a question like what's more important...the preamp or amp. In my experience I have found that given arms with the same general ranking, the cartridge makes the greater difference than does the tonearm.
Davide,
We are all free to believe what we want.......even that the earth is flat or the sun revolves around the earth.
But please don't state that a suspended turntable is better than a non-suspended one as a fact.
To you it might seem true, yet that still positions it far from a 'fact'?

High school physics hardly qualifies you to teach.

To me, with a bit of university physics, a suspended turntable, no matter what frequency the suspension is tuned to, is a 'moving' turntable.
Once the turntable is 'moving', even if the arm is moving on the same suspended platform, all bets are off.
The geometrical relationships of the stylus to the vinyl groove are forever changing and the platter is almost never horizontal.

You appear to be stuck in an 80s timewarp with a 'Linn' induced mentality?
Thankfully analogue has moved on from this mind-bending 'sect' and a superficial search of all the high-end turntable introductions over the last 10 years would leave no doubt in your mind as to the view of the majority of current turntable designers.

But if you enjoy it........please continue to do so.
A great tonearm and good cartridge will outperform a good tonearm and great cartridge all day long.

I can prove that to any or all visitors.

Dealer disclaimer.
Yes, it is all important. The table, the arm, the cart, the wiring, etc. However, the OPs question was not "what is more important". He simply asked "how important is the tonearm". If they asked "How important is the table?" My answer would be the same. Very important. No component can correct the faults of another, but faults can be masked by another component.
However, the OPs question was not "what is more important". He simply asked "how important is the tonearm"

You aren't a real Audiophile. Sorry, but your logical following of "read-think-answering" is opposite to forums advices.
the basic yardstick for successful purchase is listening fatigue. In order of importance

1) turntable
2) tonearm
3) cartridge

however cartridges like speakers illicit love/hate/ho-hum responses. And unlike tonearms stylii can be destroyed in a blink of an eye. So find a cartridge manufacturer whose sound you love and settle on the model that won't cause divorce if your spouse dusts the stylus; invest any difference in your tonearm. (which may still cause divorce if your increased blissful listening hours makes your spouse feel like an "audiophile widow" :<)
You aren't a real Audiophile.

And proud of it! :-)

01-27-11: Dan_ed
The job of the tonearm is to hold the cartridge in the groove with the grip and determination of The Incredible Hulk while maintaining the finesse of Tinkerbell.

could you explain what characteristic would allow one tonearm to inherently "hold the cartridge" better than another tonearm? i would prefer an answer with specificity over a generalized "it is widely known" type of response. i ask this because as long as the tonearm is rigid (and all tonearms of which i am aware has this characteristic) then i am having difficulty understanding what the difference really is.

what does seem to me to be of importance is the effective mass of the tonearm, but the signiificance of this must be evaluated based on the compliance of the cartridge that is to be mounted on the tonearm. here, i can see a consideration that has importance. but this is a matter of effective mass and not of the specific brand of tonearm. the reason why you care about the effective mass is because the compliance of the cartridge is a measure of the spring properties of the cartridge. when the effective mass of the tonearm is not properly matched with the compliance of the cartridge you can get resonances at low frequencies that can make the cartridge become unstable in the groove. but this analysis would suggest that what you really care about in a "good arm" is one whose effective mass is appropriate for the compliance of the cartridge. so the real question that i am referring to in my earlier comments is, what other characteristics about the tonearm have concrete significance? it is hard for me to grasp assertions that a $10,000 tonearm is better than a $100 tonearm simply because the former costs 100 times more than the latter.
paperw8, heres what I've seen with a Linn Sondek going from least to best tonearm available in the shop.

#1, quality of arm doesn't affect groove tracking, thats really a matter of good bearings and good match between arm mass and cartridge so that irregular record surfaces don't excite a wow/flutter effect. You can get excellent groove tracking in any properly made cartridge above $100

2# quality of arm does affect the ability to trace microtransients and not distort peak transients. A mediocre arm reduces that sense of "air" in a recording and direct to discs will make you want to shoot the arm and put it out of its misery. The arm basically rings like a bell at unpredictable frequencies and amplitudes in sympathy to the stylus vibration.

Better arms have fairly sophisticated schemes of minimizing resonances. Beware of any tonearm with dangling parts, thats a resonance PITA. An excellent tonearm should have a machined approach like jewel movement swiss watches.

01-30-11: Davide256
2# quality of arm does affect the ability to trace microtransients and not distort peak transients. A mediocre arm reduces that sense of "air" in a recording and direct to discs will make you want to shoot the arm and put it out of its misery. The arm basically rings like a bell at unpredictable frequencies and amplitudes in sympathy to the stylus vibration.

Better arms have fairly sophisticated schemes of minimizing resonances. Beware of any tonearm with dangling parts, thats a resonance PITA. An excellent tonearm should have a machined approach like jewel movement swiss watches.

i see. this sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. i have a triplanar tonearm and one thing that i have noticed is that the tonearm seems very dead in the sense that if you tap the tonearm the material from which the tonearm is made deadens vibrations. an impulse tap contains a fairly wide range of frequncies so that test would suggest to me that the triplanar tonearm is not particularly prone to coupling longitudinal resonances along the wand.
Oh dear oh dear.
The old 'tap' test again..........
What's wrong with taps for a dead arm? Sorry, the devil made me do it.
Paperw8, most any tonearm is a complex system in itself. Sorry, no easy answers.

Tapping. Here we go again.
Play is done,
Gone the fun,
From the makes, from the shills, from the buys,
All is well,
Safely rest,
Mods are nigh.
hehehehehe!!!

01-31-11: Dan_ed
Paperw8, most any tonearm is a complex system in itself. Sorry, no easy answers.

you should always question your own assumptions to make sure that you actually know what you are talking about. if you just accept the "it's inscrutable" line, then you are like so many of the "audiophiles" who spout commentaries on this site but who substantively don't know what they are talking about.

i am not suggesting that all of this subject matter is trivial, but my feeling is that i at least try to understand it. "trust your ears" is just not sufficient; if you can't gain some understanding of a process for purchase decision-making you are just throwing your money away. think about it, with all the equipment out there and all of the "synergy" issues that are about, there is virtually an infinite number of different combinations of equipment that one can try. even a turntable system involves a daunting array of choices between the variety of cartridges, tonearms, turntables, tonearm cables and phono stages - and all of that is before you even get to the preamplifier! you have to have some way to cut down the possibilities.
I've been down this road before with you, paperw8. Tap,tap! That would be the sound my head would make as it hit that same brick wall as the last time. No thanks, I really don't care what you think you know.
it's all gimmick. For below $500 each, you can find a table, a tonearm and a cart and enjoy music, spending more than that is just for your ego
And many will tell you the same about buying anything analog. Your value judgment is your own.
I started this tread and I finally bought a new Tri-Planar VII. I considered some more exotic arms like Telea or Reed but decided to go with Tri-Planar, a well respected product made in the USA.

Maybe with more experience in analogue,I will give a try/experience one of those exotic arms in the future.

By the way, I like the sound with this combo: TTWeights Gem Ultra V2/Tri-Planar/Benz Ruby 3. I am sure there is better but for me, this is a bit better than the VPI Scoutmaster I had previously.
Very nice! You'll have a very hard time taking many of those well known 'table makers seriously from here on out.
One nice thing about the Triplanar is you can set up the effective mass of the arm/cartridge system to match a range of cartridge compliances. Beyond the abilities to set the usual adjustments, this feature reduces the need to be picky about the cartridge. I have found that surprisingly inexpensive cartridges, if set up right in this arm, will track with the best of LOMC and sound nearly the same too, **once properly loaded**.

So my take is the arm **can** be a lot more important than the cartridge- so long as the effective mass issues can be satisfied by the combination.
02-05-11: Mj908
it's all gimmick. For below $500 each, you can find a table, a tonearm and a cart and enjoy music, [b]spending more than that is just for your ego[/b]

LOL, you must be speaking of your system. News flash: All systems are not alike. I agree, you can have a nice sounding analog rig for the money you mention. To sugggest that other's who may pay $10K or more for the table & arm, plus $5k on a cart are doing it to stroke their ego is ludicrous and indicates to me that you really don't have a clue. Thanks for the laugh though. :-)