Nube question - what does a tonearm upgrade do

I can understand what a cartridge upgrade can do , it is actually in contact with the record and transmitting the signal down the line . But how does the tone arm affect this signal transmission ?
What makes the difference between a good one and a great one ?
The tonearm has a number of tasks to perform. First, the bearing must low in friction to allow for free movement of the cartidge but rigid enought so that vibration imparted by the stylus movement to the body of the cartridge does not cause the arm to rattle around. A good arm both dampens such vibrational energy within the arm as well as transmits energy down the arm to be dissipated elsewhere (such as in the armboard) rather than allowing that energy to be fed back to the cartridge.

Because no arm can be perfect at eliminating the effects of vibrational energy, the arm should also be matched to the particular cartridge to minimize the adverse effects of such energy. The "effective mass" of the arm and cartridge should be matched to the "compliance" of the cartridge suspension so that the resonant frequency is in a range that does not cause problems. For example, a high compliance cartridge should not be matched to a high mass arm. You will find that such matching can be a complex subject with some disagreement on what is ideal. There are some arms that are deliberately designed to have high mass in the horizontal plane (movement side to side) and low mass in the vertical plane (up and down); this is done to deliberately make the arm less responsive to side to side forces imparted by the cartrdige tracking bass notes so that the cartridge itself does not move in response to the groove undulations (meaning bigger movement of the stylus itself and more bass).

The arm should be adjustable enough to allow for ideal alignment of the cartridge to get the best performance from the cartridge. Some arms make this much easier to accomplish than others, althoug "ease" does not necessarily mean that ultimate accuracy is higher.

At a minimum, a good arm will allow the cartridge to "track" the groove such that there will not be gross distortion from the stylus losing proper contact with the walls of the groove. This can happen on very active passages, meaning loud passages, or passages with a lot of high frequency energy (such as the sibilant energy of a singer getting too close to a microphone) or passages with very powerful bass notes. Better arms, and arms that are a better match to a particular cartridge, will allow the cartridge to perform up to its full capability in this respect.

There is, like everything else in audio, the important matter of personal taste. The sound of each particular arm/cartridge combination will be different in some respects and what is preferable depends on system matching and personal taste. As I mentioned above, effective dampening of vibrational energy is generally a good thing, but, some listeners will complain that a particular arm makes their cartridge sound dead and lifeless. This could be the result of such high degree of dampening.

Because it is not realistically possible to try all sorts of different arms in one's system before making a purchase, to some extent, getting the "right" arm, is a matter of luck or getting good advice. As a gross generalization, I would say that all of the high-end arms that have a good reputation will perform better than run of the mill arms, but, when you get up into picking among such arms, it is mostly a matter of taste.

Great question. Almost all vinyl newbies think as you do. It seems natural but it's actually backwards.

Most audiophiles with broad experience and multiple setups will tell you that the tonearm, turntable and phono stage EACH has a bigger impact on overall sound quality than the cartridge.

A tonearm affects sound reproduction in many ways. Here are some...

Inexpensive tonearms have inexpensive bearings. These tend to resist arm movements and that impedes the tonearm's #1 job, which is to keep the stylus perfectly centered over the (moving) record groove. Poor bearings also resist movement in the vertical plane, which means constant deviations in VTF on warped records. When the cantilever is unevenly positioned and pressured, the sound will be muddied. A better tonearm will (should) have better bearings, which reduces these problems.

From my own gear collection, the bearings on my $5K TriPlanar are much better than on any $500 arm that. It's easy to feel as you move the arm across a record. If you're only used to inexpensive arms, the first time you move a TriPlanar or other high end arm the lack of resistance is startling... you might accidentally fling the cartridge right across the record, like Charlie Brown kicking that suddenly non-existent football. Yikes!

Try balancing your cartridge/tonearm to 0 VTF so it floats level, then blow gently sideways on the cartridge. On many cheaper arms it will move an inch or so. On a top quality arm it will float all the way across the reoord.

Another aspect separating ordinary from extraordinary tonearms is the ability to dampen or conduct stray vibrations away from the cartridge.

In theory, all stylus movements should be converted to electrical signal. In practice, all cartridges leak some of those movements as kinetic energy. That energy, if reflected back into the cartridge, causes the transducer to generate spurious signals... time-delayed echoes of the original stylus movements. These muddy the sound and raise the entire system's noise floor.

A really good tonearm will couple the cartridge body to the headshell with a material interface that's relatively acoustically transparent. This allows stray vibrations coming from the cartridge to get OUT of the cartridge. The good tonearm will then provide a path for those vibrations to exit WITHOUT reflecting back down the arm and into the cartridge. The arm may also dampen or dissipate some vibrations, though this is tricky to design without creating unwanted sonic side effects. Throwing damping materials on a tonearm often doesn't work, since some of them can store enegy and eventually release it back into the system... ie, more mud.

Another aspect of better arms is higher quality wire.

The signal generated by a phono cartridge, especially a LOMC, is the lowest level, most delicate signal an audio system has to deal with. Errors, distortions or mud introduced here are amplified many times more than such problems occuring later in the amplification chain. Wire does matter, and tonearm wire matters more than any other.

I'm sure others will chime in with other examples, but in my (fairly broad) experience a good tonearm is MUCH more important than a good cartridge. Here's an example from my gear... I own:

- $1K table/arm and a $12K table/arm
- $150MM and an $8K LOMC

A. $8K LOMC on big rig... glorious (as they should be)

B. $8K LOMC on cheap rig... DRECK (a sensitive and revealing cartridge spotlights all the flaws of the inadequate table and arm)

C. $150 MM on the cheap rig... as you'd expect, decent, fun music but nothing earth shattering

D. $150 MM on the big rig... WOW! Is this really the same cartridge?

If I you visited and we listened to A and then D, you'd swear I swapped in a $1-2K cartridge without telling you. The improvement from upgrading table and arm is staggering. The little MM sings its heart out with a quality you'd never believe if you'd only heard it on a run of the mill rig.

Good post, and I think we are in agreement. A few years ago, a friend got into vinyl for the first time. His first table was the cheapest Project table, but, the cartridge he bought was an Ortofon Per Winfield, something FAR from a starter cartridge The table was set up optimally, including the necessary use of a custom-made counterweight, the use of a Feikert protractor for alignment, digital scales for setting tracking force, and even the use of an azimuth analyzer. While the setup sounded quite good, there was some mild distortion on loud passages in the inner groove section of some records. The basic sound was decent, but, far from what the system was capable of delivering. This was a temporary setup and the owner very shortly went with a MUCH more appropriate EMT table/tonearm combination that sounded WAY better. I have also heard the opposite arrangement (cheap cartridge on highend table/arm), and I agree that works better than the other way around.

A decent arm is very vital to good phono reproduction. But, I am sure that there is plenty of room for all of us to fight over how good is good enough, at what point is one getting "high-end" sound, etc.
(Try balancing your cartridge/tonearm to 0 VTF so it floats level, then blow gently sideways on the cartridge. On many cheaper arms it will move an inch or so. On a top quality arm it will float all the way across the record.)

I guess that makes all Well Tempered arms trash. I don't think so.

Better arms offer better and easier adjustability that implies to better TRACKING again.

I think we're in agreement. Different words, similar concepts.


I guess that makes all Well Tempered arms trash. I don't think so.
The first function of a tonearm is to center the cartridge directly over the (constantly moving) record groove.

If a tonearm's bearings (or whatever it uses to function as bearings) impede horizontal movement of the cartridge in response to the groove's inward spiral, then to the extent of that impedance, the tonearm will impair sonic performance by placing unnecessary lateral compression forces on the cantilever and suspension. In general, the sonic result would be slowed or softened dynamics and diminished amplitudes.

This is true regardless of the brand name of the tonearm.
Just outstanding information ! Far more to this tone arm thing than I had ever imagined . Thank you Larryi & Dougdeacon .
I'm would the Pro-ject 9 tone arm rate that came on my Music Hall 5.1 table ? What would be a reasonable tone arm upgrade while keeping the stock Magic 3 cartridge ?
Once again...great tutorial !
The biggest improvement rendered to any system I've owned over many, many years of addiction was when I added the Naim ARO to a Linn LP-12. This is the one that I will remember forever.
What makes the difference between a good one and a great one ?

To answer that question correctly, you have to know what a good Arm is, what it cannot do and why a great one is a great one.
Most think, their Arm is a great one (no matter how bad it really is or what flaws it has)... well, what's the difference?
A great tonearm is dynamically balanced, will show rigid construction, fast transmission of energy, rigid bearings which are able to further transport the energy away from the arm, precise geometry, tooling and knowledge of materials.