Photo: GAVIN WHITNER / MUSICOOMPH.COM
When I set out to write an article on balancing a tonearm, I thought: how hard can it be? I’ve owned a turntable and played vinyl since way back when vinyl was still king. I’ve spent years making sure that the weight of my needle and cartridge is just right on my records. I’m obsessed with not only not wearing out my record and cartridge with too much weight (an urban myth, it turns out), but also avoiding that jolting needle rip as it passes across an LP with too-light tracking. I always just used common sense, and I thought that was enough. What looks like a reasonable amount of pressure on the record and cartridge — i.e. the cartridge holder itself should not be dragging along the vinyl surface — has served me well. But for those who like to get it right (or those new to vinyl who have never had the opportunity to learn this procedure intuitively), there is a proper way.
I decided to consult an expert audiophile just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything, and once again I was reminded of how basic my Technics 1200 setup is. When it comes to audio equipment, I’m like most people: a mass consumer who doesn’t have $3,000 or more to spend on a turntable (not including the tonearm). As a result, I have what is considered a basic automatic turntable, with everything I need — tonearm, platter, plinth, motor — built-in and included (the cartridge is extra).
For those who like to get it right, there is a proper way.
“With an entry-level turntable, there isn’t much to balance,” says Ron Kain, a turntable school graduate and audio specialist at New York City’s Stereo Exchange, which has been supplying high-end equipment to masters of the universe and audio enthusiasts since 1984, when it was just down the road from now-defunct Tower Records on Broadway, just above Houston Street. “All you’re doing is balancing the weight of the cartridge hitting the record.” In other words, the only thing I can control on a standard automatic turntable is the tracking force, which is the process of getting the cartridge to sit on the record with the ideal amount of weight — not only making your record sound better, but also preventing the tonearm from flailing about wildly and scratching your record in the process.
So really what we’re talking about here is setting the tracking force on your turntable, not balancing a tonearm. And here’s how you to do that.
1Reset your tonearm. It’s not as simple as clicking “reset”, but it’s not rocket science, either. First, set your anti-skate setting to “0”, then adjust the counterweight (the big cylindrical knob) until the tonearm looks more or less balanced, like a seesaw or scale with either end at the same height. You’re now at zero. Next, all you need to do is adjust the dial on the front of the counterweight to the setting recommended by the cartridge manufacturer. According to Kain, that’s usually around two or three grams.
That’s the most straightforward way of doing it, but if there are no numbers on your tonearm dial, there are other ways to adjust the ideal weight. You can also use a tracking force gauge, which is essentially a scale for your tonearm. Kain says these are sometimes included in the box with your turntable, but they are also available separately. Tracking force gauges are also ideal if you want super specific settings and more flexibility in adjustment.
Kain used the Clear Audio Cartridge Weight Watcher ($250), which can measure tracking force down to 1/100th of a gram, but there are more affordable and serviceable devices such as the Shure SFG-2 Stylus Tracking Force Gauge ($39), which can handle measurements up to 1/10th of a gram.
2Set the gauge right on the turntable platter. Kain recommends using an actual test record for better accuracy. If the gauge has a hole for the turntable spindle, make sure you’ve mounted the device properly. To demonstrate, Kain set the gauge right on a test record on the Thorens TD209 automatic turntable, then placed the cartridge on the gauge, which has a digital readout. Then he adjusted the counterweight dial until 2.5 grams showed up on the readout.
In my experience, nine times out of 10 I’m adjusting on the fly with my plain old eyes, depending on the condition of the vinyl. It doesn’t take a PhD to figure out when a cartridge is too light or too heavy, and in general, once you’ve set a tonearm’s tracking force the way you like it, you don’t really need to touch it for a year or so.
3Adjust the weight per your audio needs. There are specific reasons why you’d want to adjust a tonearm. “Sometimes people want a track to be bassier,” says Kain, in which case adding a bit more weight on the tracking force will help accentuate the low end. Likewise, if you want more details in the mids and highs, then pulling back on the weight could help. “The less traction between the record and the stylus, the less bass you’re going to get,” says Kain. “It’s all about trial and error.” For the most part, your adjustments won’t be that noticeable in the basic audio equipment arena.
As for ruining the record, Kain says that extra weight won’t do that (unless, of course, the cartridge is hitting the record), nor will it damage the cartridge. And if you have a slightly warped record, then getting a record weight will help (not heavier tracking force).
4Move to the high end, consider tonearm balance. Balancing a tonearm, a procedure that is often confused with adjusting the tracking force, is a much more custom process, and really only applies to the high-end turntables. Unless they’re audiophiles or luxury goods buyers, most people don’t usually shell out $4,600 for an audiophile-grade — and that’s just mid-range — turntable. Besides the quality of the components, what you’re paying for in a pricier turntable is true separation of sound, since everything from the turntable motor to the tonearm to the plinth is isolated and designed to create as little outside interference as possible in the most newfangled way as possible (record platter that’s kept apart from the plinth via magnetic polarity, anyone?).
Most turntable newbies won’t want this kind of flexibility, but some audiophiles, like car mod types, like to adjust their equipment to no end.
“Higher-end turntables are all about getting to the ‘deepest blacks’ in the music by eliminating all the background white noise,” says Kain, comparing audio to video briefly. These audiophile units also allow for modular options — the ability to swap out your plastic tonearm for a lighter carbon fiber one or add a thicker or higher record platter — and in these cases you’ll need as much customizability as possible. So, for example, you can adjust the height of the vertical tracking angle (VTA), which is the mechanism that holds the tonearm in to the turntable itself, to properly match a higher record platter. You can also adjust the azimuth to ensure that the tonearm isn’t turned too far to the right or left (an adjustment you’ll want to make depending on how the cartridge is mounted using a device like the Fosgate Fozgometer ($299)).
Most turntable newbies won’t want this kind of flexibility, but some audiophiles, like car mod types, like to adjust their equipment to no end. And those that don’t simply get a custom installer to adjust it for them. Either way, it’s so specific to the combination of components in your turntable that there is no hard and fast rule for balancing a tonearm. “There is no set rule,” says Kain. “It varies from manufacturer to manufacturer and it’s ultimately all about getting it to work right with your system.”
5Consult a custom installer, or be satisfied with your set up. So there you have it. If you own an automatic turntable, all you have to worry about is setting the tracking force. And if you have a higher-end turntable and you have to ask, then you should probably get a custom installer to tackle it for you.
As for me, I’m still happy with my Technics 1200 and have no plans to upgrade (nor do I have the patience to take apart my turntable, which likely would open up a whole can of optimization worms). I don’t worship vinyl the way some audiophiles do — I just want what everyone else wants: Music that’s free from skips, scratches, or any other unexpected breaks. And for that, a simple micro-turn of a tonearm’s counterweight is just right.