Throughout our country’s music entertainment history, the vinyl record has been the big man on campus. What began as a wax cylinder in the late 1880s turned into a mass-market music medium and gained even more steam with the addition of stereo in 1957 (stereo records were made in the 1930s, but they weren’t a commercial product until later).
Computer-based production of music began in earnest in the mid 1980s, and the MP3 was born around the same time, so digital music is getting up there. But compared to vinyl, it’s still a youngster. Chances are, even if you come from the cassette tape era like I do, at some point or another, you were instructed on how to use a record player to play music.
It’s not a very simple device to use, so its not surprising that recent generations might not have learned the ins and outs of vinyl record playback. Why would you, when pressing a button on a phone to play a song is a million times easier?
But vinyl is not dead, and there’s good reason for that. Vinyl sales worldwide have been on the up since 2006, because after many years of the digital “new thing,” the strengths of vinyl playback are winning over an entirely new crowd.
Last week, I started on the topic of vinyl record playback with a focus on cleaning the incredibly small grooves of a record and why that is such an important first step of the process for excellent sound.
This week, we’re looking at one of the elements of the record player: the delicate tonearm. That’s the wand part that has the needle on the end of it. A good tonearm is rarely found on a cheap turntable because it’s hard to balance it correctly without some impressive engineering.
And balance is a word that perfectly describes the tonearm of the record player. It has an amazingly difficult job to do, one that almost defies physics.
If you’re into fishing, you know that a fly or a lure that you throw from the bank can look different to a fish than one you drop while floating from the middle of the stream. That’s because you’re connected to it, and from the bank, you’re working a straight line (the river flow) with a curved mechanism (the radius of the fishing line making a circular pull as the fly goes past you), as opposed to coming from directly above the action.
If you’re not into fishing, apologies, but that’s a fantastic analogy for the record player’s tonearm. It’s trying to pull something straight out of a curve, so the design of where its fulcrum lies and how it is attached to the record player base is of utmost importance.
I was recently playing a turntable that had a magnetically suspended tonearm with a simple filament leash from below, and it felt like the most balanced arm I’ve ever seen. The cost? You don’t want to know.
But you don’t need to spend a fortune on a mag lev turntable to get a good tonearm. Just keep an eye on the balance and quality of the arm on the turntable you’re looking at and you’ll be in business.