What's better: a curved tone arm or a straight tone arm? If you've never scrutinized a variety of record players, you may have never noticed that tone arms come in two distinct styles: the basic straight arm and the S-shaped or curved arm. Technics turntables, widely regarded as some of the best record players ever made, are known for having S-shaped tone arms. In fact, Technics introduced the curved tone arm in 1971 with the SL-1200 turntable, which is still popular more than 40 years later [source: Hawks].
If Technics set the bar for high performance record players, S-shaped arms are surely better, right? Well, much like with direct drive and belt drive systems, neither tonearm is the outright winner in all use cases. Discussion forums across the Internet debate the merits of curved and straight arms, with little agreement about which one is the superior system. Some claim the straight arm wears out records more quickly, but is better for DJ scratching, as it holds a groove better. By contrast, some claim S-shaped arms are more prone to skipping but don't wear as hard on the vinyl and produce a cleaner sound.
Regardless of whether you select a straight arm or curved arm, proper setup is key. Many record players, especially high-end models, offer adjustable tracking pressure that, when set perfectly, will cause the tone arm to put the ideal amount of pressure on the surface of a record. Anti-skate mechanisms balance out the natural pull produced by a spinning record; this prevents the tone arm from being pulled towards the center of the record surface and keeps audio output even in both stereo channels.
Tracking pressure has to be adjusted to match the cartridge installed in a record player. Cartridges come in different needle or stylus formats. In fact, the actual shapes of the needles are different. Better styli fit more precisely into a record's groove, and by making contact with more surface area they produce a better sound without putting extra pressure on the vinyl. Cartridge prices reflect the range of stylus options out there: They can be as cheap as $10 or $15 or cost upwards of $300 [source: Turntable Basics]. And some of those cartridges are designed for specific use cases, like DJing.