The headshell attaches the phono cartridge to the tonearm of your record player. Having a removable headshell allows you to switch out your cartridge headshell for one that has a better weight to create high-quality sounds, especially if you are a DJ or an audiophile. Vinyl record playback with the right headshell creates the perfect tracking force on the vinyl, which means that the weight of the tonearm ensures that the styli track the records perfectly.
The material of the headshell affects the type of sound that your record player creates and whether it is hi-fi or not. There are several different materials that they can be made out of. Even though the majority of headshells are made out of aluminum, companies like Pro-Ject, have options to check out using other materials. In fact, many have a warranty that allows you to return the headshell if it doesn’t work for your needs. Let’s take a look at the options that are available.
Aluminum is a very strong material that that is easy to fabricate. The headshell can be die-cast or machine-made, and if you purchase a record player with a straight tonearm, this is typically the type of headshell that you will get. Aluminum is lightweight, but it’s also a very dense material, so cartridge alignment may be needed. If you find that you prefer aluminum headshells, these Pro-Ject signature headshells are designed with a higher mass and an adjustable azimuth.
Magnesium is a bit lighter than aluminum, and it’s less dense as well. When magnesium is forged, there are often other metals used as well, so it is not uncommon to find a magnesium-aluminum alloy. This adds strength to the material because using only magnesium means that the finished headshell will not have as much strength as aluminum.
Carbon fiber is a material that is lighter and less dense than magnesium, but it has the strength of stronger metals like steel. This carbon fiber signature headshell is medium mass, so it might make balancing your tonearm easier. However, carbon fiber is difficult to process, so adding it to your wishlist may cost a bit more US dollars (USD) that other models.
Since wood is a natural component, there are several different options that you can consider for a headshell. Wood offers strength and stability that metal options lack, and as with other wooden instruments, like a guitar, the wood will influence the tonearm resonance. Since Oak is a durable hardwood, it is a very popular option to consider. In fact, Pro-Ject has wooden signature headshells with adjustable azimuth. African blackwood, Asada cherry heartwood, boxwood, and more are also often used as material for headshells.
How a Turntable Headshell Works
The headshell of your turntable is located at the end of the tonearm and can be either detachable or fixed directly to the tonearm. Whichever type you choose, all headshells house the phono cartridge, which itself houses the stylus. While you’re playing your vinyl records, the stylus makes contact and reads information stored on the record’s grooves. This information is then transmitted through the turntable cartridge and sent through oxygen-free copper (OFC) headshell lead wires to your amplifier, which is how you hear your music.
The real benefit of the headshell is how it holds the cartridge in place using a headshell cartridge mount. Here is a breakdown of the types of cartridge mounts that you might encounter:
You’re most likely to encounter a standard mount, which has a half-inch sizing. These screw to the headshell via two small mounting screws that also attach to the cartridge. This holds the cartridge in place.
P-Mount systems, which are sometimes called T4P mounts, are designed to be user-friendly. With a standard mount, there are several steps to connect the cartridge that include alignment, but with a P-Mount, there’s no need to align the cartridge at all.
While P-Mount systems are designed for P-Mount tonearms, there are universal adapters you can purchase that serve as connectors between standard, half-inch tonearms and P-Mount cartridges.
Fixed vs Removable Headshells
As mentioned, your headshell can be fixed semi-permanently to the tonearm, or it can be removable. When the headshell is removable, it typically uses an H-4 Bayonet mount. Like their namesake weapons, the bayonet mount screws onto the tonearm so that there is a secure connection. While many have felt that these aren’t as secure or stable as a fixed tonearm/headshell combo, there is typically not much of a difference instability between the two types.
Still, removable headshells tend to offer easier maintenance and upgrades. When your headshell is removable, you can opt to replace both the headshell and the DJ cartridges in one go. This also makes it easier to change out the cartridge by removing the headshell and unscrewing the current one and replacing it with another. This also makes it easier to add weighting to the headshell; something that people would do by adding a penny to the tonearm/headshell that improved contact with the record surface.
Effect on Tonearm Resonance
Ideally, you want a low frequency tonearm resonance for your vinyl playback. Resonance is caused by how the cartridge and tonearm interact based on the springiness of the cartridge and the weight of the arm.
When one component doesn’t closely match the other (i.e. the arm is too heavy for optimal flexion), then resonance is increased. You effectively want the cartridge to track your records as truly as possible with the stylus tracking the grooves without pressing down into them too deeply or missing the grooves altogether.
The overall consensus among audiophiles is that the ideal resonant frequency ranges from 10 to 14Hz. A sure way to decrease the frequency of your vinyl system is to reduce the weight of the tonearm or to damp it using a brush. This is easily done by using a lightweight headshell, which will usually weigh between 5.5 and seven grams, dependent on the material. If your headshell/tonearm system isn’t properly aligned, this is a sure way to permanently damage your vinyl records via mistracking.
Choose the Right Headshell for Optimal Sound Quality
It’s critical that, when you purchase a headshell, you purchase the one with the right weighting, rigidity, and locking so that it enhances the interaction between the tonearm and your vinyl records. Whether you pick one that’s fixed to your tonearm or a detachable model, selecting one that minimizes resonance will also improve your overall sound quality.