If you’ve been researching topics about turntables and vinyl records, odds are you’ve come across the word “headshell” before. This word relates to a specific part of the turntable and is often associated with the cartridge and tonearm. However, it’s not that simple.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about a turntable headshell. By the end, you’ll know what it is, what it does, and what to consider if you’re in the market to purchase one.
What is a turntable headshell?
The headshell is the piece at the end of a turntable’s tonearm that holds the phono cartridge in place. The headshell is responsible for connecting the electrical wires of the cartridge to the tonearm. Additionally, the headshell is where the cartridge alignment is calibrated.
Headshells are commonly removable on many mid-to-high-end level turntables in the modern age, however, there are other headshells that are “fixed” or non-removable and stay attached to the tonearm.
Note that record players do not have headshells, only a turntable does.
Removable and fixed headshells
As mentioned above, headshells typically come in two types: removable and fixed. Removable headshells are common on modern turntables, but older turntables in the 70s and 80s often had fixed headshells.
Their names imply exactly what they mean; A removable headshell is removable while a fixed headshell is not removable and instead attached, or fixed, to the tonearm.
How to tell if you have a fixed or removable headshell?
It’s fairly easy to tell if you have a removable headshell. First off, most s-shaped tonearms have removable headshells. Follow the tonearm to its end where the headshell meets. Do you see a small, metal ring/ collar connecting the headshell to the tonearm? If so, you have a removable headshell.
If not, it’s safe to assume you have a fixed headshell. The tonearms associated with fixed headshells are curved, but typically not s-shaped. See the image below for an example.
Removable vs fixed headshells: Which is better?
Maybe you don’t have a turntable yet and you’re trying to figure out which type of headshell is best. Here’s a concise look at the pros and cons of each kind:
- Easy to swap out for other headshells. This allows you to pair phono cartridges with their preferred genre of music.
- Easy maintenance. Removable headshells allow for easy access to the phono cartridge lead wires that connect to the tonearm.
- Easy stylus inspection. It’s a 10-second process to remove the headshell and inspect the stylus up close.
- More potential for vibrations. Since the headshell is removable, you need to ensure it’s always tightly fastened. A loose headshell is subject to vibrations which can reduce sound quality and damage your turntable cartridge.
- Break in tonearm wire. Since the headshell is separate from the tonearm, the electrical contact points are naturally split between two pieces. While this isn’t typically a big deal, it does allow for the potential of dust getting in between the headshell and tonearm connection and causing interference.
- Reduced weight at the end of the tonearm. This means that a lower tracking force can be used which can prolong the life of your stylus.
- A singular piece. Having the headshell fixed to the tonearm reduces resonance due to fewer connection points.
- Fewer breaks in the wiring. Since the headshell and tonearm are one piece, there are fewer wiring breaks which implies a better single is being sent to the phono preamp.
- Fewer turntable options. As mentioned earlier, many modern turntables come with removable turntable cartridges.
- Difficult maintenance. Switching out phono cartridges is a little more difficult on a fixed headshell simply because you can’t remove it for a more convenient screw angle.
- Limited cartridge changeability. Since you’re stuck with one headshell, you need to use the same turntable cartridge for all your music unless you want to manually change the cartridge out.
Can I use any headshell on a turntable?
Yes, if you have an s-shape tonearm, the headshell is almost always interchangeable. The headshell is referred to as an SME-type or an H-4 Bayonet Mount. These mounts are universal across all s-shaped tonearms.
Having multiple interchangeable headshells allows for different cartridges to be mounted on each one. This negates the need re-align the cartridge.
What kind of cartridges fit on a headshell?
Headshells are designed to fit with half-inch cartridges which are the standard mounts for most moving magnet and moving coil cartridges. The cartridge is attached by a screw on either side that goes through the headshell and attaches to the cartridge.
Other mounts such as the P-mount will not work well with the standard SME headshell, though some people have had luck modifying the standard mount to work with a P-mount cartridge (source).
How to replace a turntable headshell in three easy steps
Replacing an SME turntable headshell is a fairly simple process. Let’s walk through it.
Step 1: Cover the cartridge
If you have a removable headshell, it’s best practice to cover the stylus with the stylus guard that came in the original packaging. If you don’t have that, be extremely careful so as to not damage the stylus.
Step 2: Rotate the headshell-tonearm mount ring clockwise
With the headshell in one hand, use your other hand to rotate the ring at the end of the tonearm clockwise. This should not take much force to do. After a few rotations, the ring should be able to slip off, freeing the headshell.
Step 3: Disconnect the headshell
With the ring fully disconnected, simply pull out on the headshell and it should easily pop free from the tonearm. Again, be very careful as to not touch or damage the stylus.
To place the headshell back on, simply reverse the order shown above.
Looking to replace your turntable cartridge? We have a guide for that too!
What to consider when buying a turntable headshell
If you’re in the market for a headshell, there are a few things you might want to consider before making a purchase. Here’s what you need to consider:
Cartridges come in a variety of mounts, so it’s important your headshell and cartridge can work together. Most cartridges are half-inch mounts that work perfectly with the standard SME headshell mount.
However, P-mount cartridges tend not to work well with SME headshell mounts, so we recommend you find a dedicated P-mount headshell instead.
Similar to mounts, tonearms come in a variety of shapes and sizes. S-shaped tonearms work the best with removable SME headshells.
If you have a straight tonearm, be sure to inspect the headshell. Many turntables with a straight tonearm have fixed headshells, like the Project Debut Carbon for example.
Just because a headshell is universal doesn’t mean it’s identical to its competitors. Headshells have different weights which will dictate how much tracking force will be applied to your vinyl records during playback.
Generally, headshells that weigh less allow for more leeway with tracking force once the cartridge is attached.
Headshells come in a variety of materials, some lighter than others. Here are a few of the common materials used:
- Aluminum: Lightweight, strong material that most headshells are made out of.
- Magnesium: Lighter and less dense compared to aluminum. Headshells often use an aluminum-magnesium alloy to combine characteristics of both materials.
- Carbon fiber: Light and less dense than magnesium but stronger than most metals. Carbon fiber headshells are a premium because of their desirable qualities.
- Wood: Wooden headshells can add unique characteristics to the music since the material is fundamentally different than metal.
The headshell is the connection point between the tonearm and the cartridge, so it’s important that the connection is high quality so as to pass the best signal possible to the preamp.
Unbiased reviews through vinyl forums and websites such as HiFi Hippo provide great feedback on all the attributes mentioned above. We suggest consulting these websites before you make a purchase.
At this point, you should understand everything you need to know about turntable headshells. This little piece on your turntable has a big impact on the sound of your vinyl records and can improve the overall listening experience.
We hope you learned something today. Thanks for reading!
Lead Editor / Owner
After beginning his career in the video and audio recording industry, Andrew started HiFi Hippo to share his knowledge and passion for vinyl and vintage audio with other readers.