Turntable Headshells: How to Choose a Headshell for Your Turntable

July 26th, 2023 by Gregory de Richemont

At Le Son, we design and manufacture MC Cartridges, and we regularly install them on all kinds of tonearms.

We recently received several questions from customers regarding turntable headshells, so we decided to share our insights here.

In this article, we will go through the process of choosing a headshell for your arm and cartridge.

A well chosen headshell allows your cartridge and tonearm to work at their best, and will bring your vinyl record listening experience to new heights.

Ready? Let’s get started!

What is the Role of a Turntable Headshell?

Even though the headshell isn’t as crucial as the cartridge for the sound quality of your turntable, it plays an important role and should therefore be considered carefully.

The headshell is the component coupling the phono cartridge to the tonearm. It provides a stable platform for the cartridge to operate, and provides various options for cartridge alignment.

In addition, the headshell holds a important tactile significance since we directly interact with it while cueing the record.

Turntable Headshells

Fixed vs Removable Headshells

Since the early 1970’s, tonearm manufacturers started creating fixed headshell arms. The rationale behind is that a fixed headshell provides maximum coupling with the tonearm, less resonances, and better electrical connexion to the phono preamplifier or Step Up Transformer (SUT). Furthermore, the arm becomes lighter and can work better with high compliance cartridges.

For example in 1972, SME realeased the 3009 Series 2 Improved Tonearm featuring a fixed or removable headshell:

SME Series II Improved Tonearm (fixed headshell)

Fixed Headshell SME 3009 Series II Improved Tonearm

SME Series II Improved Tonearm (removable headshell)

Removable Headshell SME 3009 Series II Improved Tonearm

From our experience, fixed headshell tonearms are indeed often better, but at the expense of versatility and convenience. This is why many audiophiles still prefer removable headshell tonearms.

In the following guide, we will focus on removable headshells, as if your tonearm features a fixed one, well you cannot really replace it.


How to Choose a Turntable Headshell in 5 Steps

1. Tonearm Geometry & Connector Type

First, you need to make sure you can properly connect your headshell to your tonearm.

The 3 main tonearm geometries are Straight, J-Shaped, and S-shaped:

Micro MA-505 MKIII Straight Tonearm

Micro MA-505 MKIII Straight Arm

SME 3012 R J-Shaped Tonearm

SME 3012-R J-Shaped Arm

Technics SL-1200G  S-Shaped Arm

Straight tonearms generally have a fixed headshell, which is often angled to minimize tracking error. When they feature a detachable headshell, the connector socket is often specific to the turntable manufacturer, so you need to make sure you get the right one.

Brands like Thorens, Denon, and Onkyo often feature proprietary connectors on their vintage models.

Thorens Headshells

A set of vintage Thorens headshells with their special connectors

J-Shaped and S-Shaped tonearms typically use a H-4 Bayonet Mount, also known as “4-Pin Universal Connector” or “SME Type Connector“.

It is so because the British tonearm manufacturer SME Limited pioneered this connector type on its widely used and admired products during the 1960s and 70s.

SME Type Headshell Connector

SME Type Headshell Connector

Turntable Headshells with SME Connector

A set of vintage headshells (Grace, Empire, Denon, AT, and Technics) with SME Type Connector

SME 3012-R Series II Tonearm Connector Socket

Connector Socket on the SME 3012-R Series II Arm

Technics Turntable Headshell Connector

Same Connector Socket on the Technics SL-1200G Turntable Arm

Note: the SME Type Connector looks similar to the EMT-Neumann Type Connector, but they are actually quite different:

SME vs EMT Headshell Connectors

SME vs EMT Tonearm Connector Socket

2. Cartridge Mounting Style

There are two common cartridge mounting styles: the standard 1/2-inch mount and the P-mount (T4P).

The majority of modern phono cartridges feature the standard 1/2-inch mount (mounting holes are 12.7mm appart), while some older models or entry-level turntables may utilize the P-mount system.

1/2-inch Mount Cartridge: Le Son LS10 MKII

1/2-inch Mount – Le Son LS10 MKII Moving Coil Cartridge

Turntable Headshell with 1/2-inch Mount Cartridge (Le Son LS10 MKII)

1/2-inch Mount – Le Son LS10 MKII Moving Coil Cartridge

P-Mount (T4P) - B&O MMC3 Cartridge

P-Mount – B&O MMC3 Moving Coil Cartridge

P-Mount – B&O MMC3 Cartridge on a Beogram 1800 Arm

From our experience, the 1/2-inch mount is better than the T4P mount at coupling the cartridge to the headshell.

If you have a P-mount cartridge and want to use it on a 1/2-inch mount headshell, there are some adaptors available out there.

AT301EP P-Mount Cartridge with Standard Mount Adaptor

P-Mount to Standard Mount Adaptor with an Audio Technica AT301EP Cartridge

3. Cartridge Compliance and Tonearm Effective Mass

Any cartridge / headshell / tonearm combination will exhibit resonance at a specific frequency (or more).

This resonance is due to the interaction of the cartridge (acting as a spring), and the weight of the arm (acting as a mass). The “springiness” of the phono cartridge is described as compliance, and the weight of the arm is specified as effective mass.

At resonance, the cartridge / headshell/ tonearm assembly produces a dramatic rise in output. An increase of 3 to 6dB is common. This output boost can cause problems if it occurs in the audible range (above 20Hz), or in the area where record warps and rumble occur (below 5Hz).

Fig. 8 - A: deformation of a spring by adding mass; B: change in amplitude of vibration at resonant frequency

A: deformation of a spring by adding mass;  B: change in amplitude of vibration at resonant frequency

Therefore, the goal in matching a specific cartridge and tonearm is to achieve a resonance in the 7 to 12 Hz range.

Here is the formula for estimating the resonant frequency:

Formula Resonant Frequency

π = 3.1415927
m = Total effective mass (in g) = mass of cartridge + headshell & wires + fixing screws + tonearm effective mass
c = Cartridge dynamic compliance (in µm/mN at 10Hz)

Knowing this, it appears that the key point in choosing a detachable headshell is its weight! 

To calculate the optimum headshell weight for your tonearm and cartridge, you can find a good online resonance calculator here.

4. Materials and Construction Work

Headshells can be made from various materials, each imparting its own characteristics to the component.

The materials often used for the body are aluminum, magnesium, titanium, carbon fiber, and wood (ebony, maple, rosewood, and more).

Good headshells also feature high quality connectors, which ensure optimum and long lasting electrical contacts between the cartridge and the tonearm.

Besides body and connectors materials, the overall design also affect the final result.

Le Son Turntable Headshell - Aviation Aluminum & Carbon Fiber

Le Son Headshell – Aviation Aluminium & Carbon Fiber body

Overall, it is difficult to say if a specific headshell material will work well with a given tonearm, however we now know that the headshell weight is the most important factor for optimum performance.

We therefore recommend to get the headshell weight right before anything else.

5. Headshell Alignment Possibilities

Regarding alignment, it is important that your headshell provides enough space to set the correct cartridge stylus overhang & tilt. If the latter are incorrect, it will impact the tracking accuracy and the sound quality will greatly suffer.

For example, SME headshells have a great look with their folded edges, but they cannot host all cartridges due to their limited available space.

SME Style Turntable Headshell

SME Style Headshell – Very light but provides limited space for cartridge alignment

Besides overhang, certain headshells also offer adjustable azimuth. This feature adds weight and is rarely needed if the cartridge and tonearm are well made.

Adjustable Azimuth Turntable Headshell

Adjustable Azimuth Headshell – Magnesium body, SME Style Connector

Turntable Headshells: Conclusion

Choosing the right headshell for your tonearm and cartridge is an important step in achieving the best possible sound quality.

Consider the compatibility, materials, construction, weight, adjustability, and aesthetics to find the perfect headshell that complements your equipment and listening preferences. Investing time in selecting the right headshell will ensure optimal performance and enhance your overall vinyl listening experience.

So, start exploring the options available and elevate your analog journey to new heights!

Turntable Headshells: Credits


Sascha Zeier from Riverside Audio Switzerland. This company specializes in vintage Thorens parts and restored turntables & tonearms. We used some pictures of their restored SME tonearms and vintage Thorens headshells for the purpose of this blog post. 

­Further readings about arm / cartridge resonance:

The Korf Blog. They have released an interesting article in 2 parts about Cartridge Compliance and Tonearm Effective Mass here: Part I and Part II.

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    Gregory de Richemont

    At the helm of Le Son, Gregory combines his business administration expertise with a deep passion for high fidelity sound. Renowned for his skill in analog audio, Gregory's journey from corporate life to audiophile expert is a testament to his dedication to pure sound. Discover more on our About Us page.