The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXVIII: Turntable Headshell 101
I haven't really talked about the importance of the headshell in the more than 21 years I've written this column, and there's a good reason for that--I haven't used a tonearm with a detachable headshell since I was a teenager, back when I barely knew how to properly mount and align a cartridge on my own. The Rega, SME, Clearaudio and The Wand tonearms I've used since I've become an audiophile all have fixed headshells, so I haven't had to worry about it.
Now that I'm using the Technics SL-1200G turntable as my main analog rig, I've had to learn. I've experimented a lot with headshells over the last few months. I've tried a few. I've listened, and I've taken notes on the sonic differences. They're significant.
I've always been curious about the role of the headshell in the analog chain, and there are quite a few headshell designs out there that have aspired to doing more than just providing an adequate interface between the arm and the cartridge. In most cases, these headshells have experimented with various materials, everything from rare and exotic woods to carbon fiber, to control resonances and vibrations by making the entire tonearm/cartridge assembly a more effective way to transfer the signal from the grooves. Lately, I've been noticing a few more wrinkles in headshell design, innovations that lift the performance to new heights.
A lot of vinyl lovers out there probably have had to deal with the headshell as a separate entity. When I said that I haven't had to deal with this component since I was a teenager, I'm talking about the headshell on my old Dual 510 turntable. Dual turntables from that era were spectacular products, but they had one Achilles' heel--the headshells tended to fall apart after a few years. I had to purchase a replacement headshell for mine, and I remember it being a pain in the ass to get everything re-seated.
Recently, I've had to deal with the intricacies of headshell design, with disappointing results. Many people have approached me about mounting and aligning cartridges for their old Thorens turntables. These vintage analog rigs are well worth preserving, but there's just one issue: the headshell design and the associated hardware on a few of the models--I'm talking mostly about the tiny screws used for mounting the cartridge to the headshell--don't quite meet modern standards. The screws are far too small to work with modern cartridges. The only real solution is to replace the tonearm since modern headshells don't have a pin configuration to plug back into the tonearm. I've tried to do this at least a half-dozen times, and each time I've had to tell the owner of the Thorens that they need to install a new tonearm, which is generally expensive. When you spend $100 on a beautiful classic Thorens, you probably don't want to spend another $500 on a completely new tonearm. Inexpensive stand-alone arms are simply not a thing in the 21st century.
Because of this, I usually get a little grumpy when it comes to discussions about headshells. That changed, of course, once I received the Technics SL-1200G. The Technics, of course, has a detachable headshell, and you can easily swap out the standard one that comes with the turntable for something that has been designed to make an improvement to the sound. Since I've put the Technics into the system, I've been able to play with two very unique headshells in addition to the stock one--which seems well-made, especially on the $4000 SL-1200G (it's been too long since I fiddled with a headshell on the old SL-1200 and its variants, so I can't draw a comparison).
The Nasotec Swing Headshell 202A1 ($330) is much different than most fixed headshells simply because it is not fixed. It moves freely from side to side. That means it wiggles somewhat as you cue the cartridge, which might seem a little counter-intuitive on a solid machine such as the Technics SL-1200G--it's almost akin to using a unipivot tonearm which, of course, can be a wiggly endeavor as well despite the potential sonic advantages.
There's a very good reason for having a headshell that moves like this--because there is such give in the positioning of the stylus groove, the Nasotec helps your stylus to remain at the proper tracking angle throughout the side of the record. If you're one of those vinyl lovers who is constantly struggling with tracking issues, especially with inner-groove distortion toward the center of the record, the Nasotec helps to alleviate this problem.
One thing that I love about the Technics SL-1200G, and most other 1200-based turntable designs is that the entire rig is so precise and stable and easy to use. One fantastic advantage of having a detachable headshell is that mounting and aligning cartridges becomes twice as easy. You can mount the cartridge to the headshell while the assembly is sitting on a desk instead of while you're standing or crouching in front of your turntable, which is how I usually do it. At my age, that arrangement often hurts these old bones. With the fairly simple plastic alignment jig that comes with the Technics turntable, all you have to do is perform a visual inspection of the tip--if the stylus is directly above the edge of the jig, you're aligned.
The downside, of course, is that this type of structure doesn't always allow for fine-tuning of the cartridge alignment--things like azimuth, rake angle and more. But if you want to get 90-95% of the way there, you can accomplish the feat in minutes instead of hours.
When I first mounted a cartridge on the stock headshell that came with the Technics, I did find that the tracking was a little off as it moved toward the inner grooves of the record. I had to pull out more sophisticated alignment protractors and jigs to reduce the problem of tracking distortion. The first time I mounted a cartridge on the Nasotec, I got it right the first time. I felt the Nasotec really improved the overall sound of the 1200G and I told myself yes, this is a vital accessory for getting the most out of the Technics.
Then Norm Steinke of Rutherford Audio, an importer and distributor of many fine brands of high-end audio, introduced me to the hefty, solid Acoustical Systems Arché headshell ($695). The Arché doesn't swing like the Nasotec, but it is designed to be a solid interface between the tonearm and the cartridge--one that can provide the ultimate in sound quality for those using expensive tonearms that feature a removable headshell. The Arché is beautifully machined and offer a few features that ensure perfect alignment with, again, less effort (that includes a tiny bubble level that can be affixed to the headshell to address azimuth).
I had two initial difficulties with the Arché. Because it's heavy, you'll have to ensure that it can be used with your tonearm so that you can manage the proper tracking force. Since the body of the headshell is so thick, you'll have to use slightly longer mounting screws than usual. I used the Arché with my brand new ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge, and the supplied screws weren't long enough for the threads to catch. That's an easy fix if you have a lot of extra mounting hardware sitting around, which I do, but be forewarned.
Is the Arché worth $700, more than the price most vinyl newbies are willing to pay for an entire turntable, tonearm and cartridge? Well, I'm not sure it's a good idea on the old SL-1200, no matter how many tweaks you've added. But the 1200G is an entirely different animal than the old 1200--I really love it and think it offers the kind of performance that I find satisfying over long term ownership. The music simply sounds more solid with the Arché, more focused and well-defined.
I will go more into depth on these headshells and the Technics in my magazine The Occasional--my review of the SL1200G and the Nasotec will appear in the Summer Issue which will be out by the time you read this, and the Arché and the ZYX Bloom 3 cartridge will be discussed in the Fall Issue which is due in October.
Until then, think about the improvements you can make to your analog rig with a properly designed headshell. You don't necessarily have to spend $700 to get the improvement in performance or the ease of installation--Ortofon, for one, makes decent headshells that cost less than $100--but it's an effective upgrade that you'll appreciate as much as I did.
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