Over the years I've played several different flutes and headjoints. During this experience I've made a few general observations.

  • First, flutes and even headjoints are overrated in terms of their effect on tone quality. This view runs against everything everyone reads everywhere so an explanation is due. The number one factor in tone quality is the flutist - 'nuff said there. After that is the cut of the headjoint and the materials used. But here is where things get subjective and hair splitting begins. Different headjoints do sound different and they play or respond differently too. But the flutist tends to hear more difference than the audience does. The sound is inches from the flutist's ears and it's resonating in his own body. The difference between metals - Gold, Silver, Platinum, etc. is subtle at best. No double blind test that I know of has ever shown anybody able to hear difference between headjoints of different metals that were cut the same. But I know of several that have shown the opposite. Will anyone in the audience hear the difference?
  • Second, the flute player's individual embouchure, and also his immutable physical characteristics such as head, neck and chest cavity affect the tone quality more than the headjoint or flute does. This means even if everyone could agree on what is a desirable tone, different flutists would still need different flutes and headjoints to produce that sound. But this agreement on tone quality doesn't even exist to begin with! Every player likes a different tone and strives for a different ideal sound. Combine these factors and you end up with the fact that there is no single "best" material or headjoint for any flute.
  • To the extent that headjoints do affect the sound, geometry and cut have a greater impact on tone than materials. But while the effect of a certain aspect of design is objectively predictable, its desirability varies subjectively. For example, tall risers and big squarish blowholes are commonly believed to produce a "better" sound. Yet this not only varies from one flutist to another, but it is a matter of opinion. A tall riser increases acoustic resistance, which increases projection and increases the relative strength of higher harmonics. A big squarish blowhole provides more sound producing edge area which makes the flute louder. This affects the way the flute plays and sounds. But whether it is desirable depends on the flutist. Its effect on tone and response could either complement or work against aspects of tone already fundamental to an individual player. In short, there is simply no way to say it is "better" or "worse".
  • Often headjoints are designed to produce a big loud sizzling sound. This sounds attractive at first, since it feels so responsive and it grabs the player's attention. It's also useful for hearing one's self in a convention hall full of other players testing instruments. But after a while this kind of sound can - and eventually usually does - fatigue one's ears. It's a fine tool to have in the toolbox, but it's not the ideal sound - at least not for me. I look for a sweet, flutey sound, often referred to as the French sound. This is not necessarily a dainty sound, though it can be. It can also be a sound as big as house with a bottom register like a foghorn. JP Rampal, Ransom Wilson, and Carol Wincenc are professional flute players who often use this kind of sound.
  • I believe it's useful to play as many different headjoints we can and I never forgo a chance to play new flutes. But one must approach this carefully. It can easily become a crutch. "If only I had a better headjoint, I could get a sweet tone in the top register." "If only I had a better headjoint, I could play the top register in tune." "If only I had a better headjoint, my bottom octave would be big as a house." In my experience this is the path that leads to the dark side. I believe one must discover, develop and accept his fundamental sound before he can benefit from experimenting with different flutes and headjoints. This experimentation is a process of refining the core sound that one already has, not a substitute for developing that core sound in the first place.
  • During my ill fated search for the ideal headjoint for my 3SB, I ended up getting a full set of Gemeinhardt factory headjoints J, K, M and S. All are hand cut solid silver. I got them as a set because I happened to see a special deal on eBay. Here is what I found - but take it with two caveats. First, headjoint preference is subjective - everyone likes a different sound and prefers a different style of play. Second, all differences between these headjoints are subtle.

  • The "J" is indistinguishable from my J-GLP, both in sound and playability. The gold makes no difference in tone or playability (at least none that I notice).
  • The "M" and "K" have a bit too much sizzle for my taste - more edge and projection to the sound. They are fine for situations when you want the flute to really stand out, but that edge to the sound is fatiguing and gives me a headache after a while. The "J" has the smoothest sound and is the easiest to play. It is my favorite both in terms of ease of play and in tone quality.
  • "S" sounds a bit flat and stuffy; uninteresting and dull.
  • The "J", "M" and "K" are my favorites - in that order. All have strong bass and warm tone with a touch of sizzle. I ended up sticking with the "J" I already had, reselling the rest on eBay.

    I also played with this 3SB for several years an early version (from 1995) of what eventually became the Jupiter D-4 headjoint. Ultimately I ended up selling it. It was just too frustrating fighting its intonation and anemic bottom octave. I kept returning to the sweet flutey sound of that factory "J" head.

    Next, on play testing headjoints:

  • When you test a headjoint, there is a tendency to pick the one that "stands out". Just because it sounds better in the first 10 minutes doesn't mean it will still sound better an hour later. Often a headjoint has an edge to the sound which makes it initially attractive but that after some time, grates on the ear.
  • When you test a headjoint, bring your tuning meter. It can make a difference in intonation, especially when combined with varying dynamics and tone colors.
  • When you test a headjoint, don't just play music. Play your most difficult exercises involving big multi-octave leaps, wide dynamics, and the FULL range of notes.
  • Due to head effects and distance, your flute sounds different to those standing next to you than it does to yourself. When you test a headjoint, bring along a someone whose ear you trust to give you a second opinion.