I’ve noticed a lot of discussion lately on several bicycle forums about headsets. Questions are often raised about whether a particular headset is good enough or worth the money. Personally, I believe that the headset is one of the least important components on a bicycle. If properly adjusted, the cheapies generally do the job well enough.
I can hear the protests already, “Oh, I bought a cheapie once and it wore out right away,” or “Cheap headsets require too much maintenance.” These statements might be true, but they do not mean that cheap headsets won’t do the job well enough. A headset that feels pitted or dimpled when you turn it by hand will, most often, feel just fine while riding. Unless a headset is seriously out of adjustment, it’s hard to notice a bad one just by riding it.
In practice, headsets turn very little. Initiating a turn on the bike requires a very small movement at the headset. A worn headset will still do the job just fine. In fact, a loose headset will still do the job just fine. You might be able to feel some play when braking or riding out of the saddle, but that generally won’t affect how you steer. As the headset wears further and the play becomes more noticeable, the annoyance factor might increase, but you should still be able to turn the bike without much drama.
Of course, that’s not to say that the headset can’t degrade to the point where it does affect performance. However, that point is far beyond where most cyclists believe it is.
I don’t mean to imply by all this that cheap headsets will wear out faster than fancy ones. Yes, a $130 Chris King headset might last longer than a $10 Tange but not 13 times as long. That $10 Tange is probably the best available in the bang-for-the-buck category, and the King might be the worst. That doesn’t mean that buying the King is inherently a bad idea. They are US-made by an environmentally-sensitive company. Plus, to many folks, they are plain neat. There are plenty of reasons to buy a King (or a Campy or a Stronglight or an FSA . . .). Buy whatever makes you happy, but don’t sweat the small stuff. Most headsets do the job that they need to do reasonably well. In fact, I happen to sell a few of them myself right here.