Cartridge Woes (Or, why an Ortofon 2M Black should be thrown under a bus)

Earlier this year I had posted some impressions of the Ortofon 2M Black. I was a bit more enthusiastic about the cartridge back then, than I am now.  Whoa, is that an understatement.

In fact, I now want to throw the blasted thing out the window, into the path of the nearest bus…only, it’s not fair to the bus.

First of all, I’d like to thank the so-called “reviewers” out there who were claiming how great of a tracker this cartridge is. The “heir apparent” to the decades-old Shure V15 Type V with MR stylus. My question to them: did you ever bother to run this through any of the commonly available trackability test records to arrive at this so-called opinion? I think not.

Truth of the matter is, this cartridge tracks no better than the $55 Grado F3E+ I bought in 1981 while I was still in high school.

I can hear some of you now: “You didn’t align it right.” So sure about that? Were you present during the weeks I spent aligning it and fussing over it?  Let’s see…USB microscope. Checked the azimuth angle, and the cantilever was rotated a degree or two, to where the stylus was not sitting at a 90 degree angle to the surface. I rotated the arm tube to fix it. The stylus rake angle was off quite a bit, not at the ideal 92° which mimics the cutting head of the lathe. Fixed that also. How about zenith angle (the actual alignment looking from the top of the cart, and how it is “rotated” in the headshell)? Yep, fixed that also, thanks to Mr. Oscilloscope, and to Mr. USB Microscope which showed the stylus mounted sloppily. Two highly accurate protractors also verified the overhang was set correctly.

So. I did align it correctly. Deal.

Some will say it’s an arm/cartridge mismatch.  Sorry, wrong again.  Both Ortofon and Pro-Ject have assured me it’s a nearly perfect match.

What gives, Ortofon? Care to explain why a cartridge costing over $700 US can’t even make it past level 3 on Shure’s “Obstacle Course” LP? Care to tell us all how sloppy these are manufactured, to where the stylus mount isn’t even square in two different dimensions, and SRA is all over the map (something others have complained about)?  Is this what $700 buys us in this modern era of cartridges?

I must say this all comes at a huge disappointment. I haven’t even spun much vinyl in recent months since I can’t stand this wretched thing. It mistracks constantly. It is subtle, yet I can hear it. On the Elvis 45RPM 24 Karat Hits, you can hear this as a “grit” to the louder parts of Elvis’s voice, and in the guitar, especially in a bright song such as “Jailhouse Rock”.  This is not there on the Analogue Productions SACD.  Percussion on anything is not as clean as it was with the V15; some cymbals sound more like white noise now, and some electronic music sounds like my vinyl being shredded.  In addition, since the cartridge has settled in, the sound has turned out to be on the bright/forward side, which is not in any way similar to the flatter response of the Shure.  Granted the Shure didn’t quite pull out quite as much inner detail, but still, it does a lot more right than this 2M Black ever has.

So, why would this cartridge be mistracking?  One thing that caught my attention at purchase was the cantilever.  It is nothing more than a big, fat aluminum tube.  That is a lot of mass, especially being concentrated at the tip.  Essentially what you have is this wonderful Shibata diamond stylus mounted on a cheap cantilever, one that cannot move as quickly as required by the music it is trying to reproduce.  Yet on the better Ortofon cartridges, you’re looking at the same diamond mounted in a very skinny boron cantilever.  Take a look at the Quintet Black and compare–the lightweight cantilever would treat that Shibata stylus the way it should be treated.

Keep in mind that the Shibata was originally created in the 1970s to track the 38,000Hz subcarrier signal for CD4 quad LPs.  So it is certainly capable of reproducing high frequencies…but only if it is on a cantilever that allows it to work those frequencies properly.

The forward and bright sound characteristics come via this aluminum cantilever as well–the resonance peak in the metal is what is causing the bright sound I am not fond of.  The thin beryllium cantilever on the V15 had a resonance peak up above the audible band, which is why it had such a ruler-flat response.

I’ve heard the replacement I want to purchase, and it’s far better.  It is a moving coil, which will finally take the reproduction up to a level worthy of the turntable it is mounted on.  It has a MicroRidge stylus, which is similar in profile to a Shibata, but the cantilever is very short and rigid, and able to track those high frequencies well beyond our range of hearing.  Because of this, the response in the audible band is ruler flat, and the low tip mass more easily tracks my records.

This 2M Black is headed to Audiogon in a few weeks.  Fine for someone who wants to live with its shortcomings but for me, it has been a major disappointment.  It certainly hasn’t improved my already low opinion of Ortofon’s moving magnet cartridges (the nasty-sounding OM-series carts, the even more lousy tracking 2M Red, etc.).  I would love to hear one of their top cartridges (the MC Anna, the Cadenza Black, etc.) but I doubt I’ll ever afford those in my lifetime.

Bring on its replacement.  I’m shopping for one as we speak.

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