Yearly Archives: 2014

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.

Trackability Test Records?

I know my opinion may be unpopular, but I have found it has merit.

When setting up a cartridge, I often turn to my Shure Audio Obstacle Course LP to help with the setup.  It has a helpful track for setting the anti-skating.  In addition, it has a set of test tones that help you determine the trackability of your cartridge.

While I have heard the argument that I shouldn’t play test records to test the trackability, I have found a direct correlation between the test record and the records I actually play day-to-day.  My old Shure V15 Type V-MR could, on its best days, play all six of the trackability grooves without ever breaking up.  And it played every record I owned flawlessly, especially those which are cut on the “hot” side of the scale.  Sibilance just simply is not an issue–it played everything without any tracking distortion whatsoever.

Nothing else I’ve owned has come close.  The Shure M44-7 was the absolute worst tracker I’ve ever had in my system; thankfully I only use its 78RPM stylus, so it’s not a worry.  My old Grado GF3E+ could only play the first three (out of six) trackability signals, as could the crappy Dynavector DV10X3 I owned.

Any time I start reading reviews, I keep hearing about what great trackers these cartridges are.  Yet I bet few if any could get past the test tones.  Do reviewers ever listen with vinyl that will actually push a cartridge to its trackability limit?  Even some LPs that I didn’t suspect of mistracking still can, such as the 180 gram Van Morrison Moondance, which the V15 glided through but nothing else has successfully.  When I hear an “s” being slurred like a bad lisp, cymbals sounding like a mistuned FM radio, or cymbal hits that “pop” with distortion, I know a cartridge is falling short of my expectations.

So far there isn’t a review out there which pits the cartridges against a set of test tones that were designed to push the cartridge to its limit.  And no, I don’t listen to test records all day, but for me the test tones are a proven way to quantify what I am hearing.  And sure enough, if a cartridge won’t track the full set of test tones, then it also does not track the records I own and play daily.  I’ve done it.  I’ve proven it.

Enough said.

Lost Classic — Ira Stein & Russel Walder: Elements

For a brief while in the 1980s, I was sampling some of the Windham Hill recordings.  I admit that some of what I’d heard wasn’t all that exciting to me (some of it could be too “new-agey” or precious), but a few artists and groups stood out.  I liked the freshened-up fusion approach of Shadowfax, and was amazed at how Michael Hedges could manipulate his way around a guitar.

One that flew under the radar of most folks was the duo of Ira Stein and Russel Walder.  I had first purchased their second album, Transit, thanks to one of the tracks being on a Windham Hill sampler I owned.  (A feature will be forthcoming on this album.)  That album featured the duo, but with a little extra instrumentation (and some vocals) for sweetening.  A few months later, I picked up a copy of their first album, Elements, which is strictly the duo of oboe and piano…a 1932 Baldwin, no less.  Just a few weeks ago, I found a mint copy via Discogs and have been rediscovering this album again.

This evening while filing away albums and inspecting others, I remembered that this album was pressed on premium vinyl.  KC-600, if I recall.  This one has the dark purple translucent glow to it.  This in itself is a good sign.  It was while looking at the dead wax that I noticed a familiar inscription:  “JH/2”.  Turns out this album was half-speed mastered at JVC in Japan, where all of those early-era Mobile Fidelity LPs were mastered.  The mastering engineer was none other than Jack Hunt.  In addition, the album was pressed back here in the U.S. at Record Technology, Inc. (RTI).  Other than a bit of flotsam and jetsam (the record still needs a good cleaning), it plays back nicely.

The oboe and piano were both recorded with Crown PZM microphones, and the whole chain was “audiophile” with no compression or limiting, so this is a very nice sounding album.  The tones of the oboe and piano are indeed very natural.  As an LP, this is nearly demo material, provided you can find one that is in excellent condition.

Musically, I will be the first to admit that it is not everyone’s cup of tea.  The album consists of only four lengthy songs, plus a very brief fifth.  And yes, it is strictly oboe and piano.  Yet it is not sappy or precious like much of the new age genre was.  What I notice are elements of both classical and jazz here.  Classically, some of the works remind me of a theme and variations.  Yet once the theme is established, either Stein (piano) or Walder (oboe) is improvising, building upon the original theme.  Stein, especially, reminds me a bit of the style of Lyle Mays, where he can just take off and soar, building the original song into something completely different.  Very spontaneous and free-form at times, yet they never fail to bring a song back to earth by its end.

Definitely recommended if you can find a nice clean copy on vinyl, or seek out the CD.  It’s enjoyable if you prefer something quieter and out of the ordinary.

Quick cartridge pin tip

Here is a quick tip.  Have you ever broken a wire trying to take the clips off of the back of your cartridge?  Read on

First of all, you should never be pulling on the wires.  Ever.  Given how thin some of today’s wiring is, at the very least you will be soldering that wire back on.  At the worst?  You snap the wire off inside the tonearm.  Time to ship it back and have it rewired, unless you are so brave to try it yourself.

Needle nose pliers pulling on the metal clips is a good way to do it also.  But keep in mind again, you should be pulling on the metal clips, not the wires.

So, what does Rudy use?  A screwdriver.  I never put my clips fully onto the cartridge.  There is plenty of length to the cartridge pins, and many of the clips engage quite well further out on the pins.

Here is my trick:  I put a flat blade jeweler’s screwdriver between the cartridge body and the clip (which as I said, is not fully pushed onto the pin).  I then gently pry or push the clip off of the pin with the screwdriver.  Do NOT scrape along the cartridge pin if at all possible–gold plating is very thin.  I have used this method many times and my tonearm clips and wiring are fully intact.

Have one that is difficult?  Use a knife blade.  I had to use this when the pin was too close to the cartridge body.  Yet again, be careful not to scrape that pin.  You can easily pry the pin off without scraping too much, and nudge it off only far enough to finish up the task with the screwdriver.