Ortofon Turntable Cartridge

A little while ago, I was talking to my old roommate (who's also into turntables) about the cartridge that came with the Technics SL-1200mk2 that I had bought, and how much I spent on it. The cartridge that came with it was the one that I was using, the Shure SC-35C, which is a budget cartridge and seems to mostly be used by DJ's. I bought the rig from someone who used it for DJing so that's not unusual, and although it was a low-range/budget cartridge, it was better than the Audio-Technica cartridge that was on my old turntable.

After the short conversation, I got to thinking. The turntable probably could use a better cartridge and it's purely for at-home use so it's not going to get bounced around or anything. In the past, I've thought that I've heard noise over the higher range on certain songs, probably more noticeable on some songs than others. It's something that I've never noticed when listening to the CD counterparts. Additionally, I've always felt that the high range was kind of lacking when it came to comparing my LP's with their CD counterparts. It all sounded a bit too mellow, and not as crisp as on CD's. Initially I chocked that up to either my system (Nakamichi isn't known for being high end, or having a great phono pre-amp) or the fact that it was just the LPs or the way they were mixed/produced. One day, after hearing some of that noise on a Beatles album (can't remember what song), I decided it was time for an upgrade. If the upgrade didn't make a difference, then so be it and I'll know that it's not the cartridge but own a better one anyways, however if it did, then it'll mean that I wasn't just hearing things.

After doing some research, reading opinions on audiophile forums, and other reviews, I decided to go with an Ortofon 2M Red. It's a good entry-level priced (around $150) mid-end/budget cartridge thats won a lot of awards. The 2M series is a moving magnet type of cartridge, and had a lot of really good reviews, and the Red (the lowest end of the series) had especially good reviews and awards for being of great value, sound for the price. I had looked into a couple of other cartridges, including a lower end moving coil cartridge but I read that the low output signal from those are ill suited for the type of amp that I have. I also looked into lower end Grados and Denons, but the feedback from people who own SL-1200mk2s convinced me that the Ortofon was the best choice for me.

The seller that I bought from had a deal for the 2M Red that includes an Ortofon head shell. I wasn't sure if I wanted to replace the Stanton head shell that I currently have but I thought it could be worth it to do a complete swap. I read that the Ortofon head shell was a bit on the heavy side, and that the SL-1200mk2's counter weight wasn't enough for its weight. Ortofon's own documentation for the head shell notes that Technics tone arms will require an auxilary weight. At some point maybe I'll buy the extra weight for the tone arm if it comes down to needing it.

So when the Ortofon arrived, it looked sleek and well put together. The design of the cartridge was one of the things that I liked about it, it looks modern but a bit above similarly looking cheap cartridges (it's supposedly faceted like a diamond). I don't mind the oldschool looking form-follows-function cartridges, but if I was going to do a full swap, let's try something new. The first thing that needed to be checked out was the weight. As I figured, the headshell plus the 2M Red was too heavy for my SL-1200mk2's counter weight, and I couldn't zero the tone arm. To get an idea of how far off the weight was, I temporarily taped some quarters to the end to see at what point I could zero it and it was a pretty significant difference. That means I can't use the slick Ortofon head shell and I'll need to remove the Shure cartridge and recalibrate everything with the Ortofon in its place. Not a big deal, and I was half expecting this.

After screwing in the cartridge and connecting the wires, the first thing was to set it at the correct length. The stylus to the rubber mount needs to be 52mm, I didn't have a setting jig (I think they sell for like $5) so I made a paper one. I had to go back a few times to make sure it was 52mm on the dot after a few other calibrations.


The next was to align the cartridge. There's a couple of suggested alignments for different turntables, and people couldn't seem to agree with what the best for the SL-1200mk2 was. I printed out an alignment protractor that had a number of different suggestions on it and tried to align (a magnifying glass and flashlight is a must here) it against a couple of different ones. There really didn't require very much offset at all, and the Technics suggested alignment was probably the least so I just went with that. Alignment needs to happen at two points in the tone arm's arc at specific distances from the center, and there really is no way of doing this without at the very least a template.

As a quick check, I put a small level on the tone arm to make sure it was level when the stylus is on the platter. There's some riser pads that were already on the Stanton head shell that I wasn't sure if I needed (because they also provide additional weight) but it turns out that I needed the riser in order for the arm to be most level.

Finally I had to setup the tracking force. The recommended tracking force was 1.8g, which was a little heavier than what the Shure cartridge was calibrated to. I continued to go a little light and set it to 1.6g which was the lowest of the suggested range. The 2M Red is heavier than the Shure cartridge so the counter weight needed to be zeroed. This is done by simply adjusting the counter weight until the tone arm floats over the platter, then setting the dial to zero. At this point, I can adjust the entire weight and the dial would tell me the amount of tracking force that was on the stylus. Another problem with the additional weight of the Ortofon was that in order to balance the tone arm, the counter weight needed to be so far out on the calibrating arm that it wasn't actually touching the threads making it a little precarious. So, I went ahead and ordered a 10g auxilary weight that screws into the end of the calibrating arm. This could also come into play if or when I decided to use the Ortofon head shell. If I ever decided to do that, I could recalibrate the Shure cartridge in the Stanton head shell and quickly be able to swap them if I ever wanted to.

Finally, how does it sound?

In a word, brilliant. I figured there would be an increase in sound quality but I wasn't expecting to be blown out of the water. The clarity and the high end response was no comparison with the Shure, even without listening to a side-by-side comparison, it was clear as day that this was a significant upgrade. The only knocks that I can think of (so far, as I've only spent a few hours listening to the new cartridge) is that it picks up on the imperfections of the vinyl more than the Shure seems to, that combined with the SL-1200's penchant for being rough on scratches and ticks means those are just going to be more noticeable. The other thing that I noticed was the bass response was a bit weaker. Actually, weaker may not be the right word, accurate may be the better word. With the Shure cartridge, I've always noticed that the bass was a bit boomier compared to the same tracks on CD, and I kind of liked that. Now, the same songs has a closer bass response as the CD counterparts. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, just that I kind of liked the boom. I may experiment some with my amp's tone.

As part of the anticipated cartridge upgrade, I went and ripped a couple of songs using the Shure cartridge then the Ortofon cartridge. I chose different kinds of music, as well as different amounts of wear on the vinyl and songs from different parts of the record (outer/middle/inner). Here's a bunch of samples:

The Voivod and Budgie songs are probably the most noticeable. In parts of Echoes, you can hear the difference in the bass that I was referring to. Throughout tracks like the Dorsey and Willie songs, you can hear how the Ortofon is less forgiving about damage on the vinyl. But it's pretty clear that this is a stellar upgrade across the board, the quality of the sound is better in each case compared to the old Shure cartridge. I considered paying about $100 more for the Blue and now I kind of wish that I did, but I had read that the only difference between the Red and Blue was the stylus and they share the same casing, whereas the bronze and black had a different mroe advanced casing (those are way more expensive). I'm curious how much better another $100 of stylus would sound but I have a feeling that it's not going to be the same significant jump in sound quality that I got moving from the Shure to the 2M Red. I'm sure if I had bought the 2M Blue and noticed the similar leap in quality, I would have attributed it the extra $100 I spent on the stylus, but the Red being the lowest end of the Ortofon 2M series, I think I can safely say it was more the qualities of the 2M line in general. At this point, I'm not sure I'm so willing to upgrade again to the 2M Blue.

Update: In my haste to get the new cartridge on the turntable and to start listening to music, I mixed up two of the wires while connecting the cartridge so that's been fixed.

Filed under: Music