Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: Ortofon Super OM 20 Phono Cartridge

Introduction: Reviewing phono cartridges is a difficult task.  Why?  Because it's part of a complex system involving the tonearm. platter, vibration, setup, and, based on the quality of the other components downstream, can radically alter one's perception of the whole system.  Also a cartridge that works wonderfully for one system may be dreadful on another.  That's the nature of the analog beast: difficult to tame but, to my ears, worth the trouble.

As for why I decided to replace the Shure M97xE; it's a matter of personal taste.  The M97xE is one smooth cartridge but I had the feeling I was missing something, mostly the very top end sparkle.  And since I'm upgrading my current system - one component at a time - I thought it was time to try something a little different. The OM series was mainly selected because it is supposed to be an ideal match with the lightweight arm on the Dual CS5000 turntable.  The CS5000 originally did ship with an OM cartridge, so why not take the manufacturer's recommendation to heart?

Among the family of Ortofon's OM cartridges I selected the OM 20 - it is affordably priced and, based on my online research, strikes a good balance between detail and listenability.  It's a Moving Magnet cartridge with a healthy 4mV output, which will work perfectly with my soon-to-be-replaced Adcom GFP-555 and my next future preamplifier.

Setup:  Since the Dual CS5000 has a lightweight tonearm, I pulled out the removable 2.5g weight that is inserted on top of the OM20 cartridge.  With the Dual's easy to remove headshell, cartridge swaps are easy; provided you have a pair of good eyes.  I'm definitely due for my first pair of bi-focals so it took a bit of fiddling with the wires, along with some careful tightening of the headship clips.  Once I had the cartridge mounted, I used the protractor that came with the turntable.  The narrow body of the OM 20 cartridge makes alignment easy.  Tracking force was set at 1.2g using my fiddly digital gauge.

Initial Thoughts: After installing the new cartridge I found the sound to be a touch bright and forward.  Lively was the first thought.  Some hotly records vocals were strangely muffled. After adjusting the VTA and double-checking the tracking force, I spun a couple of records that night.  A few days later I felt comfortable enough to start some detailed listening.

Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance has a voice that is both ethereal and powerful.  The Mobile Fidelity pressing of Spiritchaser showcases her vocals wonderfully, as does the Ortofon OM 20.  The notes from that golden throat soar above the primeval music, and roll around, expand, and then come together like I'm under the effects of a psychedelic drug.  This is about as close as one can get to being high without taking an illicit substance.  I've heard this record done a little better on more expensive systems, but not by leaps and bounds.  Nor have I ever heard the Dual CS5000 sound this good.  Sure isn't in VPI Aries 1 territory, and any sins are ones of omission, but I am loving the overall sound coming out of the Wharfedale Denton speakers.  Considering the budget, very impressive.

Bass has depth and impact, while the left-to-right stereo spread go beyond the edges of the speakers.  The real magic is in the midrange - lively, engaging, and with good pace and timing.  The treble is more extended than the old Shure cartridge, but it isn't bright either.  So far so good.  For my next record I picked something a little more down to earth.

I'm not sure if you will find many Outlaw Country fans in audiophile-land, but with Waylon Jenning's Honky Tonk Heroes they're missing out on one humdinger of an album.  This first pressing is pure RCA studios: warm, wonderfully recorded, and just brimming with that old school Nashville production.  Jenning's vocals are rich, and if a system doesn't capture this magic, then you know something is wrong.

Bass: Attack of the deep bass guitar is quick with no overhang.  Warm, dark, and low - like it should be for this era of recording.

Midrange: full-bodied but no excessive warmth.  In comparison the Shure could overdo this portion of the spectrum. The upper midrange of the Ortofon is definitely more lively but still captures the huskiness of Waylon's vocals.

Treble: More extended, lively, but the upper end never becomes aggressive or shrill.  How much of this is the Denton speakers remains to be seen.  In this department the Shure was more rolled-off, and perhaps more pleasing on some hotly recorded albums.  

Other: Channel separation is excellent and every instrument sits in its own space.  I've heard more detail and body with moving-coil cartridges but this moving magnet, at least in this system, is more cohesive.  There is no portion of the frequencies that stick out like a sore thumb.  Depth is also less than the best I've heard.  It's not quite flat-as-a-pancake, but I certainly never got the illusion that the drums were in the next county.

Neil Young's Live at Massey Hall 1971 is an excellent recording that should be part of anyone's collection of good music and good sound.  This is a very system friendly album that sounds great on every stereo I've owned.  This current budget setup was no exception.

The body of the acoustic guitar was about as real as it can get, and so were the vocals.  The effect is similar to sitting mid-row in a small coffee shop.  So a very personal album.  Micro and macro dynamics of the guitar and the piano were fairly realistic, only bettered by the Aries 1 turntable and UREI speakers of yore.  Once again I heard shorter depth and a bit less detail than my older systems, but there was still a cohesiveness that really brought my enjoyment factor to a very high level.

At one time, when I was a much younger man, The Clash was called "The Most Important Rock Band in the World."  If anyone was listening to me, I would have to snub The Clash and go for James.  Their Eno produced Laid is an early example of what makes their albums sound so close to perfection: catchy hooks, memorable lyrics, Tim Booth's powerful vocals, and the ability to bring me near tears with a mix of sadness and elation.

The Ortofon cartridge wrings out the best of the 90s production - deep bass, the sound of the drums, the jangle of the guitars, and the dynamic contrasts.  This is no audiophile hidden gem since it was probably recorded on early digital equipment with plenty of overdubs and even a few effects.  Nonetheless I've never heard this album sound so right.  I had to tap my toes, smile, and remember my youth with wistful melancholy while being uplifted with the wonders of life.

The swelling and rolling of the bass was impressive and was the precision of the midrange.  The treble was never overly aggressive either.  Again there was a slight lack of body and some minor loss of definition compared to more expensive cartridges, but the Ortofon is really no slump in this department.  I'm looking forward to trying out some different phono stages to see if this area can be improved on.  The Adcom, after all, uses op-amps with high negative feedback and currently has some aged components, so perhaps I'm expecting too much out of this budget unit.

Conclusion: With cartridges it is hard to make blanket recommendations, but with the Dual CS5000 and it's lightweight tonearm, the Ortofon OM 20 bests anything else I've tried on this rather modest turntable.  It certainly is more cohesive than the Shure M97xE, an Audio Technica ATN95HE, and even better than the Nagaoka MP-110.  Of course the Ortofon is a bit more expensive than any one of these cartridges, but what is really happening here is a matter of system matching.  And, as a bonus, the Ortofon OM 20 cartridge can take any number of stylus upgrades which will be worth exploring in the future.

As for the sound of the OM 20, it really did exceed my expectations, bumping my rather pedestrian system up another notch in quality.  Considering the odd blend of gear here - vintage American amplification, small British mini-monitors, and a German turntable and cartridge - the sound is cohesive, engaging, and just touching on the fringes of high-end.  I hate to gush since such proclamations are often viewed with distrust, but, at least with this turntable and system, the Ortofon OM 20 is a real winner.  Highly recommended.

Adcom GFP-555 preamplifier
Adcom GFA-545 amplifier
Dual CS5000 turntable with Shure M97xe phono cartridges
Pioneer DVD-V7400 DVD player
Wharfedale Denton 80th Anniversary speakers
Kimber 8PR/4PR bi-wire speaker cables
various budget interconnect cables