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Vinyl Heaven 7 - MORE ABOUT CARTRIDGES


A Review Of The Ortofon 2M Red Moving Magnet Phono Cartridge  - By Felix Scerri

Ortofon 2M

Well my newly purchased Ortofon 2M Red moving magnet cartridge arrived by courier this morning and I've wasted no time no time in getting it set up and playing records.  Straight out of the box, my initial impressions are positive with one or two slightly quirky anomalies.  Firstly, the new mounting system makes mounting a breeze.  No more fiddling with tiny screws and nuts!


The sound:  Compared to my existing and much loved Ortofon Super OM10, the general sound is quite different, as one might possibly expect!  With theOrtofon 2M Red cartridge, there appears to be much more apparent bass energy.  My active subwoofer was getting much more of a workout compared to usual.  Listening to both well recorded classical discs and pop records, the words that come to mind to describe the Ortofon 2M Red phono cartridge, compared to the Ortofon Super OM series are 'warm, laid back, refined and elegantly restrained'.  My ears seemed to indicate that the midrange was ever so slightly recessed, possibly adding to the 'laid back' quality.  The slightly recessed midrange reminded me of my experiments many years ago playing around with my DIY graphic equaliser and introducing a little 'cut' around the 2 kHz range.


However compared to my Ortofon Super OM10, listening to classical material, the new Ortofon 2M Red cartridge seems closer to the sound of a live performance in a 'well damped ' (anechoic) listening environment.  In all other respects the new Ortofon 2M Red cartridge seems beyond reproach with excellent and stable stereo imaging, high levels of recovered detail and good dynamics.  One quirk about the output level.  I don't know if this will be affected by 'break in', but I thought that the overall output voltage from the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge was very slightly less than the output from my Super OM10 despite the quoted figures on the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge documentation showing somewhat higher output (5.5 mV compared to 4 mV for the Super OM series)!  Interestingly enough, as I've noted previously in the past the general 'hiss' level seems to be (just) noticeably higher than I've noted with my Ortofon Super OM10 cartridge, presumably due to higher cartridge coil inductance.  Based on my past observations this increased 'hiss' seems to be typical of high inductance moving magnet cartridges, although the phono stage in use may also be a factor.

In summary, 'straight out of the box' the Ortofon 2M Red cartridge is a fine phono cartridge although given its smooth and slightly laid back quality, I can see that 'depending' on my mood and the choice of program material I might be swapping between my Super OM10 cartridge with its somewhat more lively presentation, and this Ortofon 2M Red cartridge!  Choice is a wonderful thing, is it not?!  Thumbs up for the Ortofon 2M Red phono cartridge.  I like it. 

Felix Scerri.



Equipment used for this initial review:  Dual CS 515 belt drive turntable with ULM arm.

DIY Elliott Sounds Products P06 phono stage with input impedance set at 47 Kohms in parallel with around 250 picofarads of 'shunt' input capacitance.

DIY Elliott Sound Products P88 stereo line preamp.

DIY Elliott Sound Products P19 power amplifier.

Richter 'Merlin' bookshelf loudspeakers on stands and a B&W/ Solid active subwoofer.

Material listened to:  Various works from Felix Mendelssohn, Elgar and The Beatles.

(Cartridge purchased from Decibel Hi Fi)




Correctly Setting Phono Cartridge 'Overhang' - The Key To Optimum Playback Performance

As a long time 'vinyl-phile', I've taken a long time interest in the practical aspects of optimised vinyl playback, specifically, the correct position of the stylus in the groove whilst actually playing a record.  The whole subject can be, well actually it is rather complex but in this article we will concentrate on 'overhang' or the actual position of the cartridge in the headshell.  This is important for minimal playback distortion.  Getting it right makes a very audible difference to the ultimate playback quality with implications on so- called 'inner groove distortion', record wear and other related playback issues.

Measuring Cartridge Overhang

I am aware that there are quite a few different means of setting optimum overhang commercially available, however I recommend the use of a simple 'two point gauge' or cardboard protractor.  In the end, setting overhang is a 'fiddly' process and sadly it is easy to get it wrong even when one thinks it is right!  Indeed in my own case it took me the better part of twenty years before I properly 'worked it out'!

Measuring Cartridge Overhang

I visit the popular online vinyl forums often and I've come to the firm opinion that incorrect overhang adjustment is the reason for most of the tracking 'issues' reported.  My 'two point' gauges follow the 'Baerwald' alignment which results in the lowest tracking error across the whole disc.  There are other 'alignments' as well but the results I've obtained using Baerwald alignment on three different turntables and tonearm/ cartridge combinations has been first class.  The two point cardboard gauges are often supplied with cartridges as an aid to cartridge set-up.  I use the gauges made by Ortofon and Shure and were supplied with their respective cartridges.  They both conform to 'Baerwald' alignment.

I recommend reading this excellent article as an introduction to the practical use of the 'two point' gauge.   http://www.theanalogdept.com/2_pt_align.htm  

In my time visiting the various vinyl websites I've been able to assist a number of listeners to vinyl with optimum overhang set-up.  As I alluded to earlier, it is easy to get it wrong despite thinking that it is 'right'.  I was rather saddened a while back by reading an otherwise excellent online review of a particular phono cartridge that I completely agreed with, but sadly the tutorial section on setting up overhang was largely in error, in my opinion.  The really important thing about using the 'two point' gauge is to get the cartridge body properly 'parallel' and 'centred' within the series of parallel lines at each stylus reference point at each null point.  The idea of properly 'centering' the cartridge is the really important part of the process and is completely missed by most instructions I've seen regarding the use of a typical 'two point' gauge, apart from the article I've mentioned earlier.  When using the 'two point' gauge, extreme care needs to be taken to avoid damage to the stylus from 'accidents'.  It is best to place to gauge on top of an old unwanted record to get as close as possible to actual playing conditions, and of course the platter needs to be stationary and the platter manually rotated slightly in order to allow the stylus to sit at each reference point at the inner and outer 'null points'.

Measuring Cartridge Overhang

It is probably best to 'loosely' position the cartridge in the middlle of the headshell for initial evaluation and then move the cartridge slightly forward or backward in the headshell until optimum overhang is found as confirmed by proper centreing and parallel cartridge positions on the gauge.  To properly judge cartridge position it is important to sight the cartridge from directly in front of the cartridge to avoid parallax error.  As my close view eyesight is poor, I find it necessary to use one of those helmet magnifiers that make the job much easier!  I also use the same helmet magnifier for my electronic project assembly work for the same reasons (seeing properly with close up work).

In my experience if the position of the cartridge looks correct as viewed 'by eye', that is close enough!  I have read others state that optimal position requires even greater positional accuracy but my listening observations do not agree.  Certainly if overhang is set up as I've just described one can be assured of excellent playback performance.  All of my three turntables are set up in the way described and tracking performance is excellent with each right across the disc!  'Inner groove distortion' is a total non- issue!

Apart from 'overhang' other parameters need to be set up properly such as correct tracking weight (a proper stylus gauge is highly recommended, as the often suggested method of calibration to 'float' the tonearm at zero grams, is notoriously unreliable speaking from personal experience!  Bias compensation or 'anti-skating' also needs to be set, but in general terms correct 'overhang' is the most important parameter that needs to be correctly set-up. 

Happy record playing! 

Felix Scerri (vk4fuq)
Queensland, Australia.
15/2/09.

Further thoughts on optimised cartridge overhang set up
 
Recent 'adventures' with an old Akai turntable have forced a rethink on aspects of cartridge overhang which make a definite improvement in playback quality.  My general approach still applies, however there is now a second step which takes into account the vagaries of the 'real world'.  By this I refer to the unfortunately common tendency of phono cartridge cantilevers to be a little 'off centre'.
 
This actually has quite potentially serious consequences on playback quality and ultimate cartridge performance.  My general approach to setting cartridge overhang 'assumes' that the stylus and cantilever are properly centred, something that I now realise cannot be assumed.  In addition, the 'offset' angle may need to be altered slightly and this is done by slightly twisting the cartridge in the headshell through slot adjustment in the headshell.  Many factory fitted phono cartridges are adjusted to propriety overhang alignments and regrettably it is becoming increasingly obvious to me that 'factory fitting' cannot always be relied upon for optimum results.
 
I favour the use of Baerwald overhang alignment which gives low tracking error across the whole playing area of the record.  My modified overhang procedure follows.  Step one: 'Rough in' the overhang as per my general approach using a Baerwald two point protractor (central and parallel between the grid lines at each null point).  Step two:  Then by close visual inspection of the stylus and cantilever (use a helmet magnifier if your eyesight is as bad as mine), check to see if the cantilever is properly 'parallel' to the line at the null points.  More than likely it will be slightly off.  Too correct this, loosen one of the mounting screws in the headshell and twist the cartridge in the correct direction as appropriate to correct for this error.
 
Only slight cartridge twisting should be necessary (in most cases).  All of my cartridges were visibly off 'parallel' when checked and correcting this by appropriate cartridge twisting has resulted in lowered surface noise and improved channel balance.  Definitely worthwhile improved performance!  As the stylus and cantilever are at the 'business end' of things so to speak, it makes sense to adjust for 'parallel', at the cantilever.  It really makes a difference! 

Happy record playing.  Felix (vk4fuq).  29/09/2011.





From an Ugly Duckling to an Elegant Swan  -  The Shure M97xE

Phono cartridges are a very important part of any phono playback system and particular models are either loved or hated by passioinate vinyl people.  The Shure M97xE is one of those cartridges with the ability to polarise opinion.  Some people love that cartridge and some, well......hate that cartridge.  I find myself in the possibly unique position of being in both camps at various times!  At the present time I have three M97xE's (all operational) and I've come to regard that cartridge very highly, however that wasn't always the case! 

My first M97xE was purchased around 2004 and I was initially quite impressed by it, however within a short time I became a little dissatisfied with it, as a dull almost mediocre sounding cartridge.  Over the years I've slowly realised that the M97xE is one of those cartridges that 'demands' optimal set up.  If this is done one is rewarded with superb performance, if not the results are indeed mediocre!  I actually owe a debt of gratitude to the M97xE for teaching me a number of important lessons such as mastering the mysteries of optimal 'overhang' set up and optimised electrical loading. 

The dynamic stabiliser 'brush' on the M97xE serves a highly important purpose in dampening cartridge / tonearm resonances not to mention 'cleaning' duties, but it is important to remember that the stylus tracking weight needs to be increased by 0.5g when the stabiliser is in use.  This was my first mistake with the M97xE.  It took me quite a while to work out why the stylus would go skating across the record for no apparent reason.  The reason was, of course, too light a tracking weight! 

Lesson two:  The M97xE is a beautiful 'tracker' (at 1.25g- 1.75g with the dynamic stabiliser in use), however cartridge 'overhang' needs to be set up correctly.  I use the 'two point' Baerwald protractor as supplied by Shure with the cartridge using the approach I have worked out. 

With optimal overhang adjustment, the M97xE mounted on any good tonearm will track records like a true champion! 

Lesson three:  This part gets interesting as the frequency response of the cartridge is determined to a marked extent by the electrical load 'seen' by the cartridge.  For many years 47 kilo-ohms has been the 'standard' resistive phono preamp impedance for moving magnets cartridges such as the M97xE.  However various other observers have experimented with other impedance loading values for various moving magnet cartridges including the M97xE.  http://www.vinylengine.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6674

I've experimented with 62k Ohms with the M97xE, which changes the high frequency response and I have modified my DIY phono preamps (the excellent Elliott Sound Products P06 design) for 62k Ohms.   Sadly this is essentially impossible to do with most commercially made phono preamps as resistors need to be physically changed in value, and the only other option is to ensure correct 'shunt' capacitance loading.  Around 250 picofarads may be considered optimal, including tonearm wiring, interconnect cable and phono preamp input capacitance. This is important!

If using 47kOhms then optimising the shunt loading capacitance makes a real difference to the ultimate high frequency response.  If the load capacitance is either too low or too high (more likely) then the high frequency response will be rather rolled off and this is the main reason for the often reported 'dull' comments re the M97xE.  Obtaining a good capacitance meter (and learning how to properly use it) is highly recommended as a means of optimising the shunt capacitance. 

Even under optimal electrical loading, the M97xE is never a 'bright' cartridge, however I find it utterly smooth, non fatiguing and natural sounding, and I really like that!  I have previously recommended the Ortofon 2M and earlier Super OM cartridge series and whilst they are fine cartridges I find the Super OM's a little fatiguing with long term listening.  To my ears the M97xE is never fatiguing.  Some may find the the M97xE a little too 'staid' and conservative, however I find it highly reminiscent of the real thing!  


Update February 2013:  In the past I have mentioned that 62k Ohm loading may be tried as a means of altering the upper treble of the ‘standard stylus’ M97xE and yes this does work, however, just recently inspired by ‘other things’, I decided to try my M97xE at the official Shure loading recommendation of 47 k Ohms and 200 to 300 picofarads.

Actually this part is interesting as although I had one of my DIY P06’s pre-amplifiers set up for 47k Ohms, the ‘overall’ input capacitance was substantially less than 200 picofarads and I added capacitors in parallel across the input to bring it up to about 270 picofarads overall, with tonearm wiring and interconnect cable capacitance included.  This was actually done some months ago, but I did no real listening evaluations although earlier I did consider slightly less than 200 picofarads at 47k Ohms ‘slightly dull sounding’ after a quick listening session.

Then, some time later, I started playing a Classical music record, with phono stage set at 47 k/270 picofarads, whilst pottering around in the Ham Radio shack one evening.  It sounded ‘very different’ and as I listened further I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing from this very familiar cartridge.

I detected no lacking of treble at all, just luscious and very lifelike music which was a joy to listen to.  I’ve never enjoyed listening to the ‘1812 Overture’ so much before!  The ‘x’ in the M97xE denotes the ‘Shure Audiophile Response’ curve with that slight but deliberate upper treble roll off, and I now think those who came up with this as being rather clever!

It is also apparent that there was quite a midrange droop at 62 k which has been restored at 47 k loading, and I suspect that this midrange is a vital component of music and musical enjoyment.  Certainly I am hearing more musical detail that I’ve ever heard before.  One interesting thing is that I believe that the Shure capacitance recommendation of 200 to 300  picofarads is too broad.  I think that it should be 250 to 300 picofarads based on my own listening observations.  Getting a good capacitance meter is I think mandatory when setting up a Shure M97xE, not to mention correct cartridge overhang/cantilever alignment.  Enjoy!


The ultimate upgrade for the Shure M97xE cartridge....The Jico SAS stylus.
 
The Jico stylus company in Japan must be doing very well at the moment having developed a very nice 'niche' market in supplying absolutely premium quality 'after market' styli using the 'SAS' tip configuration along with top notch general stylus assembly construction for many phono cartridges.  They make premium styli for many older Shure cartridges including the Shure M97xE.
 
It is an easy and incredible sonic upgrade as those who have gone this way (including myself) can testify!  My experience with the Jico SAS stylus for the Shure M97xE seems to confirm that the inherent limiting point with the Shure M97xE has been the supplied Shure stylus.  It's not 'bad', but the Jico SAS stylus raises the sonic performance of the M97xE to incredible new levels.  The best thing is that this stylus gives superlative results at the standard 47 k input impedance of most (if not all) moving magnet phono preamplifiers.  It is a highly recommended upgrade for the Shure M97xE!  Those who have gone this way praise the Shure M97xE for it's superb sound quality and yes I'm one of them!.
 
Some useful links:  
 
http://www.export-japan.com/marketing/stylus/product_info.php?products_id=1526 (and read the reviews).
 
http://www.audioasylum.com/cgi/vt.mpl?f=vinyl&m=906779
   (and read the link to the 'shootout').

Felix Scerri (vk4fuq)
Queensland, Australia.
16/05/2009 - updated 11/07/2010




Cartridge Loading Experiments:

In recent times, thanks to this very interesting thread at the Vinyl Engine website, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities afforded by altered resistive as well as capacitive loading to the frequency response of a typical moving magnet cartridge.
http://www.vinylengine.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?t=6674

Practically all moving magnet cartridges are specified for connection to the so called standard '47 k' input impedance, which is in most cases defined by a simple 47 k resistor in the phono preamp circuit. In many cases the load 'shunt' capacitance range is also specified for that particular cartridge, eg 200 to 400 picofarads. However the thread on the 'VE' shows very clearly that through circuit simulation that there are indeed ways and possibilities to change the general frequency response, at least, of a given moving magnet cartridge.

I have experimented with two cartridges, the Shure M97xE And the Orfofon Super OM series. Both are pretty good cartridges, however the M97xE has a reputation for sounding a little 'dull' due to a fairly pronounced high frequency roll off. In the past, careful capacitive loading has been used to keep that high frequency roll off to acceptable levels, as described in this 'VE' thread. The load resistor serves to dampen the resonant peak of the moving magnet cartridge between the coil inductance and shunt capacitance, and 'tweaking' this value has direct implications on the upper frequency response!

However, we now hit a snag! The load resistance in this case can only be altered to a higher value by physically changing it (a resistor) to a higher value. Sadly, in most cases this is impossible however it is easy for DIY builders of their own phono stages such as my beloved ESP P06 design to do, or perhaps even incorporate switching to allow different resistor values to be selected. That's another excellent reason to build a P06 phono stage!

The more or less opposite thing applies to the Ortofon Super OM series. Although an excellent cartridge into 47 k, it can sound a little too forward or bright on occasions. As a result, my tweaking has found that a slightly altered resistive value of 39 k works well, in just slightly taming down this 'forward' characteristic tendency of the Super OM cartridge into 47 k. Once again, I have modified one of my phono preamps to this value exclusively for use with the Super OM cartridge. In this case however as the new value is a smaller value, another resistor can be used in parallel with the existing 47 k to obtain this new value. Time to resort to your resistors in parallel formulas!

In the end, ideally, moving magnet cartridges should be optimised for 47k Ohms, however it would appear that some are not! Some are thankfully. My Ortofon 2M Red certainly sounds superb into 47 k! However with some moving magnet cartridges a little 'tweaking' is definitely required. It is certainly a fascinating area of investigation!

Felix Scerri, vk4fuq.
22/ 01/10  -  updated 14/02/2013



Capacitor 'sound'

G’day all, lest this sounds like I’ve gone ga-ga and ventured into the boutique component/ subjectivist camp, the other day following on from recent cartridge loading experiments, I’ll come to the conclusion that some capacitors are better than certain others and not putting too fine a point on it, ordinary ceramic capacitors have no place in a high fidelity system. 

When I had ‘discovered’ the sonic pleasures of 47 k/270 picofarad loading with the Shure M97xE, I had actually used a different P06 and I had used WIMA plastic film (polypropylene dielectric) 68 picofarad capacitors to make up the required shunt capacitance loading value (as I had a few on hand), and the audio quality as I reported sounded beautifully musical and gorgeous. 

Since then in further experiments I’ve been using another P06 for testing, but this time I was using the same value ordinary ceramic capacitors for loading testing (in shunt, across the cartridge signal input line), thinking that there would be no difference.  Things admittedly did not sound as nice as with the earlier phono stage but I had put this down to ‘imagination’.  However in pondering this further I decided to try the effect of using WIMA capacitors in lieu of ceramic loading capacitors, and lo and behold the musical quality returned! 

I’ll re-state that I am not a believer in ‘boutique’ components especially capacitors, but at least in this application the WIMA capacitors are clearly superior and ‘sound’ wonderful.  I have done some research since this ‘discovery’ and the general consensus is the ceramic capacitors should never be used at audio, apart from supply bypass applications (where they are excellent), but never in any signal line/coupling applications.  The WIMA polypropylene film capacitors although not too expensive, and highly regarded for audio work and I agree.  It is all really ‘interesting’, to say the least, but quite real!  I’m going to stock up on few more of these WIMA’s.  They are very good sounding film capacitors.  http://www.wima.com/en_index.php 

Felix Scerri, vk4fuq
28/02/2013.



Phono Stage musings

I’ve been having some fun of late with moving magnet cartridges phono stages, and I even bought a rather interesting one recently with a rather unique approach to RIAA equalisation.  To balance that, I have also ‘built’ another op amp based phono stage that sounds very nice indeed.

I admit to having quite a large collection of phono stages these days.  Why?  I guess that I have a thing about phono stages.  I’ve been a long- time fan of the ESP P06/P99 for many years.  All these phono stage experiments and evaluations have taught  me one thing, that they all sound a little ‘different’.  

My newest phono stage is this one, http://www.loungeaudio.com/#!products/cxf6 the ‘Lounge Audio LCR MKIII’.  It uses the LCR (inductance, capacitance, resistance) approach to RIAA equalisation, an approach rarely seen with all ‘solid state’ gear nowadays, but is sometimes seen with (expensive) valve gear.  This phono stage has a ‘warm’, but endearingly musical sound.  I wouldn’t say that it is overly ‘valvelike’, but there is just a ‘hint’ of this.  It is almost the opposite of most op amp based phono states that seem to be ‘crisp/dry’ sounding as a general rule, regardless of the circuit used!

My most recent construction project is an adaptation of this project, using an OPA2134 dual op amp  http://diyaudioprojects.com/Chip/Opamp-Phono-Preamp/  What really impresses me about this phono stage is how ‘nice/musical’ it sounds.  I have built this one for moving magnet cartridges only and omitted all the additional components for moving coil cartridges.  I also used my existing ESP P05B power supply to power it.  In the past I have not been a fan of the simple and common one dual op amp ‘full feedback’ circuit, but for reasons that escape me this circuit has rapidly become a favourite.  My Shure M97xE phono cartridge has never sounded better!

I actually built mine on a piece of copper clad board with point to point wiring, and it looks a mess, but sounds fantastic and no additional shielding is needed.  I have built quite a few similar circuits, but none has sounded as good as this circuit, even when using the OPA2134!  Why?  I haven’t a clue, but the OPA2134 seems ideal in this circuit.  I have had email correspondence with its designer Bruce Heran,  who has been most helpful and is extremely knowledgeable at audio design.  His designs are mainly valve based equipment,  and this website is well worth looking at:  http://www.oddwattaudio.com/owabout.html  I think that I like the sound of this circuit design more than my ESP P06, and that is saying quite a lot!  The OPA2134 is often touted as a ‘good sounding’ dual op amp, however as I said before it sounds particularly nice in this circuit for some reason. 


Fun indeed! 

Best wishes, 73 Felix 17th June 2014

Felix Scerri's phono stage
Felix Scerri's phono stage




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