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Ortofon A95 MC cartridge
Page 2
Sound Quality
Conclusion
Measured Performance
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Art Of Sound

 


Noel Keywood hails Ortofon's new A95 state-of-the-art Moving Coil cartridge as one of the best he has ever heard.


With a super rigid, laser-welded titanium body, boron cantilever and finely honed diamond stylus of Replicant geometry, you can guess before I begin that Ortofon’s new top Moving Coil (MC) cartridge I am reviewing here is a feat of micro-miniature engineering. You pay £3750 for the luxury of owning this fine and delicate device – a technology showcase.
    I’m forever amazed at what can be teased out of the vinyl groove and just how far we can go – perhaps still have to go – to make the most of playing LP and the A95 is a great illustration of how modern materials and technologies are being used to advance this process.
    You can see the A95 has a vestigial body frame that cradles a miniature electrical generator at its furthermost tip. From this emerges the fine boron cantilever that traces the LP groove.
    Visually, there’s almost nothing in the A95 you may think. But all MC cartridges are built to this basic pattern. The generator, a tiny coil of wire in a magnetic field, has to be as small and light as possible, so everything is of Lilliput proportions.
    One of the problems this raises, a cartridge manufacturer once told me, was that when you order in the basic materials your order is so small no one wants to fulfil it! Ortofon, like Nagaoka of Japan, actually have other businesses in micro-engineering, providing high precision parts, and this helps diversify and enlarge their business.
    Bear in mind that the LP was all but dead and buried a decade ago and cartridge manufacturers appeared to be following candle stick makers into oblivion; they would not have survived without other interests. The A95 now reminds us of what the vinyl revival is about. It’s now an historic music source that is to be treasured – even revered. Think classic cars. And the revival of cartridge manufacturing as a high technology business, is sustained by these renewed sales.


   The A95 enters this market not in virginal form; it was preceded by the A90. It is an update on a concept – to refine the structure by removing superfluous bodywork, whilst stabilising the generator in a rigid frame that doesn’t move by any method, so not even the minutest signals are lost.
    The traditional way of doing this is by using a solid machined block as the body, but that increases weight to 10gms or so – not ideal: most arms can cope, some cannot and it adds mass to the headshell that impairs warp riding.
    By way of contrast the A95 is a slip of a thing that weighs 6gm – about as light as most arms can handle without the counterweight reaching the end of its forward travel on the rear arm stub. So it might cost a lot but, physically, you get a flyweight device.


    The body has tapped screw holes and screws are supplied, so fitment is easy enough. The signal pins are clearly colour coded too.
    The generator uses a powerful but light Neodymium magnet, and the signal coils are wound from gold plated oxygen free copper. A low permanence armature and Field Stabilising Element help reduce magnetic distortion, Ortofon say.
    To damp high frequency tip mass resonance, in order to achieve smooth treble, a ‘wide range damping system’ comprising a platinum disc and two rubber pads of differing properties are used – and our frequency response graph (see Measured Performance) does confirm this system works well, by the lack of peaking above 10kHz.
    A small, specially ground nude diamond stylus uses Ortofon’s own Replicant geometry for long groove contact and it is mounted in a boron rod cantilever.
    The tracking force range is quoted as 2gm-2.5gm, with 2.3gm recommended. In tracking tests I found moving from 2.3 to 2.5 made little difference so I used 2.3gm as recommended. It was mounted in our office steed, an SME309 arm attached to a Timestep Evo turntable.


SOUND QUALITY
We rejected two samples of the A95 before a problem identified by our measurements was cured by changes in production and this review refers to the improved update.
    I ran the A95 into an Icon Audio PS3 valve phono stage with input transformers, so hiss wasn’t a problem. The PS3 was connected directly to a Sudgen Sapphire FBA-800 Class A power amplifier and thence via Tellurium Q cables to a pair of Tannoy DC10Ti loudspeakers. The stylus was left running for 24 hours in a locked groove test record to run it in.
    Initially, before running in, the A95 sounded quite “bold”, shall I say. With hard-etched and obvious treble it made a strong statement, throwing cymbals at me.
    Yet I could hear some impressive underlying properties, a great sense of control and sharp timing being one of them as well as firm bass and masses of fine detail. After a 24 hour run-in, the slightly forward balance remained but the hard edge had gone and treble was starting to sound silky.
    Generally though, the new A95 does not remind me of – say – the Cadenza Black, for example, and certainly not the Bronze I favour (although mine is wearing out and sounding gentler these days).
    I mention all this to get the new A95 into context. It does not offer a warm or retiring performance; in fact the boron cantilever is, I suspect, responsible for its clinical delivery, one that is forensically clean.
    And what you have to bear in mind with any cartridge is that they do soften out as they wear out: the balance changes over time.
    Spinning Mark Knopfler’s 'True Love Will Never Fade' on the quiet 200gm vinyl of 'Kill To Get Crimson' (a great cut), his vocals were forward on the soundstage with every intonation made very specific. The strumming of the metal strings was vividly outlined and fine detail fairly shot from the big Tannoy loudspeakers. Treble energy was also strong.
    The solid bass line behind this track was easy to follow and here – at low frequencies – the A95 showed it had grip and was fluid in its presentation.
    Kate Bush’s 'King of the Mountain' from 'Aerial' is another quality cut on quiet, flat vinyl and this too was forensically analysed by the A95. As the strong reggae bass line strode along, underpinning the track, high cymbal crashes sprang out at me and fine detail formed a rich tapestry within the sound.
    The overall presentation was a cool, but accurate one. I admit to being used to the lush tonality of Ortofon’s Cadenza Bronze and by way of contrast the A95 is more controlled, more detailed and dry in its sound. But at the same time it offers greater grip and insight.
    Upping the tempo and modulation velocity somewhat, I put on Carol Kenyon’s 45rpm, 12in single 'Dance With Me'. These old 12 inchers were cut high and hard for 1980s disco use and they more strongly stress a cartridge than 33rpms. The A95 was rudely exposed!
    In fact, what I heard was fascinating: the opening synth drum beat was faster – and also kick-ass hard; the A95 has enormous punch. A solo hand drum floated at left, its position perfectly outlined. Carol Kenyon’s delivery was clearer than I have ever heard it; the A95 puts focus into every image: it pulled Kenyon’s richly modulated vocal out of an-at-times dense mix. What I got was a machine gun delivery – great stuff!
    Spinning a far newer LP, from  2L of Norway, made from a DXD 352kHz sample rate/24bit digital recording onto a Direct Metal Master, stamped onto 180gm flat vinyl of Marianne Thorsen playing 'Mozart’s Violin Concerto No4' again highlighted the A95’s sense of massive analysis and control.
    Thorsen’s violin was rendered so clearly it fairly floated in front of the loudspeakers; isn’t it wonderful how vinyl images! By any standards this is a great recording and a lovely LP and I was mesmerised by the sheer clarity of the whole performance.
    I will note a few things at this point. Low output from the A95 was not an issue through the silent input transformers of our Icon Audio PS3 phono stage; even at high volume there was neither hiss nor hum in our system.


    However, potential owners will have to pay attention to this issue because output from the A95 cartridge is very low, too low for many solid-state MC inputs.
    Also, the A95 stylus is quiet in itself, but especially on modern low noise vinyl such as that of the 2L LP, where I heard no groove noise either. But to appreciate all this Ortofon’s new cartridge does need especially good matching equipment.
    Punching the 45rpm button on our Timestep Evo upgraded Technical SL-1210 Mk2 turntable, I again heard the grip and punch of this cartridge as Amy Winehouse’s 'Tears Dry on Their Own' opened – another 45rpm 12in single. More synth bass admittedly but it was strong and yet delivered with enormous grip on time-domain progress; I was aware of every small note change, every little noodle.
    I only hand cue – can’t stand lift/lower platforms! – and the A95 was superb for this. Ortofon have chamfered the front face to reveal the fine boron cantilever so it can be dropped precisely into the groove; beats a CD skip button any time.
    There was no problem with end-of-side groove reading, as expected from measurement. Modern stylus geometries read the short wavelengths of inner grooves without difficulty, so when I span 'This Boy' from 'Mono Masters' within 'The Beatles in Mono' box set, John Lennon’s every intonation at the microphone was conveyed with vivid clarity and sharp analysis.
    Again, there was no groove noise either, these LPs being cut onto very quiet vinyl.


CONCLUSION
Dry, fast, extremely detailed and almost concussive, the A95 is a highly tuned mechanical statement. It is not lush, warm or cuddly, but rather a machine of insight and deep analysis.
    Massively capable, the A95 is a cartridge that makes the LP sound better all-round than I have ever heard it. Almost frightening! It is sort of CD like in its qualities – only better.


ORTOFON A95 £3,750

 


OUTSTANDING - amongst the best.

VERDICT
An advanced-technology MC cartridge that digs deep and reveals all. Forensic ability and fast, dynamic sound.

FOR
- fast, punchy sound
- easy to fit
- easy to use

AGAINST
- needs super quiet preamp
- cool character

Henley Designs
 +44 (0)1235 511 166
www.henleydesigns.co.uk

 


MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Rohde & Schwarz UPV audio analyser used for measurement.


Our analysis of frequency response shows the A95 has a smooth response to 20kHz, with +1dB of lift on outer grooves – just enough to ensure treble is not dull and to provide tonal balance across the disc surface because on inner grooves treble loss from tracing error reduces the small lift to flatness – a very good overall result.
    This is an accurate and smooth cartridge with a good nude Ortofon Replicant stylus that traces the shorter mechanical wavelength of inner grooves with little loss.
    Frequency response analysis comes from JVC TRS-1007 test disc, equalised digitally in our Rohde&Schwarz UPV analyser.
    Tracking force range is quoted as 2gm-2.5gm, with 2.3gm as optimum. At 2.3gms, in an SME309 arm, the A95 managed all tracking level test tracks on CBS STR-112 test disc, the highest torture level of 90µm peak amplitude at 300Hz just being cleared. Full lateral level of 45µm was cleared easily. Also, full level lateral at 1kHz of 25cms/sec rms velocity on B&K 2010 test disc was also cleared, so the A95 tracks very well, clearing all test tracks.
    Lateral distortion was much as expected, measuring 0.9% second harmonic, this being a common result. Distortion on vertical modulation was 4% second harmonic, caused mainly by a Vertical Tracking Angle of 28 degrees, a little above the optimum of 22 degrees, but this is not uncommon since achieving the correct VTA makes a cartridge ride very low and ground on warps.
    Output was very low, a miniscule 0.17mV at 3.54 cms/sec rms, Left & Right channel (45 degrees). This amounts to 0.24mV at 5cms/sec rms velocity – extremely low. The A95 needs a very quiet preamplifier if hiss is to be avoided, input transformers usually being the best bet, although low noise transistor pairs like MAT12 can manage better.
    The A95 measures very well in every area but it has low output and needs a very quiet MC phono stage. NK

Tracking force                   2.3gms
Weight                              6gms
Vertical tracking angle      28degrees
Frequency response        20Hz - 20kHz
Channel separation          24dB
Tracking ability (300Hz)
lateral                               90µm
vertical                             45µm
lateral (1kHz)                   25cms/sec.
Distortion (45µm)
lateral                               0.9%
vertical                             4%
Output (5cms/sec rms)    0.24mV

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE

 

FREQUENCY RESPONSE - inner grooves

 

 

 

 

 

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