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Ortofon Cadenza Blue & Bronze (MC)
SOUND QUALITY
CONCLUSION
MEASURED PERFORMANCE
All Pages

From Hi-Fi World - August 2009 issue

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Four Tips

Smuggled into the UK under the gaze of circling vultures, Noel Keywood makes it home safely with Ortofon's new Cadenza Blue and Bronze moving coil cartridges.

ortofon-pics

Hot from the High End Show in Munich come the two brand new Ortofon Cadenza series Moving Coil cartridges reviewed here. Good MCs are so in demand these days I virtually had to smuggle them out and onto the plane home, worried that someone - no names of course - might do a luggage swap or something similarly nefarious to spirit them away. I half expected to arrive back in London to find Shure M3Ds sitting in the boxes instead, so was relieved to find a Cadenza Blue and Cadenza Bronze had made it back with me and were still sitting there in the factory's unmarked, early sample cartons.


The new Cadenza range is aimed at serious LP listeners who want uncompromised Moving Coil quality, without paying silly prices, meaning little more than £1000. Yes, good MCs don't come cheap but if you want to hear what vinyl can sound like and enjoy the magic of good analogue then this is the starting point, because at this price Ortofon produce an MC free of the compromises that afflict budget MCs.  For me it's also an end point because I use an Ortofon Kontrapunkt b out of choice, for which the new £1000 Cadenza Blue is a replacement. The Cadenza Bronze at £1250 sits above it. You have to appreciate that different materials and construction techniques result in differing tonal 'colours' even within the framework of similar measured performances. So my Kontrapunkt b is "fast and precise", I recall Leif Johannsen of Ortofon telling me as he explained the thinking behind the new range amidst the hubub at the High End Show. Suggesting its replacement Blue, also boasting a ruby cantilever, will have a similar sound.


Some people want a more romantic sound" and for them we produced the new Bronze Cadenza,  were his words. This cartridge has a conical aluminium cantilever to help achieve this. The styli used are different too, between the two and in relation to the Kontrapunkt b. The latter had a nude Fritz Gyger 80 (um, major radius) whilst the Blue has an FG 70, so the Fritz Gyger profile is retained  but the major radius (across the groove) has come down slightly. However, the minor radius, which traces wiggles in the groove has increased from 5 to 6um. So Ortofon have tweaked the Kontrapunkt b stylus it seems, for the Cadenza Blue, but by little.


The Bronze is quite different. It gets a nude Ortofon Replicant stlyus of 5um minor radius, but 100um major radius, which sets it clearly apart from the other Cadenzas, so the Bronze appears to be tuned for a different type of presentation. You can get some idea of where these two cartridges stand by looking at the top Cadenza, the Black. Like the 2M Black Moving Magnet cartridge we rate as the best MM available, the Cadenza Black uses a nude Shibata stylus with 6/50 minor / major radii, mounted on a Boron cantilever.  That cuts the Bronze and Blue adrift on the quality ladder it seems, since neither shares critical parts with the Black. But we are paddling in the higher echelons of MC quality here, a rarefied realm where differences exist but are small and difficult to categorise;  it's more a matter of 'different' rather than better or worse. To date Ortofon's Kontrapunkt b that I use has easily defended its position before all else, so the new Cadenzas come from a comfortable position ahead of the pack in my view Even Ortofon make eight less expensive models, right down to the £140 Tango, although rationalisation of their thirteen model range may prune a few of these I suspect.


Why do I recommend you spend £1000 or thereabouts on an MC? It's always been accepted that moving coil cartridges, as difficult to use as they are - more later - offer the best sound quality. However, this gets a bit arguable at budget levels. Cheap ones often, if not always, track poorly, sound glassy hard in the upper midband and have spitty treble, attributable to the treble peak that afflicts most - a good 90% - of designs. Even the £3k Van den Hul Canary I reviewed recently suffered this problem. Cheap styli ignore fine detail and over-wound coils, to get signal level up, help lose the lovely sense of spaciousness a moving coil should possess. In the £450 region it's a trade off between a good MM like the Ortofon 2M Black and a half-decent MC like the Audio Technica  AT-OC9 MLII, the latter definitely sounding MC like but with excessive treble from the usual treble peak (albeit of good quality due to a fine Microline stylus), whilst the moving magnet Black is cheaper to use and run, and also smoother in its treble.


Ortofon are able to make technically near-perfect cartridges, free of blemishes and limitations, and this is what you get with their more expensive MCs I have found. I use a Kontrapunkt b because it fully displays the famed qualities of a Moving Coil cartridge, without suffering poor tracking, spitty treble, excessive distortion due to incorrect vertical tracking angle or blurry treble due to substandard stylus geometry. The Kontrapunkt b gives me spry upper treble, full of fine detail but free of unnatural emphasis or spit, a sound stage that is wonderfully expansive and deep, and bass that is firm and fast. So why did Leif Johannsen of Ortofon gently suggest a "more romantic sound" is wanted by some?


Transistors! They're likely to blame. I use the b with a 'dark' sounding Icon Audio valve phono stage feeding a largely component free, minimalist and tuned 300B valve amplifier, and neither add hardness or glare.  Through a transistor phono preamp and amplifier the Kontrapunkt b may well not suit, and I have heard it described as cool and emotion free, if technically perfect in such circumstances. Is this the raison de etre of the Bronze then? That's a proposition I had to test for this review by using a solid-state system, including MC preamp., in addition to my usual set-up which adopts a quite different approach and has a commensurately different sound.


I've tried to position these cartridges for readers baffled or bemused by what Moving Coil cartridges are all about, as well as those who want a clear picture of what a decent Ortofon offers in comparison to the rest, especially a swathe of cheaper alternatives. Technically, an MC cartridge has a tiny coil inside with very few turns of wire, far fewer than the thousands of turns of fine wire in an MM. The sensing coil sits on the cantilever itself, at the top end, so it is tightly coupled to what the stylus is doing. The result  is a clear, immediate sound with walk around sound staging. The drawbacks are a non user replaceable stylus; bend the fine cantilever and it must be factory replaced - at high cost, often around 75% of new value.


The small coils result in a flat midband frequency response, but also peaky treble in many models. And then you need an MC phono stage which, for these Ortofons, will cost £775 for an ANT Audio Kora or £1399 for the Icon Audio PS3 valve phono stage with valve power supply I use. Like electrostatic loudspeakers, I don't pair good MCs with solid-state because their innate openness is compromised, so forget using the Blue with a budget MC stage from Cambridge or suchlike to save a few bob: you are better off staying with MM cartridges.


If the cost takes your breath away, a three-grand cartridge like the Canary that comes without a stylus guard will do nothing to restore it! Happily, Ortofon fit a decent guard to the Cadenza series, and this is quite important as it prevents nervous first time owners bouncing their one grand wonder before they've even heard it! It also makes me feel a little less fearful when constantly fitting and refitting the units for measurement and listening tests.


All Cadenzas weigh 10.7gms, which is a little heavy, 10gms being a common upper limit. Most arms will balance it, but check first. Since all Cadenzas except the Black need 2.5gms tracking force, where the counterweight applies downforce both Blue and Bronze may still suit an arm that won't quite balance them, but a tracking force gauge will be needed; counterweight calibrations become useless.


Good MCs need a good arm - natch - but a Rega RB300 or 301 will do (not an RB250). Don't get a bright sounding silver wired arm though; they're for warm sounding MMs. Use something that's solid and doesn't ring like a bell, as many arms do, especially old designs - meaning e-bay 'bargains'. Modern, high technology cartridges like this deserve a modern high technology arm, not an old clonker. Think SME or Ikeda.


Ortofon use two 3mm deep blind tapped holes in the aluminium body for screw fixing, so you must use a screw no longer than headshell thickness plus 3mm, and not much shorter either! However, it's a very convenient method as no nut is needed and fixing is both easy and stress free. Sadly, there are no parallel sides to aid easy and accurate alignment in the headshell, necessary to minimise distortion.


SOUND QUALITY

Well crafted moving coil cartridges are always a special experience – and Ortofons especially so. I was in heaven reviewing both these units because by the time you spend this sort of money on one of their MCs it will show the art behind their technology. Ortofon's expensive MCs, including those here, combine beauty with accuracy, a combination that has me enthralled whenever I listen to them, which is quite often because I choose to live with a Kontrapunkt b, with its ruby cantilever.  It's fast and concise, has a liquid clarity, sweet treble that is sonorous beyond the ability of CD by reproducing cymbals and triangles that ring, not clank, and it has an unerring sense of balance too. The b digs into the groove to reveal a wealth of detail, it sets up a wide sound stage and populates it convincingly with lively images of performers and instruments. It's viscerally engaging – but our Editor David Price observes it's a coolly accurate rather than romantically engaging. Since Leif Johannsen of Ortofon insinuated the same at the High End Show, as he pressed the boxes into my grasping hands (oh, the symptoms of addiction!) I was a bit deflated by the thought that somehow the Kontrapunkt b wasn't quite the object of desire I had come to assume; it's a bit like confusing Kate Moss with a Fresian I suppose.


The new Cadenza Blue suited my system nicely – but the Bronze did too quite frankly – although it was fairly obvious that the Bronze will better withstand solid-state 'shout' whilst the Blue is arguably too forthright for a solid-state phono preamp followed by a solid-state amplifier. My system uses a 300B valve  amplifier designed and tweaked to avoid harshness and shout, so the Blue could stretch out and show its mettle, as could the Bronze which was just as impressive, if in a different way. In a nutshell then the Blue and Bronze sound different in detail only,  and which is 'best' may come down to the system and personal preferences.


Both cartridges are, aurally, a fantastic experience. Think deep sound staging, a sense of precision that challenges CD, wonderfully wide timbral resolution and beautifully sonorous treble that lacks the monochromatic, jittery quality of digital. They are also supremely even and svelte: the sound stage stretches wide, instruments and singers have vivid life – even a practised and critical pedant like me can't find fault in a wonderfully engaging panorama that is supremely fluid and easy to enjoy, yet exciting too. At this price level Ortofon engineer flat, accurate frequency response, devoid of the treble peaking that afflicts so many MCs, making them very obviously – almost painfully – overbright. Both Cadenzas here avoid this problem.


I started off with the Blue in our office system comprising SME M2-10 arm on a Pioneer PLC-590, Eastern Electric Minimax valve phono stage feeding a Creek OBH-22 passive preamp, followed by Icon Audio MB845 power amplifiers connected to our Spendor s8e loudspeakers, quite a balanced system where the forward and detailed Minimax is contained by the smooth Spendors.  The Blue was challengingly fast and deeply detailed, giving drums in Phil Collins 'I don't care anymore' on a 200gm vinyl re-release of 'Hello I Must Be Going', deliciously resonant impact, as they roll across the sound stage. The initial impact is hair trigger fast and the decay of the drum kept dry and controlled. With a torrent of fine detail from cymbals and rim shots tumbling out with a sweetness of tone that only good analogue can manage I was as impressed as ever by this cartridge (referring to its predecessor). Forced to consider it, I could see that the new Blue, like the outgoing Kontrapunkt b, put speed and revelation ahead of richness of tone. My usual way to decide whether this goes too far is to spin bright / hard recordings and see whether they become unacceptable in these properties. So out came some newly pressed oldies, like The Who's 'My Generation'.  By no means a great recording I still found the LP enjoyable, even if the Blue is analytically revealing and I did find myself wondering what studio equipment it was that produced such a clanky sound, rather than listening to the music.


Bolting the Bronze in changed this. It has more presence in the lower midband, making for a texturally richer and more enveloping presentation that better drew me into the music, rather than encouraging me to sit on the sidelines and analyse it. Now My Generation thundered out into the room – helped a little by a judicious increase in volume I'll warrant! – and I stopped wondering about what they were using in the studio and enjoyed the music. The Bronze is every bit as revealing as the Blue but fuller and a little more vivid with hand drums, cellos and male vocals in particular.


At home differences between the cartridges were much the same as those I heard in the office. However, with a smooth sounding SME312 arm on a Garrard 401, an Icon Audio PS3 phono stage feeding my 300B amplifier direct, and tuned WAD KLS9 loudspeakers as well as B&W 683s to represent mainstream, the Blue was more at home and less obviously off balance in any sense. It still had striking insight and a vividly fast and detailed delivery, although a little less so than the Kontrapunkt b I had to remove before it, surprisingly. It seems that Ortofon are keen to steer away from the glassy and bright balance of rivals, so the Blue is a little more even keeled than the Kontrapunkt b whilst the Bronze offers a richer and even more musically engaging experience. It has the same beautifully formed bass of the Blue, that is both tight and powerful, a richer lower midband that seemingly knits bass to midrange better to make for an enveloping sound stage that's a trifle more expansive than the Blue. I only had doubts when Glenn Gregory from Heaven Seventeen sang "kith the boy's goodbye" in 'Come Stay With Me'.  Why it missed the sibilant content of kiss I'm not sure, since its stylus traces right out to 20kHz our measurements show, but the Blue captured kiss with surgical precision that left me in no doubt about the word.


Both cartridges beautifully captured the rapid playing of Bouzoukia on Cat Steven’s ‘Rubylove’, throwing an illuminating light on the instruments that lifted them into the room. The ease yet resolute ability of both cartridges to do this was in keeping with their general level of quality that sits close to the top when it comes to pickup cartridges, I feel. I worked through old originals from the 1960s onwards, right up to new recordings and pressings and with all, both cartridges were simply a great experience. Even on my home system after many changes between the two the Bronze did eventually show itself to have better stage composure and more atmosphere than the Blue, homogenising musicianship made apparent by the Blue into full blooded performance. So good is the Bronze it is a cartridge that would have any owner running through their LP collection to reassess it, because every LP I played sprang from my loudspeakers with such a beautifully honed clarity, yet vivid dynamics that I spent evenings happily transfixed. OK, the Kontrapunkt b I am used to isn’t that much worse, but I still didn’t quite realise that from LP there is even more to come and vinyl can sound even better. But then that always was the case with analogue, digital being constrained by fixed specification. From the outset I noticed that groove noise is quite low from both cartridges and with good, modern vinyl there were almost no ticks and pops, very good news for those that listen to classical on LP.


CONCLUSION

Both these new Cadenza cartridges are a fantastic hi-fi experience. They represent the best of modern LP playing technology and lift sound quality into the laps of the Gods. They achieve a level of fidelity that silences my critical faculties. Yes, they are expensive but if you have the money their sound borders on magically beautiful. It hardly comes any better from LP.  Well, there is a Cadenza Black, but my imagination can't quite stretch to how that can sound better than the Bronze at present. And whilst I survived my journey back with the Blue and Bronze carrying a Black would be like trying to get the Cullinan Diamond out of Africa and I may not be so lucky in such circumstances.


verdict five globes


Wonderful sound from two great moving coil cartridges, both able to give astonishingly good results from LP. Breathtakingly good.



ORTOFON

CADENZA BLUE £1000

CADENZA BRONZE £1250


www.ortofon.com

www.henleydesigns.co.uk


FOR

- evenly balanced sound

- ultra fast and dynamic

- highly detailed


AGAINST

- difficult to align

- delicate

- new stylus cost



MEASURED PERFORMANCE

Frequency response of the Cadenza Blue, seen in our graph, is flat up to 12kHz. Tip mass resonance causes a lift in output on outer and middle grooves (green trace), but by a mild +2dB up to 16kHz - well controlled by moving coil standards. Tracing loss on inner grooves attenuates this, resulting in a net flat response, as the red trace shows. A loss of -2dB or so at 16kHz from this phenomenon is relatively mild, pointing to a well shaped tip able to trace short mechanical wavelengths, so detail retrieval should be good. The treble peak will be just noticeable on material with extended treble. Otherwise, the almost ruler flat midband will ensure the Blue has the expected clear and balanced midband of a moving coil cartridge.


Tracking was good at 300Hz although the Blue could not clear torture tracks that other cartridges - including Ortofons - can clear, so it tracks well but isn’t a match for the best in this respect. Midband tracking at 1kHz was also mediocre, if adequate at 18cms/sec. Distortion levels were higher than expected, largely because Vertical Tracking Angle was a high 27 degrees, again unusual for Ortofon who usually get VTA absolutely right. An output of 0.48mV at 3.54cms/sec rms is low but healthy enough for a quality moving coil, where output often suffers as coil turns / tip mass are reduced.


Frequency response of the more expensive Bronze  is flatter and smoother than the Blue, reaching right up to 20kHz within 2dB limits. There’s no peaking above 10kHz, just a gentle plateau lift. Tracing loss at 20kHz is about 1dB less than the Blue so the tip looks even better, as expected. It’s a great performance by any standard; few cartridges measure as well as this - especially top end MCs surprisingly. The Bronze has a little less output in the upper midband, around 6kHz, than the Blue and this may help explain its less forward sound.


Whilst the Blue managed 18cms/sec at 1kHz – not brilliant – the Bronze cleared 20cms/sec with ease. Top Ortofons can clear 25cms/sec so why the small shortfall in tracking I do not know. The Bronze had a very high vertical tracking angle of around 31 degrees, again unusual for Ortofons. Generator alignment was better than the Blue and separation satisfactory at 29dB. Output was 14% less than the Blue, measuring 0.41mV at 3.54cms/sec rms, but still high enough to avoid obvious hiss with modern phono stages.


Both cartridges measure very well, if not quite at the top rung. However, since budget Ortofon MCs can measure better and not sound especially distinguished, at this level other factors weigh in. The Bronze obviously has a smoother response and less high frequency energy than the Blue, helping explain its different sound. NK



FREQUENCY RESPONSE, CADENZA BLUE

ortofon-cadenza-blue-fr1

Green - outer grooves.  Red - inner grooves.

BLUE

Tracking force 2.5gms

Weight 10.4gms

Vertical tracking angle 27degrees

Frequency response 25Hz - 12kHz

Channel separation 29dB

Tracking ability (300Hz)

lateral 65µm

vertical 45µm

lateral (1kHz) 18cms/sec.

Distortion (45µm)

lateral 2.8%

vertical 3.5%

Output (5cms/sec rms) 0.68mV



FREQUENCY RESPONSE, CADENZA BRONZE

ortofon-cadenza-bronze-fr1

Green - outer grooves.  Red - inner grooves.

BRONZE

Tracking force 2.5gms

Weight 10.4gms

Vertical tracking angle 31degrees

Frequency response 25Hz - 20kHz

Channel separation 29dB

Tracking ability (300Hz)

lateral 65µm

vertical 45µm

lateral (1kHz) 20cms/sec.

Distortion (45µm)

lateral 2.8%

vertical 6%

Output (5cms/sec rms) 0.57mV


 

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