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August 2012
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Ortofon SPU Royal N MC Cartridge
Ortofon updates this great classic!
Review By Dick Olsher

 

Ortofon SPU Royal N MC Cartridge  For some inexplicable reason Denmark had become a hotspot for phono system innovation following World War II. Bang & Olufsen's tangential turntables during the 1970s come to mind, but even earlier, Ortofon's pioneering of moving coil cartridge technology wins top spot for advancing the state-of-the-art for years to come. Today Ortofon is the leading manufacturer of phono cartridges with an impressive sales base, roughly divided between HiFi and DJ models. Yet, Ortofon has remained true to its roots. Its classic SPU line has remained in production since 1959 when the first SPU (an acronym for stereo pick-up) came to market. The SPU's longevity in an age where few models survive more than a few years serves as a testimonial to the line's appeal to music lovers worldwide. Robert Gudmandsen, also known as Mr. SPU, is the father of the Ortofon large pickup program. His original SPU model, introduced the low coil impedance concept as the basis for an extended high-frequency range. The Royal N is said to provide sonic performance similar to that of the SPU Royal GM series, but is sold without the integrated headshell unit to allow integration with a variety of modern tonearms.

A significant technical advance over other SPU models is the addition of Ortofon'sReplicant 100 stylus. A nude diamond is polished to closely mimic the shape of the cutting stylus. This stylus provides a small scanning radius as well as a large vertical contact surface and can be therefore categorized as a line contact type. The mother of all such styli was the Shibata, introduced by JVC circa 1972 for reproduction of quadraphonic recordings. Technically, the stylus is part of a transducer system, but there's room for artistic interpretation. It's helpful to think of the stylus as a ballerina dancing along the record groove. It does all the work of retrieving groove modulations, and the line contact type does the best job of that, since it resolves extreme treble detail while safely accommodating a few grams of vertical tracking force (VTF) without vinyl damage. Careful attention has also been paid to the guts of the cartridge. The moving coils are gold plated silver and all wiring is high purity 6-nine copper.

 

Setting Up
Being a low compliance cartridge, the SPU requires a compatible tonearm with sufficient effective mass to bring the resonance frequency into the what is normally considered to be the safe zone, in the range of 10 to 12 Hz. In addition, I can state with some confidence based on personal experience and field feedback that the SPU performs best when partnered with high-quality ball bearing type arms. Do yourself a favor and avoid unipivot types. My Kuzma Stogi Ref 313VTA fulfills all of these requirements. Its effective mass is 13 gram, equal to the mass of the SPU Royal N, which taken collectively gives an estimated resonance frequency of about 11 Hz.

You can't go wrong following the factory's setup instructions. As a starting point for vertical tracking angle (VTA), the top of the cartridge should be parallel to the surface of the record. Obviously, it's always helpful to work with a tonearm that provides fine control over VTA, as does the Ref 313VTA, as you may wish to tweak the VTA slightly from this starting position. The optimal setting is often variable from record to record, but as a default setting I ended up lowering the rear of the cartridge about half a degree below parallel. I was also satisfied with the recommended VTF of 3.0 gram after experimenting with a couple of VTF settings. Tracking was just fine at this setting for all of my favorite LPs. I should mention that Ortofon was kind enough to send along their DS-1 Stylus Force Gauge ($159). It's simple to use, allows force measurement at a height corresponding to a nominal LP thickness, and provides a resolution of 0.1 gram. It's now my favorite digital gauge and I highly recommend it for serious vinyl aficionados.

Ortofon specifies a minimum cartridge loading of 100 Ohm, and generally speaking a 1:10 step-up transformer ahead of a MM phono stage wired for the industry standard 47 kOhm input impedance will provide an adequate reflected impedance load for the SPU of about 470 Ohm. However, A 1:30 step-up will only yield about a 50 Ohm reflected impedance. Having recently adopted the Pass Labs XP-25 phono stage as a reference, affords me the flexibility to readily change cartridge gain, and both capacitive and resistive loading via dials on the front panel. How easy is that? I was therefore able to experiment with several resistive loads. Settings between 100 and 500 Ohm worked well, but I didn't care as much for the 1 kOhm setting which for some reason didn't sound as smooth. Note that most of the listening sessions were conducted at a setting of 160 Ohm.

 

Sonic Impressions
In a nutshell, a low impedance moving coil immerses just a few turns of wire in a magnetic field. The signature benefit so obtained is reduced inductance and thus increased bandwidth relative to a moving magnet design. The sense of speed and treble refinement of a good MC are quite obvious, but many modern MC cartridges flaunt these attributes to the detriment of tonal balance and tonal color fidelity. What I find to be most egregious about the modern sound is a pervasive analytic, bright, in your face presentation that ignores the heart and soul of the music in favor of cheap thrills. The top offenders in this category are virtual flame throwers capable of scorching one's eyebrows at 20 feet. Sadly, I've come to realize over the years that some audiophiles are inclined toward a bright hyped up sound. Well, the SPU is nothing like that.

In contrast, the SPU sounded much more tube like. It projected an superb feel for hall ambience together with a nicely fleshed out depth perspective. Massed voices were clearly resolved, though I preferred the image solidity generated by my old standby, the Symphonic Line RG-8 Gold, a custom version of the van den Hul Grasshopper. Factor in suave and sweet harmonic textures and you realize that the SPU is first and foremost about the midrange. It was a very special midband indeed that crackled with dramatic tension. Microdynamics were beautifully nuanced, convincingly communicating the music's passion and emotional content. Transients unfolded with bold dynamic strokes while remaining faithful to a natural musical fabric. The sheen and shimmer of a violin's upper overtones was faithfully reproduced without gratuitous edginess or brightness. Female voice was given full scope of expression while retaining excellent timbre accuracy. And there was plenty of boogie factor to propel the music forward. The SPU never disappointed when it came to rhythmic drive never a dull moment with this cartridge in the chain.

As with any front end component, its perceived sonic character is greatly influenced by the associated gear. Obviously, the tonearm, turntable, and phono preamp are of paramount importance, but the speakers and power amplification contribute as well to the overall impression. That's why the SPU saw duty with several speakers and power amplifiers. The consensus that emerged from all of those listening sessions was that the SPU lacked a bit in terms of bass impact. I wouldn't go so far as to characterize it as "bass lite," simply because the lower midrange possessed a convincing big tone character. It simply eased up a bit on the gas pedal when it came to reproducing tympani and kick drum. The SPU fell a bit short relative to the RG-8 and certainly with respect to the Dynavector XV-1s with its killer bass range. The other frequency extreme also sounded a tad shy at times, but I should emphasize that the impression was akin to a middle of the hall perspective. The net effect was to slightly reduce perceived treble extension and transient speed. And as a result, the focus shifted to the midrange, as harmonic textures took on a slightly softer and warmer disposition.

 

Conclusions
In a world run amuck with digital sound, I find the Ortofon SPU Royal N to be an analog haven. Think of it as the "single-ended triode" of moving coils. It has some issues at the frequency extremes, but its tonal rightness and midrange verve offer ample compensation. I've come to appreciate the Royal N's virtues over the many weeks I've auditioned it, and to confess, I've been smitten by its siren song. This updated classic is a keeper! At its asking price it is a clear sonic winner and godsend for music lovers.

 

 

Specifications
Type: Moving coil (MC) cartridge
Frequency Response @ -3dB: 20 Hz to 60 kHz
Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 20 kHz (+1.5/-0dB)
Output Voltage at 1000Hz, 5cm/sec: 200 μV
Channel Balance at 1kHz: <1 dB
Channel Separation at 1kHz: >25 dB
Channel Separation at 15 kHz: >20 dB
Tracking ability at 315 Hz at recommended tracking force: 70 μm
Compliance, dynamic lateral: 8 m/mN
Stylus Type: Nude Ortofon Replicant 100
Stylus Tip Radius: r/R 5/100 m
Tracking Force Range: 2.5 to 3.5 grams (3.0 gram recommended)
Tracking Angle: 20
Internal Impedance, DC resistance: 6 Ohm
Recommended Load Resistance: >100 Ohm
Cartridge Weight: 13 grams
Price: $1500

 

Company Information
Ortofon, Inc.
500 Executive Blvd. Suite 102
Ossining, NY 10562

Voice: (914) 762-8646
Fax: (914) 762-8649
Website: www.Ortofon.us
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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