Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Clearaudio Talisman V2 Gold, Benz Zebra Wood Low

Three Moderately Priced Moving-Coil Cartridges

Equipment report
Ortofon Cadenza Bronze, Clearaudio Talisman V2 Gold, Benz Zebra Wood Low

Ortofon Cadenza Bronze

Orfoton’s Cadenza Series, which has been around for a couple of years now, replaces its previous moderately priced line, the Kontrapunkt, the B and C models of which I reviewed with highest enthusiasm, finding each of them easy references at their price points and considerably above (Issues 137 and 172). Those pickups and others I’ve reviewed from this company have always placed a high value upon neutrality. With the Cadenza Series, which numbers four pickups named after colors (Blue, Red, Bronze, and Black), Ortofon’s designers have gone a different route, tailoring each model to cater to specific tastes in sound. According to the company, the $1999 Bronze, one down from the Black (the top of the series), is said to have a slightly warmer, more romantic sound claimed to be well suited to classical music, acoustic jazz, voices, and so forth. So it proved in the listening, but before going into specifics, I should point out that this tailoring is pretty subtle, which is to say that the Bronze is still very much an Ortofon as regards overall neutrality and other things, including transparency, tracking ability, dynamic range, resolution, and the like.

One of my longstanding favorite albums, Ben & Sweets (Sony, Columbia), has been reissued in 45rpm versions by Classic Records (NLA) and just recently by Original Recordings Group (ORG). Guess what? They sound different from each other and from a vintage LP from the sixties, when the album was first released.

This is the sort of thing about vinyl that either amuses you or drives you crazy. The Classics reissue is warm, mellow, and ample in the bass (which is plummy or slightly soft, depending on how you hear it); ORG’s is airier and more dynamic, less warm but really vivid and projected, with an impression of less full but better-defined bass. In fact, the ORG has slightly better definition all up and down the scale. Which is truer to the mastertape? Who can say? But the differences, while not extreme, are pronounced enough to be revealing tools for evaluating these pickups. With the Bronze, the Classic release is tonally full and rich, with very ripe bass that verges on the loose and lots of lower midrange energy. Even with Sweets’ trumpet muted, there’s very little edginess, though the edginess that’s built in is evident enough. Switching over to the ORG brings a sound that is less warm, brighter, more present, more dynamic, more sculpted, and more detailed (e.g., you hear more of Webster’s breath on “How Long Has This Been Going On?”). “Kitty” is snappier and more incisive rhythmically, and the bass is altogether tighter with better definition. If the Bronze is slightly too much of a good thing with the Classic—and I’m not necessarily saying it is, because they both sound good—then the ORG is just right. Sonny Rollins’ sax on Way Out West (Acoustic Sounds’ reissue) is spot on: enough bite yet still big, powerful, and rounded with lots of body. Bass is very easy to follow and well defined, though marginally fuller than you hear with the dead-neutral Windfeld.

Moving to orchestral music, the classic Pineapple Poll (in Speakers Corner’s reissue) features solid, powerful bass, with highs that pierce a bit (this is a property of the recording). But it’s as dynamic as all get out, with a very deep soundstage. My longstanding reference Carmen (DG, Bernstein) came out bold and powerful with an excellent mediation of resolution and blend. Depth is fractionally emphasized over width (and I do mean fractionally), which makes sense given a romantically voiced pickup. Tonal balance is all but perfect, though the brassiness on this slightly brassy recording is definitely reduced, which doesn’t hurt it at all—all told, about as strong a showing on this remarkable recording as I’ve ever heard, accents potent and rhythms right on point.

Voices are superb. On The Concert Sinatra (Mobile Fidelity reissue) The Voice emerges in all its baritone splendor, with great body and wood as it were, and no hint of nasality, as can happen if there is an emphasis in the presence region. This recording, by the way, has an extraordinarily good rendition of a full orchestra, better in some respects than many classical releases in its integrity and timbral naturalness, not to mention air, atmosphere, and dynamic range. Listen, for example, to the way the strings glisten in “Old Man River” or the scintillating trumpet fanfare near the beginning of “My Boy Bill.” Sinatra always insisted on being recorded with the orchestra, not sequestered in a booth, and that’s how it sounds here, even though his mike was raised with respect to those on the orchestra. Doris Day on Hooray for Hollywood is likewise reproduced with a perfect combination of lightness and clarity, and no hint of excessive brightness, which this recording will catch out if it’s there.

If you almost love the peerless neutrality of the best Ortofons but want something just a tad richer, the Bronze might be just the ticket. My summation may sound contradictory, but this pickup boasts the highest neutrality of any transducer I’ve heard that has a designed-in flavor. I never tired of listening to it and have even returned to it once the reviewing was finished just for the pleasure of its company.

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