In audio the word “neutral” can cover a multitude of virtues—or a multitude of sins. It all depends on who’s doing the talking—and the listening.
Take the innovative, somewhat controversial, now- discontinued, $4500 Ortofon MC A90 moving-coil cartridge that I raved about in Issue 208. I’m on record saying that this supremely fast, supremely detailed transducer sounded unusually “neutral” in overall balance, by which I meant that it didn’t seem to have much color or texture of its own, making it exceptionally transparent to sources. Yes, the A90 was also a little soft in the top treble and a little lean in the low bass, midbass, and power range; nonetheless, if sources were well recorded it reproduced them that way, and if they weren’t...well, you heard what was wrong with them with the same clarity and fidelity that the A90 brought to records that were “right.”
However, long experience has shown me that one man’s (or this man’s) “neutral” and “transparent” is another man’s “cold” and “analytical.” Let’s face it: How you hear any audio component depends on what you’re looking for from that component and from an audio system in general. This is precisely why I’ve divided listeners into different groups. For instance, what I call an “as you like it” listener, for whom gorgeous tone color and sensational dynamics (particularly in the bass) come first and foremost, wouldn’t have heard the MC A90’s “neutrality” the way a transparency-to-sources listener like me did. For him the cartridge’s slight Nordic chilliness and leanish balance would have been sonically more significant than its overall lack of color, texture, and grain, its exceptional resolution, and its fidelity to sources.
However, I have good news for Ortophobes and Ortophiles alike in the form of the company’s new top-of-the-line cartridge— the MC Anna. Priced at what is (for Ortofon) an unprecedentedly high $8495, the Anna, named (for good reason, as you will see) after the great Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, is as different in its own fashion from the A90 and previous Ortofons as the Goldfinger Statement (its chief competitor, IMO) is from the Goldfinger Diamond v2 and previous Clearaudios.
If you’re coming directly from the MC A90, just looking at the Anna will be a bit of shock. After making a big deal out of the A90’s near-vestigial body, whose incredibly small size, light weight, and single-piece construction were said to contribute to its lower resonant signature (and higher transparency and resolution), Ortofon has turned abruptly on its heel and given the MC Anna a far more massive (sixteen grams as opposed to the A90’s scant eight), conventionally sized (though not conventionally shaped) cartridge body. In this case, however, appearances are somewhat misleading.
The Anna’s chassis is, indeed, much larger, heavier, and more bulbous than that of the A90, but it has been built in precisely the same way that the A90’s was, using the selective laser melting (SLM) process in which micro-particles of titanium are welded together by lasers working like computer-controlled knitting needles to construct—bit-by-bit, layer by layer—a single-piece enclosure. This technique, says Ortofon, “allows for precise control of the density of the body material [and] extremely high internal damping.” As was the case with the A90, the end result is lower susceptibility to resonances.