On classical music its midbass response seemed slightly overripe and discontinuous during Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture/ Marche Slav [EMI]; the bass drum and tympani cues succumbed to some added thickness that reduced pitch definition a bit. On Norah Jones’ “Sinkin Soon” [Blue Note] the contrasts in timbre and transient energy from the interplay of percussion instruments was also somewhat reduced. In terms of low-level resolution the Red short-sheeted some of the finer gradations—a reduction that led to a flatter soundstage compared to the higher-priced spreads.
At $299 the Quintet Red is obviously on the low end of the price scale for moving-coil cartridges, but it doesn’t sound like a cheapskate. It drops some resolution and tonal purity at the frequency extremes and lacks some micro-information everywhere, but it retains a persuasive feel for the distinctive musicality of LP playback. It’s a slam-dunk for any thoughtful starter system. Those who are a little less inclined to compromise and have the bankroll to back it up, read on.
In some areas, the leap from the entry-level Red to the top-gun Black was smooth. Certain basic traits made the transition, namely the speed, the enriched bass response, and broad soundstage. The Black took these virtues and amplified them, while at the same time minimizing the Red’s modest vices. Specifically, the Quintet Black conveyed a more settled and even neutrality across the tonal spectrum, while adding a bit more midrange warmth. It has both a lighter touch and a more commanding sense of control.
In comparison to the Red, the Black’s upper-octave edges have been rounded off and polished. Violins are more fluid and airy. It also sweetened and clarified treble information more completely. For instance, Joni Mitchell’s soaring vocal in “A Case of You” [Reprise] had more bloom and warmth, which focused the performance more precisely. The Black also lifted the dulcimer beyond a dull drone and fully illuminated the many acoustic and transient facets that Mitchell wrings out of this quintessentially American lap instrument. There was also a shift in bass response during the Ritchie and Lewis 45rpm remixes. Both were a bit tighter, more controlled, and better defined in pitch. There was certainly a reduction in midbass coloration and more bottom-end extension.
Turning back to the Tchaikovsky 1812, the Black provided a crisper, more defined snare sound and cleaner brass volleys, and the pealing church bells of the finale were more refined and focused. Similarly during the third movement of Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 [EMI] the unrelenting low string ostinato had a greater sense of layering, while the intensity of the trumpet fanfare had a golden aura that seemed to add fullness to the entire brass section. During Stravinsky’s Pulcinella [Argo] the Black found the sweetspot of the soaring piccolo trumpet at a moment where every element of a system needs to align or those same brassy transients quickly turn as steely and stressed as high-tension wire.
Having now reviewed both of Ortofon’s “Black” versions (Quintet and 2M) I find I’m leaning towards the Quintet Black overall. I’ll grant that the 2M has a bit more midrange warmth, but its top end lacks the clarity and nuance of the Quintet. The latter is also singularly more transparent, illuminating more low-level information. But the Black is also marginally pricier and unlike the high-gain 2M it requires a phono amp with a lot more pep. Still, at the end of the day perhaps the greatest tribute I can pay the Quintet Black is that I haven’t felt the urge to quickly return to one of my pricey reference cartridges. I don’t need to tell you that for this analog junkie, that’s really saying something.
SPECS & PRICING
Quintet Red & Black
Type: Moving coil
Output: 0.5mV (Red); 0.3mV (Black)
Recommended load impedance: >20 ohm
Cartridge body: ABS
Coil wire: Copper (Red); aucurum (Black)
Tracking Force: 2.1–2.5 grams
Weight: 9 grams
Price: Red, $299; Blue, $499; Mono, $499; Bronze, $799; Black, $999
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