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Ortofon MC Century Phono Cartridge

Ortofon MC Century Phono Cartridge

In an early February editorial entitled “Vinyl Revival Marks the Tone of Our Times,” the Financial Times observed that “audiophiles claim analogue vinyl sounds better than digital downloads or CDs.” Indeed they do. One of the first to blow the whistle on the drawbacks of digital sound was the late David Wilson, who observed in an essay on stereo playback in Playboy in 1984, “Disciples of digital, seeking perfect sound, forever, have instead found imperfect sound for longer than even they are likely to want it.” How right he was!

Since then, the advances in vinyl reproduction, ranging from turntables to cartridges, have been nothing less than stupefying. The Ortofon MC Century cartridge is a case in point. Limited to 100 pieces, the MC Century is Ortofon’s new flagship, which it created to mark the company’s centenary. Founded in October 1918, just as World War I was about to come to an end in November, the Danish company has become something of a legend in the audio industry. Over the past decade or so Ortofon has produced a series of top-drawer cartridges such as the A95, which was reviewed in TAS in 2015 by Andre Jennings, and the MC Anna. The Century seeks to meld the hyper-detail, or, if you prefer, neutrality, of the A95 with the greater suppleness of the MC Anna, which was reviewed by Jonathan Valin in 2013. He waxed enthusiastic about the forward progress Ortofon had made in creating the Anna, named in honor of the famous Russian soprano Anna Netrebko: “The Anna is unprecedentedly more beautiful-sounding than past Ortofons, with a considerably fuller, more extended, and more dynamic bass range and a richer, lovelier, more fully fleshed-out lower midrange than the A90, as well as a smoother, more natural upper midrange and more extended treble.”

The company has spared no expense in producing the Century, which is what you would surely expect from a cartridge that retails for a daunting $12,000. The tariff is high but not even at the outer reaches of what stellar cartridges are retailing for these days (the Clearaudio Goldfinger Statement runs a cool $16k). One of the reassuring things about purchasing a cartridge from a company like Ortofon is that you know that they never produce any odd jobs. There’s no case of styli veering to one side or the other or any other such peculiarities that I’ve seen over the years. Ortofon’s production values are rock-solid.

So is the MC Century, almost literally. To reduce unwanted resonances, it relies on a process called Selective Laser Melting to construct the titanium body and housing for the cartridge, essentially a process of grafting layer after layer of titanium on top of each other for maximum rigidity. Ortofon also uses the Nude Replicant 100 diamond on a diamond cantilever in the Century. The relatively low output voltage of 0.2mV means that a phonostage with a healthy amount of gain is a must—I paired it with a custom-made Ypsilon step-up transformer that was set to match the Century. In use the cartridge was always dead quiet, attracting none of the external hum or noise that can sometimes plague vinyl playback. 

So how did this nifty little piece sound? Not luscious. Not astringent. Instead, it possessed an ineffable suavity. One of the great qualities of this cartridge is its ability to anchor images in space with a natural tonality. On one of my favorite albums, an Erato pressing of French trumpeter Maurice André with the organist Marie-Claire Alain, the piccolo trumpet, which can sound shrill on some cartridges, always sounded relaxed and effortless, helping to banish any lingering sense of electronic reproduction. André apparently claimed that he had enough air capacity to blow up a truck tire, and it certainly sounds like it on the demanding concertos he plays on this LP. In the concerto in F major by the baroque Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni, André’s elegantly impassioned performance, particularly in the adagio movement where he soars into the sonic ether, was vividly conveyed by the MC Century: All the detail was there—you could hear right into the bore of the little Selmer piccolo trumpet with its four valves, which always looked as though it were vanishing in André’s robust hands—but that detail was rendered in such a felicitous manner that it made for easy listening in the best sense of the word. Put otherwise, this wasn’t like reclining into a La-Z-Boy, but a direct path into the empyrean heights of musical reproduction. 

This is one of the more imperturbable cartridges that I’ve had the pleasure to experience. No grit, no grain, none of the dreaded rise in the treble region that is often associated with moving-coil cartridges.

 

Other trumpeters have moved to the fore since André’s time (by now you can probably tell that I have a weakness for trumpet). One of them is the Swedish virtuoso Håkan Hardenberger. On his debut album which was recorded in 1986 on the Philips label, the MC Century displayed its superb ability to excavate and resolve low-level detail. On a fairly obscure concerto by the composer Johann Stamitz, the Century revealed layer after layer of the accompanying orchestra, reaching deep into the back of the hall, while providing some of the blackest backgrounds I’ve heard on vinyl. 

That ability to probe into the recesses of a concert hall without highlighting detail in an obtrusive sense also came to the fore on more complex works. On an Archiv digital LP recording of Bach’s concertos for three and four harpsichords, the MC Century displayed a sovereign sense of control. It simply tracks the grooves like a fiend. The various harpsichords seemed to whiz around in the air as the MC Century threw a large soundstage. What was compelling about playing these Bach concertos on the Century was the finesse with which the cartridge successfully depicted each harpsichord in its own space rather than creating the sensation that they were colliding into each other like bumper cars at an amusement park. This perceived collision, in my experience, often results in a homogenized sound, the last thing you want when listening to intricate classical works.

When it came to sheer wallop factor, the Century was no wallflower, either. On Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” or Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” it hit quite hard. Bass was full, rich, and resonant. But it has to be said that the Century was never as overtly exciting as the Lyra Atlas SL. Nor was it quite as detailed as the latest version of the DS Audio optical cartridge that I also had on hand. It was fascinating to compare directly all three cartridges to each other on Swedish Analog Technologies designer Marc Gomez’s remarkable new CF1-09 tonearm, which I recently received for review and mounted on my Continuum Caliburn turntable. 

The DS cartridge, coupled with its proprietary phonostage, pulls off more detail than any cartridge I’ve heretofore sampled. But it is a bit thinner tonally than the Century. The Atlas has an inimitable jump factor; it just wants to play. None of these cartridges is inherently better than the other. As always, you have to pick your poison. What I can say is that the Century splits the difference between the Atlas and the DS; it is a superbly silky and transparent cartridge that appears to be almost perfectly balanced from octave to octave. 

How many MC Century cartridges are left to be had is a question I’m not qualified to answer, but there are apparently dealers who have a few precious samples stashed away for those who only want the best. And if the Century is too much of a financial stretch, Ortofon will surely incorporate a number of its alluring features into future, more modestly priced cartridges. For now, in seeking to push the state of the art, Ortofon deserves credit for artfully making a statement with the MC Century.

Specs & Pricing

Output voltage: 0.2mV
Channel balance: 0.5dB
Channel separation: 25dB
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +/-1.5dB
Tracking ability: 80µm
Stylus type: Special polished Nude Ortofon Replicant 100 on diamond cantilever
Tracking force: 2.4g (24mN)
Tracking angle: 23°
Internal impedance: 6 ohms
Recommended load impedance: 10 ohms
Weight: 15g
Price: $12,000

ORTOFON INC.
500 Executive Blvd. Ste. 102
Ossining, NY 15062
(914) 762-8646
ortofon.us


 

By Jacob Heilbrunn

The trumpet has influenced my approach to high-end audio. Like not a few audiophiles, I want it all—coherence, definition, transparency, dynamics, and fine detail.

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