It’s hard to believe but it’s been over five years since the Ortofon 2M collection of moving-magnet cartridges was introduced—cleverly color-coded to indicate entry-level to top-tier pricing. I reviewed the 2M Red and 2M Black in Issue 182 and walked away shaking my head in admiration at the performance of these modestly priced mm’s. The Red was a paltry $99 for goodness sake—roughly “the price of a nice dinner for two,” I said at the time.
As with a hit cable TV series, popularity bred spin-offs, and Ortofon has taken it to the next level with Quintet, a set of five low-to-midpriced moving-coil cartridges that replaces the aging Rondo Series of moving coils. (See reviews of the Rondo Red in Issue 206 and the Rondo Blue in Issue 199.) The Quintet line mirrors the 2M series with the same color-coding, beginning with the least expensive Red, ascending to the Blue and Bronze, and topping out with the Black. A mono version is also offered. The Red, Blue, and Mono have a 0.5mV output that’s compatible with most mc phonostages. The Bronze and Black benefit from a lower 0.3mV output—fewer windings save weight and often yield sonic benefits, particularly in speed and dynamic nuance. The entire line uses neodymium magnets.
Ortofon parcels out the upgrades progressively at each level. Hot-rodding includes coil wire-quality, which ranges from copper to Aucurum (a gold-plated six 9s copper), and most particularly stylus type. Quintet carts use a nude elliptical, while the Black gets the royal treatment with a nude Shibata, known for its asymmetric front-to-back profile. The other key difference is that the Black uses a boron cantilever. Typically found on higher-end offerings, boron is preferred over aluminum for its stiffness and lower mass. (Maintaining the lowest possible moving mass in the stylus/cantilever assembly is key to allowing the cartridge to pick up the finest groove modulations.) Ortofon recommends >20 ohms loading, which makes practical sense given that lower-priced phonostages often feature a single 100-ohm setting. The weight and compliance on these models have been optimized to mate with all medium-mass arms.
Setup was a breeze. The biggest adjustment required was raising my SME V tonearm a few millimeters to accommodate the relatively tall cartridge bodies of the Quintets. I settled for a VTA just south of neutral—a slightly negative rake. Ortofon lists the tracking force range as between 2.1 and 2.5 grams, and I ultimately chose the suggested 2.3 grams. Note: Don’t forget to check your cartridge lead-wire connections carefully for fit and wear. Ortofon offers upgrades in three versions, and made its LW-7N lead wire available for this review (high-purity seven 9s copper with rhodium-plated terminals, price $59).
Truthfully I’m not loyal to any particular camp of phono cartridges. Moving magnet, moving iron, or moving coil…I’m happy to give each an equal shot with no agenda on my part. In that spirit, the Red does a more than respectable job of living up to the values that fans of moving coils have come to expect. It’s damn responsive, rhythmically lively, and especially light on its feet in transient response. Imaging is stable, and soundstage cues and overall dimensionality are well defined.
It never fails that whenever I receive a couple of fresh cartridges for review I begin cueing up my old 45rpm LP dance remixes. Why? These studio-contrived sonic spectaculars with their wide-open groove-spacing are not only a nostalgic hoot but also present tracking, bass, and dynamic hurdles that challenge the “can-do” of any cartridge from cantilever to coil. Favorites (don’t laugh) are Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” [Motown] and Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love” [Chrysalis]. The former’s got a blazing brass section, an army of hyper-busy percussion players, and background partying like you’ve never heard before. The Red tracked very well and reproduced a soundstage that stretched from edge to edge of the Audio Physic Classic 30 and ATC SCM19 loudspeakers’ enclosures (reviews to come). It was responsive to the ever-deepening layers of multi-tracking that drives this dance tune forward. Brass cues, however, though clearly EQ’d, were still a little hotter than I’d encountered with my reference carts. Moving to the Lewis track, the Red grew a little looser in the midbass trying to corral the Godzilla-scale of the electric bass doubled by kick-drum from the remix, but once again it tracked without a whimper.
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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