Whenever I’m reviewing phono pickups, one of the first recordings I reach for is Doris Day’s Hooray for Hollywood, a Columbia album from the early days of stereo. An extraordinary number of pickups, even very expensive ones, don’t get Day’s voice right, making it either too sharp and piercing (a rising top or untamed ringing) or not light enough (a presence suckout and a lower midrange bump), or sometimes just a little nasal. Ortofon’s new Rondo Blue nailed it right out of the gate: bright and clear but not edgy, with real body and a “human,” as opposed to electronic, texture, without excessive sibilance.
Suitably impressed, I started through the rest of my usual repertoire of singers. Ella Fitzgerald’s is a lower, weightier instrument with a lot of smoke in the timbre, which is how the Blue rendered it on Let No Man Write My Epitaph in Classic Records’ superb reissue. Jacintha is a singer I’ve heard live and at close range; her voice is heard a cappella at the beginning of “Moon River,” from her Johnny Mercer collection on GrooveNote, its distinctive beauty accurately reproduced (detail freaks will be happy to know that even the quietest of the piano chords bleeding through her headphones are retrieved). Vintage Sinatra from vintage Capitol on Nice ‘n Easy has all the familiar wood and warmth that we expect and treasure from this greatest of popular singers. If you share my colleague Ken Kessler’s view that Capitols of the fifties are the best vocal recordings ever and are in the market to replace your pickup, add this new Ortofon to your short list.
From pop and jazz to classical: Verdi’s Macbeth (DG) at La Scala from the eighties when Claudio Abbado could be a hair?raisingly exciting conductor. Just listen to the choral outburst when news of the murdered king is announced or the distinctive Italianate sonority of the La Scala brass. Strings—I’ve moved to Vienna with the Philharmonic—have a lovely sheen and just the right brilliance. When a pickup gets voices and orchestral timbres right, most of the really critical tests are pretty much passed.
If I were to generalize about the Rondo Blue’s sound, it would be this: a natural midrange, an extended but nonaggressive top, and a bottom end that is quite strong if a bit on the extravert side. Transparency is good enough to obviate the need to worry about it as an issue, and the dynamic presentation is powerful when called for, but can be delicate and nuanced too.
I’ve reviewed several Ortofons in the last ten years and found they begin more or less at excellent and go up from there. The outstanding Kontrapunkt series has already been replaced by the somewhat pricier Cadenza series, while the original pricepoints of the lower Kontrapunkts are now covered by the Rondo line. Rondo bodies are made in Japan from a wood?composite material as a cost?effective means of controlling and suppressing resonances and then given ritzy painted?lacquer finishes. The Blue occupies a middle position in the series, above the Red and below the Bronze. The series itself is intended to bring the considerable sonic virtues of the company’s higher?priced pickups to a more attractive price point, which for the Blue translates as $800. That’s still not cheap when you figure you can buy perfectly good pickups for a couple of hundred dollars (to say nothing of a wonderful integrated amplifier like the NAD C326BEE for $500), but those other pickups don’t come with an Ortofon pedigree and they weren’t designed by Per Windfeld, the company’s resident genius this past quarter century and longer.
It’s obvious from the listening that the Rondos come from Windfeld’s stable: the overall neutrality, the grip and control (that chorus in the Macbeth), terrific bass response and dynamic range, and a top end that is both smooth and articulate. This last pair of characteristics does require some careful attention to loading, which is also the case with other Ortofons. You’ll get the sound I’m describing here between 50 and 60 ohms (the latter the theoretical ideal of ten times the value of the internal impedance, 6 ohms for the Blue). Go much below 50 and you’ll start to sacrifice some air and ambience, high?lying percussion will lose shimmer and sparkle, and dynamics will begin to suffer; go a lot above 60 and you’ll start to get splash and bogus brilliance. Windfeld’s care in thinking, design, and manufacture must be mirrored in the application; if 2.3 grams tracking force is recommended, as it is, then use it and you’ll be rewarded with good tracking and suppression of surface noise.
So what don’t you get? The usual things. Compared to a Kontrapunkt C ($1900) or a Windfeld (now $3750), you won’t hear the transparency or the scalpel?like precision as regards definition, imaging, and soundstaging; the Blue doesn’t track quite so confidently on my most difficult records, nor do I sense the same ultimate control of the bottom end or that paradoxical combination of iron grip yet utter relaxation. But there’s more similarity than difference. For example, one of my standard checks for holographic imaging and soundstaging is the entrance of the lone recorder player at the beginning of The Christmas Revels: He comes in from deep in stage left, advances, and crosses to the right, where he recedes and exits. The Rondo Blue presented this movement seamlessly. Or take the Procession of Lessons and Carols for Advent Sunday from Kings College [Argo]. As the choir enters from deep in the left and moves forward you can gradually hear its sound fill the space as it echoes off the opposite wall. When the congregation sings, the Blue does a great job resolving the requirements of volume versus loudness.
There’s a quality about the Blue that I really admire but find difficult to define. I get the impression that Windfeld did not try to push this design to do things that he could not make it do well at the price point (like super?transparency, ultra?wide dynamics, or envelope?expanding resolution). The result is a pickup that on the vast majority of recordings never seems to misbehave, get frazzled, or do anything that detracts from the pleasure of listening to music. There’s a kind of rightness to the presentation that lets you listen for long periods without fatigue. Yet it doesn’t achieve this even?handedness by withholding vital information or being especially forgiving. I played an old Mobile Fidelity recording of Lorin Maazel’s Pines of Rome and Roman Festivals, and the highs were every bit as fierce and piercing as Mo-Fi’s of those days could sometimes be. (How glad I was that the NAD C326 BEE integrated amplifier I used for part of the evaluations has tone controls!)
Where does the Rondo Blue fit into the marketplace? Pretty much where Ortofon has priced it: an under?a?grand pickup that offers many of the advantages of higher-priced moving coils without breaking the bank. At its price it comes into direct competition with Dynavector’s 17D Mk III Karat ($895). I prefer the Karat (more dynamic, more neutral, more transparent), but the Karat comes with a hidden caveat: It really needs to be treated like a pickup costing from two to four times its price when it comes to associated components, for only in an arm the caliber of a Basis Vector or Graham Phantom does it realize its full potential. The Rondo will perform quite nicely in most of the arms and turntables it’s likely to be used with. Enthusiastically recommended, then, as a pickup both for its terrific value and its obvious overall excellence. And there is its wonderful way with voices.
SPECS & PRICING
Ortofon Rondo Blue Moving-Coil Cartridge
Frequency response: 20Hz–20kHz +/-1.5dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Recommended loading: 10?200 ohms (50?60 optimal)
Tracking force: 2.3 grams
Weight: 10.5 grams
Associated equipment: Basis Vector IV arm/2200 Signature turntable; Nova Phenomena Phono stage; McIntosh C46 preamp; McIntosh MC402, Carver AV705X (Croft designed version), and Quad 303 amplifiers; NAD C326BEE integrated amplifier; Quad 2805 and Wayne Piquet?restored ESL?57 speakers.