Since its founding as the Electrical Phono Film Company in 1918, Ortofon (whose name is derived from the Greek words for “correct sound”) has gained a reputation for its innovations, product development prowess, and precision manufacturing capabilities. Among numerous industry firsts, Ortofon is credited with developing the first mono cutterhead in 1946, and the moving-coil cartridge in 1948. The company has also been producing tonearms for the past sixty years since it released the A212 tonearm in 1953. The new TA-series tonearms are the latest in this venerable firm’s rich analog history. The combination of the Ortofon TA-110 tonearm and Cadenza Black moving-coil cartridge that I used in my review of the Merrill-Williams R.E.A.L. 101 turntable impressed me so much that I thought both merited more extensive commentary.
Ortofon TA-110 Tonearm
As is often the case in high-performance audio, looks can be deceiving. Although quite attractive and well finished, at first glance the new Ortofon TA-110 looks somewhat “old school” with its detachable headshell and standard 9-inch, s-shaped aluminum armtube. While it doesn’t sport an exquisite, integrated, one-piece magnesium armtube/headshell like the SME 5 or features like fine VTA adjustment during play such as the Tri-planar u II or Graham Phantom II, as with those other ’arms it utilizes advanced technology to dampen the vibrations in the armtube. At less than one-third of its competitors’ cost, the Ortofon TA-110 is not only far more affordable, but its sonic performance comes surprisingly close to those “super-’arms” in a few key areas.
To help keep costs down, most of the tonearm’s parts are produced by Jelco, an OEM manufacturer in Japan with a long and influential analog history of its own. Jelco has earned a reputation for developing praiseworthy, modestly priced tonearms for many audio companies such as the classic Sumiko MMT and the Graham Robin, among others. In contrast to Jelco’s house designs, the bearings used in the 9″ TA-110 and 12″ TA-210 are specially made and polished for Ortofon and are higher in quality, producing less bearing friction—another of the keys to the TA-110’s superior performance. Other desirable additions include a custom-machined extra-mass ring for use with cartridge/headshell combos exceeding 28 grams, a Baerwald (IEC) armtube, a high-quality phono cable using 6N high-purity copper, and an attractive leather-bound case.
While these additions are noteworthy, the major design enhancements made by Ortofon at its factory in Denmark before final assembly elevate this tonearm’s performance to even greater heights. Aided by its computer-modeling tools, Ortofon has been able to effectively apply its extensive knowledge of vibration reduction, gained from its development of bone conductors for the hearing-aid industry, to the TA-110. A precision-machined slit is placed in the middle of the aluminum armtube of the TA- 110 and one of Ortofon’s unique rubber compounds, produced at its own technical rubber facilities in Nakskov, is injected. Besides breaking the symmetry of the armtube, the specially shaped rubber has high vibration-damping characteristics.
Measurement graphs, available on the Ortofon Web site, show that the vibration damping on the TA-110 is most effective between 1kHz and 4kHz, the key areas of the midrange and upper midrange/lower treble. This helps account for the TA-110’s sonic purity and naturalness on vocals, for example, as well as its ability to preserve the leading edge of transients on percussion. Other images show the dramatic differences in armtube stress between a standard armtube like the TA-100 and the TA-110’s rubber- injected armtube. I would suggest that less stress in the armtube means less stress in your listening sessions, reducing aural fatigue while also enhancing clarity and image stability.
Effective vibration dampening, less armtube stress, and high- quality bearings yield a tonearm that gets out of the way of the music, without inserting its own colorations. Its midrange performance comes close to that of its more expensive competition, with much of the openness and freedom from smearing and distortion one hears when listening to mastertapes on a great reel-to-reel deck like the uHA-HQ Phase six. Bass is well controlled and provides a solid foundation to the music, and the highs are smooth without becoming overly aggressive.
While the TA-110’s performance belies its relatively modest price, moving up to the latest version of my reference Tri-planar u II was instructive. Both arms have a remarkable neutrality and freedom from grain in the crucial midrange and lower treble, yet the Tri-planar digs out more fine details. The differences were more apparent at the frequency extremes where the Tri- planar produced more extension and definition, as well as greater overall authority in the deep bass. However, the TA-110 was no slouch in these areas. Admittedly, the Tri-planar’s ability to make repeatable micro-adjustments to VTA is arguably as good as it gets, and if you’re someone who changes VTA between 180 and 200 gram albums, the Tri-Planar u II or the Graham Phantom II are definitely hard to beat, but you’ll pay a premium. To put this in some perspective, I did not find adjusting the VTA on the magnificent SME V that much easier and repeatable than on the Ortofon. Another benefit is that the TA-110’s detachable headshell makes it easier to swap cartridges on the TA-110 than on the integrated headshell designs (except for the Grahams, where one swaps out the entire armtube/headshell).
With more manufacturers selling complete turntable system packages under their own badges, the TA-110 may have a difficult time finding a home, but it is definitely worth pursuing. It mates superbly with the Merrill-Williams 101 turntable, which also makes extensive and effective use of elastomers to control and reduce resonances, and the Ortofon Cadenza Black (and reportedly other high-performance Ortofon cartridges). What is striking about this analog front-end is its clarity and transient speed, lack of distortion and smearing, broad and deep soundstaging, engaging transparency, and smooth but detailed presentation. I was shocked by how close this combination came to the sound of mastertapes in the critical midrange.
The TA-110 is a welcome addition to the ’arms race, leveraging Ortofon’s experience in technical rubber and vibration management into an affordable separate tonearm that controls and dampens spurious vibrations quite effectively. These innovations produce a highly musical, natural, and pure sound that is surprising in this price class. If you prefer to “set-and- forget” your tonearm, you can save a bundle, get soul-satisfying performance, and come closer to the music than you might expect.
SPECS & PRICING
Type: 9-inch, static-balance tonearm
Effective length: 231mm
Tracking force adjusting range (direct reading): 0–3 g
Height adjustment range: 35 to 55mm
Effective mass (without headshell): 3.5g
Offset angle: 23.9˚
Ortofon Cadenza Black
Type: Moving-coil phono cartridge
Output voltage: 0.3 mV
Stylus type: Nude Shibata on Boron cantilever
Recommended tracking force: 2.3g
Recommend load impedance: >10 ohms
Cartridge weight: 10.7g
500 Executive Blvd Suite 102
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UHA-HQ Phase Six Reel-to-Reel Deck; Merrill Williams R.E.A.L 101 and VPI Aries turntables (TNT V platter & bearing), Tri-planar U II and Graham 1.5 tonearms (w/2.2 bearing), and Koetsu Black cartridge; Esoteric SA-50 CA/SACD player; MFA Venusian (Frankland modified) preamp; Audio Research DS 450M and PrimaLuna DiaLogue Seven monoblock amplifiers; Quad ESL -57 (PK modified) and Sonus faber Amati futura loudspeakers; REL G-1 subwoofer; Silver Circle Audio Pure Power One 5.0 power conditioner; Nordost Valhalla or AudioQuest Niagra interconnects, AudioQuest Metro speaker cables, etc.
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