Listening #100 Page 2

I took them in chronological order—which is how they're arranged in that elegant wooden box—and began with the SPU Classic. The only one of the four that's still available as a regular production model—albeit with Ortofon's modern "grinded wood" headshell (for $899)—this Classic is built into a headshell of aluminum-magnesium alloy, with a gray plastic belly pan. This classically low-impedance, low-output cartridge has a spherical stylus tip and a very low-compliance suspension, with a recommended stylus pressure of 4gm. The 2010 SPU Classic appears identical to its 51-year-old forebear in every way but two: the four signal pins at the end of its contact plug are smooth and gold-plated. Welcome improvements indeed.

The SPU Classic presented music with sonic body—the flutes in the opening measures of Vaughan Williams' Job, as performed by Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic (LP, Everest SDBR-3019), were made listenable by this cartridge as by few others—and the most natural sense of musical flow one can imagine: lines tumbled out in a manner free from all mechanical artifice.

That was with my EMT 997 tonearm; if anything, the SPU Classic G jelled even better with the Schick tonearm (the review sample of which, I'm mildly embarrassed to say, I've continued to enjoy in my home). The combination of Classic G and Schick provided the best sense of scale I heard during my time with the SPU Collector's Box.

Next up was the SPU Gold Reference, which uses the same alloy headshell as the Classic, but departs from that earlier design with its slightly higher impedance, moderately higher compliance (at 3.0gm, the Gold Reference has the lowest recommended downforce of all four of these SPUs), and its use of Ortofon's proprietary Replicant 100 hyper-elliptical stylus profile. The Gold Reference also sports a gold-plated aluminum cantilever, making it uniquely easy to align among all these streamlined G-style pickup heads, which do tend to be more difficult to align than the squarish A-style Ortofons. The SPU Gold Reference was introduced in 1989, and only 335 were made.

From the moment I first lowered the Gold Reference's stylus into a groove, its superiority was obvious in one regard: It was as silent a stylus as I've ever heard, and notably quieter than Ortofon's spherical tip. The Gold Reference also distinguished itself as the airiest of the four SPUs, and the one with the most accomplished stereo imaging. Voices sounded especially beautiful, there being no better example than soprano Heather Harper in her performance, with Neville Marriner and the Northern Sinfonia, of Britten's Les Illuminations (LP, Angel S-36788). That said, the SPU Gold Reference was also less impactful than its three boxmates, as I heard in the very immediate-sounding recording of Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra by Felix Slatkin and the Concert Arts Symphony Orchestra, in a recent reissue overseen by the always-excellent Robert Pincus (LP, Capitol/Cisco SP8373).

I moved on to the SPU 85 Urushi, in which a traditionally low-compliance SPU motor—this time with an elliptical stylus at the end of its aluminum cantilever—is married to a solid wood headshell finished with the fabled lacquer made from the urushi tree. The SPU 85 has slightly higher-impedance (and -output) coils than the Classic, and its recommended downforce is 3.5gm. The SPU 85 was introduced in 2003, to commemorate Ortofon's 85th Anniversary; production was limited to 500 units.

The beech-bodied SPU 85 was, in many ways, the most expressive of the bunch. With the SPU 85, the horn that opens Schubert's Symphony 9, in the famous recording by Josef Krips and the London Symphony Orchestra (LP, Decca/Speakers Corner SXL 2045), didn't just play the line—it sang it. Each note was individually shaped, as if by a human voice: amazing. The 85 also did a good job of remaining poised during the loudest orchestral tuttis in this recording. On the other hand, higher-pitched notes didn't have quite the heft and body—the same flesh and blood—as with the SPU Classic. But the 85 was awfully close, and was, if anything, more colorful and textured. It even brought those qualities to deep bass notes, as on that Felix Slatkin recording of Britten's Young Person's Guide.

Fourth and finally came the Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary, which I reviewed in my April 2009 column. Introduced in 2008 in a limited edition of 500 units, the 90th Anniversary is the first SPU to benefit from two of Ortofon's most recent cartridge technologies: their use of a cylindrical "field-stabilizing element" within the motor, to maximize and focus the permanent magnet's power; and their Selective Laser Melting (SLM) construction—a sort of high-precision welding technique that reportedly goes beyond adhesives in ensuring a rigidly and accurately made pickup. The low-impedance and low-compliance SPU 90th Anniversary has an elliptical stylus and tracks at 3.5gm.

The 90th Anniversary was, in many ways, the most refined-sounding of the four while still sounding like an SPU. (The Gold Reference, which was admirably clean and tight, sounded a bit more hi-fi than the 90th Anniversary.) It was also, surprisingly, the best tracker. (Also surprisingly, the SPU 85 was the least accomplished in that regard.) On "No Ordinary Love," from Sade's Love Deluxe (LP, Epic 472626 1), the 90th Anniversary had a bit less scale than the SPU 85, but just as much bass depth and impact—and much better bass speed. This pickup's pedigree was also clear to hear on the best recordings of acoustic music in my collection, such as Tony Rice's seminal Manzanita (LP, Rounder 0092). With the SPU 90th Anniversary, the sound of Rice's guitar was as rich and supple as I know it to be, with realistic snap and momentum in even the fastest lines of notes. Voices were timbrally right through the newest SPU, with spatial presence and body that were almost the equal of the hallowed SPU Classic's.

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