Listening #168: Ortofon SPU #1S phono cartridge
Mikey is a longtime friend who harbors no love for vintage phonographyyet after playing his first record with the new SPU #1E ($659), he wrote: "I immediately, and much to my surprise, got what the SPU cult is all about."
The elliptical-tipped SPU #1Ealso available as the SPU #1S ($599), with an old-fashioned spherical stylus tipoffers most of the key design characteristics found in the very first SPU: a low-output (0.18mV) moving-coil cartridge with low-impedance coils (2 ohms); a low-compliance motor (10µm/mN, a unit of measurement otherwise known as compliance units or cu); and a distinctly short aluminum cantilever with an exposed length of only about 3.9mm. The SPU is built into a stubby, black-plastic body with two mounting holes 0.5" apart, as with most phono cartridges; through those two holes, the body is screwed to an aluminum mounting plate that is itself fastened, with a single screw, to a boxy headshell whose four-pin bayonet connector complies with what has become known as "the SME standard," for reasons too fiddly to fit here.
To most hobbyists, who are presumed less than keen on the idea of tampering with tiny, fragile devices that are subject to three- and four-figure repair costs, the SPU's body and headshell are considered inseparableand so these and similar products from EMT, Neumann, et al are sometimes called pickup heads rather than mere cartridges, though the latter term is no less apt. (Most SPU cartridges can, with coaxing, survive in other headshells, and some can even be repositioned within their original headshells, to adjust overhang, etc.: also subjects for another day.)
In what ways do the new and distinctly affordable SPU #1E and SPU #1S depart from the designs of their forebears? From 1958 right up through the '70s, the headshells of most SPUs were molded from Bakelite, a polymer made from formaldehyde, phenol, and hydrochloric acid. Today, Ortofon makes their SPU headshells out of what they describe as grinded wood, which I gather is a moldable mixture of sawdust and synthetic resin. The new pickup heads also take a different approach to getting the signal from the cartridge's own output pins to the headshell's bayonet: the #1E and #1S use short lead wires held in place not with solder but with slip-on connectorssolder being the original method, also not recommended for the hobbyist. Other, arguably minor differences between old and newthe type of varnish used on the coil wire, the precise compound of the motor's elastic damping material, etc.may also exist. How could they not?
And, as Michael Fremer pointed out, a key factor in the affordability of the SPU #1E and SPU #1S is that each uses a bonded stylusa two-part thing in which a tiny diamond tip is cemented to a steel shankrather than a more expensive nude stylus, in which tip and shank alike are made from the same little chunk of diamond. On the one hand, a nude stylus is presumed to offer lower moving mass and thus superior high-frequency performance; on the other hand, I don't believe nude styli were available in 1958, or for a number of years thereafterwhich, intentionally or not, makes these new SPUs truer than most to the original beast.
A final bit of fiddly: The #1E and #1S are G-style SPUs: These cartridges are built into the longer of Ortofon's two headshell sizes, originally developed both to provide room for headshell-mounted step-up transformers (seriously!) and to make it easier for early users to install their non-Ortofon cartridges in the Ortofon's SPU-style headshells. The alternative to the G-style SPU is the shorter, stubbier-looking A-style SPU. The distance between the stylus tip of an SPU A and the flange of its bayonet connector is 30mm; the same dimension on an SPU G is 52mm (footnote 1)which I confirmed on the review samples Ortofon sent me not long after the 2016 High End show, in Munich.
Those samples were easy to install in my EMT 997 tonearm, itself a contemporary reissue of a distinctive vintage product (in this case, from the early 1970s). The only hitch: the upward-pointing positioning pins on the bayonet connectors of both new SPUs proved slightly too long, and thus resisted being pulled in by the helical groove of the EMT arm's locking collet. After a few gentle passes with a small fret-dressing filedone only after applying masking tape to the rest of the pickup head, to prevent ingress of metal filingsall was well.
Because the dimensions of the SPU #1E and SPU #1S are known quantities, I had no trouble setting correct overhang. I'd already worked out the spindle-to-pivot distance required to get an SPU G to work optimally in an EMT 997 tonearm; dialing in that dimension (316.3mm) was a simple matter of rotating the articulated armboard on the plinth of my Garrard 301 turntable. After that, all I had to do was set the correct vertical tracking force (VTF)which, for both of the new SPUs, is 4gm. That number is considerably higher than average, and the hobbyist who is uncomfortable with vintage gear can be forgiven any concern about the possibility of accelerated record wear. That said, my attitude toward high VTFs is the same as my attitude toward the use of spherical styli (indeed, they tend to go hand in hand): Perhaps 40% of the thousands of records in my collection were bought secondhand, and many if not most of those are mono LPs that were originally played, presumably often, on the equipment of their daywell before the early-1960s introduction of the elliptical stylus and the ensuing VTF wars. Those records don't sound just finethey sound amazing.
So I began with the spherical-tipped Ortofon SPU #1S in place of my Shindo Laboratory SPU, the latter essentially an older SPU A that's been modified with a new aluminum cantilever and spherical stylus, a slightly more compliant suspension, and other tweaks. The SPU #1S wasn't quite as spatially up-front as the Shindo SPU ($2950 plus the customer's SPU A, preferably with Bakelite headshell), nor was it as musically forceful. The new SPU's sense of scale was also smaller overall, its way with timbres a little more pallid than the boldly colorful Shindo. That said, the Ortofon #1S was every inch an SPU. In "Oh, You Crazy Moon," from Frank Sinatra's Moonlight Sinatra (Reprise FS-1018), the rhythm guitar was relentless in its forward motion, the horns and reeds beautifully textured, and Sinatra's voice very present and substantive. In other words, like most SPUs and other vintage-style pickups, the SPU #1S was more about music than hi-fi.
Similarly, soprano Benita Valente's singing of Schubert's "Der Hirt auf dem Felsen," from Chamber Music from Marlboro (Columbia/Speakers Corner MS 6236), was reproduced by the #1S with body, color, and a realistic sense of musical movement and tension. Rudolf Serkin's piano was itself all about body and touch, with none of the hi-fi tinkliness one hears from less musically adept pickups, and Harold Wright's clarinet had tone and texture in spades. And for those who might be concerned about tracking, Valente's voice remained poised and unshrill on even her loudest notes.
With "Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Part One," from King Crimson's Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Discipline Global Mobile KCLP 5), the #1S had the expected fine force and corporeality, the latter even throughout the treble range. Yet there are portions of this number for which even this spherical stalwart hungers, on the edge of his seat, for more detail and sparkle, if only to keep the music from sounding like the sort of thing one hears in the background while visiting a Hallmark store. It was while listening to this music and thinking those thoughts that I swapped out the #1S for the elliptical-tipped #1E.
The SPU #1E had slightly less punch and less flesh and blood than the #1Sbut it satisfied my occasional sweet-treble tooth with greater air, far greater spatial depth, and, indeed, more detail. With the #1E at the end of my EMT tonearm, Robert Fripp's guitar technique, and the characteristics of whichever effects pedal he was using at any time, were more apparent, and the tone of David Cross's violin was sunnier and lighter. Bill Bruford's drumming technique, tooespecially his unbelievably quick, well-timed flourishes across timbales, ride toms, and suchwas better spotlit by the #1E, although those drum sounds were also less meaty than with the #1S.
Footnote 1: Another, arguably critical distinction: With virtually all A-style SPUs, the signal pins that exit the cartridge body are much longer than usual, and are bent into a double-U shape. This is done so that, when the cartridge is installed in the headshell, a considerable length of each pin is pushed against a corresponding electrical contact, the latter soldered to its corresponding bayonet pin. This not only ensures an excellent signal connection, it also confers a measure of physical damping on the cartridge bodya not-insignificant distinction that may explain, in part, the sonic differences between G- and A-style SPUs.