Listening #74 Page 2

While EMT settled down to make only A-style pickup heads, Ortofon continued to offer virtually all of their SPU moving-coil cartridges in a choice of A- or G-style headshells—until just a few years ago. Seemingly overnight, pictures of Ortofon's A-style pickup heads disappeared from the company's website. Was it, as some suggested, that the person responsible for building the A-style products had passed away? Or was it that the company wanted to condense their product line in the face of a shrinking consumer base?

As it turns out, neither. In 1971, Ortofon moved their operation from mainland Denmark to a small island town called Nakskov; in the process, some key parts for making A-style pickup heads simply got misplaced. Demand continued, howsoever humbly, so when the missing pieces resurfaced a little over a year ago, the news was greeted with smiles all around: Ortofon now had enough parts to manufacture one final run of A-style pickup heads. Owing to that limitation, and because 2008 was the company's 90th anniversary, they opted for something special—and the SPU Synergy A is just that. With an elliptical stylus tip and a body made from Ortofon's recently developed wood-and-resin mix (rather than the more traditional Bakelite), the Synergy A is a shade more modern than its forebears.

It sounds more modern, too—but only in the best ways. In a direct comparison with a borrowed Ortofon SPU Classic A, my review sample of the SPU Synergy A was more extended in the bass and, especially, in the treble, with a more open sound and an even better sense of scale—the latter already an SPU hallmark. All the traditional SPU strengths were present and accounted for: The Synergy A was matched only by the best EMTs in its ability to convey a sense of human touch and force in recorded music, and was exceeded by nothing in its utterly convincing feel of musical flow and naturalness. Not only string tone and texture, but subtleties of bowing technique were communicated uniquely well by this colorful yet uncolored cartridge.

The Synergy A's cantilever and suspension don't differ all that much from those of the other models in the Ortofon SPU line—which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2009—so the new pickup head has more or less the same tracking characteristics: a range of 2.5–3.5gm, with 3.0gm the recommended number. My review sample actually sounded a little more forceful and dynamic when tracking nearer to 3.5gm, at which setting the Ortofon also allowed very loud piano chords, in particular, to sound better than usual. A perfect example: the vigorous chords played by György Sebok about halfway through the first movement of the Brahms Cello Sonata in e, in his recording with János Starker (Mercury Living Presence/Speakers Corner SR90392), which sounded cleaner and more assured with the Synergy A than with any other cartridge I've tried recently.

The new cartridge does, however, have higher output than the other SPUs—0.5mV vs 0.2mV—but both models seemed to love the same transformer loads equally well, the best for the job being the Auditorium 23 Hommage T1, the Audio Note AN-S8, the built-in transformers on my Shindo Masseto preamplifier, and, of course, the Ortofon Verto, the last two sourced from Lundahl. Whereas the top end of the standard SPU Classic A can be optimized with a vertical tracking angle somewhat higher than the average—no surprise, given its spherical stylus—the Synergy A liked to have the tonearm more or less level with the record's surface.

$1850 for any cartridge this good would be reasonable; for the last of a historic breed, the SPU Synergy A is a bargain.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga
In some ways, the Texas band Spoon reminds me of the Beatles during their "White Album" era: not a bad thing at all. Their lyrics are playful and evocative without being overwritten or self-conscious, and much the same could be said of Spoon's music, which is equal parts adventurous and catchy. And I love the way they use the piano—simple, direct, more like John Lennon or Ian Hunter than Nicky Hopkins or Larry Knechtel or anyone else from that whole dreadful "tasty licks" school of playing—as the basis for so many of their more recent songs, especially since their 2002 album Kill the Moonlight (Merge MRG215).

I'm also happy that, as with my other favorite contemporary pop artists, Joanna Newsom and Will Oldham chief among them, most of Spoon's full-length albums and some of their singles and EPs have been issued on vinyl (footnote 1). Good music deserves good sound.

For those of us who care deeply about good sound when listening at home, but who care a little less deeply about it while driving or bicycling or shopping at the Gap or drinking smaller lattes than we used to at Starbucks, there are downloads. And if you buy an LP of Spoon's thoroughly excellent 2007 album, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (Merge MRG295), you'll also receive a specially coded coupon that can be redeemed online for one free download of the entire album. (Visit the Shop at www.mergerecords.com.) Think of it: The best available domestic music format plus the most convenient available music format, supplied at the same time for the same price. Who needs CDs?

Granted, such offers are neither completely new nor completely unique. But this one is sufficiently new and unique that the concept, like the band and the record company itself, warrants our thanks and our support. The world is far from perfect, but at least in this one, small way, we live in a wonderful age.

Fresh Apple
Finally, a nod to the single best customer-service gesture I've ever experienced.

In November 2005, after years of dicking around with Microsoft Windows—a platform on which I used Adobe Photoshop, Adobe (née Aldus) PageMaker, and various scanner drivers and photo descreening programs—and after spending several happy weeks with a Wavelength Brick USB D/A converter and an Apple Mac (both loaned to me by Wavelength's Gordon Rankin), I finally caved and bought an Apple Macintosh. And, wouldn't you know it, I got a lemon: three major hardware failures in three years. Thank goodness I'd bought the extended warranty: I needed it.

The final time I brought that iMac to the Apple retailer for service, I politely mentioned to the technician that three years of Mac ownership had left me somewhat frustrated. He said he understood how I'd feel that way—and if he didn't mean it, he was sure as hell a good actor—then politely excused himself and slipped through a door leading to the store's back office. When he came back, he had the store manager with him: a smallish, 30-something woman with an intelligent face and a friendly demeanor. She apologized sincerely, told me about the hardware and software improvements that had been made during the three years since I'd bought my machine, then offered me, free of charge, a brand-new iMac in exchange for my old one. I accepted in less time than it takes Cokie Roberts to disperse the GOP talking points on NPR every Monday morning.

My new iMac has worked flawlessly. It's fast, the soundcard and speakers are surprisingly good (my wife's Dell laptop sounds like crap), its 20" screen is remarkably clear, colorful, and vibrant, and the user interface is easy, intuitive, and fun. And I'm having a blast with the Garage Band software that came with it for free.

In 2009, investing in a computer with a capacious hard drive, a copy of FLAC, and a USB D/A such as the Wavelength Brick remains a wise alternative to buying another CD player—and now, more than ever, I'm inclined to recommend an Apple.



Footnote 1: My fondness for Spoon's music, of course, has nothing to do with format: I bought or borrowed CDs by these artists well before discovering that the albums were also available on LP.
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