Ortofon Rondo Bronze MC phono cartridge Page 2
I've fallen into the habit of running-in new stereo cartridges by starting with side 1 of Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic's groundbreaking recording of Wagner's Das Rheingold (London OSA 1309), then working my way through their complete Der Ring des Nibelungen, one side at a time—one of those little rituals that began as a simpleminded effort to amuse myself but turned into something else altogether. I followed suit with the Rondo Bronze, although the new Ortofon seemed to have matured by the time I prized from their box the six discs of Götterdämmerung (London OSA 1604). I admit to other bits of childishness, such as skipping ahead to scene iii of Act II, to hear how the Ortofon sounded on the cool-sounding Stierhörner, or cow horns (the answer: appropriately loud, dark, and blatty). But I also couldn't help noting how well poised and altogether unfrazzled the Rondo Bronze remained during such loud, densely scored portions as the one between Hagen's first and second blows on that horn: one of those typically Wagnerian passages in which the tension, not to mention the volume, is ratcheted up almost without the listener noticing it.
Now I was ready to rock. In this household, that usually means a Saturday morning dedicated to the MC5, the Dictators, or early (Atlantic era) Mott the Hoople. This time I went for a slicker, more modern sound, with Ian Hunter's Overnight Angels (CBS 81993). I may loathe Queen, but producer Roy Thomas Baker's plasticky, artfully compressed sound suited the late-'70s Ian Hunter to a T, and while the Wagner discs were in fact much more of a challenge, dynamically and dramatically, the Hunter LP showed how the Ortofon avoided dragging down the beat or slurring the notes in Rob Rawlinson's amazing electric bass lines, and how well it poured out bucket after bucket of buttery, high-sustain guitar sounds.
Other strings were well served, if not to the utmost. The massed violins in the 1960 Pierre Monteux recording of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll (RCA VICS-1457) were sweet and timbrally natural, but overly smooth and lacking in texture. The same was true with other such music, including Sir Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic's recording of Holst's Fugal Overture (Lyrita SRCS 37), which, when heard at its best, should be notable for the realistic texture and presence of the lower-range strings; and the nice performance of Schoenberg's String Quartet 2 by the Ramor Quartet and soprano Maria Theresia Escribano (Turnabout TV 4032 S).
The Ortofon's ability to retrieve subtle sonic and musical details was excellent. It found the piano (footnote 2) buried in the mix of Jim and Jesse McReynolds' Saluting the Louvin Brothers (Epic BN 26465), did a lovely job with the subtle hall sound that haloes the clarinet in the opening bars of Sibelius's Symphony 1, recorded by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Columbia MS 6395—a brilliant recording in every way), and made the lyrics throughout R.E.M.'s late-1980s albums, such as Lifes Rich Pageant (IRS 5783) and Document (IRS 42059), about as intelligible as I've heard—although that wasn't always a good thing, given how poorly some of the monstrously pretentious filler songs on those records hold up these days. (The pseudo-cerebral mishmashes that passed for artwork on those album covers offered, at least, some measure of truth in advertising.)
Bass weight and depth were fine: bettered by one or two other MCs (the enduringly musical Denon DL-103 and Miyabi 47 come to mind), but satisfying nonetheless. I've grown fond of Raising Sand, the recent collaboration of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (Rounder 11661-9075-1), and while aspects of its sound trouble me, I had no trouble enjoying the extraordinarily deep bass drum on their languorous performance of "Polly Come Home." With the Ortofon Rondo Bronze, the depth and power of that sound were utterly commanding—and were remarked on by everyone else in the house, none of whom happened to be in the room at the time.
Equally commanding was the Rondo's way with voices. On the great George Szell/Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra recording of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs (Angel 36347), the Rondo presented Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's voice with clarity, warmth, and drama. The almost indescribably subtle elements that make that recording so emotionally effective, so good at portraying the mood of the performance, were brought forth extremely well, and it didn't hurt that the Rondo also had a sufficiently, if not unsurpassably, dramatic way with the orchestra's many Straussian swoops and swells. The Ortofon did similarly well with instrumental voices, such as the distinctive sounds of the acoustic string instruments throughout the eponymous debut album (1977) of the David Grisman Quintet (Kaleidoscope F-5). Tony Rice's famous Martin guitar had all the tone it's known for, and Darol Anger's fiddle, though recorded just a bit hot on one or two notes, was appropriately loud and sweet.
I saved the best for last—unwittingly, it turns out. The Rondo Bronze played music so well that I enjoyed it for weeks before pausing to notice an especially important aspect of its sound: After several dozen LP sides, I couldn't recall hearing much in the way of surface noise. So one bright winter morning, I made a grab for all the records in my collection that I know to sound crappy, including a sadly unlistenable copy of Chopin Waltzes performed by Witold Malcuzynski (Angel S 35726). I can't say that the Ortofon silenced all of the pops and scratches, or that it transformed my listening experience with every disc in my collection. But with some LPs the Rondo Bronze was quiet enough to spell the difference between anxious and relaxed listening. Steady-state groove noise in particular seemed diminished on most records—although whether that was due to the size and shape of the Ortofon's diamond, the design of its motor, or even the low levels of energy storage exhibited by its wood-matrix body, I haven't the slightest idea.
I've fallen into another habit—that of padding my conclusions with partly imagined comparisons—and there's no reason to stop now.
The Ortofon Rondo Bronze lacked a little bit of texture and drama—which is to say, given a better turntable and tonearm, and a system capable of unraveling the distinctions, other cartridges will deliver more of a musical kick to listeners who enjoy that sort of thing. That Ortofon's own Jubilee ($1999) and any number of SPU models are among those other cartridges comes as no particular surprise.
It seems that the fiercest competition could well come from another direction: cartridges that lack the Rondo Bronze's refinement and purity, yet that surpass it in other ways. The humble Denon DL-103 ($229) may be chief among those, offering greater musical drama but gaudier sound.
To me, the new Ortofon's freedom from surface noise—which is at least the equal of any cartridge I've tried, including the best of the Lyras that I've heard—could tip the balance in its favor. I'm old enough that I can't shake my fears of premature record wear, and young enough that I want my record collection to last a whole lot longer. I'll always be a sucker for a smooth, well-made stylus.
In any event, I'm impressed to see and hear such fine new work from an old company that's far from being a tired company—and wondering, as always, what they'll do next. Very strongly recommended.
Footnote 2: Also a pity: I've never shaken the belief that the piano is exceeded only by the flute in its inappropriateness to old-style country music.