Ortofon Rondo Bronze MC phono cartridge
Beyond even my own sunny expectations, new cartridges continue to be designed and introduced at every price level: the parsimonious, the porcine, and, most significant of all, the middle of the road—which is where the healthiest market for virtually any product has to exist in the long term. That's among the reasons why I jumped at the chance to try the new Ortofon Rondo Bronze ($899).
Another reason is my respect for Ortofon's distinguished history: The 90-year-old company has shown unusual flexibility in adapting to the changing demands of the analog marketplace. The same Ortofon A/S that continues to make the 50-year-old, ultra-low-compliance SPU cartridges—whose tracking force is so high that their stylus-pressure scales should also dispense fortunes—is the same Ortofon A/S that makes cartridges and slipmats for hip-hop performers such as Deejay Q-Bert, Johnny "Juice" Rosado, and Birdy Nam Nam. Tell me we're not living in an age of miracles.
The Bronze is the most expensive of three models in the new Rondo line of low-output moving-coil pickups, which includes the Rondo Blue ($699) and the Rondo Red ($499). All three generate a modest 0.3mV at 5kHz; they also exhibit a low DC coil resistance of just 6 ohms, and a moderate to moderately high compliance of 15cu. But their most notable common trait is the Rondo body: a high-tech enclosure that's precision-molded from a 55/45 mix of pulverized wood and resin, then given a Japanese Urushi lacquer coating that endows each Rondo with an intentionally mottled appearance not unlike that of a snake's skin. According to Ortofon, the initial inspiration for the Rondos' wood-matrix body came two years ago, when the company introduced an SPU model that was machined in hardwood, also with an Urushi lacquer finish; that cartridge, the SPU Synergy, was a big hit in Japan, where a fondness for old-style European cartridges has never much waned.
As head of the Rondo clan, the Bronze has the most refined stylus: a Fritz Gyger FG80 diamond, mounted on a tapered aluminum cantilever. (The Rondos Red and Blue get a Gyger FG70 and standard elliptical tip, respectively.) Apart from that, the basic motor is the same for all three, with double-gold-plated copper wire for the coils, a strong neodymium magnet, and Ortofon's proprietary suspension damper compound, which is said to maintain the correct pliancy for an exceedingly long time. All of those bits are assembled on a light alloy block with threaded mounting holes, spaced the standard 0.5" apart. A flip-up stylus guard of the usual sort is attached to the body.
Installation and setup
Although it spent a short time in the Naim Aro tonearm that's usually mounted on my Linn LP12 turntable, I mostly used the Ortofon Rondo Bronze in a Rega RB300 tonearm, on my reconditioned Thorens TD 124 Mk.II (see this month's "Listening," p.33). I positioned the Ortofon for correct Baerwald alignment (not Rega's own variation of same, which places the innermost null point closer to the innermost groove of a standard LP), whereby its mounting bolts came to within a frog's whisker of the headshell's extreme forward end.
I set the Bronze's downforce for 2.3gm, as recommended by Ortofon, using my Technics electronic stylus-pressure gauge. Speaking of gauges, let me sing the praises of the mechanical downforce scale that's given away free with the Rondo Bronze—and, if I'm not mistaken, with every new Ortofon cartridge (footnote 1). This humble device comprises a plastic base with a plastic see-saw, the latter weighted with a slug of metal at its short end. The idea is to place the scale on the record platter with the short end pointing at the record spindle and the see-saw perpendicular to the cartridge's cantilever, when viewed from above. Now gently lower the stylus to a point on the see-saw that corresponds with the desired downforce—it's calibrated in millinewtons, so you must divide by 10 to read the scale in grams—and adjust the downforce until the short end of the see-saw is perfectly even with the edge of its plastic base.
I've noticed a fair degree of sample-to-sample variability—quite understandable with injection-molded parts that can't possibly, for the money, be hand-finished—and even the best samples of the Ortofon scale depart from accuracy by at least 10%. But it's good enough to get you up and running, after which you can fine-tune the downforce by ear.
Footnote 1: Naim Audio thinks well enough of it that an Ortofon downforce scale is included with every sample of the Naim Aro tonearm ($3300).