Listening #76

"Glory to the genius of Edison!"—Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov

Once upon a time, a little girl named Kirsten was playing in the woods when she spotted a gleam of light on the forest floor. Bending down for a closer look, she saw an astonishing sight: a lump of gold that seemed to grow from the very Earth. Her games forgotten, Kirsten scraped at the loamy soil for hours until, at last, the prize was hers: not a stone at all, but a beautiful horn made of solid gold. It was larger than any drinking horn Kirsten had ever seen, and was engraved from end to end with pictures of he-goats, snakes, a horned man wearing a necklace, and any number of other queer things—nothing that would traumatize modern American consumers such as you and I, but a dreadful shock for a peasant girl in 17th-century Denmark.

Because she was a good little girl, Kirsten wrote a letter to king Christian IV, who sent an entourage to her home in Gallehus to reward the child and to bring the prize to court. Nearly a century later, a second such horn was retrieved from the woods near Kirsten's home. Soon after that, the greatest scholars in the land determined that the Golden Horns of Gallehus were older than Charlemagne himself, and that their inscriptions were proof that the early Danes were a civilized and cultured people with a language all their own (all while my own English and Irish ancestors were throwing femurs at one another and using slender branches to coax meals out of anthills, I suppose). From that time forward, the Golden Horns of Gallehus were among the greatest national treasures in all of Denmark, and for centuries to come, to the best of their artistic abilities, Danish painters would honor lucky Kirsten Svendsdatter.

Then came the dreadful day in 1802 when the Golden Horns of Gallehus were stolen from the Danish Royal Chamber of Art. The crook, a goldsmith named Niels Heidenreich, confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 37 years in jail. (Sounds right to me.) It was too late to save the Horns, which had been melted down to make coins (not before being mixed with baser metals: Heidenreich was a greedy bastard), but there was one bit of happy news: Before they were stolen, someone had had the foresight to sketch and to make castings of the Horns, so that duplicates could be made.

Some of those copies, too, have been stolen over the years, and the very first set of duplicates was lost in a shipwreck off the coast of Corsica. But never mind: To this day, there are no greater symbols of Danish pride than the Golden Horns of Gallehus (footnote 1).

File that away.

You can see where this is going
Of all nations on Earth, only Switzerland and Iceland have lower rates of unemployment than Denmark. The Danish rail system is among the finest in the civilized world, and a college education is free to all citizens. Denmark gave the world drummer Lars Ulrich and composer Carl Nielsen, whose Symphony 5 is exceedingly good. One could make the case that the open-face sandwich is a Danish invention. Denmark was the first nation to legally recognize same-sex partnerships. Danish filmmaking is admired by many. After a millennia-long flirtation with Vikingism or some such thing, Denmark now has the world's third-highest rate of atheism. Denmark gave us Victor Borge, Niels Bohr, Hans Christian Andersen, and the statue of the Little Mermaid. Danish women are particularly beautiful (footnote 2).

It's not as if the Danes need the Golden Horns of Gallehus to feel good about themselves.

The people of Denmark have yet another source of pride: From their soil sprang the audio specialists we know today as Ortofon, a company that has managed to change with the times and continually refresh the connection with their own glorious past. Founded in 1918 as an audio design and manufacturing firm called Fonofilm—their first creation was an early sound system for the film industry—these Danes, at the end of World War II, pioneered the concept of moving-coil phono cutting heads, an effort that in 1948 led, naturally enough, to the production of moving-coil phono cartridges for the domestic market.

By the early 1950s, Fonofilm had evolved into Ortofon (Greek for correct sound), and the company's moving-coil cartridges were on their way to being considered the best available, for broadcasters and consumers alike. Ortofon followed those successes with well-received tonearms, step-up transformers, and still more cutting heads—and, in 1959, with the very first Ortofon SPU (English for stereo pickup).

The SPU formula pointed the way for the next 50 years of high-end cartridge design: a generator comprising two low-impedance coils, wound with very fine copper wire and crossed in such a way that the two walls of an LP's stereo microgroove can generate two discrete signals with maximum separation—still a fresh design challenge in 1959. The generator was driven by a conical diamond stylus with an aluminum cantilever, tuned for very low compliance, and mated, more or less exclusively, to an appropriately high-mass headshell made of magnesium, aluminum, or Bakelite. Some variants, designated with the suffix T, also contained their own miniature step-up transformers, to cope with the SPUs' unprecedentedly low output.

The fact that Ortofon has kept the SPU in production for half a century says a lot about the enduring rightness of its design, not to mention the loyalty of its small but dedicated following: Even in a world where tonearms with detachable headshells have gone from market domination to the brink of extinction, a ruggedly handsome segment of the audiophile community will settle for nothing less than an SPU. (Ortofon has consistently offered still other SPU variants without headshells, designated with the suffix N; whether because there are no one-piece tonearms that can provide the SPU generator with the high mass it requires, or whether because a shell-less SPU just seems wrong, the SPU-N has never been an enormous seller.)

But popularity isn't all that matters to our favorite creators. Only last year, Ortofon delighted the faithful by introducing the SPU Synergy A, which may turn out to be the last of the company's A-style pickup heads (see "Listening" passim). Then, at the end of 2008, they announced a model that's thoroughly new—yet nonetheless thoroughly SPU.

The Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary ($1899) is a G-style pickup head designed for tonearms that can accommodate its 50mm stylus-to-arm-collet distance (footnote 3). Like all SPUs, the 90th Anniversary has a metal cartridge body, mostly hidden from view, to bridge the gap between generator and headshell. What makes the new model unique is that its body is, in fact, a precision-made one-piece frame designed to allow a more perfect physical connection between the various subparts, yet also to dissipate rather than store unwanted mechanical energy. According to Ortofon's Leif Johannsen, who led the design effort, the new frame was made using a selective laser melting (SLM) process in which microparticles are laser-welded together to create a structure of great rigidity and immunity to unwanted resonances.

While the new model's generator retains the classic SPU tuning characteristics, it too has been enhanced, with a three-piece magnetic system (one wedge-shaped magnet with separate pole pieces fore and aft) claimed to provide more consistent and linear field strength to the armature. To that same end, the SPU 90th Anniversary has also been endowed with a refinement from elsewhere in the Ortofon line: the field-stabilizing element (FSE) that Ortofon's recently retired head engineer, Per Windfeld, devised for their Kontrapunkt and MC Windfeld models. The FSE is, in effect, a precisely made bit of ductwork that surrounds the armature and helps maintain constant flux, regardless of the degree of cantilever deflection.

The Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary, which sports a nude elliptical stylus tip, is indeed a low-compliance thing, and is built for a downforce of about 3gm. Taken together, its decidedly low output (0.3mV) and low coil resistance (2 ohms) suggest that a step-up transformer with a low impedance primary would be an ideal mate. The SPU 90th weighs just over 30gm, and would appear to be most at home with tonearms of medium to high mass, with "international" or "SME standard" signal connections.

Appropriately for such an old-but-new thing, the headshell of the SPU 90th Anniversary is made from Ortofon's recently devised "grinded wood" composite, thus offering a degree of organicity that even Bakelite—which is made of formaldehyde and carbolic acid!—can't match. Finally, in a move that combines art, history, faith, and market awareness, the Ortofon's beautiful, black-lacquered shell is painted with a motif depicting none other than the Horns of Gallehus themselves. In gold, naturally.

You can't really see the he-goats
The Ortofon SPU 90th Anniversary arrived just a few months after I'd sworn off G-style pickup heads and reworked my EMT 997 tonearm's mount for exclusive, eternal use with A-style heads: a boneheaded and sadly typical move on my part. After spending a dozen or so leisurely hours in the company of my belt sander, my Dremel Moto-Tool, and the metric-fastener drawer at my local Lowe's (which I prefer to Home Depot), I have my SME-style adjustable arm mount up and running again: The arm is adjustable, the lesson unlearned.

Footnote 1: Even more recently, a historian determined that the purpose of the larger horn, which had originally been taken to be a drinking horn, was to be blown in the event of a solar eclipse, to help forestall the end of the world. Sounds right to me.—Art Dudley

Footnote 2: And from my own experiences in their country, Danes routinely speak four languages as well as Danish: Swedish, Norwegian, German, and English.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: A quality that comes either from having a sliding, SME-style arm mount, or having the mounting hole precisely drilled in the correct, usually more distant, location for such a thing.—Art Dudley


Freako's picture

Being far from a nationalist, but born and raised in Denmark, a thing which makes me feel rather privileged, I can't help feeling a bit of pride reading this great column. Surely, in a country this small, and with so few citizens, there has been quite many pioneers in a number of different areas. One of those you forgot to mention is Dynaudio, the speaker factory in Skanderborg, Denmark. The sound reproduction of the units developed at Dynaudio has to a large degree been known to be "true and honest" to whatever recordings they are fed. And I speak from experience.

Just sayin'