Ortofon M15 Super phono cartridge

The M15 Super is the first high-output pickup to come from Ortofon. Previous ones required either step-up transformers or a booster preamp, and it is only fairly recently that either kind of step-up device was available with high-enough quality to avoid a noticeable degradation of the sound. Early step-up transformers muddied the bass, and previously-available booster preamps added noise or hardness or both to the sound. Now that there are excellent transformers available from Ortofon and other sources, and at least one extraordinarily good booster preamp (the Mark Levinson, at an extraordinarily high price—$170), Ortofon's latest and best pickup doesn't require the use of either.

We tested a pre-production sample of the M-15 Super about a year ago, and found it to be a strong contender for the title of Best Pickup, although we had some reservation as to its feeling of "aliveness" in comparison with the Decca, and resolved to do more listening before committing ourselves one way or the other. Shortly thereafter, though, we started hearing from readers who had encountered what seemed like quality-control problems from one sample to another—by no means unusual in a new product—so we postponed our report until things settled down a bit. Apparently they did, so we borrowed a second, and presumably current (as of September 1973) sample, with an elliptical stylus and an extra spherical stylus, and prepared this report.

Our sample was apparently typical of current production, but there was still more difference between channels than we are accustomed to finding in top-notch pickups. But since production quality controls appear to be getting tighter as time goes on, it is likely that what we got was not as good as the pickup will be by the time this gets into print.

Sound Quality
We tested both versions of the M-15—the M-15E (elliptical) and the M-15 (spherical). To our amazement, both tracked equally well at 1 gram, which makes the M-15 (and possibly also the Shure V15-IIIG) the lightest-tracking spherical-tip stereo pickups to come along yet. For a spherical of around 0.6 mil radius, 1¼ grams is considered to be the point below which record wear ceases (assuming of course that the pickup will track cleanly at that force). Also rather to our surprise, both Ortofons sounded quite similar, although (as usual) the spherical was somewhat closer and brighter in sound than the elliptical. The M-15E was slightly airier at the top, but both had a very smooth, sweet high end and, like the Shure V15-III, effortless tracking of all but the most absurdly overcut discs. All in all, though, we judged the M-15 to be the better-sounding of the two Ortofons.

The curves in fig.1 were drawn from machine-run ones for the spherical M15 Super, and resemble those for the elliptical version except at the extreme high end, where the latter continued out to just a hair below 20kHz before starting to roll off. The 2dB difference in output was observed, in the same direction, with both styli, suggesting that it was due to something In the body of the cartridge rather than to the styli.


Fig.1 Ortofon M15 Super, measured response and separation with spherical stylus.

Sonically, the M-15 was quite on the dark, heavy side, with a somewhat overblown and almost woolly low end and an oddly hollow quality that we cannot recall ever having heard before from any good pickup. It sounds like a broad middle-range peak, but since there is none in the measured response, we can only guess that it is the ear's reaction to the shape of the response curve. The measured difference between the high-end response of the two channels was not audible as a disparity in musical timbres, but may have been contributing to the M-15's relatively diffuse stereo imaging.

Overall texture was smooth but rather veiled, with a slightly grainier quality than that of the Shure (This was observed with the elliptical stylus, too.), and the illusion of depth perspective was judged to be moderately good. Detail was good, but the sound tended to become somewhat muddy during loudly-recorded complex passages.

The pickup is heavily damped internally, making it less dependent on external damping than either of the other two cartridges. Some previous Ortofons earned a poor reputation for damping instability, though, so it remains to be seen how well the M15 Super will stand up. It is after all a completely new design from Ortofon, so there is no way of guessing how it will fare in that respect.

Hum shielding is excellent—equal to that of the Shure and vastly better than that of the Decca Mark V—and the pickup has no apparent idiosyncrasies that could take one unawares when trying to install it in any arm (including in a record changer). Its compliance is a bit higher than that of the Shure, which may give it a bit of an edge on low-frequency trackability (although the Shure has enough for all practical exigencies), but will make the use of a very-low-mass arm (like the new Shure/SME 3009) mandatory if subsonic interference and acoustic feedback problems are to be minimized. Even with the lowest-mass SME arm, bass resonance will occur at a low enough frequency to make the use of subsonic filtering advisable.

Summing Up
Despite our cavils, this is still a very good cartridge, and one which we would happily recommend as an outstanding buy were it priced substantially lower. But its price puts it in direct competition with the Shure V15-III, and although that is no paragon of perfection either, there is no doubt in our editorial mind that it is a better-sounding cartridge.

Ortofon Inc.
500 Executive Blvd, Suite 102
Ossining, NY 10562
(914) 762-8646

Metalhead's picture

I do not want to watch gladiator contests or good better best except in a casual way.

It was refreshing though to see it being called on quality control and compared to a competing product and having a very clear and succinct favorite in the comparison. I say this being a happy Ort owner since 1972 through various models.

Can see why J. Gordon had to sell the mag as this type of review must have made the ad companies reluctant to play.

dalethorn's picture

As a subscriber from 1971 on, Holt had no trouble attracting advertisers. His reasons for selling were no different from 1962 to 1972 to the date of sale - he was way overextended as the special kind of audiophile he represented, trying to juggle reviews, the logistics of handling the gear, managing the magazine and the subscriptions etc. His wife helped, but it wasn't nearly enough, and there wasn't a way in those pre-Internet days to communicate across the country and around the world cheaply and efficiently. He had long delays in getting issues out, and the ads didn't make a significant difference in that.

tonykaz's picture

I sold many of these M15s, along with the entire rest of their product range. They were simply replacements for worn or broken "needles".

All of the Ortofon range were Modest performers, they worked was the best that could be said for them, people had trust in the Ortofon name and willingly purchased, we willingly sold.

They offered a well reviewed Top of the Line MC with super low output and a matching step-up ( about $2,000 for the pair ) that my Electrocompaniet could play, it too was marginal for it's asking price, very typical of Ortofon sound quality.

Koetsu Rosewood ruled the Day.

Analog Planet just had Ortofon's lead designer presenting their "New" $4,000 MC pick-up, with a Boron cantilever. A "New & Improved" buggy whip from my Industrial perspective.

Tony in Michigan

egsp's picture

Interesting to see how much quality control expectations have improved.