Ortofon MC-3000 MC phono cartridge Page 2

Installation of the MC-3000 was reasonably simple, the only caveat being that one should use the special nonmagnetic screwdriver supplied with the cartridge. Like the 2000, the 3000 has a strong magnetic field surrounding the base of the fragile cantilever, which attracts all ferrous objects with truly impressive intensity. And don't just play it safe with the screwdriver and then trash the cartridge with your tracking-force gauge. The suspension member on many of these (including the popular Shure Bros. one) have enough ferrous content to attract the cartridge, too. If you aren't sure your gauge is safe—and the only way to check is with a small magnet—my suggestion is that you use the little all-plastic one supplied with the cartridge, and overlook its shortcomings. There's nothing basically wrong with plastic for a force gauge, but Ortofon's scale has enough pivot friction that it is difficult to get a reliable reading from it—particularly with a viscous-damped tonearm. In order to get any kind of accuracy, you may have to take the measurement from both directions—moving upward and moving downward—and then average them. I am surprised that Ortofon continues to supply this gauge with some of the costliest cartridges in the world, when a simple redesign of the same gauge—doubling the length of its balance beam—would increase its sensitivity fourfold.

Because the MC-3000 is designed for fairly high-mass tonearms, I initially planned to do all listening with the cartridge installed in the SME arm. Both were set up according to their manufacturers' recommendations, tracking force was set to 2.2 grams, and the arm's antiskate set—by Ortofon's suggestion—to 3 grams. I was a little bothered by this, as well as by the 2.5gm force recommendation, as the former would suggest unusually high groove friction for that force, implying that the groove indentation (at the instant of contact) may be inordinately high. I value my discs, increasingly as more and more of them become irreplaceable, and I'm not reassured by any cartridge with a compliance of 13cu, a narrow line-contact stylus, and a "recommended" tracking-force range of up to 2.7 grams, that requires extra antiskate force to offset high contact friction.

Ortofon recommends using the VTA designed into the MC-3000—that is, setting arm height so the top of the cartridge, seen from the side, is parallel to the disc. In fact, this is just about the smallest VTA you can get with the SME V, because its tapered arm tube barely clears the edge of mildly warped discs when the headshell is horizontal. I found no reason to question that recommendation, though, even when (later) I was using the WTA, which allows for a wide range of VTA adjustments in both directions.

Using the recommended T-3000 transformer, I tied all the loose ground wires (one from the 'table, two from the arm) to the transformer ground, and fired up the system. Hum was negligible, but it was faintly audible at high volume-control settings with no music playing. I added another ground connection, this time to the preamp ground post (originally an oversight, actually; I routinely do this), and the hum simply vanished. There was none. With the gain up full, all I got was the usual muted hiss. I was amazed that a claimed 6dB of output increase could effect what sounded like a 10dB reduction in the hum I used to get from the 2000.

Sonically? My first impression, after 15 seconds, was bass! God, what bass! Deep, rich, fat, goose-bumpy bass. It even had very good detail. Unfortunately, there was far too much of it. I phoned John Atkinson. Does the SME V whoop up the low end, I asked? Yes, if the base isn't tightened down. I tightened it down more. It helped, but not very much. I noted: Heavy low end, and proceeded to other tests.

Trackability of the MC-3000 was found to be very good, but not top o'the heap. The only disc I found that caused it to skip was the notorious Telarc 1812, which is hardly a fair test, even though the MC-2000 does negotiate it effortlessly. Few other records have right-angle corner bends in the groove path! At 2.2gm, the 3000 skipped on four cannon blasts; at 2.5, it skipped on one (the last). I dared not take the tracking force higher; that's the only pressing of the 1812 I have. In fact, I cut it back to 2.2 for the rest of my listening.

Because of the bass prominence, and my unfamiliarity with the SME arm, I could not make any other reliable observations about what the 3000 was doing, spectrally, in the higher ranges, except to note that it sounded extraordinarily smooth, and seemed to be compressing depth a little bit. So I ran a few measurements. Trackability seemed to be as Ortofon claimed: with their own test record, breakup on the 80µm tracking band started occurring at 2.0gm. (My 2000 tracks the 100µm band at 1.5gm! But you can't use it in the SME V, footnote 2) Using the same test record, the LF system resonance was estimated to be at around 10Hz, but this was difficult to pinpoint because the resonance was quite broad and of only moderate amplitude. This is an ideal value, as far as warp interference is concerned, but a little high for isolation from signal modulations on wide-range discs.

I also ran frequency-response curves. Ignoring the low end (which never seems to measure the way it sounds), I was gratified to see that Ortofon's curves were worse than mine. This is significant for no better reason than that the CBS STR-100 test disc has proven time and again to give a better reflection of how a cartridge will sound at the high end than any other I have tried. And it did it again this time. The highs did not sound tipped up—certainly, not to the tune of 4dB at 15kHz.

Then I switched to the Well-Tempered Arm, and any doubt about the source of that bass heaviness vanished. It was gone. I repeated all the previous tests, and, based on a longstanding familiarity with the characteristics of the WTA, here's what I found out about the cartridge. First, it does do best in a higher-mass arm (although I am not at all sure at this point that the SME is one I would recommend). In the WTA, LF resonance was in the vicinity of 13Hz—just above the recommended 9-to-12 range—and the cartridge behaved accordingly, parting company with the groove (at 2.5gm) on several kick drums and bass drums and on at least a third of Telarc's cannons. I do not blame this on the cartridge; it was not intended for use in an arm this light. Interestingly, there was no measurable low-end difference between the SME and the WTA above 20Hz.

Otherwise: Overall, the MC-3000 (with the Threshold FET-10 preamp) was very well balanced but not quite perfectly neutral, tending toward a slight warmth and a subtly withdrawn character. I was surprised to find that the HF rise did not seem to have any adverse effect on the sound at all! Highs were beautifully smooth, silky, and open, with a remarkable degree of delicacy and air. Massed-violin sound was sumptuous from good recordings, and less obnoxious than usual from typical recordings. Neither was there evidence of any exaggeration of surface noise; in fact, ticks and pops showed a tremendous range of apparent pitch—usually a sure sign that the entire system is free from HF resonances. Bass performance—always more a function of damping and system resonance than on any inherent quality of the cartridge—was as I expected it to be in that arm: extremely detailed and controlled, and with good impact, but a little shy at the extreme bottom. (In the SME, the deep bottom was there in spades, but a bit snowed-under by the midbass.)

For reasons I cannot guess at, the MC-3000 (or, at least, my sample) did not reproduce depth very well. There was plenty of lateral spread and spaciousness, but less reproduction of relative distances behind the loudspeakers than I get from the MC-2000 and from a number of other cartridges. (Yes, I tried diddling its azimuth when it was in the WTA; the best I could get was not much better than good depth rendition. There is no azimuth adjust on the SME V, and shimming the cartridge impairs the mechanical coupling between cartridge and tonearm.) Considering the 3000's apparent spectral balance, this is all a bit puzzling, for components which are recessed in the presence range, even by such a small amount as this, usually yield more sense of depth than ones which are more forward. In this case, the MC-2000 sounds closer-up than the 3000, yet outdoes it in depth rendition.

So...The MC-3000 does not appear to be the most accurate cartridge in existence; I still reserve that title for the MC-2000, which sounds just a little more so than the subtly warmer 3000. But after living with the MC-2000 for a year or so, and being acutely aware of its hum every time I cranked the gain up too much, it is a joy to use a cartridge with which hum is just no consideration at all. Yes, I can still get a muted hiss by turning the volume up full, but I am not crazy enough to try playing a record at that volume. My Sound Labs and Threshold amps are rugged, but if I'm going to blow them out, I'd rather it happen through carelessness than through premeditated stupidity.

On the other hand, the MC-3000 is unquestionably the second most neutral cartridge I know of. That's damnably faint praise, considering its higher price than the MC-2000, but unless I can persuade you to trade in your SME V or Alphason 100 or ET 2 for a Souther, a WTA, or a Versa Dynamics (footnote 3), so you can buy an MC-2000 and suffer with the hum, you're better off with the MC-3000 than anything else I know of.

You can be assured, though, that the MC-3000, like its forerunner, does not sound like the average MC. It is much more up-front and alive, much smoother at the top than most (more delicate, less flashy), and more expensive—particularly when you count in the transformer, which is a virtual necessity. (Ortofon says a number of users have been able to do without it, but that's something I would urge you try, at home, before buying just the pickup.)

All in all, this is a superb cartridge—not for everyone's taste, but highly recommendable (Class A) for anyone seeking sonic truth from his system. I just wish it had turned out to be an MC-2000 clone with twice the output.

Footnote 2: Cartridge downforce per se is not an absolute measure because what matters when it comes both to tracking and to wearing the record is the pressure at the stylus/vinyl contact. These line-contact styli need a greater downforce for the same pressure as an elliptical stylus because they have a larger "footprint" on the groove-wall.—John Atkinson

Footnote 3: In a parallel-tracking arm, the entire mass of the cartridge and its carrier assembly is effective mass. The VD has about 20gm of it, and I still cannot understand why the MC-2000 works so well in it. Perhaps Mr. John Bicht can enlighten us.—J. Gordon Holt