Ortofon RS-212 tonearm

The RS-212 is one of the most impressive-looking tonearms we've seen in many a moon. Our first reaction to it, in fact, was much the same as our reaction to the first big, professional Ampex tape recorder we ever saw: it reminded us of one of those precision-engineered and cleanly styled electronic devices you see in hospitals and industrial laboratories—devices which make no attempt to cater to the current fashion in interior decorating or depth-researched consumer preferences, but which are designed simply to do a job neatly and efficiently. This arm, in short, is practically guaranteed to impress your Magnavox-oriented friends with the quality of your phono system, no matter how oblivious they may be to its actual sound.

A price tag of $90 did not seem to us to be out of line for an arm like this, but we did take note of the fact that another arm, which has been the recognized standard of quality for the past five years or so (the Shure/SME 3009), sells for $100.50, so we couldn't help but think in terms of direct comparisons between the two. Certainly anyone who could lay out $90 for an arm should be able to scrape up $10.50 more for a better one, if indeed it were that much better. So, that became our secondary aim in preparing this report: to determine not only how good the Ortofon RS-212 was, but also how much more quality, if any, could be bought for an additional $10.50.

The RS-212, as originally supplied, is carefully adjusted to accept, without further adjustment, an Ortofon S15M pickup. To use one of these, you simply mount the arm, install the pickup, plug in the cables and the pickup shell, adjust the arm height to suit the turntable you're using, turn a knurled wheel to select the proper tracking force, and play your records. And if you happen to own a Thorens turntable with removable mounting boards, you can purchase the RS-212 with its own precut board for $95 and make the job that much easier.

If you prefer to do it yourself, the arm is supplied with detailed instructions as well as a predrilled metal strip (for setting tangency), a plastic template for locating the mounting holes, and even a sharp nail for holding the template temporarily in place.

We're not too happy about Ortofon's method for setting tangency, though. The metal strip fixes the distance between the turntable spindle and the arm base, which is okay as long as the pickup you use has its stylus the same distance in front of its mounting holes as in Ortofon's pickups. But in other cases, the tangency will not be correct. A better way would be to set tangency according to stylus overhang or to actual observed tangency in inner grooves.

Like other Ortofon arms, the RS-212 uses a fine spring adjustment for setting stylus force, while the counterweight is used solely to provide exact static balance for the pickup. And in case some readers have prejudices against spring-type force adjustments, we wish to emphasize the point that a properly designed spring system is basically no better or no worse than a counterweight system, while it does offer the advantages of allowing the counterweight to provide absolute static balance, which makes precise leveling of the phono unit unnecessary. (Spring-type force adjustments earned their lousy reputation through their use in record changers, where the tracking force would change drastically from the bottom to the top of a stack of records).

Set-up & Use
In the RS-212, the spring serves a dual function. In other Ortofon arms, one end of the force-adjusting spring is fastened to the top of the arm base, directly above the axis of the horizontal pivot assembly, so that the spring's pull is always exerted in a line parallel with the arm tube, insuring that all the pull is vertical. In the RS-212, though, there is a knurled-screw adjustment that allows the anchor point of the spring to be shifted slightly to one side of the pivot axis, so that the spring applies some lateral as well as vertical pull on the arm. And if you hadn't already guessed, this lateral pull is applied in the correct direction to provide a source of adjustable bias compensation.

It's a clever idea, but it does have one shortcoming in the RS-212: The spring tension increases slightly as the arm swings toward the center of the record, and this tends to increase the tracking force. (The bias force does not increase correspondingly, because the tension angle of the spring diminishes as the arm swings inwards.) With the bias scale set to 1½ and the tracking force adjusted for 1½ grams in outer grooves (a typical setup), we measured a bit over 1¾ grams of tracking force in inner grooves. This is far from being a drastic change, but ¼ gram can make the difference between a pickup's tracking cleanly and not quite cleanly.

On the other hand, if the stylus force is to change at all, it is better for it to increase in the inner grooves than to decrease, because inner grooves are the hardest to track cleanly. When adjusting stylus force on the RS-212, we would advise setting it for optimum inner-groove tracking and letting the outer grooves take care of themselves. (If you're operating near the pickup's safe maximum force, remember that the actual force in inner grooves will be roughly 15% higher than the value indicated by the arm's force adjustment.)

In outer grooves, or with the bias compensation set at zero, the stylus force adjustment in our RS-212 was found to be very accurate—to within less than ¼ gram of the indicated value, so a force gauge is not needed when setting up the arm.

The range of counterweight adjustment on the RS-212 is very wide, accommodating the standard Ortofon pickups at one extreme or the lightweight ADC, Shure, and Pickering pickups and Ortofon's SL-15 at the other extreme. To use a lightweight pickup in the arm, there is a removable weighting plug that unscrews from the rear of the main counterweight, thus lowering the effective mass of the arm as well as its counterbalancing force. The only pickup we found that could not be properly balanced in the RS-212 without adding additional weight to the headshell was the Euphonies, and the necessary weighting slug is supplied with the arm.

The RS-212 is equipped with a damped lifter assembly that functioned smoothly and positively, and lowered the pickup very gently into the groove when released. Remember, though, that any bias compensation you use will cause the pickup to drift very slightly toward the right when it is being lowered, so don't blame the lifting mechanism if the pickup fails to land in exactly the same groove it was lifted from. If you want precise groove spotting, use as little bias compensation as you can get away with. This, by the way, is one of the few tonearm lift systems we've seen that didn't throw the arm up in the air when lifted rapidly. The lifting height is fairly small (less than a half an inch), but with the arm height adjusted as recommended in the instructions, it is entirely adequate.

The arm's output cables are supplied prewired to standard phono plugs at one end and a small 7-pin plug at the other end that fits a socket under the arm base. The output circuits are totally isolated from one another, to eliminate the possibility of hum-inducing ground loops, and a separate insulated wire is brought out with the output cables to permit grounding the tonearm at the preamp chassis. There is no grounding strap for the turntable unit itself, so this may be grounded either by bridging a short length of wire from the motor to one of the tonearm mounting screws or by running a separate lead all the way from the turntable to the same lug that is used to ground the arm at the preamp,

Two Minor Criticisms
The output plugs on our sample arm were not identified as to left and right. If this hasn't already been remedied, it should be; it's an inexcusable oversight. Also, the cable plug, that fastens to the underside of the arm, does not go all the way into its socket, so although the electrical connections are properly made, it was very easy to yank the plug out accidentally.

Now, the crucial consideration: How does the RS-212 function as a pickup carrier? And how does it compare with the SME 3009? Long-time readers of The Stereophile will have learned that we are categorically skeptical of tonearm pivots that require adjustment when the arm is assembled at the factory, not because they're basically poor, but because the required precision of adjustment is too strict to lend itself to the usual mass-production procedures.

The RS-212 has adjustable vertical pivots (see Sidebar), and since we cannot anticipate how carefully these will be set up in average production samples, we can only report that the adjustment in our sample was for all intents and purposes perfect. It was possible—barely possible—to detect some play in them by feel, but there was no trace of rattle under any conditions of actual use.

Because of the heavy loading on the SME arm's knife-edge pivots, there should be less tendency toward rattle in them. But in direct comparisons, it was impossible to tell from the sound of any pickup whether it was in the SME or the Ortofon arm. Both arms were equally susceptible to acoustic feedback and rumble, when the right (or wrong) conditions presented themselves, but then the only arms we have found that were not susceptible to these potential problems are ones having a high degree of pivot damping. like the Audio & Design.

How does the Ortofon compare with the SME in other respects?

Craftsmanship: Superb and second to none, but no better than the SME, either.

Design: Also superb, but again, we doubt that we'd rate the design as basically superior to, or inferior to, that of the SME.

Appearance: This is more of a personal judgment, but again we'd deem it a tossup. Both arms have that very businesslike look that inspires confidence in the arm's ability to do what it is supposed to do.

Pivot friction: Extremely low in both pickups, with the balance slightly favoring the Ortofon.

Ease of installation: The Ortofon comes out on top here, too, requiring only one large round hole, a smaller round hole, and three small ones (to the SME's large elongated hole and four small ones). In addition, the Ortofon has fewer adjustments and they are somewhat easier to make. On the other hand, it has no tangency adjustment, which will only be a consideration if you plan to switch pickups from time to time.

The Ortofon is slightly more immune to jarring than is the SME, probably because of its static balance.

Summing Up
So, what do you get for $10.50 more if you buy an SME 3009 instead of an RS-212? You get somewhat less ruggedness, somewhat lower mass, and somewhat greater flexibility (in the adjustable tangency). If you change pickups frequendy, the SME is probably your best choice. If you don't, we'd advise simply choosing the arm whose appearance appeals to you the most. They are both close enough to theoretical perfection in an undamped arm to make a quality distinction very difficult, providing Ortofon can maintain the necessary precision of pivot adjustment on the production line. This is one thing that is not a consideration in the SME; it is up to Ortofon to see that it is no more of a consideration in the RS-212.—J. Gordon Holt

Manufacturer's Comment
Taking up The Stereophile's points in their order:

Evidently the writer was not aware that there is a standard—unofficial but generally observed—dimension for the distance between a pickup's mounting holes and its stylus tip, thus making a single tangency adjustment correct for virtually universal-mount pickups. The tangency locator supplied with the RS-212 will provide optimum tangency for all universal-mounting (as opposed to special-mounting types like the early Deccas) pickups made by the important manufacturers. We feel, in fact, that the Ortofon arm has an advantage over the SME in this respect because the Ortofon is much easier to set up for proper tangency and cannot be misadjusted by the user.

It is true that there is a slight increase in tracking force as the arm swings toward the center of the record, and we had originally intended to correct this "error" before going into production on the arm; but early experiments showed that this increase was actually desirable. Inner grooves are the hardest to track cleanly, partly because the recorded undulations are more compressed in this region and partly because most musical works start softly and end loudly. So we hardly think it right to criticize the RS-212 for taking these factors into account. The Stereophile's suggestion that tracking force should be set tor optimum inner-groove tracking is a good one, but should apply to other tonearms even more than to the RS-212, because optimum outer-groove tracking on other arms will probably cause mistracking in inner grooves, with concomitant record damage. In the case of the RS-212, stylus force can be adjusted for optimum tracking of loud passages anywhere on the disc; the arm will automatically ensure maintenance ot this clean tracking in inner grooves.

The cable problems have already been remedied. All current production RS-212's have color-coded plugs and a much more snug-fitting plug.

Ortofon does not share The Stereophile's skepticism as to our ability to adjust the arm bearings for low friction without excess play. We have used this kind of bearing in our professional arms for about 20 years, and every arm is assembled, adjusted and tested by skilled technicians. We do not use American-style mass-production,

Finally, The Stereophile says that "if you change pickups frequently, the SME is probably your best choice. This is clearly based on the assumption that different pickups have different mounting-to-stylus distances, and as we have already pointed but, this is not the case.—Ortofon

Reviewer's Addendum
We admit, we were not aware that there was any standard, official or otherwise, for a pickup's mounting-to-stylus distance, although we had observed that most pickups do require the same tangency adjustment, and that all of the universal-mounting types we have tested during the past few years have been uniform in this respect. Under the circumstances, we'll take Ortofon's word for it that all the "important pickup manufacturers" are observing such a standard and will withdraw that point as a consideration.

Since even the best modern pickups have some difficulty tracking the inner grooves of the loudest discs, we have generally recommended tracking any pickup, in any arm at the maximum force that can be applied before a stylus of a given radius starts to produce permanent deformation of the groove walls. This means setting it via the actual measured force rather than on the basis of audible cleanness, and if the RS-212 increases tracking force as it moves inward, a safe force in outer grooves (measured or as read from its force scale) could be slightly excessive in inner grooves. This is why we suggest allowing for the 15% increase when setting the RS-212's force adjustment. If one prefers to set the force on the basis of inner-groove tracking alone, then the force scale on the RS-212 becomes rather superfluous. Also, there is some risk of setting the force above the point where it will start chewing up grooves, in an effort to get it to track inner-groove modulations that are beyond its capability.

Our skepticism about adjustable bearings is based on many past experiences with them, including some in earlier Ortofon RMG-212 arms.—J. Gordon Holt

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

David Harper's picture

who would have thought that in 2017 we would be reviewing tonearms and cartridges? This is what I love about audio. It never changes. I love vinyl even though I know that it's primitive tech that cannot possibly(in theory) sound as good as digital. But still, to me, it sometimes sounds better. Maybe because it's actual sound recorded physically in a record groove. Instead of sound converted to some soulless mathematical number stream. Maybe it loses something in that conversion. Something which can never be retrieved. Something having to do with real live music listened to in a real live venue. Maybe digital is like computer generated virtual reality, and analog is actual first hand reality. Is that plausible?