Three Pickups: Which is the Best?

If you have already read the reviews, you have probably formed a pretty firm impression of which of the three contenders for the title "Best Pickup" is the winner. In case you haven't, though, here's a capsule wrap-up of our reactions to the three phono cartridges reviewed in May 1974.

The Ortofon M-15's rather heavy sound will nicely complement some overbright systems, but in terms of master-tape sound, it was judged to be less perfect than either the Shure V15-III or the Decca Mark V.

If we were to assign equal values to every aspect of pickup performance, we would have to conclude that the Shure V15-III is the hands-down winner. You can buy it, install it in a suitable arm connected to a suitable preamp, and be reasonably confident that the sound you get will be as good as the state of the art permits, except for that one little thing.

It is when we start assigning different values to different aspects of performance that we must become less certain about The Best Pickup, for the aliveness and delineation of sound from the Decca Mark V does so much for the sheer musical realism of the sound that many perfectionists are happy to overlook the various ways in which the Decca is not quite the equal of the Shure.

Yes, Deccas are variable from one to another (pre-tested or not), and unless you've heard what a really good one can sound like, you don't have any assurance that one you buy is as good as the breed can be. Our selection suggestions can, with pretty respectable consistency, single out the best Mark V of a batch, but if the batch is small, none of the pickups therein may be as good as the pickup can be. And what it can be is the most natural reproducer of musical discs that's currently available. But if insecurity happens to an intolerable state of mind for you—and most Mk.V owners are insecure because they aren't sure whether theirs is as good as it could be—we must advise getting the Shure.

If you're willing to undertake a search of sorts, and perhaps pay a premium price for one of those collector's items—a Mark V or an Export with an almost-perfectly flat high end and a sound like watered silk—you'll find yourself getting disc sound that is as much like that from a master tape as you can get from most discs. Is it worth the effort?

A lot of perfectionists have found it to be, but we've rarely encountered V15-III owners who were dissatisfied, either.

Now you tell us: Which is the best pickup?—J. Gordon Holt