Ortofon MC-3000 MC phono cartridge

The Ortofon MC-2000 may just have been the most impractical cartridge to be unleashed upon the audio community for some years. With a high compliance (20cu) that made it ill-suited for most tonearms, it also had a preposterously low signal output of 50 microvolts, which gave new meaning to the terms hum and noise. Few MC preamps had enough gain to deliver adequate driving voltage to a system, and none of those that did had low enough noise to be usable with the 2000. If the problem wasn't hum, it was hiss; if hiss was acceptably low, there would be too much hum. At least Ortofon had the sense to be aware of the problem and to do something about it, in the form of their T-2000 step-up transformer, which is the only device I ever found that would allow the cartridge to be operated without a constant background of hum or hiss. Despite all this, I have used the MC-2000 as my reference cartridge for the last two years. Why? Because of all the cartridges I've tried, it is by far the most accurate.

It is my contention—hotly disputed by Larry Archibald, I should add—that good CD players give a fairly accurate picture of the tonality and spectral balance of the original master recordings from which they were made. This view is supported by the fact that the best CD players sound quite similar in those respects, and that honestly made CDs (which excludes almost anything from a major record company) sound very much like all the other program sources I have on hand. I believe the phono player should make similarly honestly made analog discs sound as much as possible like those other program sources. If, when they all sound the same, they all sound bad, the place to look for a solution is in the amplifier/loudspeaker department.

The only alternative to this approach is to live with a system that only reproduces one or two program sources "properly." I am not asking, or expecting, that all will have equal transparency, detail, depth, or "purity." What I am asking is that all of them at least sound as if they have the same frequency response from 40Hz to 10kHz. Only when that basic equality is attained can one pass valid judgment on the other attributes of the various sources. The MC-2000 comes close to providing that equality, which is why I have stood by it for all this time despite its "impracticality" as a product.

The MC-3000 differs from the 2000 in several respects. First, and probably most important, is that it has twice the output. This raises the ante to 100µV, still too low for most MC headamps to handle, but nonetheless translates into a significant 6dB reduction in hum and hiss when Ortofon's T-3000 stepup transformer is used. (I advise it; transformer distortions sound less irksome than transistor distortions.) The higher output cannot help but be an improvement.

Second, the MC-3000 has lower compliance than the 2000: 13cu, as compared with 20. This seeming retrograde change, according to Ortofon's literature, was prompted by the current popularity of medium- to high-mass tonearms, which are ill-suited for use with highly compliant cartridges. (With the mass/compliance resonance below 9Hz, disc warps generate strong subsonic interference which wastes amplifier power and can damage loudspeakers.)

Third, the cartridge uses a new Ortofon-designed stylus tip which they call the "Replicant 100" (shades of Blade Runner). In shape, this looks about as much like a cutting stylus as you can get without having a cutting stylus; it appears to be a true line-contact tip, and its specified dimensions indicate that it is a very thin line.

And there have been other changes in the MC-3000. As a result of tests conducted with a panel of "golden ears," Ortofon learned that most listeners prefer a cartridge with a high end rising to 2dB at 20kHz. Accordingly, a rise of that magnitude was designed into the new cartridge. The magnet material was changed to a more powerful material called neodymium (it used to be an alloy of samarium and cobalt) and moved closer to the coils, which doubled the cartridge's output. And because the stronger magnetic field might have an adverse effect on motions of the original aluminum armature (footnote 1), the 3000's armature is made of carbon fiber. Even the outer casing material was changed, from aluminum to aluminum oxide. This sintered (fired) ceramic compound has a hardness of 9 Mohs, 1 unit below that of a diamond's 10. The harder a material, the higher its natural resonating frequency; the new case is an attempt to get this out beyond the audible range without having to resort to a diamond case.

Oh, yes, there's another change I forgot to mention. The price. If you thought the MC-2000 and its transformer were pricey at $2000 a pair, how about $2750? That would be justifiable, I suppose, if the new system is substantially better than the 2000. But we'll get to that later.

I really must comment on the packaging of the MC-3000. It is clever, unique, and—as far as I'm concerned—just a bit too cutesy-poo. The cartridge comes in a festive-looking red and white box about the size of a cinder block, inside which is a white foam-plastic block divided in half. Separating its halves reveals a miniature packing crate, a tiny replica of the ones used to ship armaments to hostile countries. Next to it, in a little compartment in the foam plastic, is a miniature crowbar, obviously intended to be used to pry the top off the crate. I did. Carrying the arms-shipment analogy ever further, the mini-crate was lined with shredded wood packing, and nestled in that was a heavy, stitched burlap slip case, edged in black leather, containing a nonmagnetic screwdriver, a tube of mounting hardware, a stylus brush, and one of Ortofon's plastic tracking-force gauges. The cartridge? Oh, that was inside a hollowed-out clear plastic replica of Ortofon's Replicant 100 stylus, magnified 300 times. To remove it, the bottom snaps out of the "stylus."

Ortofon has a reputation for exotic packaging, but this is going to be hard to top. (Hey, what about an MC-4000 shaped like the sacred scarab beetle, and packed in a miniature ancient Egyptian sarcophagus?!) I should mention, though, that the cartridge, when received, had escaped from its pin sockets and "locking" wire clip, and was rolling around loose inside the container. The only saving grace was that its stylus cover was still in place; it was okay. Perhaps a leavening of substance—like, maybe, two bolts and nuts—might enhance the high-style packaging of this costly cartridge. Meanwhile, if your dealer is a long way from your home, I suggest going to the trouble of opening up the whole thing and checking the cartridge before you leave the store. If it's loose, and the stylus cover is off, you can be confident that it's ruined.

Footnote 1: Although the term "armature" is often applied to the little rod with the diamond stylus at the end, it refers strictly to the form or bobbin—usually cross-shaped—on which the coils are wound. The stylus rod is the "cantilever."—J. Gordon Holt