What a feeling…..the Ortofon SPU

Some thoughts

During the period of 1957 – 1959 Robert Gudmandsen invented the legendary SPU (Stereo Pick Up) moving coil cartridge for the Danish company Ortofon. The typical customer of that day was not the HiFi enthusiast, it was the professional broadcast industry which used this cartridge for their on air music program.

In 2018 you can still buy this cartridge – 61 years is close to an eternity in the entertainment electronics industry. And in spite of all the inclinations, it is not a dead product for some wise, grey, old men with their vintage gramophones – generation after generation there is a still growing number of audiophiles, who will sooner or later discover the sound of an Ortofon SPU.

Old versus new

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There must be a certain fascination listening to your record collection using this legendary vintage design, otherwise this long lasting popularity can´t be explained. Today a growing market is the Far East – and to tell you the truth, the Japanese audio enthusiasts were always ahead of their time, otherwise it can not be explained why the Japanese High End scene was the first to rediscover the Single Ended Triode amplifiers or Western Electric horn loaded speaker systems, which the American scene thought were a load of scrap metal in those years. And even we German enthusiasts discovered the fine quality of professional broadcast equipment, like the EMT 927 and 930 as well as Studer CD players to name just a few, long after they were hip in the Japanese scene. With South Korea it is now the same story – or do you remember any better sound demonstration at the last couple of audio fairs in Munich, than those carried out by Silbatone together with their huge Western Electric installations?

By the time we muzzy European audiophiles got it, the prices had gone up to stratospheric regions or the cool stuff had vanished from the market and was in solid collectors hands! Indeed most of the “scene” here believes, that newer is always better, and more expensive is a guarantee to get the best sound – so they will never realise that in some areas of our beloved hobby, the peak performance was already reached a long time ago.

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How else can we explain the intoxicating sound of an original Wesetern Electric 300b engraved base – a tube which is today not rare, it has vanished completely from any circulation on selling platforms – and you might guess who on this planet has a stash full of them???

Until today it seems to be impossible to build something that equals the sound of this tube legend. And the younger audiophiles among us, just as the modern tube industry, who both eventually never had a chance to listen to the original WE 300b engraved base, won´t get tired of telling us that a modern 300b of the brand “xyz” can match the sound quality of the old American tube… Friends – that is a fairy tale until today!

So, it is not a bad idea to look at Japan or South Korea and also China, if we want to get an idea of the latest fashion in High End audio! That makes us vinyl junkies who were yesterday old fashioned and behind the moon, today, the latest fashion. We are now hipsters!!

Apparently those people in the Far East have a better understanding of sound and the beauty of it, and they might have a better understanding of traditional and modern culture and how to bring both things together??

Maybe there is a reason, why the legendary Ortofon SPU is so popular in the Far East and maybe we should get in touch with this all time classic!

Restoration job

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I discovered the Ortofon SPU 20 years ago, having a job project were vinyl restoration was implied. I had an assignment to digitise (oh yes, I know that is hard stuff…)  1200 vinyl records for a German archive. The records were all together in a mediocre shape – after endless cleaning processes with professional record cleaning machines, I found out that a modern high end cartridge with a compliance of around 12cu or more, will lengthen a scratch on the vinyl surface on the time domain. The scratch is not anymore as long as it is, there is so much energy traveling up the needle and tonearm, that the scratch has nearly doubled its length on the timeline. This means that later applied interpolation algorythms of my Sonic Solution workstation had to do a much tougher job to get rid of the scratch and bring on the original modulation at the given timecode address.

What to do….??

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One day – when I was close to a nervous breakdown, I discovered the history of the moving coil pic up – it was a sort of skipped action, because I had no further idea how to bring a proper signal to my DCS AD Converters to get the most out of the scratched vinyl surface. And as you already know – I stumbled upon the Ortofon SPU…

20 years ago you were a nutcase if you entered a HiFi shop asking for an Ortofon SPU – and so I had a long discussion with the gentleman behind the counter, who wanted me to buy a Van den Hul DDT instead of a SPU cartridge. But I was steadfast and ordered an Ortofon SPU A with an elliptical stylus.

Weeks later I got the vintage cartridge and mounted it on my EMT 997 tonearm. And guess what – the beast sounded wonderful – and it made out of a scratch what a scratch really is – a short spike and not a huge monster! After the job was done, I had heard 1200 records with this thing – I mean for a very long time I had listened to nothing else than an Ortofon SPU. As I was finished and felt some passion to listen to my own records at home again, I was not prepared for a huge surprise – a sort of cultural shock.

My cartridge at this time was a a Dynavector Karat, which I loved very much. The Dynavector had so much more surface noise and told me about every scratch on the vinyl surface as a racing car would do with the given road conditions. But that was not everything, there was a cut in the midband of this cartridge, a treble rise and a thin bass. From that moment on, there was a SPU in my home at anytime!

The Tonearm

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To dive into the world of an Ortofon SPU there are a lot of requirements necessary to bring out the full potential of such a cartridge. The first thing is a proper heavy tonearm. That might be one of the biggest challenges, because in our modern HiFi market such tonearms are nearly forgotten. If you do not want to use a 12″ arm, the problem to get an arm with a high effective mass is even more difficult. The candidates are mostly vintage examples, which we can get in the used market with some luck. Think of an Ortofon 309, Fidelity Research FR64S or 66S (12″), or the SME classics 309 or 3012 – both of the latter have to be the first generation of this classic. But if you discover these vintage warhorses,  there are some problems you will find, which nobody is talking about.

The FR64 and 66S – both are among the best tonearms ever made using steel for their armtube – do not sound especially good with such an SPU cartridge – do not ask me why, such FR arms matched with a Koetsu cartridge or on Ikeda 9 would be audio nirvana, with the SPU both sounded ok – but not extraordinary.

The SME 3009 and 3012 at their age today often have problems with their knife edge bearings – and, they are both not compatible with the G shell geometry of our SPU cartridges – so you have to deal with a compromise in adjusting the cart in a geometrically correct way.

The vintage Ortofon tonearms are one of the best possibilities, but you have to restore them, overhaul the bearings – also a new tonearm cable would be a good idea.

A great opportunity would be a Shindo tonearm, which is a variation of the old Ortofon tonearm, but these things are very, very rare.

The EMT 997 is also a good possibility, and they are available again brand new at Audiotorium 23 in Germany or Tone Imports in the USA.

Maybe the Thomas Schick tonearm, which you can buy brand new, has the best price to performance ratio of them all. This thing is an amazing opportunity to use an Ortofon SPU to its full potential.

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Thomas offers a long version which is 12″ long, and a shorter version which has the size of 9.6″. The latter can be a direct replacement on most EMT turntables with their 9.6 EMT tonearms (which are not the wisdoms last conclusion to say the least….). A Schick tonearm and an Ortofon SPU is a match made in heaven – and if you now think, ok, some day I want to be able to change the cartridge – do I need another arm then??? I can reassure you – a Schick tonearm will also sound amazing with a Lyra cart, a DL 103, a Benz Micro and whatever you like, it is one of the most versatile tonearms on the market and one of the very rare “best buys” in the audio business.

I went into a slightly different direction, which has something to do with my turntable, which does not accept a 12″ armlength (Grrrrrrr!!!!). One day I contacted Frank Schröder, the famous German tonearm designer – because he uses different woods achieving different effective masses on his famous tonearms. Frank doesn´t use different kinds of wood, because they might sound different, as it will be the case with the construction of wooden instruments – far away from that. Frank uses a lot of different tinctures, oil and God knows what, to get rid of any sound variation of the different wood types. In the end you choose one specific sort of wood, because you want a specific effective mass at a given armlength.

So my approach was to get around 22g eff mass with a 9,5″ tonearm – something you cannot buy off the shelf. Frank listened carefully to my wish list, made some notes on a piece of paper and told me I have to wait nearly a year, because he had so many orders….. One year – that is hard stuff – but I knew in this moment that it will be well worth the wait, because this arm would be my second Frank Schröder designed – so I had a good idea what kind of outstanding performance was at stake!

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Finally after 8 months (faster than promised!!!) I got my brand new Schröder DPS tonearm made out of snakewood, which is one of the  hardest woods on planet earth. The arm has 22g eff mass with an aluminium headshell plate and can reach 27g with a plate made out of brass – Bingo!!!! – that was my SPU tonearm.

And to tell you the truth – it is not used only for the classical Danish cartridge, I use it also together with a Miyajima Zero mono cart (in my book THE mono cartridge at the moment – but that´s another story), an Ikeda 9, and also with different Koetsu moving coil carts.

The Step Up Transformer

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Next thing in our SPU requirement list is the amplification of this classic cart…..this old lady wants to see a step up transformer performing at its best. Such a transformer should have a turn ratio of 30:1 or even 40:1, depending on the achievable gain level of your moving magnet phono stage.

The Ortofon SPU Classic has an electrical output of just 0.2mV and an internal resistance of 2.5 – 3 Ohms depending which classic SPU you own. That is a tough task for nearly every phono stage – 0.2mV is half of what you get with a Koetsu Rosewood – so the decision to use a step up device is not a bad idea, if you want to have a jet black background while listening to your favourite records. But things are not as easy at it seems – because the higher the turn ratio of a step up device (more gain), the more degradation we can expect soundwise – so it is much more complicated and expensive to make a fantastic sounding 30:1 step up transformer, than to build one with a 10:1 turn ratio….

Finding a proper Step Up Transformer

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There are some very, very good candidates on the market – mostly relatively unknown, because such devices are not made anymore by the large, well known audio companies. But there is a small hardcore scene, which delivers outstanding products.

What do we have??

Here are my top five:

1. The Hasimoto HMX and HM7 – both are 30:1 trannies and their sound is astonishing.

2. Auditorium 23 T1 step up transformer – there is no technical data available, but this step up device is specially made for the Ortofon SPU and sounds amazing.

3. Michael Ulbrich – these are huge trannies, bigger than CocaCola cans – but if you ask me, this is the best of the best at the moment! They look strange at first site – but the sound is audio nirvana! My number 1!

4. Mitch Cotter MK II L – an old classic, but a great step up transformer, you will get this unit only on the used market. It is not made anymore – and it is not a cheap affair – but really great!

5. Kondo Audio Note Japan S6 and also KSL – both are extremely expensive, the S6 is only available on the used market, the KSL could be bought new, even though there is a newer model coming up – some High End dealers will have the old KSL still in their shops. But take a deep breath – these units are ultra expensive – and they are good – but in my book way too expensive – Michael Ulbrich can do it much better for far, far less!

The cable between the step up transformer and your phono stage

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The last difficult chapter is the cabling. If we use a step up transformer the cable between this unit and our MM (moving magnet) phonostage input is as important as the tonearm cable itself – both are the most important cables in the whole audio chain!

What the heck is so special about theses connections? The tonearm cable distributes the tiny voltage our SPU is able to deliver – that is 0.2mV – which means milli Volts – and milli means millionth Volts!!!!! This cable is connected to the input of our step up device – this unit is completely passive – so no power cable or power supply is necessary. To put it simple – our step up device is changing current into Volt – with a given turn ratio. The cable that distributes this signal to our phono stage has to be a cable with an extremely low capacity. Because the given capacity increases exponentially depending on our turn ratio! So you have to get the lowest capacity in a fully shielded cable you can get.

One of the best possibilities off the shelf is the Lyra Phono Pipe – maybe there are also DIY solutions I am not aware of – but the Phono Pipe is a very, very good cable for that purpose. It is perfectly shielded – which is important, because the signal coming out of our step up transformer is not a line signal – it is a high Z signal, which is prone to picking up noise, hum and EMI. The Phono Pipe has the lowest capacity at the moment of all cables I am aware of on the market, and it is beautifully made – and of course it is anything but cheap. But the sound and the ability to solve so many problems regarding that specific connection between step up device and phono stage makes it a very good solution.

What we get

 

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The SPU mounted in the headshell of a top flight heavy arm, amplified with a very good step up transformer driving a tubed MM phono stage can deliver a sound you will never forget. The bass ist tight and full bodied – it doesn´t reach down to the absolut deepest regions, but what the cartridge delivers in this frequency band is the DEFINITION of punch!

The midband is warm, natural and beautiful – there is nothing distracting in it, no harshness, no glare, no roughness, it is a smooth, almost uncoloured midband. The treble is very special – it sounds wet as well as light and sweet. It is not the last word in resolution, but it has enough of it, if the music calls for it. The treble is never fatiguing – a SPU has the ability to project the treble in a three dimensional way – it is not just a sort of white noise we will detect on a lot of other cartridges, even in price regions in which normal people would buy a small car. This treble has gestalt and flow and a very high ability to follow even the biggest dynamic swings.
The dynamic abilities of a SPU are also very special – this thing can start and stop with a tremendous speed – it is anything but a slow performer, if the tonearm has the correct effective mass. The projection of space is one of its strongest sides. If you have never listened to an Ortofon SPU tracking some well recorded classical music – then you are in for a big surprise. These cartridges have the ability to show the stage in a manner I would call cinemascope style! In that very wide stage the SPU is able to render, you will have a slightly up front picture of the monophonic center stage. A vocal will come out of your speakers and is placed a good margin in front of the speaker base! A SPU is able to be big and bold, just as it can be intimate and fragile at the same time – that is something very, very special!

In the end it will give you the music as a whole experience, it is this holism, which makes it a perfect cartridge to discover music. It is all about the composition, the emotion and the feeling – not so much about every single detail and nuance a recording will show. It is also not a technical sounding cartridge – it shows music in its whole beauty – even if the tracks are not so well recorded or mixed and mastered – it is the perfect tool for a music lover!

Many variations on one theme

 

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If you look at the Ortofon webpage, you will be surprised how many different SPU cartridges are on offer…..it will be too much for this article to describe every single SPU cartridge (in depth discussion of that will follow) – so I have to choose my favourites…

First of all – if you don´t have a tonearm with a SME bayonet connector to use the traditional G shell cartridges, you have to choose the 1/4″ mounting version, which is called Ortofon SPU N.

As I am using a Frank Schröder tonearm, it is not possible for me to use the G shell SPU cartridges – so I am limited to the N style SPU carts. Many SPU hardcore freaks claim that the N style SPUs are not real SPUs because the shell is missing – and I will tell you that is true – and a good thing – because the naked SPU doesn´t have the shell in which it resonates. If you don´t mind – call the N style carts more neutral.

If you are a novice my advice would be: buy the cheapest and most original one, the Classic SPU with a conical needle. In 2018, this is the closest thing to the original cart from the 50ties you can get – and it is maybe the best entry into the SPU-game!

If you want to have a little bit better tracking quality and some more resolution, then you pick up the Classic SPU with an elliptical stylus – it has a slightly modernised sound but dosn´t miss the traditional tone of these legends. A true classic with some upgrades in different sound categories – but it is as close to the classic sound as it can be.

The SPU Royal N or Royal GME (with the G shell) is something different – it is also a SPU but with a more modern sound character – the differences are the coils, the mass of the needle tip, and the stylus shape. Here, Ortofon uses a line contact derivate which they call Replicant 100. This SPU is a perfect starting point if you want to have a great portion of the classic SPU tone, garnished with some modern sound reproduction aspects – one of them is a much better resolution as the Classic SPUs will have. It is also the quietest SPU you will get regarding vinyl surface noise.

And last but not least, my personal favourite SPU – the Meister Silver….in the 1.5 Ohm version! This cartridge is placed soundwise between the Classic SPU with an elliptical stylus and the Royal N – it is not modernised as much as the Royal N – but it has more resolution than both Classic SPUs. It has maybe the best integration of the classic SPU tone with some very distinctive implemented modern aspects – a dream to listen to!

No matter what you choose – you will hear a high portion of realism in yor music, which is presented tremendously un-technically, fluid and emotionally touching – one of the all time classics.

If you are more a music lover and not so much an audiophile, then this cartride is for you!

Stay tuned.

 

E. Strauss

 

 

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