Ortofon, the venerated Danish firm that three years ago marked its 90th anniversary, has long been known for its celebrated SPU-style line of mono cartridges. These old-style, low-compliance pickup heads have a stylus radius of 25µm to play the 33.33rpm mono LPs pressed since 1948. The SPUs are made to fit "international," bayonet-mount tonearms of relatively high effective mass such as the reissue EMT 997, SME 3009 and 3012, and my Ortofon RS-309D. Their spherical styli trace the groove at a vertical tracking force (VTF) of about 3.5gm. I own an Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mk.II, which outputs 3.0mV, and I use it to play, with great satisfaction, my collection of vintage mono LPs.
Now Ortofon has introduced the Cadenza Mono ($1120 USD), a half-inch-long cartridge with a modern, nude, fine-line stylus (8x40µm) designed to track at 2.5gm. With a dynamic lateral compliance rating of 12, the Cadenza Mono outputs 0.45mV and can be used in a range of tonearms that have either fixed-mount or detachable headshells.
Ortofon introduced the Mono in 2010 as part of its new line of half-inch Cadenza models, which were derived from their well-regarded Jubilee moving-coil cartridge and have replaced the popular and successful Kontrapunkt series. According to Louis Dorio of Ortofon USA, the Cadenzas were the result of improved manufacturing techniques, improved fit’n’finish, and a desire to create different voicings. Each of the five Cadenzas is designed for specific characteristics, depending on music and listening tastes. The Cadenza Red replaces the Kontrapunkt A, the Blue replaces the B, the Bronze the C, and the Cadenza Black replaces the Jubilee. The Kontrapunkt H was discontinued and the Cadenza Mono was created.
The Cadenza Mono is intended to surpass budget moving-magnet mono cartridges, as well as the many mono models that are essentially strapped stereo cartridges. Although the Cadenza Mono has two voice-coils, these are rotated 45 degrees to cancel 99% of the vertical sensitivity that, in a stereo cartridge, produces a two-channel signal. The Mono has the same aluminum cantilever as the Cadenza Red, and its fine-line stylus was chosen over other profiles because, according to Dorio, "it simply did a better job," particularly with reissue mono LPs, whose grooves can be narrower than the originals. Although never meant to be superdetailed, the Cadenza Mono’s sound is described as "very expressive; energetic, yet even-handed."
Leif Johannsen, Ortofon’s chief engineer, elaborated on this in an e-mail: "We chose the nude fine-line diamond, as it provides a natural amount of detail and low wear characteristics, but also as a method to circumvent groove damage that may have been caused by the use of an extremely high VTF with a traditional spherical 25µm stylus. Since the fine-line stylus (8x40µm) retrieves the groove information from a different position than the traditional 25µm spherical diamond, a properly cleaned mono record can often sound like new when played on the Cadenza Mono." Essentially, as I understand it, the narrower fine-line stylus can ride lower in the groove, thus bypassing any wear already created by broader, spherical 25µm styli, and digging out more musical information -- and, Ortofon claims, thereby sounding better.
The Cadenza Mono came packed in an oversize Styrofoam sandwich box. Inside, nesting in their cutouts, were two plastic bottles: one contained the cartridge itself fixed on a plastic mount integral to the screw-off cap; the other, smaller bottle contained tools and parts. Inside the latter were mounting screws of various lengths, a set of cartridge leads, a mini-screwdriver, and a stylus brush. The Mono looks very handsome in its two-tone body of natural stainless steel and aluminum with sculpted black side panels.
Installing the Mono was a cinch. It handles easily, and the very tidy, pressure-cap stylus guard of translucent acrylic helps that. In about three minutes, or about the time it took to twist in two mounting screws, I’d mounted it somewhat loosely on the detachable LH 9000 graphite headshell of my Ortofon RS-309D tonearm. I then connected headshell to arm, fine-tuned the overhang and alignment, and tightened the screws. Finally, I checked VTF, set it to the recommended 2.5gm, and that was it. Six to ten minutes was all it took.
I jumped around a lot, unsystematically trying the Cadenza Mono with LPs from various periods, both vintage originals (1948-1968) and contemporary reissues (1969-present). From the outset, I was ecstatic over how much more rich, supple, and vibrant music sounded via the Cadenza Mono than with my reference mono cartridge, Ortofon’s SPU GM Mono Mk.II. Eventually, though, a pattern emerged: The Cadenza’s sound corresponded almost precisely to the period in which the LP it was playing was pressed.
One of the first records I played was Cookin’, by the Miles Davis Quintet (Fantasy OJC-128, a reissue circa 1987 of the original 1957 Prestige Microgroove LP). There was a big and explosive sound to "Airegin," Philly Joe Jones’s drum kit sounding as if it were in my listening room. His cymbals sizzled, his snare was snappy and full of skin, and the kick drum had a thunk I could feel in my chest. Davis’s unmuted trumpet was brassy and blatty, pure and without edge, even as it climbed to notes that might otherwise have sounded piercing but instead simply pleased. And when John Coltrane and Davis doubled on the theme, their playing was tight and muscular, with a lot of punch. Coltrane’s soloing was big, broad, and full of speed, while Paul Chambers’ double bass was clear and propulsive. The entire sound was up-front yet intimate, like a third-row seat in a club. With lots of air and liveliness, I heard no point-sourcing -- my speakers "disappeared." I really didn’t think reproduced sound could be better -- the Cadenza Mono was giving my system more juice and color than I’d ever before heard from it.
This was so with one reissue after another. The notes I took while listening to Ben Webster’s King of the Tenors (Jazz Wax JWR 4511, a 180gm DMM reissue of the 1953 Verve original) are littered with such adjectives as pure, clear, and gorgeous. Webster’s tenor sax sounded deep, precise, and solid in most of the tracks, but he could also thicken his sound with a vibrato that was almost guttural and dirty, and sometimes like a bumblebee. I heard an array of these old-school tenor-sax nuances, along with a sweet breathiness and a billowing bloom on tunes like "Danny Boy." With Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home (Sundazed 5070, a reissue of the original 1965 Columbia mono LP), the Cadenza Mono presented excellent detail in the tonal shifts of Dylan’s voice -- sometimes nasal, sometimes chesty, occasionally rasping or sweetly mellow -- that reflected the range of emotions and precise timbres he sang with, depending on the tune. In the title cut of Miles Davis’s ’Round Midnight (Speakers Corner CL 949, a 180gm reissue of the original Columbia "six-eye" mono LP), his muted trumpet was clear and percussive -- just a whisper on the side of piercing, and enough so to be thrilling. His statement of the theme was tasteful, gorgeous, and musical, with progressions up the scale that remained as clear as the bell of his trumpet. And when Davis made a rapid run of 32nd notes, none were lost in an impressionistic blur. The horn chorus before Coltrane’s spectacular solo was quick and impactful. And then, Coltrane’s swaggering tenor solo itself was both mellow and angular, full of instantaneous runs and emphatic notes, stressed brilliantly in the dynamic flow. This music is full of improvised dynamic swells, instrumental fills, and comping behind each soloist, and its playback via the Cadenza Mono was completely satisfying. The tonal balance was perfect.
This trend also held for mono recordings from the late era of hi-fi. Everything in "Girl from Ipanema," that classic from the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto (Verve V-8545), which started the American craze for bossa nova, had a kind of luscious detail. João Gilberto’s first verse in Portuguese sounded resonant and warm, his tenor slightly nasal and seductive. Astrud Gilberto’s bouncy singing, though, sounded saucy and refreshing by comparison -- with a tone of innocence, and plenty of detail in how she pronounced the English syllables as she sang them, holding them slightly differently in her vocal chamber than a native speaker -- very closely and intimately, with a slow tongue to her speech. Very sexy. And on tenor sax, Stan Getz played smoothly in his syncopated articulations off the melody, his improvised ornaments tasteful and with an exceedingly beautiful tone. The Cadenza Mono captured his bounce, his tight embouchure, his signature clarity. And when Astrud sang and Getz played almost together at the end of the tune, the Cadenza got their timing as Getz’s tenor added flourishes to Astrud’s lyrics, and rendered the intensely sweet highs and rich, post-Websterian harmonics of his playing. Again, my speakers seemed to disappear.
The Cadenza Mono cartridge’s performance was a shade less spectacular with certain vintage mono LPs, most of them pressed between 1948 and 1958. Such discs usually have a groove width of 55µm (a little more than twice that of a 25µm spherical stylus like that of the Ortofon GM Mono Mk.II). Though I carefully select and clean my vintage mono LPs, they are all used -- to varying degrees, groove wear can be a problem. My copy of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, as recorded by Jascha Heifetz with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch (RCA Victor LM-1992), was released in 1955. Heifetz’s violin sounded fine -- lots of rosin to his bow, with sharp and slightly white-sounding highs (sadly, demanded of RCA's engineers by Heifetz), but also with a very rich midrange and lots of timbral detail. The orchestra, though, was just a tad compressed and recessed. I wondered if that could be due as much to the recording techniques of the day as to any fault of the cartridge.
Similarly, though Louis Armstrong’s virtuoso trumpet intro and solo also sounded compressed, the vocal duet between him and Hoagy Carmichael in "Old Rockin’ Chair," from Armstrong’s 1957 release Town Hall Concert Plus (RCA Victor LPM-1443), sounded rich as all get-out, both of them improvising humor-laced bravura flourishes -- doubling, call and response, scatting though the simple verses. And, in the title track of Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable (Capitol T357), released in 1955, Cole’s voice was . . . well, unforgettable. His baritone reached smoothly through the highs, characteristically rich, deeply resonant, and supple throughout his range. Yet Billy Mays’s studio violins sounded so thin and peaky that it was hard to believe this recording had been the soundtrack behind so many martini-and-gimlet romances in the 1950s. I wanted to imagine myself in a tux, waltzing with a drink in one hand, Rita Hayworth in a silk sheath dress grasping the other and sashaying next to me -- but the white noise of the strings just wouldn’t let me. Could it have been an equalization problem due to how these recordings were mastered?
My passing thought that those particularly problematic vintage mono LPs might possibly have been mastered using equalization different from the standard RIAA curve didn’t prove out. By comparison, the Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mk.II cartridge, with its spherical stylus of 25µm radius, sounded much better with these pre-1958 LPs. Nat Cole’s voice in "Unforgettable" was even smoother, with lots of character and air. The peakiness and compression I’d heard through the Cadenza Mono from instruments that reach into the treble range were cut way down, often to nil, by the GM Mono Mk.II playing classical or jazz LPs, and its sound was silkier -- it didn’t agitate, and was tonally satisfying. Rita and I could dance the night away!
That the Cadenza Mono has an 8x40µm fine-line stylus might be significant here. As Ortofon’s Leif Johanssen wrote me, such a design rides lower in the groove than the SPU GM Mono Mk.II’s fatter, rounder stylus. Yet despite his assurances that the opposite would be the case, I briefly wondered if the Cadenza Mono’s narrower stylus had made it possible to pick up more noise from the wear on these vintage LPs. Or was it that the stylus rides so low in the groove that this diminishes the audio signal, the stylus now having too narrow a lateral space to move in? I pondered this and came to agree with Johanssen: The noise was in fact decreased by the Cadenza Mono’s narrower stylus, but my own listening has led me to conjecture that, for exactly the same reason, the Cadenza read the grooves pressed into these pre-1958 vintage mono LPs from a different position than does the 25µm spherical stylus of the SPU GM Mono Mk.II.
Yet the difference between the SPU GM Mono Mk.II and Cadenza Mono was also dramatic with contemporary mono LPs, such as the reissue of Ben Webster’s King of the Tenors. While the GM Mono Mk.II rendered Webster’s horn with an overall mellow and pleasing sound, the Cadenza Mono presented it with significantly more dynamic range and contrast, sweeter and more vibrant tonal colors, and much more intimate detail. Moreover, the Cadenza superbly tracked these reissues, staying in the groove during the most dramatic dynamic swings and tonally intense or complex passages. With later-issue (1963-69) mono records, the Cadenza Mono also consistently outperformed the SPU GM Mono Mk.II, producing more saturated tonalities, more vibrant color, richer textures, and more impressive detail and dynamics. The horn choruses in "Springsville," from Miles Ahead: Miles Davis + 19, arranged and directed by Gil Evans (Columbia CL1041, released in 1963), were lush, attractively percussive, and resolving. Bill Evans’s piano in "Make Someone Happy," from Bill Evans at Town Hall, Vol. 1 (Verve V-8683, from 1966), had all the harmonic richness, all the swing-ringing and trilling crystalline clarity that I could want. In short, with these records, the Cadenza Mono was a saucier, more explosive, more colorful transducer. Granted, the GM Mono Mk.II is an SPU and a high-output MC (I use it with my phono preamp’s MM setting), while the Cadenza Mono is a medium-output MC (which I use with the phono’s MC input) -- the comparison isn’t quite one of apples with apples. Yet it’s useful to note that there were definitive differences in these cartridges’ sounds, and different applications in which each would be the more appropriate choice.
The vinyl hobby can be a bit like industrial archaeology: to fully and properly participate in the pursuit, one needs the right tools. This is partly why gearheadedness is so endemic to the hobby. After my experiences with Ortofon’s Cadenza Mono cartridge, I realized even more than before that there is a point to having the right tool for the right job.
The Cadenza Mono is a lively, dynamic, superbly detailed transducer that can render monaural music with great tonal intensity. Best put to use with mid- to late-1960s high-fidelity mono LPs or contemporary reissue pressings of classic releases, it dug deep into the microgrooves of these records, tracked them with steady precision, and presented an intense tonal beauty and a dynamic explosiveness that, once heard, I found hard to do without. Listening to the cartridge was an audio awakening on the order of having heard a piece of music, once all too familiar, as if for the first time. At its price and proper application, the Cadenza Mono delivers excellent sound and very high value. Highly recommended.
. . . Garrett Hongo
- Digital sources -- Cary 303/300 CD player, Apple iMac with Wavestream U-24 DAC
- Analog sources -- TW-Acustic Raven Two turntable; Ortofon RS-309D tonearm with Ortofon SPU GM Mono Mk.II (3.0mV) and Ortofon SPU Anniversary (0.6mV) cartridges; Tri-Planar Mk.VII Ultimate II tonearm with Zyx Airy 3 cartridge (0.24mV)
- Preamplifiers -- deHavilland Mercury 3, VAC Renaissance Mk.3 with phono stage, Herron VTPH-2 phono stage
- Power amplifiers -- Herron M1 monoblocks, deHavilland KE50A monoblocks
- Speakers -- Von Schweikert Audio VR5 HSE
- Speaker cables -- Verbatim Cable with jumpers, Cardas Clear Beyond biwire
- Interconnects -- Verbatim Cable (RCA), Auditorium 23 (RCA), Audience Maestro (RCA), Cardas Clear (RCA and XLR)
- Power cords -- Fusion Audio Predator and Impulse, Harmonix XDC Studio Master, Thor Red, Cardas Golden Reference
- Power conditioner -- Balanced Power Technology Clean Power Center, Isoclean 104 II power strip
- Accessories -- Box Furniture S5S five-shelf rack in sapele, edenSound FatBoy dampers, DIY damping pillows
Ortofon Cadenza Mono Phono Cartridge
Price: $1120 USD.
Warranty: One years parts and labor.
Stavangervej 9DK-4900 Nakskov
Phone: +45 54-91-19-15
Fax: +45 54-91-19-11
500 Executive Blvd Suite 102
Ossining, NY 10562
Phone: (914) 762-8646
Fax: (914) 762-8649