Turntable manufacturers tend to make every part of the turntable themselves — the plinth, the motor, the tonearm and the platter. There is, however, often a notable exception for what is arguably a turntable’s most crucial component: the phono cartridge. While some companies, like Audio Technica and Cambridge Audio, do get into the cartridge business, many more including Pro-Ject, Fluance and U-Turn, have chosen to partner with Ortofon. Pro-Ject’s most popular turntable, the Debut Carbon (DC), comes with an Ortofon cartridge. So too does every turntable in Fluance’s Reference line.
So, what’s the deal? Why don’t more turntable manufactures make their own phono cartridges? And what makes Ortofon cartridges so special?
One of Ortofon’s biggest strengths is that it is in no way new to the game. Founded over 100 years ago in 1918 by two Danish audio engineers, Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen, the company developed one of the first synchronized sound film systems and helping to usher in an era of music and dialog. According to Louis Dorio, the product specialist at Ortofon, it was after World War 2 when the company became primarily concerned with producing record manufacturing and playback equipment, like record cutting heads and cutting amplifiers used in the mastering process.
“Ortofon developed the first cutting head that could actually offer wide frequency response, the way we listen to music today,” said Dorio. “Of course, at the time, listeners couldn’t make use of these new HiFi records without a new cartridge, so the natural thing to do was develop cartridges that could satisfy the demands of the new recordings.”
The first Ortofon cartridge was a moving coil cartridge, the MC Mono-A cartridge, and it was developed by Holger Christian Arenstein in 1948. Since then, Ortofon has been a fixture in the hi-fi world, manufacturing everything tonearms to cables, but they’re still best known for the over 50 cartridge models they make.
The business has changed a lot for Ortofon in the past 15 years, and that’s because the vinyl industry has changed a lot in that time as well. Before 2010, audiophiles and DJs were the primary groups listening to vinyl, and in fairly small numbers, leaving Ortofon content to produce a variety of high-end cartridges in relatively modest quantity. Since then, there’s been a vinyl boom. More vinyl means more turntables, which in turn means more phono cartridges.
Part of Ortofon’s continued relevance, and the lack of competition from turntable producers themselves, has to do with the difficulty of achieving the scale of production the boom has required. Ortofon’s factory in Nakskov, Denmark is pretty uniquely suited to mass-producing excellent phono cartridges. And producing cartridges at any scale is far from easy. “Each individual component of the cartridge has a big influence on the sound,” explained Dorio. “Whether it be the diamond shape, cantilever material, the choice of coil wire material, how many coils, the magnet chosen and its intensity, and the type of rubber suspension that will be used. And that just scratches the surface really, as most of it gets into physics and how it can be applied to produce a good sounding final product.”
In 2007, Ortofon created its 2M series of moving-magnet (MM) cartridges, which is the company’s best-selling and most visible (they’re all bright colors) series of cartridges today, and they’re compatible with most entry-level phono preamps and entry-level integrated turntables. Ortofon also makes numerous moving-coil (MC) cartridges, which are better at preserving accuracy and sound quality, but also more expensive. That said, the company’s entry-level 2M series cartridges are still very good, which is why some of the biggest turntable manufactures have chosen to use them. “Even if you buy our least-expensive cartridge, it’s still free from distortion and it gets far more right than it gets wrong,” said Dorio. “One concept that we try to live by is the importance of ‘entry-level quality.’ We’ve always been focused on providing solid options for listeners who just want the best possible value from their money.”
Should you find that you somehow disagree, the great thing about all phono cartridges is that they’re one of the most upgradable components in any hi-fi system. And higher-quality phono cartridge can have a big impact on your system’s overall sound quality; plus, it could help preserve the life of your records. If you have an entry-level turntable with an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge ($100) and you’re looking for something to upgrade to, get the Ortofon 2M Blue ($236). And if you made that decision, you wouldn’t be alone. According to Dorio, it’s the most popular upgrade, and one that’s well-made.