I often get asked “what do Ortofon SPU cartridges sound like”? That’s quite a difficult one to answer because they all sound different in one way or another, but the easy answer to the question is that SPUs do generally have a big, bold, exuberant and musically exciting character. They do give you a great big, joyful musical hug.
SPUs are unashamedly old-fashioned things, and their history goes back to the Ortofon mono ‘pickup heads’ of the early 1950s, with stereo following in the late 1950s (ortofon’s DSS 571 stereo cutting head appeared in 1957). The SPU (stereo pick-up), designed by Robert Gudmandsen was first launched in 1957 and it was quickly adopted in professional broadcast organisations, as well as for domestic listening. The SPU has been constantly refined from that point onwards, and while the original name referred to stereo pick-ups, we now have mono SPUs as well. No need for confusion since SPUs are instantly recognisable from their shell designs, whether stereo or mono!
SPUs are designed mostly with relatively unfashionable tip profiles and with tracking forces up to 4g, which seems to terrify people used to modern cartridges typically tracking at half that force. Some automatically assume that such high tracking force must necessarily mean increased wear of LP grooves but as long as the tonearm is set up correctly, and the cartridge tip and records are kept as clean as possible, groove wear should not be significantly worse than with lighter tracking forces. Ortofon have produced a useful guide to setup here https://www.ortofon.com/support/support-hifi/faq-installation .
Anyone who listens to a wide range of cartridges will probably understand that the sound and character of any given product is not necessarily dictated by the tip profile, nor indeed any one aspect of the design. It is the whole that matters and therein lies the musical magic of Ortofon SPUs, which exists whether we are looking at the entry-level SPU#1S model with its bonded spherical stylus, or the SPU Royal GM with its sharp Replicant tip. Each SPU variant has its own subtly different sound and character that builds on the essential vibrancy and musicality at the core of the original SPU design, and there is something to please anyone, at prices ranging from £425 to a whisker under £4k for the very limited edition SPU Century.
So, here is my take on Ortofon SPU stereo cartridges, starting with the lowest priced variant:
The SPU#1S is a true SPU, in that it has a big, bold, colourful and expressive character and it’s properly musical too – listening to classical ensemble music this entry-level SPU does let you hear what’s going on in terms of space, ambience, musical textures and interplay between musicians. It’s very enjoyable, but the bonded spherical tip does not excavate every bit of detail from the groove and it could not really be described as very refined – that’s not to say that it’s rough sounding, but the SPU#1S is certainly not a sweetie, rather it excels on punch, rhythm, colour and musical dexterity. In effect, the SPU#1 models are built down to a low price, which means a bonded tip (higher tip mass than nude tips) and less well specified suspension dampers etc. Art Dudley wrote a nice little review in Stereophile that summed the SPU#1S rather nicely, and that review can be read here https://www.stereophile.com/content/listening-168-ortofon-spu-1s-phono-cartridge
The SPU#1E is the same cartridge as the SPU#1S but fitted with an elliptical tip, but still a bonded tip. So, the essential character is there but the slightly finer tip profile does bring forward a touch more detail, compared with the spherical tip of the SPU#1S. Art Dudley, in his Stereophile review of the SPU#1S, also reflected on the SPU#1E and noted that it had greater sense of air, spatial depth and detail, although he also thought that the SPU#1S had a touch more punch and dynamics. I’d go along with those descriptions – the SPU#1E still has a big, up-front exuberant musical personality but some of that is traded for extra detail, compared to the SPU#1S. Which to choose? This is horses for courses and I think most people will prefer the extra detail and air that the SPU#1E gives, but there is something innately musical about the SPU#1S that’s hard not to love. Both are great musical performers at notably sensible prices.
Before the SPU#1 models this is where Ortofon’s stereo SPU range used to start. The SPU Classic GM MkII is electrically and mechanically very similar to the cheaper models but here you do get a nice nude spherical stylus tip and much better specified suspension components and quality control. All of that means a cartridge that has the classic SPU characteristics of big, colourful, dynamic and expressive sound, coupled here with much better refinement and finesse. You’ll notice that with acoustic cues such as a sense of the recorded space, imaging and compared to the bonded tipped SPU#1S there is better detail, with noticeably better tracking performance too . The SPU Classic GM MkII is a proper music maker that will rock as well as anything, and still at a sensible price.
The SPU Classic GM E MkII is basically the same cartridge as the SPU Classic GM MkII but here fitted with a nude elliptical tip. That means these two cartridges share the same character but the elliptical tip of this cartridge does really bring out more detail, not just in terms of a more extended top end, but in terms of spatial and imaging cues, refinement and delicacy as well. You do really hear that in the SPU Classic GM E MkII which is a true audiophile bargain.
This is where SPU design progresses from the Classic GM models, starting with a better and smarter glossy black shell design. The SPU Meister Silver has, as its name suggests, silver internal coils but it also has a lower mass nude tip compared to the Classics, and subtly different electrical characteristics. This all adds up to a cartridge that has audibly improved tracking performance and a brighter sound character. It is still very much an old-fashioned SPU at heart, but one that really shines a spotlight on high frequency details and it’s a great choice for someone who wants to hear the finest musical details and prefers a ‘modern sounding’ overall character. It does indeed sound ‘silvery’.
This one puzzled me at first because it’s slightly higher priced than the SPU Meister Silver but lacks that model’s silver coils. Like the Meister Silver, the Synergy has a low mass nude elliptical tip, but electrically it’s different in having a rather higher output of 0.5mV with coil impedance closer to that of the Classic models. The Synergy also tracks at a modest (for SPUs) 3g. What does all this add up to? Well, this one’s a bit of a shocker in that it has typical SPU power, balanced with delicacy and the most wonderfully ‘organic’ and expressive, ordered musical nature. You hear precisely how instruments are played, and where they are being played within the recorded acoustic. The overall sound is not so extended as with the Meister Silver, but it’s beautifully balanced and the Synergy tracks beautifully too. I liken the SPU Synergy GM MkII to an accomplished musician who knows that she/he is very good, but has no need to shout nor brag about that. The Synergy is a stunning musical performer that draws you in to performances like few other cartridges do. This one is a high-end bargain and truly a cartridge to love with heart as well as head, and a bit of a bargain too.
The SPU Wood A is unique in Ortofon’s current SPU range in having the short ‘A’ shell, which definitely harks back to the earliest days of SPUs. I think Ortofon made a deliberate choice to make this cartridge utterly ‘retro’ but it does mean that for anything other than an old Ortofon, EMT arm etc that was made for short ‘A’ shells, you do need to use Ortofon’s APJ-1 adapter to fit the SPU Wood A to a modern tonearm, otherwise you’ll end up with some horrendous tracing errors and distortion. That adapter adds quite a bit of mass to an already weighty cartridge, but the SPU Wood A is a very low compliance cartridge and as long as your arm will allow you to set the 4g VTF, there won’t be any problems. Apart from the short shell, the other unique characteristic of the SPU Wood A is the machined hardwood body, lustrously finished in Japan with Urushi lacquer – it is a thing of some beauty. Electrically, it is not wildly different from most other stereo SPUs, having 2.5 ohm coil impedance and 0.18mV output, but maybe surprisingly Ortofon has fitted it with a bonded spherical stylus, further reinforcing the retro theme. So far, a lovely looking thing but not particularly promising in terms of specifications and nothing to hint at anything special. But, the SPU Wood A is special and manages to convey musical textures and nuances almost like nothing else. Play some well recorded classical ensemble music with the SPU Wood A and there is the most delicious sense of space and of the musicians’ interplay and musical flow. As Art Dudley noted in his December 2018 review in Stereophile magazine, the SPU Wood A “reigned supreme in its ability to communicate nuances of musical performance, and in doing so tease poetry from mere sound”. Poetic is a rather good way of describing how the SPU Wood A sounds and plays music. The spherical tip does a remarkable job of rendering string sounds etc warm and resonant yet vibrant and believable, but being fair this cartridge does not dig out loads of detail – its virtues lie in the musical whole, rather than showing off in a ‘HiFi’ manner. There is no way that this is a ‘HiFi’ cartridge, rather a deliberately old-fashioned, rose-tinted performer that many will find delightful compared to modern hyper-detailed and clean sounding cartridges. The SPU Wood A is very much its own thing and utterly beguiling too – there’s not much that can hold a candle to it in terms of deep musical satisfaction, whatever its flaws which it wears proudly and openly on its sleeve. Lovely, lovely stuff.
The SPU Royal GM MkII is alone in the SPU range in having relatively modern electrical characteristics coupled with a sharp Replicant nude line contact tip. The 7 ohm coil impedance means it works ideally into a standard 100 ohm MC phono amp input and its 3g tracking force is not scarily high. Other notable features include gold plated silver coils and a shiny black wood/resin composite shell. So, a bit more contemporary in terms of design, and that does hint at how the SPU Royal GM sounds – it is far more refined than most other SPUs and that Replicant tip does dig out detail from the grooves more effectively than other SPUs. While it is still an SPU at heart, some of that characteristic SPU boldness is toned down and for many people used to more modern ‘in your face’ sounding cartridges, the SPU Royal GM offers a much smoother and more ‘traditional analogue’ take on things, but still maintaining the core SPU virtue of great musical flow and communication and its midrange character is just lovely. The Replicant tip not only does a great job of excavating fine detail from the grooves, but it’s quiet too. The SPU Royal GM MkII is a cartridge for someone who likes the detail and precision of modern cartridges, but wishes to have a smoother, warmer and more refined character that does not compromise on those fine details. Still very much an SPU, perhaps the most ‘accessible’ SPU variant, and still one that drags the listener into the music in a way that most modern MC cartridges might not, at a sensible price. Also available as the SPU Royal N, without the fixed shell, at lower cost.
Ortofon celebrated their 100th birthday by launching three special anniversary cartridges, including the limited edition SPU Century, of which only 350 were made (we hold actual stock). The SPU Century is very different from other SPU models in that its ‘G’ shell is constructed in two parts – the upper section is 3D printed in aluminium using a state-of-the-art selective laser sintering process, which melts aluminium powder in very fine layers to build up the shape of the shell, and that sintering results in a strong yet non-resonant structure. The alloy top shell is finished with a hard and durable ‘diamond like carbon’ coating that further controls resonances. The bottom part of the shell is CNC machined from fossil beechwood which has been pressure-impregnated with resin to form what Ortofon term ‘stabilised beechwood’. The special combination of sintered metal and wood results in a shell that is far stiffer and more benign in terms of resonance than any other SPU. Electrically, the SPU Century is traditional SPU with 2 ohm coils and 0.2mV output, but here Ortofon have fitted a nude Shibata tip to the alloy pipe cantilever.
Shibata tips are quite fussy in terms of setup so a bit of time and care in setting VTA is worth it to get the SPU Century properly on song. Once that’s done, you are greeted with a vivid sound that’s very much ‘SPU’ in being bold, open and dynamic with great handling of musical textures and resonances, but what the Century adds to the traditional SPU recipe is refinement, precision and control. Other SPU virtues such as spatial information, imaging and that ‘sense of the recorded space’ are also enhanced here. It’s almost like Ortofon have taken the sublime SPU Wood A and addressed all of its obvious shortcomings to bring detail, refinement and elegance to a party that’s already rather vibrant and indeed rocking. You can do no better than read Art Dudley’s Stereophile February 2019 review, which sums up the SPU Century much better than I can! To sum up, the SPU Century is (in my view) the ultimate stereo SPU in having all the innate verve, dynamics and musical expression of other SPU models, elevated to new heights and enhanced in every respect. Admittedly, it’s a relatively costly cartridge at a whisker under £4k but there are plenty of much more expensive cartridges that cost much more, yet which cannot hold a musical candle to the SPU Century. Yes, it is that good, and that verdict is genuinely from the bottom of my heart – I do feel that the SPU Century is the ultimate iteration of the SPU stereo line.