very sensibly launched a new version of its 2M Mono cartridge to coincide with
the release of the Beatles Mono vinyl box set. Only available through the
Ortofon web shop, this cartridge builds on the standard conical tipped 2M Mono.
The SE version adds a Nude Shibata stylus profile, an updated generator with
silver plated coils and a white Lexan body which is said to be very rigid and
eliminate unwanted resonances.
In the world of record decks, I regard myself as
relatively sane as I only have two decks. Most people, however, regard
anyone still playing LPs... sorry, vinyl... as being totally out-dated even
though there is growing recognition for the format. Even so, two decks make me
weirder than one-deck owners but nowhere near as bad as those with five, ten or
twenty plus decks. But it doesn't stop there, one of my decks is given over to
playing mono, both 1950s and 1960s microgroove and Shellac 78 rpm records.
To many this must be worth a good ten record decks in terms of my weirdness.
There now follows a monologue covering my
thoughts about mono playback to set the context for this review of the Ortofon
2M Mono SE cartridge.
When using a mono cartridge, we avoid slight differences being picked up by the left and right channels of a stereo cartridge. You can sum the channels of your system via an amplifier equipped with a mono switch but it's so much more elegant to start out with mono at the beginning of the reproduction process, i.e. the cartridge; this way you don't expose your phono stage to a lot of surface noise unnecessarily. Very often mono records sound much quieter when played back as mono. I even find some annoying severe scratches are almost silenced. When I talk about playing mono, I'm still using two speakers, I find listening to mono via one speaker on a hi-fi system a strange experience simply because I'm so habituated to stereo. Another benefit of a mono cartridge is that you get a rock solid central image, using a stereo cartridge just isn't as good in this respect as any slight imbalances are often quite audible.
Listening in mono via two speakers results in all
the action appearing to come from between the speakers. I find this sounds very
natural, it's like listening to live concerts and gigs. Switching back to
a stereo recording I find the soundstage seems gimmicky at first after hearing a
good mono recording. Likewise playing music that was originally recorded
in mono and then processed into stereo invariably is improved when played back
in mono. You know the sort of thing – vocals centre, some instruments totally
on the left and drums on the right. These processed stereo recordings I find
invariably sound thin and contrived but playing them as mono brings back a
solidity and richness, as well as resolving the strange instrument placements.
Just one such example record is Cannonball Adderley Sophisticated Swing
on Wax Time Records but just about every mono recording processed to be a stereo
LP is better replayed in mono, in my experience anyway.
Mono playback, overall, I find produces a stable
central image and a very realistic soundstage with a solid and meaty sound with
particularly robust bass. Wrapped into all this is the simplicity of the
recording techniques used pre-digital and pre-1970s. You even had bands playing
together for a take allowing for interplay between musicians; it's hardly
surprising these vintage recordings often sound so vibrant and musically
Enough About Mono Madness, What
About The Cartridge?
A couple of LPs I used for direct cartridge comparison purposes were The Beatles albums Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Peppers. To recap; The 2M Mono SE has an upgraded generator, high rigidity body material and Shibata stylus profile instead of the conical tip on the standard 2M Mono. I found the SE showed a good improvement in clarity and is smoother on the really raw parts of recordings too. Cleaner, more detailed yet more sympathetic, the Shibata tip would appear to be a better "tracer" than the conical tip of the non-SE. It'll not be the ultimate of course; the likes of a SPU Mono would be interesting to try. I justified the purchase of the SE due to my having collected a lot of mono LPs and my mono collection is growing rapidly, most of the last the last 100 LPs I've bought have been mono. By spending money on LPs I justified spending yet more on a better cartridge. It is logic my wife might use, but not about hi-fi! The 2M Mono standard and SE were on my Garrard 301 / Origin Live Encounter MK3, the deck of course is from just the right era. I also compared Revolver played via my Trans-Fi Salvation with my $5000 London Reference cartridge. Certainly the 2M Mono SE was not shamed in any way; it sounded every bit as sophisticated as the Reference. The main difference with the (stereo) Reference was a slight loss of the really solid mono central image on vocals and a reduction of bass solidity with the stereo cartridge.
I compared Sgt Peppers from the box set with my first pressing (dead wax shows it as 5N), this LP was originally purchased by my sister so I know its history, it is in great condition. The new version is a little clearer with less bass bloom. I slightly prefer the box set version pressing but not by a lot I have a 1st pressing of With The Beatles too, I reached similar conclusions with this. Overall I'm very surprised by the quality of most of the Beatles recordings. It's the first time in decades I've sat down and listened to early and mid-years Beatles; the recordings are a little raw at times but they are very alive and energetic, no matter whether I use the 2M Mono or 2M Mono SE.
I found with Rubber Soul the SE version of the 2M Mono had better top-end definition, overall the sound was cleaner but not clinical and hi-hat cymbals were significantly less splashy. On the track Norwegian Wood I enjoyed the more feathery treble the SE gave. I would say the bass with the SE is tighter, more modern sounding than with the conically tipped 2M Mono. "Nowhere Man" is another example where the improvements with SE showed up easily; Ringo's light tapping of the hi-hats is more distinct which on this track is a very important aspect which drives musical timing.
Some of the earlier Beatles LPs feature "clangy and twangy" guitar sounds; the SE made these sounds made more pleasant to listen to without removing the raw and fresh nature of what I believe was originally recorded. The same is true for vocals too. Another Rubber Soul track, "Think For Yourself" benefited from the SE and in addition I felt the bass was more propulsive on this track. Overall detail with the SE was an improvement yet I enjoyed resulted in a more sympathetic listening experience.
I love the Beatles Mono box set; it's a fabulous addition to my collection though if I were only allowed to listen to one genre it would be Bebop jazz. John Coltrane's Blue Train sounded sublime with the 2M Mono SE. I could wax lyrical about this era of jazz and having acquired the 2M Mono SE I'm now even more focused on buying up as many mono Bebop LPs as I can. The great thing about a mono cartridge is that what look to be less than perfect records usually play acceptably quietly, once cleaned with a record cleaning machine. Surface noise with a stereo cartridge detracts from my listening pleasure quite considerably; I know I'm listening to old recordings and well used records. With a mono cartridge I'm transported to a time when the records were in much newer condition. Another aspect to take into account is that the sound is musically more coherent due to necessarily simpler recording methods of the time. Artists playing in the same studio at the same time has to be beneficial, I sense the interplay going on. My hunch is that the Shibata tip of the SE results in better tracing of the groove so the sound is cleaner yet smoother, more detailed and presumably more accurate. I expect the other improvements with the 2M Mono SE contribute and balance things too but the tip is probably the most significant contributor. The 2M Mono SE costs €499 (including tax) or $650 depending on whether you buy from the European or USA shop.
The standard 2M Mono with its conical tip is a very fine cartridge. At a little over half the price of the 2M Mono SE it makes a lot of sense for playing mono LPs, if however you can stretch to the SE version you will be rewarded. Ortofon's 2M Mono SE cartridge has made a deep impression on me; it is an incredibly cost effective addition to my system which unlocks a massive quantity of mono music for my enjoyment. Of course I'm inquisitive about mono cartridges further up the Ortofon range but I give the 2M Mono SE a resounding recommendation to anyone interested in music from the mono post-78 era. It is "all about the music" and the 2M Mono SE is all about the music.
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