Ortofon 2M Red

Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
Compliance: Medium
Price: £95

Background

I was puzzled as to why the Ortofon 2M Red was attracting such mixed opinions on forums and in reviews. So, I decided to make up my own mind about it and bought a brand-new example from William Thakker in Germany. I figured that I could always sell it on, if I didn’t like it. It is certainly a very modern-looking cartridge – its translucent, angled design is undeniably attractive, like a work of art in cartridge terms. But how does it sound? Well, I still have the cartridge, so that is a hint at the answer to this question. I use it on my Pioneer PL12D and this review is based on auditions carried out in this set-up.

Equipment

Turntable: Pioneer PL12D MkII with ADC-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 150pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

When I bought the 2M Red, I already had experience of several vintage Ortofon cartridges, but this one was from their latest 2M range. Having seen mixed reviews from other users, I didn’t know what I was going to make of it. The outcome was actually rather a surprise.

Treble: The treble is very crisp and clear, giving an excellent sense of air and space to the sound. The cartridge is certainly not subdued in this department. This is beneficial on most recordings. However, bright recordings can expose a lack of delicacy and refinement in the treble, which could also be troublesome in bright systems.

Midrange: The mid-band is also open and clear. The midrange is obviously influenced by the treble, giving texture to vocals, but doesn’t quite have the wonderful quality of the 2M Blue. The handling of sibilance on vocals is above average, in my experience.  

Bass: The bass is very punchy and nicely textured. It isn’t quite as forward or deep as with some of my vintage Ortofon cartridges, but demonstrates exceptional quality – its texture allows the tones of bass instruments to be easily discerned and the taut, dynamic delivery gives the bass real impact.

On the whole, I would put the balance of this cartridge on the bright side of neutral. However, don’t think thin or bass-light! This cartridge has a lot going for it, including a wonderfully impactful and textured bass. The entire sound, right across the frequency spectrum is clear, open and solid. Dynamics are extremely impressive, with the music really jumping out of the speakers. Generally, this cartridge delivers an ambient, expansive sound with a high degree of entertainment value. On the negative side, it can arguably over-step the mark on bright and/or edgy recordings, when it could be perceived as over-bearing and tiring. However, my view is that with most material in a well-balanced system, this cartridge can produce remarkable fidelity for the money.  

Tracking

The tracking-force range for this cartridge is 1.6-2.0g with a normal value of 1.8g, which is the setting that I use. I find the cartridge to be a competent tracker – the sound is clear and clean. Sibilance is handled relatively well, although the worst cases will catch this cartridge out. However, I acknowledge that sibilance has been a source of complaint for some users of this cartridge.

Compliance

The dynamic compliance of the stylus is 20 cu (at 10Hz), which is on the borderline of medium and high compliance – I have classed it as medium-compliance above, as I think this cartridge is a safer bet for medium-mass tonearms. The cartridge certainly works very well on the medium-mass arm of the Pioneer PL12D. However, since at 7.2g it is a little heavier than the average MM cartridge, I imagine it could be used successfully on borderline low-mass arms.

Capacitive Load

The recommended range of capacitive loads for this cartridge is 150-300pF. Taking out cable capacitance, this suggests using a phono pre-amp of capacitance 150pF or less. I find that a setting of 150pF on my phono pre-amp (corresponding to a total of 300-350pF) makes the sound a shade crisper and more airy than 100pF. And a setting of 200pF gives similar results. So, this cartridge should sound good with phono pre-amps of capacitances in the typical 100-220pF range. However, if brightness troubles you, it might be wise to keep the capacitive load low, well within the manufacturer’s recommended range.

Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance in the range 150-200pF, but for a specific turntable it may be lower or higher.

Comparison

In my opinion, the Ortofon 2M Red provides very serious competition in the under-£100 cartridge market. In terms of dynamics, detail and separation of instruments, I’ve heard little to compete with it at this end of the market. The caveat is the treble may not work well in bright systems and with all tastes.

Comparing with the well-known Audio Technica AT95E, the 2M Red has a much bigger and punchier sound, but doesn’t have the inoffensive charm of the AT95E. The AT-VM95E (replacement for the AT95E) provides stiffer competition and may possess a more agreeable (warmer) sound balance for some listeners, but doesn’t have the sparkle, air and detail of the 2M Red. Having said that, the AT-VM95E is less than half the price of the 2M Red, which price-wise is in the same stable as the AT-VM95EN with nude elliptical stylus. I haven’t heard the latter, so cannot comment on how it compares with the 2M Red. The closest sub-£100 model I have heard that competes with the 2M Red on its own turf of dynamics and detail is the Audio Technica AT100E, but this has been superseded by (in my opinion) the inferior AT-VM520EB (which costs around £100).

The 2M Red is in stark contrast to the (now discontinued) Shure M97xE, which also retailed for under £100. The warm, comfy sound of the Shure is replaced with a sound that seems so much more alive in terms of dynamics and detail. But this is all down to taste.

Comparing with other Ortofons, the 2M Red is a typical Ortofon in its tight, agile, dynamic presentation, but is brighter than some of the vintage models, such as the F15E MkII. The OM10 would be its equivalent in the OM range and, again, the 2M Red’s delivery is bigger and livelier. The Super OM10 may rival its detail and dynamics, but the 2M Red perhaps has a chunkier sound (to match its looks).

It is a big step up in cost to the 2M Blue cartridge, at almost twice the price of the Red, even though they have basically the same body – the Blue sports a nude rather than bonded elliptical stylus but is otherwise similar to the Red in terms of compliance and tracking force. On the other hand, the Blue stylus is only about £50 more than the Red stylus. Therefore, trying the 2M Red and upgrading to the Blue stylus at a later date (perhaps when a stylus replacement is required) might be a sensible way of working up to the 2M Blue.   

Conclusion

The Ortofon 2M Red is certainly a very entertaining cartridge, providing a big, solid, spacious sound with good detail and excellent dynamics. The delivery is crisp and punchy across the entire frequency range, with a particularly nicely textured bass, and can be very impressive on well-recorded material. So why the divided opinions from other users? This is still a bit of a mystery to me. I have even wondered about the possibility of sample variations – perhaps I have a particularly good example, though I doubt it. The slight treble brightness is probably at the root of some people’s dissatisfaction with this cartridge. I would certainly counsel against using it in a bright system, although its sparkle and dynamics could be invaluable in pepping up a dull system. So, my advice would be to consider this cartridge seriously but proceed with caution, depending on your system and tastes.

If you need help with any of the turntable and phono-cartridge terminology used in this review, please visit the Terminology & Concepts page.