Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Nude Elliptical
Compliance: High
Price: £150-175

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Background

I bought the Ortofon 520 to replace the Ortofon VMS20E MkII on my Rega Planar 3 in the late 80s. The 520 actually got relatively little use, as CDs were rapidly overtaking vinyl in my musical listening. In addition, I wasn’t especially taken with the 520, which probably aided my migration away from vinyl towards CDs. However, after renewing my interest in vinyl, I decided to bid on a new 520 MkII stylus on eBay to fit to my existing cartridge body and this changed my opinion of the cartridge quite radically. I still use this cartridge on my Rega Planar 3, the combination on which this review was based. It should be noted that the Ortofon 520 MkII is sold in some territories under the name Ortofon Vinyl Master Red.

Equipment

Turntable: Rega Planar 3 (R200 S-shape arm)
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 200pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

My original Ortofon 520 was a decent enough performer, with impressive treble clarity and detail, but I found it a little bass-light, yielding a bright and even thin overall balance. However, the 520 MkII stylus redressed this balance.

Treble: High frequencies are clear, crisp and detailed, providing a feeling of space and atmosphere. The treble is bold and adds a degree of sparkle to the sound, but rarely over-steps the mark.

Midrange: The mid-band is also wonderfully open and clear, with a nice level of detail/texture that brings good presence to vocals. Sibilant vocals are handled reasonably well.

Bass: The bass is very punchy and goes down deep, giving body to the overall sound (that was lacking with the MkI stylus). A good deal of texture is evident, even at this end of the spectrum. Low-frequency delivery is also tight and agile with an impressive handling of transients, making bass-lines easy to follow.

Basically, the MkII stylus transformed my 520 into a cartridge with an extremely captivating sound, principally by beefing up the bass. The 520 MkII has a solid and assertive presentation throughout the frequency spectrum. The overall balance is neutral but the cartridge excels at the frequency extremes, from deep bass to crisp treble. Detail is pretty abundant in all of the bands, but without becoming analytical. One of the cartridge’s strongest attributes is its dynamics, with the punch of the bass bringing significant weight to the sound, but all the bands are dynamically strong, allowing the music to breathe and individual instruments to sing out from the mix. The cartridge is also a tight and fast performer, following rhythms with ease. In fact, its whole presentation seems effortless and it is, in this sense, an easy listen. However, this cartridge is not for those who favour a warm, laid-back sound and it won’t smooth out rough recordings. On the whole, the 520 MkII is a highly entertaining performer that extracts music from the grooves with great skill and at reasonable cost.

Tracking

The tracking-force range for this cartridge is 1.25-1.75g with a normal value of 1.5g. I tend to favour a tracking force of 1.6g, as I believe that this brings extra definition. Tracking is obviously very accomplished, judging by the clean and detailed sound that this cartridge can produce. While the handling of sibilance on vocals is not the absolute best, it is quite acceptable and does not cause unnecessary irritation.

Compliance

This cartridge has a dynamic compliance of 25 cu (at 10Hz), which means it is a high-compliance cartridge suitable for low-mass arms. However, the cartridge performs wonderfully on the medium-mass Rega R200 arm (with effective mass of about 16g) and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for good-quality medium-mass as well as low-mass arms.

Capacitive Load

The recommended range of capacitive loads for this cartridge is 100-400pF. I use a setting of 200pF on my phono pre-amp, bringing the total load capacitance (including cable capacitance) in the region 350-400pF, so towards the top end of the recommended range. However, the cartridge performs well at lower capacitances and is suitable for use with phono-preamps of a wide range of capacitances.

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

The astute reader may have noticed that my example of this cartridge is a 520 MkII stylus fitted to a MkI body. However, I am not aware of any internal electrical differences between the MkI and MkII bodies. On the other hand, the MkII stylus seemed a noticeable improvement to me over the original MkI stylus.

Sonically, the 520 MkII is actually not a million miles from the Ortofon 2M Blue, the equivalent model (with nude elliptical stylus) in Ortofon’s current 2M range. Perhaps the 520 MkII has a slightly fuller sound, but they are quite similar in terms of dynamics and detail. The sound of the 520 MkII is somewhere between that of the Ortofon OM20 and 2M Blue in terms of balance – listeners requiring a touch of warmth may favour the OM20 or 520 MkII over the 2M Blue. The 520 MkII can still be bought new on the Internet (see Availability below). 

Availability

The Ortofon 520 MkII is no longer promoted by Ortofon on their website, having been replaced by the 2M Blue. It is not generally available in the UK, although it appears to be still available from selected dealers in Europe as either the 520 MkII or Vinyl Master Red – for example, William Thakker in Germany stocks both editions. However, the 520 MkII stylus is widely available in the UK and elsewhere, so the cartridge can be easily assembled by purchasing a new stylus and a used cartridge body, which commonly come up on eBay. In fact, the cartridge bodies of the whole 500 series (510, 520, 530, 540) are the same, so any body from this series will do the job.

In the USA, the Ortofon 520 MkII is apparently available under the Music Hall brand with the name Music Hall Magic 3. However, the price of this edition is somewhat higher than under the Ortofon brand.

Conclusion

This visually boring little black-box of a cartridge is actually quite a performer. The Ortofon 520 Mk II is a great entertainer, with a formidable ability to translate the music in the groove into a detailed and dynamic sound delivered with ease. Its well-balanced sound with good attention to the frequency extremes will please many listeners. Only those who prefer a relaxed, soft and warm presentation of their music should avoid the 520 MkII. If you are seeking a vivid, exciting sound, this cartridge represents excellent value-for-money and is well worth considering. It has become one of my personal favourites and, in my opinion, has been sadly overlooked in the cartridge market.