Ortofon 540 MkII / Vinyl Master Silver

Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Nude Fritz Gyger
Compliance: High
Price: £275-325

Background

Having been impressed with the Ortofon 520 MkII and wanting a top-of-the-range Ortofon, I set my sights on the Ortofon 540 MkII, the flagship of the 500 series of cartridges. The cheapest way to obtain one was to buy a used 500 series body off eBay and a new stylus. In some countries, the 540 MkII is marketed as the Vinyl Master Silver and I ended up buying a Vinyl Master Silver stylus from William Thakker in Germany, as it was the cheapest option at the time. The stylus has a Fritz Gyger profile. I have used this cartridge on my Technics SL1200 Mk5 and Rega Planar 3, and this review is (largely) based on using the cartridge on the latter.

Equipment

Turntable: Rega Planar 3 (R200 S-shape arm + Ortofon SH-4 headshell)
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 200pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

My expectation was that the Ortofon 540 MkII (aka Vinyl Master Silver) would be even better than the 520 MkII (aka Vinyl Master Red) that I already knew and loved. But was it, and would the significant price difference be justified?

Treble: The treble is incisive and highly detailed, yielding an open and expansive sound. Whilst it is delivered with a good degree of refinement, perhaps crispness and sparkle take precedence over delicacy.

Midrange: The mid-band is also open, clean and detailed, giving good texture to midrange instruments. Happily, relatively little fuss is made of sibilant vocals, which is probably down to the fancy stylus.

Bass: Bass quality is excellent – tight, punchy, textured and nicely extended. Relative to the other bands, however, the quantity of bass is not quite as generous.

All of the frequency bands undeniably offer great quality, with superb resolution and clarity. But as a whole, the sound can be a little overwhelming. On my Technics SL1200 Mk5, I found the sound highly dynamic and detailed to the point of being analytical, with a bright balance that could prove tiring. The Rega Planar 3 dampens things down a bit, but I would still put the balance on the bright side of neutral. There is a focus or precision to the sound that some people will love but others may not – some may deem the sound to be too sharp or clinical. Without doubt, this is a very entertaining and impressive cartridge, but subtle it is not – perhaps important to consider when parting with your £300.

Tracking

The tracking-force range for this cartridge is 1.25-1.75g with a normal value of 1.5g but I use a setting of 1.6g. The amazing clarity of this cartridge right across the frequency spectrum suggests excellent tracking ability. The handling of sibilance on vocals is also impressive but not amongst the absolute best, although experimentation with different alignment regimes may bring its rewards.

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 tracks extremely well on medium-mass arms, so remains an option for both low-mass and medium-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

First of all, how does the 540 MkII compare with the 520 MkII? Well, they are similarly detailed and dynamic cartridges, and are obviously from the same stable. The 540 MkII is a little more explicit with detail but, in my opinion, the 520 MkII offers a happier, more neutral balance with a slight shift from the treble towards the bass.

In terms of price, the nearest MM cartridge from another brand that I own is the Goldring 2400, which is a little more expensive than the Ortofon. While the Goldring doesn’t have the initial wow-factor of the Ortofon in terms of sheer detail and excitement, it offers more refinement and delicacy, particularly in the treble, as well as a mellower overall balance. As such, it is an easier listen, while the 540 MkII is a more ‘in your face’ type of cartridge.   

Availability

The Ortofon 540 MkII is no longer promoted by Ortofon on their website, having been replaced by the 2M Black. It is not generally available in the UK, although it appears to be still available from selected dealers in Europe as either the 540 MkII or Vinyl Master Silver – for example, William Thakker in Germany stocks both editions. However, the 540 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 540 MkII is apparently available under the Music Hall brand with the name Music Hall Mojo. However, the price of this edition is slightly higher than under the Ortofon brand.

Conclusion

Make no mistake, this is an impressive cartridge with a stunning ability to retrieve detail from the groove, resulting in a lively, well-etched sound. With the 540 MkII, you may notice aspects of your favourite music that had previously passed you by. As such, this cartridge will appeal to detail freaks who favour a very explicit presentation of their music. Those who prefer a more relaxed and subtle presentation should, however, look elsewhere. I would also advise against using this cartridge in a bright system, while I imagine it would nicely augment a dull system. My personal preference is for the 520 MkII which shares the dynamic and detailed nature of its sibling but with a more agreeable balance and cost.