Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Bonded Elliptical
Price: Mid-priced (vintage)
I stumbled across the Ortofon F15E MkII quite by accident. Soon after my return to vinyl, an F15E turned up with an unused Japanese-made aftermarket stylus in an eBay lot of cartridge parts. Out of curiosity, I gave it a try and was amazed by the results. At the time, I was mainly using the (tad woolly) Shure M75ED and the F15E came as something of a revelation in having a much more precise sound, closer to what I had become accustomed with CDs. This motivated me to seek out a genuine Ortofon N15E stylus and I bought a NOS MkII example from William Thakker in Germany. While I have used this cartridge on different turntables, I now use it on my Pioneer PL12D MkII, on which this review was conducted.
Turntable: Pioneer PL12D MkII with Technics-clone headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 200pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050
The Ortofon F15E MkII was a poor relation of the famous VMS20E MkII in that it had a similar VMS body but only a bonded elliptical rather than nude elliptical stylus (although the F15E wasn’t actually that much cheaper than the VMS20E). I was therefore expecting an inferior performance from the F15E, but I’ve since learned that cartridges are not always so straight-forward.
Treble: High-frequency delivery is crisp and clear, with a good level of detail, and gives air to the sound. The treble makes an important contribution to the precise sound of this cartridge but isn’t too forward and is unlikely to prove tiring.
Midrange: The mid-band has nice body, and is again clear and open with a decent level of detail. It gives vocals good presence and texture, and sibilance is handled reasonably well.
Bass: The bass is forward, punchy and assertive. Deep bass is a strength of this cartridge and lends impressive weight to the sound. The bass is generally of extraordinary quality, especially at the price – taut, agile and reasonably textured. It allows the cartridge to navigate fast-moving rhythms with ease but without bass weight suffering.
The above elements come together to produce a very pleasing whole, the overall character being a clean, tight sound with a relatively neutral balance. Some may perceive the balance as slightly warm, due to the prominence of the bass. The deep bass certainly gives weight to the sound but there is a solid feel across the entire frequency spectrum, right through to the upper-treble. Detail is also nicely portrayed across all the bands, although this is not a highly detailed, analytical cartridge. The excellent dynamics add significantly to the entertainment value of this cartridge, but are not over-bearing. While the F15E works well with all types of music, I find that its tight, punchy, agile presentation is well-suited to fast, 1980s electronic Pop. The main criticism that can be levelled at this cartridge is that there is occasionally a hint of hardness and lack of subtlety on some material. It also doesn’t have the sweet and charming personality that some cartridges have, but this is a minor quibble. It seems to me that the F15E was an exceptional budget/mid-priced cartridge which most listeners would find very satisfying and entertaining.
The tracking-force range for this cartridge is a relatively wide 1.0-2.0g and I normally use a setting of 1.5g. The clean sound suggests a competent tracker (with the original stylus). Sibilance is generally handled well, although the worst cases do trip up this cartridge.
The dynamic compliance of the original stylus is 25 cu (at 10Hz), so high-compliance and suitable for low-mass tonearms. However, my experience is that it can work excellently on medium-mass arms. With a third-party Technics-clone headshell on my Pioneer PL12D, the effective-mass of the arm is probably in the region of 20g, so towards the upper end of medium-mass, yet this combination produces excellent results.
The recommended capacitive load for this cartridge is 400pF. I set the capacitance on my phono pre-amp to 200pF, resulting in a total capacitance of 350-400pF (after adding in cable capacitance), so not far from the recommended value. Here, the sound is very nicely balanced.
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.
When I first discovered the Ortofon F15E MkII, much of my experience with Ortofon cartridges had been with the classic VMS20E MkII, which has a similar body but a supposedly superior (nude) elliptical stylus. I was therefore shocked that the F15E sounded better (to me). While the VMS20E may sound a little more refined, it does not have the punchy, crisp sound of the F15E, which I find much more entertaining.
In the current Ortofon 2M series, the equivalent of the F15E is the 2M Red, also with a bonded elliptical stylus. I have found the 2M Red to be an impressive performer, with a very dynamic and detailed delivery for a budget cartridge, but I feel that it lacks the wide appeal of the F15E. The 2M Red can sound aggressive on bright material, while the F15E takes a more conciliatory stance. In fact, the balance of the F15E is probably very close to the sweet-spot for many vinyl lovers.
In terms of other contemporary cartridges with a similar sound, Ortofon’s own OM20 (but not Super OM20) comes quite close to the F15E, but even better. However, the OM20 is a more expensive option with a nude elliptical stylus.
For high-mass and medium-mass arms, the budget Audio Technica AT-VM95E delivers a weighty, dynamic sound in the same ballpark as the F15E. However, I feel that the F15E has the edge in terms of balance, definition and overall quality.
The Ortofon F15E MkII is no longer available to buy new. It is not difficult to achieve one with a used cartridge body and a good-quality aftermarket stylus, but there are complications to look out for.
Ortofon’s F series and FF series bodies are similar to the VMS series bodies (and they all use the same VMS technology). To an extent, the VMS/F/FF styli are interchangeable between VMS/F/FF bodies, with the following proviso. The stylus has a (plastic) plug at its rear which goes into a socket in the cartridge body. This plug has one of several different profiles, the most common ones being the H shape and hour-glass shape. Thus, the plug-shape of the stylus must match the socket-shape of the cartridge body. The F15E employs the hour-glass shape, as do the VMS series cartridges, shown on the left in the image below.
The stylus on the right in the image is an F15E MkII stylus sporting a hybrid plug-shape of the H and hour-glass. One assumes that this hybrid profile was introduced later to alleviate interchangeability issues, allowing more flexible matching between VMS/F/FF styli and bodies. To avoid a potential mismatch between stylus and cartridge body, it is therefore wise to purchase a stylus with the hybrid profile. The Thakker Japan N15E MkII stylus appears to feature this profile.
The Ortofon F15E MkII has proved a very accomplished cartridge across the full frequency range, with great dynamics and definition in all bands. Its deep, forward bass gives it a big, solid sound, while its clear, crisp treble adds a sense of space. The overall balance is certainly very pleasing to the ear on virtually all material. This cartridge deserved to be a classic, although it never really made this status. It is a highly entertaining performer that I could certainly live with on a permanent basis. I now wish I had known how good it was in the 1980s.
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