Ortofon VMS20E MkII

Type: Moving Iron (MI)
Stylus: Nude Elliptical
Compliance: High
Price: Mid-price (vintage)

Background

The Ortofon VMS20E MkII is a ‘classic’ vintage cartridge from the late 70s and early 80s. It is probably Ortofon’s best-known Hi-Fi cartridge. With its nude elliptical stylus, it occupied the second-to-top position in the VMS range and is often regarded as representing the ‘sweet-spot’ of this range in terms of performance/cost. I have a lot of history with this cartridge. When I upgraded to a Rega Planar 3 turntable in the early 80s, the VMS20E MkII was the cartridge recommended by the Hi-Fi magazines for this deck. Looking back, this was actually an odd recommendation for the medium-mass S-shaped tonearm of the Rega, as the high-compliance VMS20E warranted a low-mass arm. I kept my original VMS20E until the late 80s and I now have this model back in my cartridge collection, with a genuine NOS stylus. I have used this cartridge on different turntables but this review was conducted on a Technics SL1200 Mk5.

Equipment

Turntable: Technics SL1200 Mk5 with Ortofon SH-4 headshell
Phono Pre-amp: Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL (with 250pF capacitance)
Amplifier: Yamaha A-S501
Speakers: Q Acoustics 3050

Sound Quality

The VMS20E MkII was a mid-priced cartridge in its day, sporting a nude elliptical stylus deemed superior to the bonded elliptical or spherical styli of budget cartridges. The expectation was superior sound quality.

Treble: The treble is relatively soft, even a little suppressed. As such, it does not reveal a great deal of high-frequency detail or air, but gives the sound an easy, inoffensive character. The treble is unlikely to be hard on your ears and can take the edge off bright recordings.

Midrange: In my opinion, there is nothing special about the mid-band – it is just OK. It has decent body and is reasonably open, but does not unearth much in the way of midrange detail. A slight hardness can sometimes be detected in the upper-midrange. Vocals can also suffer on sibilant records.

Bass: While the bass is very much in evidence and is well-extended, it is not particularly textured. It has good weight but with a slightly soft feel. However, the bass output is certainly invaluable in giving this cartridge a full sound.

Bringing the above frequency components together, the result is pleasant, if unremarkable. The overall sound balance is on the warm side of neutral, with decent bass output topped with a restrained treble. Dynamics are fair and, as for most Ortofon cartridges, delivery is quite tight. The net effect is not the most open, expansive sound, but polite and easy-going. I imagine many people love this cartridge for being easy on the ear with no major nasties.

An optional capacitor, the Ortofon CAP210, was available for the VMS MkII cartridges. I have found that this capacitor can be used on the VMS20E to achieve a more satisfying sound, albeit with a higher than recommended load capacitance (see Capacitive Load).

Tracking

The tracking-force range for this cartridge is 0.8-1.2g, with a normal value of 1.0g. The main tracking issue is a less than ideal handling of vocals on sibilant pressings, although this is not a major issue. Nowadays, I tend to use a tracking force of 1.1g, as I have convinced myself that this focuses/firms-up the sound a little and helps the sibilance situation.

Compliance

This cartridge has a dynamic compliance of 25 cu (at 10Hz), making it a high-compliance cartridge suitable for light tonearms. I have been using it in an Ortofon SH-4 headshell on my Technics SL1200, with an effective arm-mass of around 14g, so towards the low end of medium-mass. It is possible that a low-mass arm will coax a better performance out of this cartridge.

Capacitive Load

The recommended capacitive load for this cartridge is 400pF. This review was conducted with a phono pre-amp capacitance of 250pF, bringing the total capacitive load (including 125pF cable capacitance) to ~375pF, just below the recommended value. A capacitive load not far from the advised value could be achieved using a phono pre-amp with a capacitance of 200 or 220pF, of which there are many on the market.

Ortofon introduced an optional 210pF capacitor, the CAP210, to modify the frequency response of the VMS MkII cartridges – this capacitor is a small card that lodges between the pins on the rear of the cartridge. It was designed to help bring the total capacitive load to around 400pF (evidently for cases in which the phono-stage and cable capacitance were very low). However, I have found that incorporating the CAP210 with a 200 or 250pF phono-stage capacitance actually improves the sound – it is hard to pinpoint the exact nature of the improvement but it probably comes from a slightly more textured delivery, from which the midrange notably benefits. The results are rather nice, adding charm to the sound. This brings the total capacitive load up to 585pF (which was not the original intention of the capacitor).

Note that the above assumes a phono-cable capacitance of 125pF for the Technics SL1200 Mk5. This value may be higher (likely) or lower for other turntables. Typically, a value in the range 150-200pF is assumed.

Comparison

When I bought my Rega Planar 3 with Ortofon VMS20E MkII back in the early 80s, I was ‘upgrading’ from a Yamaha YP-511 turntable fitted with the Shure M95ED cartridge. I remember the first album that I played on the Rega/Ortofon was “Crisis, What Crisis?” by Supertramp. It sounded possibly more refined than the Yamaha/Shure but not as exciting. Not wanting to deviate from the recommended Rega/Ortofon combination, I persevered with it and got used to the sound, to the extent that I kept the VMS20E until the late 80s when I replaced it with the Ortofon 520 that superseded it.

In more recent years, I have been exposed to a diverse range of cartridges. While I don’t see the VMS20E MkII as providing a very dynamic and exciting sound, it is a fairly safe and sober option for those who want something easy on the ear. Ortofon’s own OM20, 520 MkII (aka Vinyl Master Red) and 2M Blue offer a similar nude elliptical stylus with more dynamic and detailed delivery.

So in the modern age, we cannot turn to Ortofon to reproduce the mellow tones of this cartridge. Possibly the nearest candidates in this ballpark for lighter arms come from the Grado Prestige range. For heavier arms, the Audio Technica AT-VM95 range may offer viable alternatives.

Availability

Ortofon stopped making the VMS20E MkII a long time ago, but it was a popular cartridge and used examples can be easily picked up on the secondhand market (try eBay). In fact, the bodies of the VMS range of cartridges are similar, so a VMS10E or VMS5E body should also be a possibility. Most of the value is in the stylus, so a used cartridge (with or without a worn stylus) can be picked up quite cheaply. Ortofon also ceased production of their replacement stylus for the VMS20E MkII several years ago, so users of this cartridge may now have to resort to aftermarket styli – while I haven’t tried them myself, I believe the Jico and Thakker Japan editions to be reasonable replacements.

Conclusion

The Ortofon VMS20E MkII offers quite a polite, mellow sound with a gentle handing of high-frequency content that gives it a relatively pedestrian character but makes it an easy listen. The weighty bass is certainly an asset in its favour. However, I don’t believe that this cartridge extracts anywhere near the maximum amount of information from the groove and it is now a bit of a mystery to me as to how it became such a classic. I guess its warm, easy-listening sound had wide appeal, but it is not a cartridge that I would now choose to use on a permanent basis, as there are more exciting options on the market.

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