Listening #195: Ortofon SPU Century & Grandinote Celio

Easy pickup: Art’s Dog, Chatter, cozies up to Leif Johannsen of Ortofon A/S and Dee Hustinova of Ortofon USA. (Photo: Art Dudley)

According to the 2018 edition of the UN's World Happiness Report, Denmark is the third-happiest nation on Earth, trailing only its neighbors Finland and Norway.

I heard that yesterday afternoon, on NPR. The reporter even spelled out the word used by Danes to describe their feelings of happiness: hygge. Apparently, at present, Denmark is positively rotten with hygge.

But I was uncertain that I'd heard correctly. And I was dubious that the UN publishes such a thing as a World Happiness Report. I'd been listening to the radio while driving through Troy, New York (where hygge appears to be on back-order), so when I got home I did a Google search on Denmark-happy-hygge. Turns out it's all true. Even Oprah has been to Denmark in recent weeks, to report on the record levels of cozy contentment there.

I came over with the hyggenauts
Coincidentally or not, Denmark is also home to the oldest continually operating manufacturer of audio playback gear, Ortofon A/S (footnote 1), located on the island of Lolland. Ortofon was founded in 1918 as FonoFilm, and entered the domestic cartridge market in 1948. Since then they're been responsible for a disproportionately large share of Europe's total happiness exports, some of which I've sampled. I was in my early 20s when I bought my first Ortofon phono cartridge—a VMS 20E, which got a rave in Stereo Review (footnote 2)—and for the past dozen or so years I've always had in my possession at least one cartridge from their SPU (for Stereo Pick Up) line. SPUs are generally low-compliance, low-output things, and all but a rare few are configured as interchangeable pickup heads rather than as standard-mount cartridges (ie, a cartridge with two mounting bolts spaced 0.5" apart)—just like the vintage cartridges they continue to resemble.

In the 60-plus years since the line's introduction, Ortofon has never ceased making SPUs. Indeed, throughout that time, this happiest of companies has continued to tweak the SPU formula, judiciously applying some of the technologies they've developed in the making of other, more decidedly modern cartridges, while remaining dedicated to the SPU's most beloved characteristics: its well-textured and altogether substantial sound, and its extraordinarily forceful way of describing music's dynamic contrasts.

Last May, at High End in Munich, Ortofon celebrated their 100th anniversary by introducing three distinctive, limited-edition models: the Concorde Century ($700), the ultra-high-end MC Century ($12,000), and the model I found most exciting, the SPU Century ($5000).

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The SPU Century is a G-style (52mm from mounting collet to stylus tip) pickup head whose four signal-contact pins are aligned in what vintage phonophiles (ambiguity intended) call the SME standard—ie, it works with most contemporary tonearms to which interchangeable headshells can be fitted. The upper portion of its shell is made, by means of Selective Laser Melting (SLM), from aluminum, coated with diamond-like carbon (DLC). The lower portion of the shell, which takes the place of the usual SPU belly pan, is CNC-milled from Danish beech wood, and treated with a polymer that stabilizes the wood to prevent it from warping or cracking. The aluminum and wood pieces meet on edges curved to suggest the shape of the upper half of a violin or guitar laid on its side; also like a stringed instrument, the figuring and grain pattern of each SPU Century's beech-wood belly is unique to that cartridge.

Not only is the SPU Century fitted with a Shibata stylus—a hyperelliptical profile developed in the early 1970s and never before used in an SPU—but its suspension elastomers are optimized for that specific stylus shape and its behavior in the groove. The stylus is nude—ie, the (longish, in this case) diamond shank and tip are ground as a single piece—and mounted to an aluminum cantilever, the likes of which one sees in the vast majority of SPUs of any vintage. Also in keeping with SPUs of yore, the Century's motor uses an alnico magnet and a square coil armature made of soft iron. Specifications include an output of 0.2mV (that's low), lateral compliance of 8µ/mN (that's low, too), and a recommended downforce of 4gm (that's high).

I'm going through a cycle
In November 2018 I received a review sample of the SPU Century and almost immediately set about installing it. My EMT 997 tonearm is mounted to a bronze armboard, fitted to my Garrard 301 turntable's plinth in such a way that I can quickly adjust the spindle-to-pivot distance to suit the pickup head or cartridge in use. I mention that because, at first, I reset the tonearm position a little too quickly and carelessly, only to later find that extra setup time and effort are required to keep the Century's treble range silky smooth—this degree of persnickitiness demanded, no doubt, by the profile of that Shibata stylus. (For the record [ahem], I settled on a spindle-to-pivot distance of 318.8mm, with null points 62 and 111.5mm from the spindle center.)

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Even without break-in, the dialed-in Ortofon SPU Century sounded remarkable—dynamic, colorful, forceful, well textured but never harsh, and thoroughly engaging—from the first song I played: "Shadows," from Tony Rice's Native American (LP, Rounder 0248). As countless other music writers have noted, the better part of Rice's guitar tone comes from his hands, not the instrument he happens to be playing, and he brings to every one of his lines in this Gordon Lightfoot song a warmth and a buoyancy that are difficult to describe. Ortofon's newest SPU did more than just honor those qualities—it elevated them. I was shocked at how vividly Rice's guitar tone poured from my system with the straight-from-the-box SPU Century in place; more than once, I said as much to the empty room, with varying degrees of profanity.

In the days to come, the new Ortofon's highest trebles became ever so slightly sweeter—after the dialing-in described above, they were already quite agreeable—and its musicality only more potent. My Wagner love-fest continues unabated, the object of my recent affection being the recording of Götterdämmerung by Georg Solti, the Vienna Philharmonic, and Birgit Nilsson et al (6 LPs, London OSA 1604). With the SPU Century doing the honors, the spatial mysteries in those stereo grooves were unlocked to a degree that Ortofon's similarly recent SPU Wood A didn't quite manage. With the SPU Century, in Act III, iii just before Hagen enters the Hall of the Gibichungs with the news that he's killed Siegfried, Gutrune's (Claire Watson) movements across the stage as she sings "das ich zum Ufer schreiten sah?," and during her calls upstage to the absent BrÅnnhilde, were put across convincingly, as was Hagen's (Gottlob Frick) own entrance from far upstage, stage right. The SPU Wood A lacked that precision of location, and didn't match the Century's ability to suggest the stage depth captured in producer John Culshaw's remarkable 1964 recording.

Yet for all that added detail—which made itself known inconspicuously and, I dare say, naturally, as opposed to keening at me from within some etchy aural glaze—the SPU Century sounded no less well balanced, no less substantial and believably warm, than either the SPU Wood A or any other SPU of my acquaintance. The meaty glow of Wagner tubas endured, the singing voices weren't thinned, and in Siegfried's funeral music, the force of not just the drums but of the strings and brass as well was shockingly believable.

The new SPU also did a fine job playing what has become one of my favorite King Crimson albums, the live USA (LP, Discipline Global KCLP12). With the Century in place, in "Larks' Tongues in Aspic (Part II)," the note decays of Eddie Jobson's electric-violin solo (stage right) intermingled with the decays from Bill Bruford's drum kit (center and slightly upstage) in a way that made the space between the players sound convincingly big. (Because that may have been a stereo effect created during mixing—at the beginning of the song, Bruford's gong occupied precisely the same space as Jobson's fiddle!—I've avoided the word realistically.)

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But the goodness of the SPU Century went beyond mere stereo. Compared to the SPU Wood A, when I played USA with the Century, I found myself tapping my foot and moving in time with the music. Literally every element in the recording, even John Wetton's voice, was more compelling, and had a greater sense of momentum, of sheer drive, with the latest SPU.

Then there were those recordings that showed all of the SPU Century's strengths, none better than the Seldom Scene's Live at the Cellar Door (2 LPs, Rebel STRP 1547/48). With the new Ortofon, the very small space between the band and their fans was made clearer than ever before. Not just the singers, but individual voices from the audience had startling clarity and reach-out-and-touch-them spatial presence. The late John Duffey's mandolin lines leapt from the system, his characteristic odd timing honored and, again, elevated to the level of high art. And every voice and instrument had the right color, the right texture, the right heft. With the SPU Century, the group's performance of Phil Rosenthal's "Muddy Waters" was so spine-tingling that I had to lift the stylus and play it over again, this time with the lights out.

Deal of the Century
I can't recall how many different SPUs I've heard in my system: surely no fewer than eight or nine. All have offered at least very good performance, and two (footnote 4)—the spherical- and elliptical-tip versions of the SPU #1, which respectively sell for $599 and $659—offer extraordinarily high value. But the SPU Century was obviously something special: Notwithstanding its Shibata rather than spherical stylus and its high-tech body, this was the most vintage-sounding—the most SPU-sounding—of the modern SPUs that I've heard. To find out why, I called Leif Johannsen, Ortofon's chief officer of acoustics and research. I asked him about the whole hygge thing, too.



Footnote 1: Ortofon A/S, Stavangervej 9, DK-4900 Nakskov, Denmark. Web: www.ortofon.com. Ortofon USA, 500 Executive Boulevard, Suite 102, Ossining, NY 10562. Tel: (914) 762-8646.

Footnote 2: Not that that is in any way remarkable.

Footnote 3: See "Analog Corner" in the September 2018 Stereophile.

Footnote 4: Similarly great value is embodied in Ortofon's C 25 Di monophonic pickup head ($902), which sort of is and sort of isn't an SPU.

COMMENTS
Michael Fremer's picture

30 minutes into this Ortofon factory tour... https://youtu.be/qZViieA6OAM

Of course if you're an Ortofon fan you'll want to watch it all...

Anton's picture

I've been a fan since I got my first MC cartridge in the '70's.

I even bought the small round step up transformer they made.

I grabbed that Concorde Century just because I could! Solid fun.

Retail points are tough. If this were half the price, I could swing it. It strikes me as an "exit level" product, which I mean as a compliment.

Thanks for that review.

The review of the top of the line Century that Mr. Fremer did was drool worthy, as well.

Ortofan's picture

... a keeper?
Did AD decide to buy the review sample or shall it, perhaps, remain on a long-term loan?
Or, will a cartridge with a Shibata stylus never really be his cup of tea?

Anton's picture

I don't think I'd let it go.

Art Dudley's picture
I haven't yet sent it back—in fact I'm listening to the Century as I type this, and I'm still loving it. I can't afford to buy it, at least not this year, and I assume its limited-edition status will prevent the Century from being the sort of thing that Ortofon can allow to remain on long-term loan. Like the sunshine in early September, I'm soaking up as much as I can before it's gone :-)
dial's picture

I owned several MC from them, SL 20Q, paired with STM 72, MC 15 and I still have a high output X3 with Ortofon Headshell and an Arkiv Concord (the only MM from their production I've ever bought, used to copy vinyls not reissued). What I like most about it is the flat frequency reponse (unlike the DL 103 I use on my SME 3009/Thorens 318 combo).

Jack L's picture

...workmanship in its simple, single enclosure. " quoted Art Dudley

I can't agree more.

This "Handmade in Italy" preamp is tagged for USD9,000, like Italian high fashhon!

Most of the money gone to building the power supply, leaving little money for the amplification part: 2 transistors NON-symmetric design. Unbelievable !

IMO, such simple topology can be designed to be powered by type D batteries,
cutting down the hugh cost of the clumsy power supply. The main advantage is zero AC hum noise & zero ground noise, better sound !

FYI, my brandname MC head amplifier comprising multi stages, using discrete transistors in a FULLY symmetric direct coupled Class A single ended push-pull output topology. The wisest way to eliminate power supply hum noise & ground noise (critical for moving coil cartridge head amps) is powered by batteries. It costed peanut vs this USD9,000 "Handmade in Italy" phono preamp.

IMO, design approach & price tag needed to be revised !!!!!!!

Jack L.
Canada

dial's picture

The prices for supposedly ultimate high end phono have become unbelievable. And it's difficult to say why.

Jack L's picture

.. in order to let the preamplifier's volume knob function within a reasonable portion of its range." quoted Art Dudley.

What is "reasonable" portion of its range meant to you?

Jack L.

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