LINK: Ortofon MKII MIX | Price: $195/€149/£135 per pair
LINK: Ortofon MKII CLUB | Price: $335/€269/£235 per pair
USER GUIDE: PDF
A NOTE FROM THE EDITOR
Before we get going, after discussions with Ortofon, we’re only reviewing the opposing ends of the new Concorde MKII range. Why? Well firstly much of this epic piece stands true for every model in the range, with the differences being more nuanced, technical and specific to particular use cases.
So rather than confuse the issue a bit with a much longer review of each model in the new range, Drew is instead focussing on how well the entry level Mix and top end Club compare to the old ones, to each other, and to key competitive cartridges. Having the entire range in one review would potentially make a clear article inarticulate and messy, and take away from the most important issue — what is new and different about the MK2 line. There will be more reviews of the rest of the line in the future, but for now we wanted to focus on what matters, as clearly and concisely as possible.
We give you the detail and opinion you need — the rest is down to you to decide if you feel the Concorde MKII is for you.
All photography courtesy of Drew Bach aka ProfessorBX.
I have to admit, I had a hard time figuring out how to start out this review. It’s not that the cartridges aren’t great (they are) or that I don’t have a lot to say about them (I do), but it was somewhat hard to convey exactly how special I thought this project is, or how significant. And then……then Shure decided to discontinue making cartridges. Having written the first Shure reviews back in the Skratchworx days, as well as a Stanton cartridge roundup, it was a somewhat sobering reminder of how rare new phono development is happening in this day and age. As well, if you do see a new cartridge, it is often either an OEM job, or simply a line extension with some minor tweaks.
Looking around at comments on various announcement articles around the web of the new line, there are a lot of questions regarding everything from how much of an improvement are they to compatibility with the old line. Being sent the least and most expensive models in the line (the Mix and the Club), I wanted to not only compare them to the outgoing models of the same price, but the rest of the line above their particular price points. If the new models are simply an improvement over the outgoing models it can be expected, but how do they compare with models that cost way more? Let’s find out.
The two models we will be covering here are the Mix and Club. At $99 and $169, they sit firmly at the lower and upper end of the new Ortofon line. Unlike the old line, there are no “OM” versions. While this may put off some DJ’s who like to have a headshell mounted cartridge, having a simplification of the number of SKU’s is smart, and leads to less confusion overall.
The Mix is considered to be the general workhorse of the line. At 6mV output, 20Hz-20khz and 2-4g tracking, the specs are firmly in the middle of the pack for DJ cartridges (for Ortofon or any other DJ cart). What is however not middle of the pack is the tracking ability. At 100μm, the Mix, on paper at least, should stick as well if not better than the previous scratch king, the Ortofon Qbert model. Given that this is a “budget” option, color me intrigued.
The Club, on the other hand, is not a scratch needle. As it has an elliptical stylus, the Club is intended to have the highest quality of sound, at the expense of scratchability (as record wear is increased when performing back cue and scratch movements due to the elliptical shape). This isn’t to say however that you cannot back cue or scratch, as the tracking ability is still the same impressive 100μm of the Mix. At 8mV output, 20Hz-20khz and 2-4g tracking weight, the Club’s specs are standard for what you would expect in a high-end club cartridge. If you need to have the highest quality sound but only need to do light back cueing and scratching, this could be a good option to go for.
Heavy metal and Flubber
Ortofon has always prided itself on the fact that it actually produces its own rubber for its suspension. Why is this a big deal? Given that one of the big reasons that Shure had to cease production of its product line in part because of lack of ability to purchase quality materials (such as rubber) from 3rd parties for phono products, it’s cool to know that Ortofon has in-house control over what is arguably one of the most important factors in tracking ability.
Ortofon has long been proud of its innovations in suspension. Classic wisdom in cartridge suspension dictates that if you follow some basic rules, you should have decent tracking ability. Rubber doughnut, not too stiff but not too bouncy, etc. If you cut open a stylus from pretty much any manufacturer, you will likely find a similar looking piece of rubber across the board. Even the vaunted S-120 has a similar design, albeit in an asymmetrical configuration.
Taking a look at the Mix VS the Qbert styli side by side, what is immediately apparent is that the color/composition of the rubber is different and forms a clean seal around the cantilever in a way that the old suspension did not. Ortofon has made a completely new formula for the line, providing greater tracking ability as well as having a net positive effect on sonics and tracking force. TLDR — the rubber chemists at Ortofon worked their butts off to improve suspension on this line and it shows. As an extra bonus, tracking ability was improved without asymmetric suspension, which, while innovative was not as easy to produce in the volume needed for a full-line change.
Additionally, the cantilever (the “needle”) has been completely reengineered, being both stiffer and lighter while decreasing the cantilever wall thickness compared to prior generations of Ortofon DJ cartridges. This all means that even on the low end, frequency response, phase and stereo separation are improved at the same price points.
Compared to previous generations, the engine (aluminum body containing the copper coils, etc.) has been improved, though I wasn’t able to get as much clarification of the changes from Denmark as I was the other under the hood changes (guess they still need to keep some secret sauce). There are also clips to hold the new styli in place, which is a really smart change. As such, you cannot swap the new styli onto the old Ortofon line, and vice versa. While some folks may be irritated about this, please keep in mind that according to the fine folks in Denmark, the older generation replacement styli will remain available for years to come. I’m sure Ortofon would love for you to switch when you are ready, but they don’t want to force you.
One interesting change in behavior resulting from these changes is the actual lateral movement of the cartridge compared to prior generations of Ortofon cartridges. Whereas past generations were fairly rigid in their tracking (cartridge and stylus moved together) when scratching, the new models behave with more of a “push-pull” sidewinder movement. The behavior reminds me a lot actually of how the Shure 44-7’s stylus behaved when scratching. As I know the suspension of a 44-7 very well (having dissected a few in my company days at Stanton), the actual configuration is nothing like a Shure, but this change in behavior is very interesting just the same. Given that the 44-7 has been discontinued, some switchers might find this change familiar and maybe slightly comforting.
Arms and Legs
Worth a mention is the change in the Ortofon lifter arm. Even the most vocal of Ortofon fan would admit that the old arm was, while incredibly cool from a design perspective, a major weak point. Not only was it a bit on the fragile side, but if it broke you couldn’t fix it. The latest generation now has replaceable arms, that are also swappable. You can order replacement arms in any currently available color, making customization now a possibility. It’s a small change, but as a sneaker nerd, I think it is arguably one of the coolest.
One cool thing about these new cartridges is the break-in period, or lack thereof. After getting used to having to break in overnight or over a few days, being able to use the Mix and Club out of the box was a very nice surprise.
Testing wise, I went with s-arm turntables (Stanton ST-150m2’s), as honestly, while I do love straight arm turntables, I didn’t feel it would be a good reflection of potential tracking ability if I was stacking the decks with the original skip proof mod. As well, while the Mix would have been A-OK on my old Stanton Str8-150’s, the Club would have been a bad choice, as elliptical styli and straight arms don’t mix due to the underhung record tonearm.
Comparing the Mix and Club to past generations of Ortofon, the differences in tracking were slight in some instances, and somewhat vast in others. I decided to do the majority of my testing on real vinyl and not DVS, as tracking is less of a concern in relative mode. Even when one is scratching in absolute mode, little things like track content, volume and even the material of the record can have a dramatic effect on tracking that you won’t find in the consistent groove depth and shape of your typical DVS record’s smooth time code pressing. Too loud a kick can cause a needle to skip when scratching when compared to a cowbell, and if you are using something like a dub plate or picture disk, your tracking will be reduced even further potentially. That said, I did test with Serato, Traktor and Rekordbox as well, and any findings here apply to DVS.
So, without further delay……
Mix VS DigiTrack — no contest. The DigiTrack held well, but sloppy scratches that the DigiTrak would skip with made the Mix laugh. (If a cartridge were capable of laughter?)
Mix VS Qbert — dead even. I noticed that the Mix did hold SLIGHTLY better with harsh Uzi’s, but not noticeable enough to crown a king for this one thing. One thing of note, the Qbert’s ability to handle tracking forces out of the recommended range was not nearly as good as the Mix — go out of bounds by a few grams, and the Mix was pretty well unchanged in tracking ability, while the Qbert started to fall apart a bit after around 2 grams extra. When using timecode, this was even more apparent, as the scope window stayed pretty evenly shaped on the Mix for a few extra grams of weight, but the Qbert’s scope became misshapen after only a couple extra grams of weight. (Good for situations where you may have not had time to perfectly balance your tonearm, or even for newer DJ’s who have yet to learn that more weight is not better most of the time)
Mix VS S-120 — again, dead even. On paper, the S-120 does track better, but in practice I really dare anyone to find a difference. The S-120 can handle higher tracking force than the Mix, but interestingly when exceeding the recommended weight and scratching with my classic Skratchworx picture disk (which is a dub plate made with a much softer material than normal records), I noticed that the Mix was causing less audible cue burn than the S-120. (This could be due to some sonic differences between the cartridges however, as the S-120 is very mid-forward).
Club VS Gold — while not comparing the Club to the Mix tracking wise, as they do have a different audience entirely, I wanted to do an apples to apples comparison with what held the record for most expensive (and arguably legendary among certain DJ circles) Ortofon DJ cartridge, the Gold. Given that the Gold was for some strange reason used by Rafik for his DMC routine, I was also figured that it might be worth seeing how much scratching I could do at all. Anyway, I found out a few things….one, that I am not nearly as talented as Rafik, and that I could pull off scratches on the Club that I couldn’t on the Gold. While extra cue burn over the Mix was indeed an issue, it wasn’t as bad as I have been taught to fear.If I were going for sound quality first but wanted to pull off some very basic scratches (such as with rare groove 45’s, etc.), I might actually consider the Club whereas I wouldn’t the Gold.
Sound quality is personal and highly subjective. The things I like are not what others do. As I get older, the things I liked about the sound of a 44-7 for instance are now the things I dislike (the sizzle and boom), and I like to listen to a more balanced sounding cartridge. While there are some constants such as stereo imaging and instrument seperation, your results may vary. These are my subjective findings.
Turntables — Stanton ST-150m2
Mixers — Mixars Duo and Traktor Z2
Monitors — KRK VXT8 and Tascam VL-S5
Headphones — AiAiAi TMA-2 Young Guru, Beats Pro, B&O H6
Mix VS DigiTrack — Mix had a slightly wider soundstage. DigiTrack seemed to have a little bit more midrange emphasis, though that could be my ears playing tricks on me based on what I think it SHOULD be. Even though the DigiTrack has, on paper, a higher output level, volume was pretty even.
Mix VS Qbert — Qbert was louder by a noticeable amount, but also has more sizzle and boom. Good for scratching, but if I’m being honest, the same issues that I have with the sound of the 44-7 apply here as well. While I do appreciate the fact that my scratches cut through more with the Qbert, I found myself thinking all too often that my records for listening sound overly EQ’d in a way that I don’t particularly like.
Mix VS S-120 — S-120 was a bit louder and had a more clinical sound profile overall. Stereo imaging felt slightly wider on the Mix, but there seemed to be more midrange in the S-120. Depending on your preference the S-120 might win as far as choice for listening, as the Mix felt more “mellow” and enjoyable for listening overall compared to the almost ruthless level of detail that the S-120 can have at times.
Club VS Gold — Fairly close, more so than I would have expected. The Club sounded like a very natural evolution over the Gold, with increased detail, wider soundstage and bit more volume. The upper midrange and treble content was the most interesting to me, as the Gold has a bit more sizzle in the highs without sounding overly harsh. Depending on your preferences this might be a plus, as it is a pleasing hint of slight distortion that added to the immediacy to the music I listened to. This was most noticeable on my older jazz, punk and rockabilly records, as the Club sounded detailed, accurate and clear, while the Gold’s bold upper register gave a sense of excitement at the expense of precision. With all that however, the Club’s improved soundstage and volume makes the overall winner in my book. (Editors note: One thing to note, the Gold, while sharing some family heritage with the original Nightclub, was not a recolored Nightclub E MK1. So, while this is an appropriate comparison, it isn’t the same as a test against the original Nightclub.)
Club VS Mix — Surprising no one, the Club sounded better. More detailed, slightly louder, more pleasing. Stereo imaging was closer than I would have thought, but instrument separation and detail was noticeably better with the Club. If I were picking a cartridge that could be my only option for both home listening and DJing in a venue sans scratching, the Club would win out with its extra detail and instrument separation.
The thought I kept going back to in testing the new cartridges is that, to get the most out of testing I was going very old school. So many buyers of the new line will likely never listen to vinyl for pleasure, sticking with DVS. In my testing, I was listening to a collection of records that I dug for over the years, getting enjoyment that I had almost forgotten about. An interesting aside is that my testing finally got me to get an extra turntable for my living room, as I had forgotten the simple joy of putting on a record away from a DJ setup. In that regard, I have to thank Ortofon as they had the guts to engineer a completely new line of cartridges at a time when market choice is rapidly shrinking, inspiring me to listen to records in a way that I have not in a long time.
Ortofon could have simply done an improvement on a nearly 40-year old design, but instead engineered a line that are made for DJ’s of today. That alone is commendable. And, given that even the “cheap” option is an improvement in many respects over higher end choices of the past, it is worth looking at the line even if you are a current Ortofon user and not just a switcher.