Over the weekend, I picked up an Ortofon Red 2M cartridge for my turntable; since I've been picking up a lot of vinyl, I decided to do something I've never done in all my years of music buying—namely, buy a top-quality cartridge to see if I could notice a difference in sound.
Oh, I know that the Ortofon isn't up there with the $500-and-up cartridges that folks rave about, but it's still about two to three times what I've spent on cartridges before, and I wasn't sure if it would be worth the difference or not—but I figured the best way to find out was to listen to a couple of albums with the old cartridge, switch things out, and then listen to them again.
The test albums were Fleetwood Mac's Rumors (180g vinyl reissue), Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (1977 boxed set of Simon & Garfunkel albums, acquired used in VG++ condition), and Tracy by the Cuff Links (1969 release, original LP, acquired used in VG condition).
The difference was instantly noticeable. Both cartridges had a warmth to them, but the Ortofon had a richness on the upper end that the old cartridge (wish I could tell you what it was, but it was the original equipment with the Audio-Technica turntable, so I don't know—probably an Audio-Technica cartridge) couldn't approach. The crispness of the cymbals, the richness of the horns, the sharpness of the guitar—it all sounded incredible. The bass was there, just as strong, albeit a little more precise with the Ortofon.
What amazed me was how good the oldest and most worn of the albums sounded. Tracy is one of my favorite albums of all time; Ron Dante, the voice of the Cuff Links and the Archies, did some incredible vocal work on this album, and I still smile every time I listen to it. This album had a few visible surface scratches and scuffs—nothing deep or significant, but enough that I figured they should have impacted the sound. Both cartridged picked up a little surface noise in the space between tracks, but the vibrancy of the voices and the fidelity of the instrumentation was phenomenal. The album sounded "cleaner," if that makes any sense, with the Ortofon; it's like it had stripped away a decade of playing from the vinyl.
I'm quite pleased with the purchase, and I'm glad I decided to step up to a better cartrige. If you're interested, needledoctor.com has the cartridge and a Denon DP-300F automatic turntable on sale for about $425; it's one of the best combo prices I've found on a good automatic turntable and a quality cartridge. If you want to hear the best possible quality from your vinyl without crossing the $500 barrier for a turntable and cartridge, this is the way to go.