02 August, 2010

Talk Vinyl: Ortofon Kontrapunkt C + H (Clearaudio Concept Part II )(Review)

Talk Vinyl: Ortofon Kontrapunkt C + H Part I (Clearaudio Concept Part II) (Review)
The world of MC cartridges is a vast one, where all kinds of personal taste and beliefs, many pseudo-scientific, even irrational, come into play. From my experience, as in most facets of audio reproduction, it is also where the law of diminishing return applies greatly. In my view (aside from rare exceptions of boutique cartridges that I am interested in) I'd prefer offerings from manufacturers who actually make their own cartridges (few), and not companies that have products OEM'ed to their spec's (many).
In view of that, it arguably makes sense to stay with something like Denon 103 for life. If you are a tweaker, more power to you, and I have heard great things about tweaked Denon 103. Caution though, not all tweaks necessarily wear well on the ears over time; tweakers by nature of their curiosity often tend to push themselves overboard one way and then the other, rarely content to stay in the hard-won (usually more accurate overall) comfort-zone. In other words, the biggest challenge to a tweaker is not technical, but knowing when to call it quits.
Is Ortofon difficult?
For my journey into MC, read my previous article.
You will note my uncomfortable start with Ortofon (MC15 Super II). But I do think highly of Ortofon the company. Frankly, I don't understand why their cartridges are not more popular. They are better made and value than much more expensive rivals that are the fad now. Perhaps this is because, more often than not, their cartridges require great patience in setup, especially experiments with loading options. My MC15 takes to low loading value like a fish to water, in fact the lower the better. Buying an old Ortofon "headamp", like the MCA-76 I recently acquired, is a relatively easy way to surmount the problem (I haven't tried their step-up transformers). Somehow, it just sounds right with the Ortofon cartridge . As I have grown to appreciate the clarity of my MC15 Super II, I have long wanted to try more Ortofon's. My recent visit to Avantgarde HK sealed my fate.
Bachian Counterpoint
Ortofon's discontinued Kontrapunkt series (replaced by the Cadenza) has garnered praise for over a decade. How could you not like the class of a company willing to pay tribute to BACH in this way? Indeed there is a counterpoint relationship between the four members of the family if you read the link. By chance I found out that the last two additions to this family, the Kontrapunkt C and Kontrapunkt H, are still available, at a very good price. Partly due to market positioning, these two were perhaps not as popular as the B and A in their days, but they both sport Ortofon's "Field Stabilizing Element (FSE)" as well as neodynium magnets, and hence are precursors to the Winfield and even the current A90. The H is the most anonymous of the lot, and there are few reviews on the net. The Kontrapunkt C on the other hand received many accolades, including TAS' 2008 Golden Ear (here is a TAS review).

When Kontrapunkt meets Concept
After I got the cartridges I could not wait to install them on the Concept.
The Verify arm has a very easy VTA adjustment and mounting was a breeze. It would be a royal pain on my other Rega arms. Please note that the bodies of these Ortofon's are very TALL, and some arms would not match.

I first swapped the Kontrapunkt H for the Concept MM.
In fact, I was very surprised to find that the contours of the top-plates and positions of the screw-holes uncannily similar. In fact, aside from adjusting the VTA, the Kontrapunkt H was a straight drop-in. After adjusting the counterweight, I found the cartridge to be already in 2-point alignment, no adjustments necessary. I really wonder if the Concept MM cartridge is made by Ortofon! After this, I could not resist to drop in the Kontrapunkt C, which, aside from a small variation in body-weight, required no further adjustments whatsoever. However, the Kontrapunkts are sensitive to tracking weight and alignment. Small adjustments are amply audible.

One caveat, the pins of the Ortofon's are recessed into a small compartment. If your cartridge pins have thick heat-thrink protective tubings around them (as on my arm), the fit can be very tight and care needs to be taken not to damage the wirings and pins while maneuvering in the tight space. Be careful.

Sonically, suffice to say while both Kontrapunkts are excellent in detail retrieval and liveliness, the C is simply more resolving, and I chose to re-install the H and run it in first. So far, the H did not seem particularly "composed" or "calm", as the literature would have it. While it lays out excellent recordings superbly, it is not so tolerant (yet) of lesser recordings, and so it is a little more ruthless than I'd like. The outputs of these Kontrapunkts are a healthy 0.47, while the internal impedances are a low 5 ohm. Whether these low compliance cartridges really suit this "unipivot" arm remains to be determined. As for loading, I am experimenting (including doing without); it is a piece of cake on my EAR 912, but more work, and less precise, on my Nagra PL-P (I have not yet tried the MCA-76). They do not seem unduly fussy, as some of their stablemates can be. Although I don't have that many hours on them, I am convinced of the excellent sound of these cartridges. At current clearance prices, they are value for money (compared to expensive cartridges, not to Denon), and I think the C is much more than that. Should you be interested, please contact sales Jeff Yip of Avantgarde HK.

Although the materials used in the Concept are quite acoustically dead (vertically knocking on the plinth creates no disturbance), the TT proves to be very sensitive though to what it's placed upon. While it is rhythmically savvy, and sounds mightily fine on simpler music and vocals, on large-scaled works I did notice loss of composure when the going gets rough. I suspected this was partly due to the glass surface on which it is placed. I sandwiched in-between a piece of cheap composite wood board (from PriceRite) I happen to have around. I am sure that's not the last word, but
the improvement was substantial.

A few more things about the Concept. Surface noise, regardless of the cartridge used, seemed a little higher than what I am used to; perhaps some more fine adjustments are in order, despite the apparent alignment. Also, the anti-skating adjustment is beneath the arm board and not calibrated, which makes adjustment a harzardous affair. This shall be disconcerting to some and of no consequence to others.

When Concept meets Champion
I briefly compared the two. There is little question they sound very different. The Concept, with any cartridge on it, has innately better rhythm and pace. But the Champion, equipped with Rega RB250 (Origin-Live basic structural mod) and Ortofon MC 15 Super II, remained quite a bit more composed on large-scaled material. How much of this is due to the TT or the arm remains to be determined. One of the projects would be to swap the armboards and the arms, but that requires quite a bit of work, and won't materialize until I finish running-in the Kontrapunkts and tweaking the Concept. The goal is to improve the drive of the Concept and the rhythm of the Champion.

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