Going For Gold Page 2

After an hour or so of fiddling about, I mustered up enough courage to subject my discs to 3g of playing force. You know, swarf city and all of those other snappy remarks I used to make when selling someone a stylus for a BSR flip-over job. Ah, what's £4.99 against the adventure of finally hearing the legendary SPU?

In keeping with the spirit of things, I took The Incomparable Ella out of its sleeve, immediately cueing up the sublime track, 'The Very Thought Of You'. Returning to my seat, I turned to the speakers just in time to hear the first notes.

lt was Time Machine stuff all the way. I was expecting Joe McCarthy followers lingering through the '50s' dying gasps to burst in and call me 'pinko'. I had visions of Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody (sorry, gang, but I spent the Eisenhower years in the country over which he presided) and pink-and-beige two-tone cars and pony-tails. Very odd, I thought, and no doubt due to the age of the recording.

So it was out with some material of more modern times. The damned thing worked the same spell on various bits of reggae, a lone heavy metal cut, some techno-pop, and other post-digital recordings. The effect was the same: pure romance. A moving-coil Cartland. Or Barbara Cartridge if you prefer.

Sweet Sounds
The Ortofon SPU Gold is a real marshmallow. It's more more-ish than a box of Bahlsens, like all of those sweets that you know won't do much good for your waistline, but so what? Fat and gooey and positively embraceable, turning all the music into David Hamilton prints, with sepia added just in case a rough edge wants to rear its ugly head. It's audio's answer to rose-tinted spectacles and I can see why this thing is so popular in Japan.

I suppose that, in latter-day purist terminology, the SPU is a dumb cartridge, but to pass that judgement is to deny the right to personal taste. We're supposed to drink red wine with meat, but plenty of people prefer white at all times.The SPU is not 'correct' by today's standards, for it adds so much to the sound; either that or certain records that I've played on 20 or more different systems have all been played on 'incorrect' systems.


But I don't quite think so. I'm pretty sure that there's only so much ambience on Record A, so much 'bloom' on Record B, so much shimmer on Record C. The SPU Gold makes the Human League sound, well, human. lt makes all those remarks from solid-staters about valves' artificially-induced atmosphere seem positively insignificant compared with the way they'd have to describe the fairy-godmother effect of the SPU.

Because that's what it's like. Take it out of your set-up and the system turns into a pumpkin. I've got this crazy notion that anyone raised exclusively on the sound of the Ortofon SPU would kill in the presence of an Asak, a CD player, or an AKG-P8ES. On the other hand, anyone used to any of those three items would wander around, if faced with the SPU, muttering 'Who disconnected the tweeter?'.

Back To Reality
The only way to come to terms with this cartridge is to see what it does in your system. I'd just love to hear it through Stax Electrostatics, or through some amplifier that's lean to a fault, or with recordings from a certain Memphis studio that always sounded like someone forgot to switch the Dolby decode on during mastering. The SPU is unique, and it deserves the patronage of those who really do want to get away from the spit and sizzle of The System. And if your snooty magazine-reading acquaintances criticise you for buying this outré device, you can tell each and every one of them that they wouldn't have their prized MCs if not for the SPU.

To get back to reality, we thought it would be nice to hear what Ortofon's 1984 flagship sounds like in comparison. (The SPU is not the cartridge that Ortofon considers to be its current definitive statement.) Ortofon kindly loaned us an MC2000 and the T2000 transformer. The T2000 was a must, as it just may be the only booster with enough gain to turn 0.05mV into a usable signal.

In its own way, the MC2000 has a lot in common with the SPU, though sound is not one of the similarities. While it tracks like a bloodhound at 1.5g and is built with as much care as the SPU, it weighs a lot by today's standards (though its 11g makes it seem like a featherweight next to its grandaddy) and needs careful matching. Still, it's hard to believe that – a quarter century difference aside – these two products come from the same factory.

If the SPU didn't jar so much with my conditioning about heavy tracking forces (I do think that 3g-plus is a bit high) I could live with it. If the MC2000 didn't present such a naked picture – if it were any more analytical, it could be nicknamed 'the Freud' – I could revel in its ultra-low distortion, near-total lack of coloration, and de Sade-like authority. As for the former, I'm sure a learned text about the durability of vinyl could sway me. As for the latter, a steady supply of perfectly pressed LPs, an Audio Research D-70 amplifier, and a pair of Staxes would make the MC2000 most inviting.

Going Gaga
Unfortunately, I choose to remain an outcast, though I can see why the vast majority of 'serious audiophiles' go gaga over MCs. You forgive me my tube-y colorations, lack of deep bass, and whatever Deccas are supposed to do wrong, and I'll forgive you the spit-and-sizzle of solid-state gear and the inescapable detriment of MC boosters.

Either way, I think the SPU should stay in production forever. It's the only audio device I can name that lives up to the true meaning of 'nice' without any of the damning-with-faint-praise connotations that word has acquired. The Ortofon MC2000 is tonic for the brain – the SPU is tonic for the soul.