Ortofon’s £95 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge comes bundled with many entry-mid level turntables. As such it may well be your first introduction to vinyl replay. And as I found when reviewing Pro-ject’s Debut Carbon EVO recently (here) it performs well, negating any doubts I had about the cartridge being slightly bright (I previously had one on an old Thorens 160S turntable – with hindsight my phono amp was probably the culprit). Basically as a package the Debut Carbon EVO and 2M Red justifies the moniker of ‘proper’ turntable.
What to do if you want something even better though? Particularly if you’ve enjoyed the 2M Red but want higher performance. Step forward the 2M Blue. A £189 / US$239 / €199 purchase if bought separately. A £149 / US$209 / €169 option if you already have the 2M Red; you get the Blue stylus and swap it into the Red body.
The latter was the route I took here. It made it easy to swap cartridges back and forth to compare them. I was already familiar with the sound of the 2M Red on the Debut Carbon EVO turntable courtesy of the review. And using the same LPs to assess the 2M Blue maintained consistency.
After having done it a few times the changeover from Red to Blue took about 5 minutes, including checking the tracking force (both need the same 1.8g). Allow more first time though, your fingers get ever so close to the delicate stylus assembly.
The cartridge body without stylus
Red & Blue – the differences
Both cartridges share the same body, hence the ability to upgrade by switching out the stylus assembly.
In the 2M Red the stylus is an elliptical diamond, bonded to a shaft made of titanium. In the 2M Blue the stylus is a nude elliptical diamond, meaning there’s no titanium shaft, the whole thing is diamond. The 2M Blue also has a better rubber suspension (Ortofon produces its own rubber compounds so knows the characteristics and benefits of each).
And that’s basically it; better stylus, better suspension. Those translate on paper to the 2M Blue having a more accurate frequency response and improved tracking (the ability of the stylus to follow the troughs and peaks of the record groove accurately).
To complete the 2M picture, moving up the range there’s also the 2M Bronze, Black and Black LVB250. All of which share a body that differs from the Red/Blue one in having silver-coated coils rather than just copper ones. But, like the Red/Blue, you can upgrade the stylus to go from Bronze to Black.
You can also put a Bronze or Black stylus into a Red/Blue body. You won’t get the benefit of the silver-coated coils. Henley tells me the upgrade in performance is still significant though. Think of it as a half-way house.
For a fuller explanation watch this informative video from Ortofon’s chief designer, Leif Johannsen (who I’m hoping to meet at the UK HiFi Show Live at Ascot in September.)
Enough of the engineering, what does the 2M Blue sound like? Mounted in the Debut Carbon EVO it played into a Musical Fidelity M2si amplifier (£700), Klipsch RP-600M II speakers (£700) and REL T/7x subwoofer (£999).
First up was Hans Theessink’s ‘Slow Train’ from the album of the same name. The 2M Red captured the natural sound well (no reverb was used in the recording). I then switched to the digital version via a NAD CS1 streamer. Better clarity ensued, musicians more rooted in the soundstage, a more confident sound. Not by much, both analogue and digital sounding great. The differences were apparent though.
In went the 2M Blue and wham, out went the walls of the studio; the soundstage grew notably bigger. Depth in particular was better, the overall level of realism significantly enhanced. The sound was also more precise, bass in particular much firmer. At the macro level the music had more zip and the musicians seemed tighter as a unit – as if fully warmed up, into their groove. The improvements weren’t difficult to hear, nor were they subtle. The system was playing on another level.
As confirmed when switching to the digital version of the track through the NAD CS1. I thought the 2M Blue might just have the edge sonically. Not a bit of it – analogue comprehensively trounced digital on this track, bass in particular sounding almost muffled through the CS1. Elsewhere the differences were smaller, but the 2M Blue definitely had the upper hand; Theesink sounded more articulate, the acoustic was more real, there was more detail. Overall the magnitude of the differences surprised me.
Next up was Nigel Price’s ‘Cariba’ from Wes Reimagined, a track that swings big time; keeping still whilst listening ain’t an option. The 2M Red and NAD CS1 both sounded very close to each other, more so than in the Debut Carbon EVO review (which used the same amp & speakers but no subwoofer). Digital was slightly clearer and had the edge on dynamics. The 2M Red was more natural, musicians less like facsimiles, more like real people. I’d easily live with either option; the 7 minute track got played right through several times, there was no chopping and changing.
Enter the 2M Blue. Sound quality jumped, the benefits of the previous digital and analogue versions seemingly combined and then advanced a notch or two. Dynamics were impressive, Tony Kofi’s sax had a bite to it that was wholly appropriate. Overall there was more detail to be heard, the subtle interplay between consummate professionals laid bare to admire. And everything was more precise, more organised. When the track swept to a Maceo-Parker-style crescendo (think: cacophony) the 2M Blue was impressively composed, never losing control.
When I reverted to the digital version through the NAD CS1 the differences were perhaps not as great as first heard. But, a slight sterility crept into the sound, a flatness. Detail was reduced, and the busy crescendo section wasn’t handled as impressively. The 2M Blue on the other hand sounded explicit whilst retaining the corporeality that analogue enthusiasts champion.
I then checked a couple of tracks ‘bookmarked’ in the Debut Carbon EVO review. Elton John’s ‘Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy’ played right the way through without developing the 2M Red’s slight harshness in the louder passages. Conversely Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ from Dark Side of the Moon was still decidedly coarse in the chorus; clearly the problem is in the recording. In both cases the level of detail the 2M Blue retrieved from the complex mixes was impressive though.
And finally, whilst Alfred Brendel’s solo Schubert Piano Sonatas might appear to be simpler music, the piano is a difficult instrument to capture well. Particularly when subjected to Schubert’s huge dynamic swings. The 2M Blue tracked the music well, conveying the almost percussive nature of the music as well as the acoustic space it was recorded in.
Leif Johannsen says the technical improvements to the 2M Blue should result in more precision, better dynamics and greater resolution. Which is what I heard. He didn’t say how significant the improvement would be though. Extended listening only enhanced my respect for the cartridge.
Twenty years ago I bought B&W Nautilus 802 speakers but had to compromise slightly on the electronics to afford them. They sounded magnificent, like nothing I’d ever had at home. I never quite got the best from them though, they deserved a better amplifier.
I got the same feeling with the Debut Carbon EVO turntable. Sporting the bundled 2M Red cartridge it sounded great and delivered much pleasure. It fully deserves the Hifi Starters Best Buy award we gave it.
If you’re serious about vinyl then do consider the DCE with a 2M Blue though. The better cartridge showed the turntable was capable of much more, the extra precision and control beating digital at its own game (at least with the streamer I was using). To which was added an altogether more realistic depiction of the musicians and the recording space they were playing in – the trick up analogue’s sleeve.
£189 for the complete 2M Blue cartridge seems eminently reasonable. If you have the DCE with a 2M Red, then £149 to unlock this much extra performance is a no-brainer. Just don’t audition it if you can’t afford it, there’ll be no going back. All of which means the Ortofon 2M Blue is an obvious Hifi Starters Best Buy.