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Positive Feedback ISSUE47
MC-1 Turbo phono cartridge
as reviewed by Ed Kobesky
If you give a great chef average ingredients, it's likely you'll still get a pretty good meal. But if you give great ingredients to a moron, you've got about a 95% chance of eating something on a shingle. Which, believe it or not, brings me to the Ortofon MC-1 Turbo. Like a lot of today's budget cartridges, this $175 gem is very goodóbetter, in fact, than some top-of-the-line cartridges from not all that long ago.
But back to the analogy. Think of your turntable as the chef and the cartridge as the ingredients. A great cartridge can't make a bad turntable sound good, but a great turntable can get a lot of music from an overachieving cartridge. The surprise for me in this case was exactly how much performance can be wrung from a low-priced moving coil like the MC-1 Turbo.
Yes, it sounded quite good on the Rega Planar 3: dynamic, smooth, a little polite at the very top of the frequency range but by the same token, not at all screechy or hard. However, when I mounted it on a recently arrived Avid Diva II with Jelco SA-250ST tonearm ($2495; review forthcoming) I was very pleasantly surprised at how much more this unassuming little bugger is capable of. The MC-1 simply doesn't hit the end stops as quickly as some other cartridges, especially moving magnets, in its price range.
It's easy to install. While it doesn't have threaded screw holes like Ortofon's similarly-priced 2M Blue moving magnet ($199 reviewed here in PFO), it's not especially fiddly compared to the competition. The square front and sides aid in roughing in the alignment before careful fine-tuning. The only downside is that, at a scant 4.1 grams, it's very lightweight and may not balance in some arms without the use of accessory weight. Output is a very healthy 3.3mV, high enough for virtually any moving magnet phono section.
On the Avid, the MC-1 was a lovely performer, bordering on seductive at times. It extracted a lot of detail from records and did so with a notable lack of coloration. Cymbals were delicately presented, and without any harshness. Vocals were full-bodied if not exactly rich. Strings and woodwinds had good attack and proper decay but perhaps more importantly, accurate timbre that made them easy to distinguish. Horns were vividly portrayed and lacked relatively little bite. The MC-1 also handled sibilants exceptionally well, like a cartridge many times its price. It was also surprisingly capable of sorting out complex musical lines in the background of a performance.
The Avid wants to layer the music, but the Ortofon won't quite let it. The result is capable soundstaging, but some images aren't exactingly scaled (especially on orchestral pieces) and without the pinpoint placement of more expensive cartridges. Ambiance was good, except at the highest frequencies, where the perhaps too-soft sound sometimes choked off the air around a cymbal or a triangle sound, leading to a perceived lack of transparency. It's not the quietest cartridge in its price range, but noise is acceptably low, especially on a turntable where it's low to begin with. The overall impression is of commendable top-to-bottom balance.
Dynamics were another strong point, and only when confronted with really big music did the MC-1 reveal its modest price point. It could sound audibly strained when pushed. Bass wasn't bottomless, but still detailed, punchy and certainly in proportion to the rest of the frequency spectrum. It's not the world's most expansive sounding cartridge, but the presentation is enveloping enough, albeit from a back row perspective.
Tracking was acceptably good but far from the best in class. The MC-1 has a chunky cantilever and a basic elliptical stylus, so it left some music on the record, perhaps in exchange for smoothness. Heavily modulated passages could lead to audible distortion due to mistracking, which I first heard while spinning "Tomasi: Concerto For Trumpet & Orchestra/Jolivet: Concertino No. 2 For Trumpet" by Wynton Marsalis (CBS Masterworks IM 42096). Stepping up to the $275 MC-3 Turbo, with its nude fine-line stylus, may improve this somewhat.
The MC-1 liked riding level with and parallel to the record surface. Tracking force may require some experimentation, since it can sound edgy if tracked too lightly, and bloated if tracked too heavily. If your toneram doesn't have a full suite of adjustments, you might find it difficult to optimize.
After racking my brain for something genuinely bad to say about it relative to the competition, this is the best I can come up with: it has a silly name. Okay, okay, it doesn't throw a giant soundstage like a Denon DL-160 ($180) and it doesn't track nearly as well, but it can also be more engagingly dynamic. It doesn't rock-and-roll like a Benz Micro MC20E2 ($215) but it's more subtle. The Dynavector 10x5 ($430) did everything better, as it should for more than twice the price.
Still, in its element, the MC-1 is so goodódetailed and dynamic yet listenableóthat it makes it possible to spend the majority of one's analog budget on a turntable and arm. A cartridge like this will get you by until you can afford something better. I listened to it for a long time on the Avid, a table that clearly deserves much better, because the pair didn't do anything distractingly wrong except for the occasional mistracking.
The Ortofon MC-1 Turbo is a good cartridge for anyone with a small budget but great expectations. If your system is too reserved, you might find it overly polite. On the other hand, its balance and general neutrality make it a good match for a wide range of applications. Treat it like a high-end cartridge, and it will perform more than a little like one. Ed Kobesky