Ortofon A90 review.... wrong choice of gear

Hi all

Just had a QUICK read of the new Feb issue of HiFi World which was sent to me by a good friend. Why I ask myself?
I was interested in what they thought about the new Ortofon A90 MC. I own one like many other folk. It's a great cartridge and without being totally biased probably the best I have heard but then it is expensive. I also own a PW Windfeld which is the next model down and fortunately the reviewer compared the 2 cartridges... should make for a great and riveting read.

I read through the review and saw that he did not feel the differences between the 2 cartridges we large. I was really surprised because in my system the differences are MASSIVE! I continued to read on..... then he says that if you are using an Icon Audio phonostage it's not bad but it sounds better with a Graham Slee.


Who on earth would spend $4000 on a cartridge and use a basic $900 phono stage? Most of the folks I know that own cartridges above $2000 use phono stages that can get the most of their cartridge. It's no wonder the reviewer could not tell the difference between the 2 cartridges. If he had used a better phono stage and system he would have had half a chance of actually hearing the qualities of the cartridges. A hifi dealer would have told the guy... ' I wouldn't recommend you use a $4000 with such mediocre gear'....

Anyways, that is the state of play in this magazine, I can't imagine the manufacturer and distributor were that happy about it.
So let me get this straight. To appreciate a $4000 cartridge I need to spend another $4000 (pick a number) to appreciate it? Really? What a shell game this hobby can become if you let it.
While I understand and, to some degree, agree with your point about the price/performance issue regarding the reviewers phono stage, you seem to be glossing over the fact that many pieces of equipment perform well beyond what their price indicates. Perhaps the reviewer has auditioned several phono stages on his own and determined that his $900 performed just as well as a $4000 phono stage despite the MASSIVE price differential? The numbers that follow the "$" do not determine whether a piece of gear is mediocre or not. The sound in your system to your ears does.
Forget about the price of the cartridge. In my opinion the phono stage is THE most important part of the analogue chain. I would be far happier with a $4000 phono stage and a $900 cartridge then the other way around. But mate a $4000 cartridge with that $4000 phono stage and you will see what both are really capable of.

Of course, price is not the sole factor here - just making a point. Better equipment tends to cost more and is generally not fully appreciated until you pair it with equipment up to the same level of merit.
I think I haven't quite put the point across properly.

How can you find out how good the A90 is by playing it into a cheap phono stage. It's a bit like running a Mercedes C63 and using 92RON and cheap tyres. You just won't get the best out of it.

I'm not saying you need to spend $4000 on a phono stage but what I am saying is that to REVIEW a $4000 cartridge through a $900 phono stage is plain wrong - you'll never really know what the cartridge is REALLY like.
Everything that you say/type would be logical and would make perfect sense, such as your Mercedes/tire analogy, if the prices of high-end audio equipment were directionally proportional to their performance but that is just not the case in many instances. Prices for high-end audio equipment have in most cases become rather arbitrary with no correlation to their actual performance or built costs. This is all part of the "Great Audiophile Swindle" that many on this forum have fallen prey to. It was a totally different story in the high-end in the 80's when prices WERE directionally proportional with both performance and built costs for the most part, you always had marketing types like Mark Levinson then for overinflated prices but in general you got what you paid for back then; now that is usually not the case.
does anyone recommend splurging on the cartridge, with such relatively mediocre gear upstream? was a tt and arm adequate to the task used?
You are right, it makes no sense at all. I am using a $8000 + table, a $2200 separate phono stage and I paid no more than $400 of any of the cartridges I use. The Slee is not as good as my back up Dynavector 75 -2. The phono stage is going to limit the performance of the cartridge and if one cartridge is already better than the phono stage then a better one will make no improvement. The system is no better than its weakest link, which in this case is the Slee. When HIFICRITIC tested a group of expensive cartridges they used an Audio Note AN-S4 transformer into 3 different high end phono stages to get a broad view of the performance of the products being tested. This test is entirely useless. The Slee is not bad but its use here is entirely out of place.
I forgot to add that if he REALLY thinks the Slee is that good then completely disregard his reviews. In another HIFICRITIC test a higher end two box version of it was found to be significantly inferior to the Pro-ject Tube Box SE 11, which costs $695, about a third of the Slee units.
Another example of why reviews should be taken with a grain of salt and for entertainment value.

For the record (no pun intended) the table/arm are the foundation of any analog system, not the phono stage.
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What Rob is saying in my book is that the Ortofon A90 is the companies statement product, an all out assault on the SOTA in cartridge design and manufacturing. So he's right that it makes no sense to review it with anything but the best phono stages (for instance ARC, cj, Zanden, BAT, Ayre, Lyra, TW Acoustics, etc.) and to really hear everything this cartridge is capable of doing.

Otherwise, you're just going to hear everything thru the lowest common denominator and are you hearing the cartridge or the phono section? Would you put a SOTA cartridge in an inexpensive tonearm with lots of colorations and then try to ascribe a character to the cartridge? Not likely either.
Fact is, most reviews are worthless except to tell you the features of the product under test. You mention the phono stage, but I also have to wonder about the tonearm and turntable that were used, not to mention the linestage, amps, spkrs, wires, etc. I agree strongly that price is not proportional to quality, but in this case we have some other information to go on re the products in question. What you might take from this particular review is that this reviewer using this particular system cannot hear significant differences between two very expensive cartridges made by the same company. This is not at all surprising.
Yes and no. I agree with what you're saying because arm/bearing resonances can kill a cartridge's dynamics, etc. OTOH, designing a RIAA curve is no easy task either and low noise/high gain phono sections good enough to use with a low output A90 don't grow on trees either.
If he had used a better phono stage and system
I would add: "And had loaded the cartridges correctly".
I happen to agree about the phono, BTW. Not disputing the many qualities of the stage used -- but so many phonos seem to hover between mediocrity and boredom...
I only mentioned the phono stage because the reviewer pointed out the A90 sounded 'warmer' through the Slee.


All I am saying is that to hear how good the A90 is, is it not worth putting it with the 'type' of equipment it will be used with? I don't know about you but I heard that the Cambridge audio 640p was a good phono stage...I heard one in my system and it sounded CRAP! Compared to what I was using at the time, the Cambridge sounded.... well crap!
Some folks think the 640p is as good as if not better than the Slee units. I have found that after the TT/ Arm/cartridge combination the phono stage is a definite next big stage. I like many here have found that they can either 'hide' the cartridges capabilities or bring them out.
Things like RIAA accuracy which the mags 'bang on about' is irrelevent, because most stages are pretty much the same when it comes to RIAA specs. Like any amplifier, it's how the cartridge signal is 'processed' that makes the difference.

I think it was wrong to play the A90 though a cheap phono stage and 'hope' to really hear what it is like. The Slee like many other cheap units don't image that well, have a very limited sound stage and don't sound as 'real' as the higher-end products. So, playing an A90 through that will give you the wrong idea.
Dear friends: I agree ( one way or the other ) with almost all your posts so I don't want to be redundant about but touch a little different approach.

As are different reviewers levels as are different audio magazines levels.

On the England audio magazines HIFi Choice and especially HIFI+ are IMHO at the top level and HiFi World at the lowest one and border line " mediocrity " ( could be that even that the magazine is a medicre medium one of its reviewer/contributor can has a top level as happen with top level magazines that some of its reviewers/contributors are mediocre ones. ).
Why any one want to read an audio magazine that is deep on mediocrity? just for fun? or it is that the ones that read it are at that level? or because there is no other one to read?

It is clear to me that no one of you are HiFi World readers your audio level is way up to hat magazine. No one of you can take seriously a kind of review like that on the A90.

The problem IMHO is not people like you but the un-experienced ones that read that they can mate the A90 with a " poor " quality performance analog rig.
A function/target of an audio magazine is to be a " stage to learn ", an audio newbie can learn through those kind of reviews?: IMHO they can't, the ones that can learn are all of us because we can learn or confirm how don't do " things ".

Regards and enjoy the music,
I just bought the Feb Hifi World and have had a read of the A90 review mentioned in this thread.

I agree with Robm that you need to take a liberal grain of salt with the review and need to take the reviewers system into context. However there are some good points in the review.

Noel Keywood actually measures the cartridges he reviews. Noel has voiced his systems to be ultra smoooth - his words not mine

" The MC90 has an almost ruler-flat frequency response from 20 - 20khz within tight 1db limits. Its quite an amazing feat in its own and should result in super smooth, character free treble. For some listeners used to the more typical high frequency lift most cartridges possess, the A90 might sound a little recitent, possibly lacking a little sparkle"

The measurements are superb.

He compared the A90 to the Cadenza bronze, that by comparison offers a technicolor sound".

Interestly the 2nd opinion review says the A90 has clarity at the expense of body and he had to use it with the 900 pound Icon tube phono instead of the Slee SS phono as the tube phono seemed to complement the slight brightness of the cartridge.

So he we have the same A90 cart and in one system it is too warm and smooth, and the other too lean and bright. All the A90 is doing is highlighting the sound of each reviewers system. sounds like each system needs some balancing :-)

For me the A90 is easily the best cartridge I have heard and it is that lack of high end exageration that I appreciate the most. This enables one to get into the true transparency of the music better.

I just picked up a very lightly used A90 the other day.  I am using it with a fairly new Whest PS.30 RDT SE 2019 version phono stage and the turntable is the VPI Ares3 with a SME Series IV tone arm.  
Amps are Anthem M1 mono blocks, speakers Bryston Model T signature series fully active ready but using the super duty external PX1 crossovers.

My system is very resolving, it will reveal a lot of information and what I find is the A90 is quite outstanding in the detail it pulls from the vinyl. The low end is extremely powerful with highly detailed, fast bass response.  The upper range space is very open and wide.  I am very impressed.  The mids are silky.

What is particularly interesting is how the A90 plays based on VTF and Anti-skating settings.  With a VTF setting in the heavier side of the specified range (around 2.3 gm), it has much more body with very rich detail.  I played with the Anti-skating and set it in the range from zero, that is no AS up to the 2 gm area which is close to the VTF setting.  With no anti skating, there is massive dynamic output, the low end is just huge.  With the anti skating set to match near the VTF, up near 2 gm the upper end just comes to the forefront and the lower end thins out.

I found setting the Anti skating in the middle, right around 1 gm, I got a very nice balance of open sound stage and imaging with a lot of dynamic lower end power.  I did play with the VTA too, I found that had little influence on the performance, so I set it up with a very parallel tone arm position as SME suggests.  The VTF and Anti-skating play a huge roll in how the A90 plays; you can pretty much dial it in to the type of sound you prefer.   This cartridge is extremely versatile.

Could you explain what makes a $4000 phono stage so special ?
You can mate an expensive cartridge to a $400-800 SUT from the 80s and a nice modern MM phono stage, this combination is not over $2000 if you want something very nice, so why a $4000 phono stage? Have you ever seen what is inside the phono stage and how much cost the components used ? 

Would you say the same about a phono cable, do you need a $2000 phono cable then ? And what about a tuntable, $20 000 required ? 
Will a better high end cartridge sound better through a lower end phonostage? Probably, however, you will most likely never hear whats really capable of that cartridge on a mid priced setup. Same holds true for a moderately priced cartridge on that setup. If my table was 5K, my phonstage was 5K, i cannot see spending over 5K for a cartridge. Actually, I cannot see spending over 3K for a cartridge for that setup. The law of diminishing returns comes into effect.
Each phono stage is different, some of them will give you many options, some will give you nothing. There are MM and MC phono stages, but also only MC phono stages and only MM phono stages available.

It’s hard to understand what are you talking about because the price for a single MM phono stage will be different from the price for an MM/MC phono stage. If the last one is more expensive does it make it better?

Some decent SUT can be found for under $500 from Denon, Luxman and tons of great japanese manufacturers from the past. Some of the world best transformers ALWAYS comes from Japan. Remember transformers for tube amps?

A SUT and relatively cheap single MM phono stage will cost less than a MM/MC phono stage with high gain and optional loading, balanced inouts/outputs etc ...

Not to mention some unique design like CURRENT INJECTION phono stages.

When people referring to a price it’s very unprofessional.
A phono stage design is more important.

There always will be a phono stage that is more expensive that you have, all your life!

And same about cartridges, especially from Ortofon, each year there is a model that more expensive than previous model... and to infinity, a $15k cartridges etc. 
I feel fortunate enough to own a few decent cartridges. 

A few years ago I came across a great A90 from a dealer whose customer had to trade it in on an A95. I had it inspected and it showed no wear, and while hours could only be estimated, they were considered to be very low. Other cartridges i have are a Transfiguration Audio Proteus, a ZYX 4D, and a Denon DL-S1. Have had a lot of others from Benz Micro, AT 50ANV, Dynavector XX-2 MK II, Ortotofon original Windfeld/Cadenza Bronze/red/Blue, Blackbird, Koetsu Urushi. 

The A90 is unique in how it presents the top end, different than any other MC I have heard, with the original Windfeld being the closest match. The top end is transparent and as flat a frequency response as I have ever heard on a MC, and it sounds almost like nothing. The portrayal of space with this cartridge is excellent also, along with dynamic swing and bass response. Space in a recording can be huge with this cartridge, depending on recording of course. 

I do like the Proteus a bit more, it surpasses the A90 on detail retrieval, and the top end seems a bit more delicate but does not cross the line into being exaggerated. In some ways it seems to be the next step of evolution in how an A90 sounds. 

As a side note, the fellow I use who retips does not care for the diamonds on the Ortofon cartridges. He compares to the best Namiki he has access to, and the Replicant looks huge in comparison. Perhaps there is a way to improve upon the cartridge with an eventual retip. Just a thought to put out there. 
Among the Ortofon line i can recall one cartridge with very special top end i had in my system, the cartridge is Ortofon MC-2000, some friends noticed that too when we were listening tunes. The original stylus tip on MC2000 is SCL (a Symmetrical Contact Line), there is a hole paragraph about this diamond in the booklet for MC2000.   
a90 body is a wonder  of engineering with the laser melt process and I do enjoy the sound.I love proprietary.A prior poster mentioned price doesnt dictate a units quality and hes right.There are some very well designed units that dont  have the eye candy over built chassis that you pay for bring em home and open them and theres nothing in there.Its sad.Parts and engineering man thats what matters.Most of all it's what your ears prefer.But sure there truth and merit  to matching costs on each piece but it can be achieved for much less with a well designed piece where money went into parts and engineering rather than bling