POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 24
Rondo Bronze cartridge
as reviewed by Larry Cox
Ortofon is one of the grandfathers of high-end audio. The company traces it origins to the end of World War I, when it pioneered the synchronization of sound to films. Ortofon didn't end up in the cartridge business until it re-organized to create record cutting and reproducing equipment. They made their first moving-coil cutter head (which may have been the first such), as early as 1945, which gives it about sixty years in the cartridge business. That's a long time, given that many consider Audio Research, Mark Levinson, and Krell to be the founders of high-end audio—by comparison, they are toddlers. While these companies have a cachet that suggests they are the gold standard of the industry, some audiophiles entertain conspiracy theories that suggest that breakthroughs in price and performance almost always come from ultra-small specialist companies, and dismiss the work of larger companies. They believe that established companies are so caught up in status quo, problem-solving thinking that they tend to put old solutions in new dresses instead of starting from the ground up.
While Ortofon has been around for ages, it remains a vital company, producing excellent products at more than reasonable prices. Their Jubilee and Kontrapunkt models have received raves from reviewers and from people who've owned many cartridges. One of the latter was the person whose recommendation was the basis for my requesting the Rondo Bronze for review. My interest in Ortofon grew out of an industry friend's glowing recommendation of the Kontrapunkt B. I was surprised. Although I'd never actually heard an Ortofon cartridge, the company seemed to me to be stuck in its ways.
My friend's recommendation was not trivial. Though my friend is not the unbalanced type, he is as discerning as the most nutty audiophile. In fact, he has a keen nose for the good stuff. His endorsement of the Kontrapunkt encouraged me to contact Ortofon to see what they had to offer. Anker Haldan of Ortofon suggested I try something from the new Rondo line, so I bit. Though the Rondo cartridges are new, they do not have the short and slim shapes that Ortofon introduced with the Kontrapunkts and the Jubliee. There are three Rondos: the Bronze ($849), the Blue ($699), and the Red ($499), each name describing the color of the cartridge body. The Rondos are a little more expensive than entry-level products, but they are easier to afford than an exotic cartridge like the Allaerts, or even Ortofon's top-of-the-line offerings.
Although all of the Rondo cartridges are constructed of a ground wood and resin composite and weigh about the same, each differs slightly from the others. Channel balance at 1k improves by 0.5dB as you go up the line to arrive at the Bronze's 1.5dB. The Bronze and the Blue share a channel separation of 25dB at 1k, improving on the Red's 22dB, and treble response increases in 5000-Hz increments from the Red's 30k to the Bronze's 40K response. All good numbers. The Bronze separates itself most clearly from the Red and Blue by moving from a nude aluminum cantilever to the Bronze's tapered FG80 aluminum cantilever (FG stands for Fritz Geiger)
All of the Rondos track at fairly heavy forces compared to other cartridges I've used, and a bit more than the industry average. Whereas my previous cartridges tracked well and sounded best between 1.5 and 1.8 grams, Ortofon suggests that the best performance of the Rondos is achieved between 2.0 and 2.5 grams, with an optimal tracking force of 2.3 grams. My listening supported this contention. I experimented with the lighter and heavier ends of the recommended tracking force. With a force of 2.0 grams, the bass was more amorphous and bloomy and a bit lighter in weight. At 2.5 grams, the bass was a bit overblown. The recommended force sounded best. Maybe these guys have been in business for sixty years because they know something.
I compared the Rondo Bronze to my Koetsu Rosewood, recently re-tipped by Van den Hul for a mere $287. For that price, I received a cartridge with a much finer tip than the Koetsu's original one. The finer stylus provided a much more detailed sound than I had been getting. The bass is now amazingly tight. The whole range is more detailed and precise. This cartridge doesn't sound so much like my old Koetsu, though it does retain a relatively rich sound, and while it still sounds very engaging, it doesn't have as much of the romance and sweetness of the original. With the excellent Audiopath 4 tonearm wire, I get an excellent sense of bloom and reasonably tight bass when it's on the recording.
When the Rondo Bronze arrived, I was really struck by the quality of the packaging. Ortofon seems to attend to all the details, large and small. Yes, I know that one doesn't listen to the packaging, but I was very impressed with how well thought out it was, and I presume that the same attention has been given to the design and execution of the cartridge. The Rondo Bronze is clearly not a product out of someone's garage. The pod not only allows the cartridge a protected storage place, but it looks good enough to place on a shelf to show off to your audiophile friends. The instructions were very complete, and you even get a handy little tracking force gauge.
Writing about cartridges is difficult because they are the last leg of a three-legged race. How far you get in the race to sonic satisfaction is determined by all three legs, but there is no way to tell how far the first two legs (the turntable and tonearm) have gotten you. You also cannot assess how well the cartridge will perform with other turntable/tonearm combinations. I also believe that cartridge comparisons on the same turntable and tonearm are inconclusive, because you don't know how well a particular cartridge is interacting with the rest of your LP playback system. The combination will either be serendipitous or not. Inserting a different cartridge merely tells you how well that pairing (actually tripling) works. It doesn't tell you anything conclusive about the characteristics of the individual components of the playback system.
While I can only generalize, I think it's safe to say that the Rondo Bronze will please music lovers, perhaps even tortured audiophiles. Why? It is a relative bargain, and it sounds nearly as rich as my three-times-as-costly Koetsu. Usually, when you get rich tonal color in a lower-priced cartridge (think under-$500 Grados), you get it at the cost of a lack of inner detail. Low-cost cartridges that give detail (think Blue Point Special) tend to have a lean sound that I do not find musical. The Rondo Bronze is sufficiently detailed that you'll not think you've been shortchanged.
The Bronze delivered many of those moments that audiophiles live for—the tiny details that conjure up a sense of the real event. On Artur Rubenstein's rendering of Edvard Grieg's Piano Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, I could perceive that the soundboard was the closely-situated source of the resonance of the hammered strings. Willie Nelson's Stardust was a real pleasure through the Rondo Bronze. Although the Koetsu gave a more immediate, yet relaxed sound, the Rondo gave a very good sense of the intimacy of the acoustic guitar and Willie's wan vocals.
The Rosewood's way with fine detail was simply more engaging, in indefinable ways. It was most obvious on smaller-scale music, less so on larger-scale music. A case in point was Linda Ronstadt's What's New, which was a bit more ripe, but less real, with the Bronze. With the Koetsu, Ronstadt's vibrato was more obvious, and more emotionally relevant to the recording, perhaps because the cartridge was more refined. The Rondo's treble was very satisfying, particularly the cymbals on Ry Cooder's Chicken Skin Music and On the Border. And while I didn't hear whole new vistas of top-end detail, I did hear everything about cymbals that I should have. In short, the top end sounded pretty darned good.
The dynamics of the Rondo Bronze are part of what make this cartridge special. Although I prefer my Koetsu for what I fear are audiophile reasons, the Ortofon proved more dynamic. In the opening of "Palomita" on Ry Cooder's soundtrack for the film On the Border, there's a high-pitched whoop. Through the Bronze, the whoop popped, and the person whooping sounded exuberant. With the Koetsu, the whoop sounded constipated. The same thing happened when the Mormon Tabernacle Choir entered after the solo voice in the chorale of Eugene Ormandy's Beethoven's Ninth with the Philadelphia Orchestra. With the Koetsu, it was just another sound entering the mix, but with the Rondo Bronze, the voices jumped in, as they should.
The Rondo's dynamic expression helped it provide a good sense of the pace and bounce of Van Halen's "Jamie's Crying," especially in the bass region. This is a fun track, and I loved how the Bronze played it in my system. The elastic quality of the bass line was a pleasure to hear, with no sense of dynamic constraint. The same was true of Ry Cooder's "Crazy 'Bout an Automobile," where the bass line perfectly complemented the amusing story of life without a car. The Rondo's bass was neither a weakness nor something I was jumping up and down about. It was there, it did its job, and the music was served. Maybe that's how it should be.
The Rondo Bronze images quite well, with better three-dimensionality than the Rosewood. It had particularly good front-to-back layering. My system, which is in our living room, is set up to balance convenience and music, so there may be more to squeeze out of the Bronze, but someone else will have to do it.
Although I can and would happily live with either cartridge, my preference is for the Koetsu. Though it is less dynamic, its fine inner detailing makes music that much more intimate, immediate, and riveting. The improbably full-sounding Rondo allows detail to shine through and provides more dynamic engagement. Loud, raucous music is better served than it is by the Koetsu. If you value tonal richness and dynamics, do not have a taste for hyped-up detail, but do have a taste for musicality, the Rondo Bronze is a terrific cartridge. Although Ortofon has been a part of the audio firmament for years and years, they still make excellent products. I, for one, am interested in sampling other cartridges in the line. The Rondo Bronze is built for musical satisfaction. Larry Cox
Rondo Bronze cartridge