Cartridge Fidelity Shootout: Ortofon 2M Red vs. Denon DL-110
The path to audio nirvana can be a slippery slope. It seems to be the general consensus that anybody can get 95% of the way there on a modest budget, but it's in chasing that last 5% where people lose their minds, along with their wallets. Barring a Powerball win, I don't ever see myself getting out of hand with hi-fi equipment, however, that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the occasional upgrade.
Over the past month or two, I noticed the sound slowly deteriorating on my trusty Ortofon 2M Red cartridge. Things that were once very rare occurrences, like sibilance and inner groove distortion, became an almost every record affair. The overall detail that I loved with the 2M Red, was just gone, and in its place was an overwhelming, harsh playback. And on top of that, it was going on three years of heavy use, so all signs pointed to its inevitable retirement.
Never having the need to shop around for a new cartridge before, it was hard to know where to start. The easiest route was to purchase a new 2M Red replacement stylus, but where's the fun in that? Another obvious choice was the 2M Blue stylus, Ortofon's next step up in the 2M line, which would've saved me a hassle of installation, as it conveniently slides right onto the Red's cartridge body.
After a couple weeks of almost pulling the trigger on a 2M Blue, I eventually decided to go an entirely different direction. I wanted my vinyl to sound as fun as possible, even if it was at the expense of every detail being pulled out of the grooves, which is amazing if you're in the mood for that but can also suck the life out of the music if you're not. With this in mind, I eventually happened upon the Denon DL-110. Every review was glowing, and the common theme was how much "fun" it was - just what I was looking for. I was quickly convinced that this was the next cartridge for me and ordered one off eBay for less than a 2M Blue would've cost, and almost half the DL-110 retail price of $300. It did, however, ship from Hong Kong, but the seller's feedback was pristine, and for that type of discount I figured why the hell not? Like clockwork, it arrived a week later in mint condition. A win-win!
Now for the not-so-fun part of actually installing the Denon. You can watch very thorough videos on Youtube all day long, but I'll give the quick rundown. First, and most importantly, you have to make sure you're feeling especially patient, because this is something that cannot be rushed. Grab a beer (maybe two), and dig up the correct tools to make life easier. After you've settled into a zen state of mind, the next step is to remove the current cartridge. Make sure the turntable is unplugged, then use tweezers (or fine-tipped needle-nose pliers) to carefully pull out all four color-coded connectors on the back of the cartridge. Once this is done, simply unscrew the bolts that are securing it to the tonearm. Next, find the alignment protractor included with your table, or download one for free from the friendly folks over at Vinyl Engine. Secure the protractor to the spindle on the platter, then screw on the new cartridge, re-connect the wires, and grab that second beer. Depending on how experienced or lucky you are, precisely aligning the cartridge to both null points on the protractor can take two minutes or two hours - ok maybe not that long, but you get the gist. At last, all that needs to be done now is adjusting the counterweight on the tonearm to the desired tracking force and making sure the anti-skate knob/weight is dialed in. Now that wasn't too hard, was it?
Alright, finally to the main event. THE SHOOTOUT!
The Ortofon 2M Red is one of the most popular budget moving magnet cartridges out there, and for good reason. With its crisp, lively playback, it gives the listener a taste of hi-fidelity. If you're used to lesser needles, then the detail it can pull out of the grooves on some records is truly impressive. I also found the mids to be well-defined, along with a tight, deep bass, but the top end is where it shines brightest, sometimes almost too bright. Another area where the Red excels is the soundstage. On well-mastered vinyl, you can detect where every instrument is coming from and will have a feeling of being there.
Although the Red can produce great detail and top end, those same strengths can sometimes lead to a clinical, almost forced sound, which brings out everything in a record, good and bad - surface noise and imperfections are placed at the forefront, instead of harmlessly in the backround. Lastly, the Ortofon is an above average tracker, but as explained earlier, inner groove distortion and sibilance can be a problem.
Being trained on the 2M Red for a few years, I was curious how the DL-110 was going to compare. After reading the signature sound between the two is night and day, I can confirm this is true. Not surprisingly, one being a moving magnet cartridge and the other a high output moving coil — moving coil known for their warmer, more analog sound — they are cut from a different cloth. It's hard to explain, but the Denon was just more musical, airy and rhythmic. The soundstage was absolutely massive, giving an almost 3D-like experience. Where the 2M Red could be harsh, the DL-110 was smooth, with extended highs. Where the Red mistracked, the Denon traced the grooves perfectly, without a hint of distortion. It did everything right and made listening to records hours on end an effortless joy.
The one obvious area Denon lacks a bit when facing the Ortofon, however, is with detail retrieval. While still very proficient, it doesn't quite give the clarity of hearing every fingerpicked string. But with this slight deficiency, comes a very quiet sound floor with surface noise lost in the music, where it belongs.
While the 2M Red gives a fantastic return on investment at its $100 price point, it isn't in the same league as the DL-110. Even though the Denon runs almost twice the cost, it's worth every penny and then some.