Do you remember your first record player? I certainly do. Depending on how I count, my first record player was either my parents’ “TV/Record Changer” or a Magnavox portable that sort of looked like a small suit case a few years later. It had speakers on each end and in the middle you could pull down a turntable and play tunes. Either way both record players had something in common, a ceramic phono cartridge.
In the earlier days of the LP, ceramic and crystal phono cartridges were the norm. They had the distinct advantage of being connected directly to the line stage of the amplifier. In the very early days, all you needed was an amp with a couple of tubes, a high efficiency wide-range loudspeaker, and a turntable with a ceramic or crystal cartridge and you could listen to your music.
This was the norm despite that Ortofon had introduced a moving coil phono in 1948. Theses Ortofon cartridge were heavy. It’s interesting that Ortofon’s very first moving coil had some design features we still value in the very best phono cartridges. One of these was the use of a short aluminum cantilever. Short cantilevers are still used in most of the best cartridges today. Of course, the other was the basic design itself, a moving coil.
Ortofon’s early stereo cartridges were called SPUs, Stereo Pickups. SPUs were pre-mounted in dedicated headshells made of Bakelite, the pre-plastic substance that many collectible radios and art-deco jewelry are made of. I think the biggest surprise to most audiophile is to learn that these heavy moving coil cartridges are still being made and sold by Ortofon.
I’ve been listening to Shindo’s SPU lately and it has led me to ask a few questions. These cartridges today are still ultra-low-compliance moving-coils, with very short aluminum cantilevers and large, robust diamonds. Most of them still have a recommended tracking force of around 4 grams. The Shindo SPU I have been using does track at a mere 2.8 grams and Ortofon’s newest SPU, the 90th Anniversary, tracks around 3 grams.
What is there about SPUs that make this 50-year-old moving coil design so beloved that Ortofon still makes them? If you have never heard a SPU I don’t know exactly how to tell you they sound. Maybe the best comparison would be to say they are the 300Bs of phono cartridges. They have a wonderful way of letting you hear the timbre of music, the textures, the different colors, and have more balls than any modern cartridge I have heard at any price; the Miyabi Standard and EMT Jubilees come closest.
There are a few things about the SPU that boggles the mind besides its size, weight, and longevity. To start with there’s the fact that the stylus doesn’t need to be cleaned as often. Wonder why? Then, it doesn’t emphasize surface noise like most cartridges. The Shindo one somehow does this without any apparent loss of detail compared to the Miyabi in my system. I would also point out that no one else who has come to hear my system with the Shindo Vinyl Playback System has commented on even the slightest loss of detail. The one last thing is that it has a great feel in your hand on the end of the Shindo twelve-inch tonearm.
Enjoying the Shindo SPU has made me really rethink and question some things I believed about LP playback. When I moved into real audio I was about 16 and the ADC XLM and Shure V15s were all the rage. The XLM tracked at whole .5 grams. The hot tonearm was the Infinity Black Widow, a arm of such low mass that you could actually use the XLM to its full potential. Even then moving magnet cartridges were not my cup of tea and I listened to a Decca London cartridges or one of Ortofon’s more modern moving coils, a MC20, I think. Still I didn’t even know about SPUs, and when I discovered one on an old turntable at Baylor, I still had no idea it was a moving coil, much less that they were still being made and sold.
I laugh when I think about it, I had no idea when I was at Baylor how good those old systems in the library and other places on campus were. One I remember had a Marantz Model 19 receiver, a Thorens’ turntable, and a pair of really big Bozaks. Now I look at my system with a rim drive turntable a 12-inch arm with a SPU and a single driver speakers with Lowther drivers. The question has to be is it really 2010 or did I somehow go back to 1954. Turns out the year I was born was a pretty good year for sound, and 56 years later I’m enjoying both live and recorded music more than ever.
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