Review: Ortofon X-1 MC Cartridge
I’m not really sure what to make of the Ortofon X1-MC. And after about 50 hours of listening to it on two different tonearms and tables, I’m still not certain it’s a keeper. But it is a very interesting cartridge.
One thing’s for sure: the price is right. The X1-MC normally sells for $145, but it’s on sale right now at Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor for $102.95. For that price, you get a very high quality product that’s built and packaged well. But these days, it’s kind of an oddity. Let me explain.
The X-series cartridges were introduced in the mid-80s, if I remember right, just as CD was beginning to overtake vinyl in popularity. At the time, this series of lightweight, easy-to-use, reliable moving coils represented a kind of breakthrough: not only were the outputs high enough to allow them to be connected directly to any moving magnet phono section, but reviewers reported that the X-series virtually eliminated the harsh sonic signature of early high-output MCs. Ortofon boldly offered a guarantee: try one for 30 days, and if you don’t like it better than the cartridge you were using before, return it to your dealer for a full, on-the-spot refund. Very few people must have taken them up on the offer, because Ortofon is still around today. Then again, at its $75 introductory price, the X1-MC must have seemed as much a bargain then as it is today.
So, you ask, what’s odd about all that? Nothing, except the Ortofon doesn’t sound like a moving coil cartridge. It doesn’t exactly sound like a moving magnet, either. It’s just very…well, mellow, but in an energetic kind of way. Sort of. Words fail me on this one.
At first, I figured its somewhat relaxed presentation was due to all those extra coil windings required to produce its high output of 2.2mV. (The similar MC-1 Turbo has more windings and an even higher output. I wonder why that model is necessary at all…does an extra 1mV of output make any difference?) But then I remembered that my Denon DL-160 is fast as hell and it’s output is similar: 1.6mV says the specs, but it actually measures much higher according to Needle Doctor. Is the coil wire finer in the Denon? Are there fewer windings or a different winding technique? Maybe it’s the Ortofon’s relatively low compliance: 13um/mN. (It’s best suited for medium to high mass arms, to be sure.) I don’t know.
The X1-MC arrived in the standard Ortofon plastic case, a two-halved clamshell affair. The top half holds the cartridge between two thin slabs of white plastic -- just give it a squeeze between your thumb and forefinger and the cartridge slides right out. Inside the bottom half is only a set of decent screws, not the stylus brush that more expensive Ortofon models come with, nor the plastic stylus pressure gauge you sometimes found in their older packaging (which was of little use anyway because it used millinewtons, not grams, as the unit of measure). The instructions are sparse and generally useless. (Mounting: see your tonearm instructions. Connection: see your amplifier instructions, etc.)
I mounted the X-1 MC first on my Luxman PD-284, then on my Rega P2. The Luxman arm seems to be a low mass design, but even so, the Ortofon didn’t seem too flummoxed. The presentation was a bit thinner than the Rega’s, but overall -- and despite its low-ish compliance -- the Ortofon and the Luxman got on well together. I’d say the Ortofon even calmed the Luxman’s direct drive nature a tad, though it’s worth mentioning that the Luxman is a high quality direct drive table that, like Denon models, doesn’t have much to apologize for, if anything.
Mounted on the Rega RB250, VTA was off a tad, with the cartridge canted very slightly forward. The sound was fuller and deeper, with a slightly wider soundstage. Mounting in the Rega arm was difficult, however. It’s worth warning those who hate fiddling that to obtain proper alignment, the X1-MC had to be set deep under the headshell, making it hard to “sight in” the alignment. Also, even though it took me only about twenty minutes to obtain proper alignment in the Luxman arm, it required an entire evening to do so with the Rega. I usually double-check my work with different protractors, and in this case, I got a slightly different result with each device. In the end, I relied on the single-point Rega protractor (using the cantilever, not the cartridge body, as a reference) and the Hi-Fi News Test Record for assurance.
Also note that the X1-MC is an exceptionally light cartridge. I junked the Ortofon mounting hardware and used Denon screws instead. They’re larger than normal and quite substantial. Plus, they’re heavy -- an ideal way to add weight to the headshell without resorting to crude methods like applying a blob of Blu Tack. Since the Ortofon weighs in at just a bit more than four ounces, you’ll have to add some weight if you want to balance certain arms.
Ortofon recommends a tracking force of 2g. On both the Luxman and the Rega, 2.1g did the trick. Below that, the Ortofon sounded somewhat unsteady, as confirmed by the Hi-Fi News LP. Above that, it sounded slushy and bogged-down. My guess is that 2.1g is the sweet spot for a wide range of modern arms. If you don’t have a test record, 2.1g is a safe bet.
I played to a wide range of music, from rock and jazz to classical and bluegrass. Some were ordinary pressings, some were MoFis and 180gm premium reissues. I won’t bore you with a listing. Here’s what I heard in the areas I look to when deciding whether a cartridge is for me:
Break-In: Relatively short. Out of the box, the X1-MC was sizzly, with exaggerated treble and a bit of grain. After about 10 hours, the Ortofon was sufficiently run-in and the sound didn’t change much over the next approximately 40 hours of listening.
Detail: The X1-MC isn’t the last word in any area, but it easily trumps just about any $100 moving magnet in this particular area, and some that are much higher priced (like Rega’s disappointing Elys). The ordinary elliptical stylus is a limiting factor, and for added trackability, you might be happier overall with the Denon DL-110 ($140) or Ortofon’s own X3-MC (with nude fine-line stylus) or X5-MC (with Fritz Gyger stylus), which are identical to the X1 except for stylus profile.
Soundstage: It’s reasonably wide, but not incredibly deep. For my money, the Denon DL-160 is the king here in the sub-$200 price range.
Ambience: Again, the Ortofon isn’t very 3-D. If the Denon DL-160 is an IMAX movie, the Ortofon is a letterboxed widescreen DVD version of that movie. Everything is a little smaller with the Ortofon, but also more intimate. Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it’s not. More on that later.
Tonality: One thing the Orotofon definitely has going for it is top-to-bottom neutrality. It exhibits naturalness and composure that belie its low price tag -- qualities that you rarely find in this price range.
Bass control: Nice and tight. I consider the RB250 to be one of the best budget arms available, certainly good enough to get the most out of a $100 cartridge, so I feel confident in saying that the Ortofon is surprisingly good in this regard.
Sibilance: Some cartridges do a better job than others in minimizing the sibilance that’s present on some lesser recordings. The Ortofon X1-MC is the best I’ve yet heard. That alone may be enough for some people to reach for their American Express cards.
Pace: As I said, the Orotofon is a relaxed cartridge. Even on my Rega, rock music didn’t always get my toes tapping. This cartridge would, however, be an excellent choice for any fan of vocals, new age, slow jazz or light classical.
Listenability: Here’s where the Ortofon really excels. It’s not zippy, it’s not harsh, it’s not too bass-heavy. I listened for hours on end one weekend, because the Ortofon didn’t make any heavy demands on my central nervous system. With it, you just kind of float down a river of music. Heavy, man.
By now, you can see why I’m somewhat undecided about the Ortofon. I prefer lively cartridges: my beloved Denons, the Benz Micro MC20E2 and even the Stanton 500E MkII all have lots of energy and excitement. I also love a wide and deep soundstage, admittedly even if it’s somewhat artificial. I miss that when I listen with the Ortofon. Then again, maybe I’ve just gotten used to certain colorations, and in the process, acquired a taste for them.
I think the X1-MC will grow on me. I’ll be sure to post a follow-up later this year -- with summer arriving, I won’t be spending much time in front of the stereo. Until then, I’ll reserve final judgment. I did want to post this review as quickly as possible, though, because (a) the sale price on the X1-MC is very attractive, and may not last, and (b) I’m not sure this cartridge will be around at all in a few months. Specs for the X1-MC are now missing from Ortofon’s website (though the P-mount version, the X1-MCP, is still available). That fact, combined with the deep discounting, leads me to believe that this product may have been discontinued and dealers may now simply be clearing out old inventory. I contacted Needle Doctor via e-mail to find out, but they have yet to respond with an answer.
My tentative advice, for what it’s worth, is this. The Ortofon X1-MC is a great cartridge if you’re dusting off an old turntable and want something better than the usual Grado Black. (It certainly smoothes out inferior LPs, something analog newbies will unknowingly appreciate.) It’s also a great cartridge for those who have a slightly high-strung system that needs some calming down. Of course, at the price, it’s also a terrific alternative to most moving magnets in its price range. And if, like Burt Reynolds in “Boogie Nights,” you like your music “meeeellllowwww,” then don’t let Buck Swope sell you anything else but the X1-MC on your next trip to Super Stereo World.
Take it home, set it up, pour yourself a cup of hot chamomile tea, light one of those relaxation candles and take it easy. Just don’t blame Bun E. Carlos if Cheap Trick’s “Live at Budokan” sounds strangely sedate.
Denon DRA-395 stereo receiver with MM phono section
Rega P2 turntable (with P3 glass platter and None-Felt mat)
Luxman PD-284 turntable
Thorens TD115 turntable
Denon DL-160 moving coil cartridge
Grado Black moving iron cartridge
Stanton 500E MkII cartridge
Pioneer DV-563A universal disc player
Philips CDR-785 CD Recorder
ProAc Tablette 2000 loudspeakers
Radio Shack MegaCable 16-gauge speaker wire (bi-wired)
Various Kimber, Audioquest and MonsterCable interconnects
MonsterPower HTS2500 Power Center
AudioQuest MC cartridge demagnetizer
Record Doctor II record cleaning machine
Sennheiser HD580 Precision headphones
Sony ProAudio MDR-7506 studio monitor headphones
Grado 15’ headphone extension cable
Benz Micro MC20E2
Ortofon MC30 (with matching step-up transformer)
Stanton 500E MkII