The sound of SPU

Friends, I have never heard an SPU but have heard a lot about it. It has an amazing following. The general impression I get from reading various opinions is, SPU has a big, bold sound which is somewhat rolled off on the top and is not too detailed. It is musical in the traditional analogue way but not very transparent or extended.

Recently a friend of mine lent me an old (1970) Ortofon SL15 ELL cartridge which was suppose to have been built on the SPU engine of that time, but is naked and with some modifications to sound more open. Nevertheless it was still aimed at the SPU listeners. Since my tonearm cannot take a regular SPU it was a good way of getting a taste of SPU sound. It is a very low output cartride (0.125 mv) and comes with its own SUT. I have been listening to this cartridge for the last 7 days or so. To my surprise I find it to be a very open, detailed, fast and neutral cartridge. It doesnt have the dynamics of my ZYX but it has a warmer midrange which makes it sound more humane. It is also not as detailed as the ZYX but there is still a lot of it. This is coming from a 40 year old MC cart which was not a top end cart even at that time, has been borrowed from SPU, has only a "normal" aluminium cantilever. The SUT is very good but still not all that great so I am sure it is eating some resolution, still the cartridge makes for such a fulfilling experience, better than most cartridge costing $1k today and many costing much more.

The question is, what is the sound of an SPU ? Is it really fast, detailed and extended compared to other cartridges of its price point or is this SL15 experience is kind of exception ? Moreover today we have much more advanced SPUs like the Meister Silver and SPU90, what can be expected from them ?
Pani, not mean to steal your topic, but which ZYX do you use?

I've been thinking to try SPU meister silver after i finish experimenting with Decca Jubilee, there is a nice summary (in german, post #189):

what a bit worries me is the fact that it seems to have some "problems" with complex passages (i remember finding the same comment somewhere else). i wonder if anyone can comment on that?
The sound of SPU is spatially big, tonally vivid, dynamically strong. I have the Meister Silver and the Synergy. I also use Zu103, Denon 103D, 103S, 103M, 103FL, 305, and have used Koetsu, Accuphase and others in the past. The SPU is not as rounded on top and bottom as its reputation -- it needs an appropriate tonearm and is preferably used with a commensurate step-up transformer.

You can find other cartridges that trace more finesse from the groove and present greater nuance, but the SPU is detailed enough when set up well. Its tonal density and ability to project -- no, hurl -- sound into your room is not duplicated by any other cartridge. It looks old school, has by modern standards a standpipe of a cantilever and what looks like half a carat of diamond jammed into the end, but pay no attention. There's organic truth in that big lump, and SPU completely negates the trend of modern cartridges to make vinyl sound ever more like digital, yet doesn't sound dated.

A Thomas Schick tonearm is a simple and affordable way to hear an SPU authentically.

Bydlo I was using a ZYX RS30, which is similar in level to the R100 of the current line up.

213cobra, your description is very interesting. Have you heard the naked version, SPU Royal N ? It even has a replicant 100 stylus profile which is the latest generation profile by Ortofon and is used in their very high end A90 cartridge. I wonder whether that will give the Royal N a more CD like sound. BTW, what do you think about the speed and timing of SPU carts ? Do they sound slower because of their "big sound" ?

Why do you suggest a step up transformer, the output voltage seems quite high for most MC phonostages to handle, isnt it ?

The Replicant stylus isn't as extreme as a line contact profile so the Royal N has the SPU sound made a little more modern. Its sound however is affected by the headshell it's mounted in, so that adds a variable. It is however a less expensive way to get into the SPU sound. The SPU Royal N does not sound like the A90, which is excellent in a different way in its own right.

The output voltage of the Meister Silver is 0.5mv, and for the Synergy 0.3mv. That ranges from same as a Denon 103 to somewhat higher. It is possible to run either directly into a 47kOhm moving magnet phono stage if its quiet enough but that's not optimal as gain will be insufficient for full dynamics. So you either have to use an intermediate gain moving coil input with added electronic gain, or use a step up transformer. Generally, the step-up transformer will sound better. If using the Meister Silver, you will simply need a lower windings ratio than with the Synergy, for example. Some of the mono SPUs are high output. Some of the Classics are around 0.2mv, so your gain needs depend on which SPU you select.

Regarding what you term the "speed and timing" of the SPU: "Slowness" in presentation is a much bigger problem with amps and speakers than with phono catridges. If downstream components are sonically quick and fast, I haven't ever heard the sound of SPU as slow in any way worth mentioning. You can get more agile cartridges that cannot deliver anything close to the complete tonal body the SPU can, but what's the point of that? As for timing, PRaT characteristics of SPU are entirely convincing and it's particularly energetic if your turntable is. If your turntable is lazy, the SPU will still sound big and bold but it won't add momentum and drive that your turntable lacks. The problem people often cite regarding SPU smearing complex music passages is only worth complaining about if the cartridge is mounted in an inappropriate tonearm or not well set-up. Too many modern cartridges over-resolve the music presentation anyway, biased to separation of events and instruments that you never hear acoustically in any live situation. So I don't fault SPU for not doing something that's unnatural.

SPU isn't the best cartridge bar none. That would be a difficult designation to make. It doesn't x-ray what's in the vinyl. But it is exceptionally lively, toneful, convincing and fun to listen to music through, and has no real rival in these characteristics.

Phil, our messages appeared with a moderator delay.
How do you observe Meister Silver handles complex passages
(esp. loud complex parts of orchestral music)?

As I mentioned above, SPU isn't the most pick-apart cartridge but I don't have any problems with maintaining integrity during massed, complex, orchestral music when using my Meister Silver in a Thomas Schick tonearm. The key is getting the tonearm match right. You need sufficient effective mass and great bearings. The Ortofon RS309 works well too. And I've heard the SPU perform well in a Jelco 750D using the heavy counterweight.

Phil, thanks for a great description of SPU sound out there.
Which SPU cart of current generation do you think is worth buying considering one has a good TT setup and would like to listen to all kinds of music ?

Well, let's see.... the SPU Collector Box costs just $14,000! That solves the problem of choosing ;).

I think the Meister Silver Mk II or the Synergy GM will both be eminently vivid and engaging across all music genres.

Phil, thank you!
Actually due to a "moderator lag"
my message appeared before I read yours :-)

I'm definitely NOT into the hyper-detail and
hyper-realism. There should be just enough detail to
be convincingly interesting, but not more.

I have a free SME3012R, I guess that should
be a very good match like with other SPU's?

Also phil, what is the sonic difference between Synergy and Meister models ? Do you think the Royal N is also worth trying ?

If you prefer what I consider a natural amount of pick-apart detail presented in recorded music then SPU will have easily enough when mated to an appropriate tonearm. I am not sure why people think that the SME 3012 is a great match. The 3012 will work -- just. It's a medium mass arm at 14g and the SPU is a fairly low compliance cartridge (eff mass 8, which is just a skosh less compliant than the Denon 103 when that cartridge's compliance rating is corrected for Denon's non-standard spec). A tonearm more in the area of 20g effective mass is better. Moreover, I've never found SME's knife-edge bearing well suited to the energy these massy, low compliance cartridges ping back into the tonearm structure. The Thomas Schick tonearm is ideal and relative to what new quality tonearms cost today, it's moderate. I've also gotten good results, unexpectedly, from a vintage Stax UA90 and of course the current production Ortofon RS-309. For standard-length tonearms, the Jelco 750D with the heavy counterweight option does pretty well. In the latter case, this is also a medium mass arm, so the heavy counterweight and the heavy Ortofon SPU-in-headshell push up effective mass, just as they would with an SME. Still, a Schick is a much better platform for this cartridge, IMO.

Pani - In my Schick and Stax arms, the Meister Silver is fast and articulate, with the emphatic drive characteristic of the big SPU whereas the Synergy is creamier and more forward, partly because if has more output voltage, and its emphasis - by small degrees - is on pure tone over articulation and speed, compared to the Meister Silver. These differences are fainter in the Jelco 750D arm. I'm not splitting hairs on this, but on the other hand both cartridges are so thoroughly SPU, you couldn't go wrong with either if you are attracted to the essential SPU sound. If you have too much gain in your system, you can opt for one of the 0.2mv Classic SPUs, and that will shift things further in the vintage direction.

I think the Royal N is worth trying -- it's certainly less expensive -- if you want to get in for fewer dollars. If you use a ~14g arm you might want to buy a heavier-than-standard headshell for it. But the headshell will be a variable. The basic character of SPU will come through plus the Royal N has the Replicant 100 stylus, so it's articulate too.


So what current  "non spu" cartridge would get you close to that sound? Denon 103?

Not familiar with the SPU cartridges sound but from the descriptions of it I think the DL-103 would be fairly close to it. I'm a big DL-103 fan but would love to try one of those SPU carts. My Audio Technica ATP-12T has an effective weight of 21 grams so it would be a great arm to try one on.



It’s true that SPU’s as a ‘species’ have a certain ‘gestalt’ that can be easily recognised. But that doesn’t mean all SPU’s are created equal, far from it.

So this question depends on what SPU you are referring to. The SPU Classic with spherical stylus is loved for the musical rendition of the midrange, but the top and the bottom of the frequency range are missing in action. This could also be said of Denon DL 103, so there is some resemblance as both are ancient designs and that’s exactly how they sound.

Thankfully Ortofon has retained the basic design elements and their sonic strengths for more modern versions that do not suffer from the limitations of the original. I haven’t heard them all, but the ones I do know very well - SPU Gold Reference and the A85, A90 and A95 Anniversary models - occupy a very different sonic (and financial) universe. There are significant differences between them, but each in their own way manages to amalgamate the musicality of the original with the full frequency extension and transparency of more modern designs, so as to ‘have your cake and eat it’. 

The only similarity between these more modern SPU’s and Denon DL103 is that they both require a heavy gun as a tonearm. There are people who seem to think that the 103 is all they need and are fairly loud in attempting to convince others as well. Obviously they’re free to believe whatever they like, just don’t take their word for it and listen for yourself. The used market is absolutely riddled with 103’s (just check hifi shark) so you can try one without any financial risk. If you don’t like it you can resell it just as quickly. I know I did!

A couple of years ago my Transfiguration Proteus was starting to give a but more sibilance than I was used to. While I looked for someone to rebuild it I bought an SPU Royal N as a stopgap. My arm is a Schröder Reference so I can add 5g to the effective mass by changing the cartridge plate from certal to brass, this puts the effective mass up to 18g, which seems to be enough by the time the 15.7g weight of the cartridge and spacer is added and the Ortofon screws are a couple of grams.

It’s been a rather steep learning curve but I’m finding the Royal N more satisfying than the Proteus was but it’s very fussy about setup, on the Schröder arm at least. Get VTA and VTF a little out and it will plod, get them right and it will swing. Also, and this may be specific the the Schröder, it’s very easy to over tighten the screws securing the cartridge mount to the arm and the counterweight locking screw and though it still excels at classical it won’t rock, get them right, which is only just enough to hold them in place, and it’s air guitar time.