If you’re looking at a new turntable you have almost certainly come across the Ortofon 2M Red phono cartridge, which comes pre-installed into a huge number of turntables from many different manufacturers.
You may also have read about the Ortofon 2M Blue, the next step up in the Ortofon line – it’s not included with nearly as many turntables, but people all over the net are recommending, even insisting, that you upgrade your Red to Blue posthaste.
But is it really worth it? Is the Ortofon Blue that much better, and should you upgrade? Or, if you are simply buying a new cartridge, and pretty settled on Ortofon (good choice, BTW!), which should you go for – Red or Blue?
Background: The Differences Between the Ortofon 2M Red and Blue Phono Cartridges
There is undoubtedly no more popular or widely used stereo phono cartridge on the market today than the affordable Ortofon 2M Red, which comes pre-installed as standard equipment with so many different turntables from so many companies- from very affordable models to even quite expensive high-end ‘tables.
But Ortofon also makes the 2M Blue, which is essentially the same cartridge with a different color body (blue, were that not already apparent) and a nude elliptical stylus as opposed to the Red’s standard elliptical.
The Ortofon 2M Blue is also wildly popular, and even though it is more than twice as expensive as the Red, it is also considered a true bargain in high fidelity audio.
So let’s spell out the things that are the same and different between the two:
Engine and Body
By engine we mean the electromagnetic transducer inside the phono cartridge body – that mechanism that actually creates an electric musical signal.
Even though they are more than a bit separated in price, the Ortofon Red and Blue actually have the exact same engine, and the exact same low-resonance Hopelex body – except, as we’ve already clearly established, for the color.
This is where the real difference between the Ortofon Blue and Red lies, with the needle. The Ortofon Red has a standard elliptical diamond stylus, which is mounted into a tiny sleeve, or shank, which is in turn mounted to the cantilever – the little arm which extends from the cartridge body.
The Ortofon Blue, on the other hand, has a much finer nude elliptical diamond stylus, which does not use a mounting shank and is attached directly to the cantilever.
This small difference in engineering / design makes a huge difference in weight and effective moving mass, and therefore in the needle and cartridge’s tracking ability, strongly affecting the resolution, detail and clarity, the dynamics and musical energy, the transparency and imaging – all for the better.
Ok, maybe this is where the real difference lies, in the price, because the Ortofon 2M Blue is more than twice as expensive as the Ortofon 2M Red.
But is it worth the increase in price?
How Do the Ortofon 2M Red and Blue Compare in Sound Quality?
I recently spent some time listening to and directly comparing the Ortofon 2M Red and Blue cartridges, keeping all other gear and factors the same so I could really hear and assess the differences between the two.
My main system was used for these comparisons, and it consists of:
- Schiit Mani 2 MM / MC Phono Preamplifier
- Rega Planar 2 Turntable
- Rega Brio Amplifier
- KEF Q150 Speakers
- Mayflower Electronics Desktop Objective2 Headphone Amp/DAC.
- Sennheiser HD650 Headphones
I use this system pretty exclusively now for in-home testing and evaluation, because it is an exceptionally transparent and accurate system that really focuses on honesty, low noise, low distortion and low coloration.
These qualities, as well as simply having a fairly consistent playing field test to test, evaluation to evaluation, really allows me to hear and appreciate differences between different gear, or qualities (or lack thereof) of a single piece, without too many variables befuddling the process.
In this case I listened pretty equally to the KEF loudspeakers and the Senn headphones, both of which are very revealing, detailed and open.
How Does the Ortofon 2M Red Sound?
There seems to be a fairly prevalent opinion out there that the Ortofon 2M cartridges are a bit bright, even aggressive, but I have to say that I don’t find them so at all. I have listened to the 2M Red on so many turntables and through so many systems, and it always sounds lively and detailed, but not harsh or overly bright.
Even on my reference system, which – believe me – will relentlessly and mercilessly reveal any aggressive, harsh or overly bright components, the 2M Red sounds nicely bright, definitely lively and clear, with not just a ton of detail but that kind of resolution of fine inner detail and micro-dynamic cues that can really bring listening to a new level.
Soundstage is not huge, but not especially constricted either, and the placement and movement of elements in that soundfield seem precise and coherent. Dynamics are good and there is plenty of reserve for sudden increases in volume – even massive ones. Deep bass is there, if not that prominent, and bass energy and definition is very good for this price level.
Highs are shimmering and bright, but again without any aggressiveness or strain, and midrange, including vocals and most instruments, is nicely present and realistic. Overall the tonal balance is bright but warm, and the presentation very detailed and revealing without sounding analytical or harsh.
Ok, so How Does the Ortofon 2M Blue Sound?
First of all, the Blue is definitely brighter than the Red. I do not find it overly bright, aggressive or harsh any more than I do the Blue, and never experienced a hint of listening fatigue, even with extended listening on headphones, but if you yourself already find the Red a bit much, the Blue is even more much. Not much more much, mind you, but clearly more much.
To me, the increase didn’t even sound like brightness as much as detail, and here we get into a realm which felt more like high end audiophile listening – the Red, especially for a hundred dollar cartridge, has fantastic resolution, but the Ortofon 2M Blue begins to reveal the most subtle musical cues of all kinds – detail, dynamics, leading edge textures, the tiniest of tonal variances, all sorts of expressive gestures – and presents them with a brilliantly holistic integrity.
This is perhaps the main thing that increased tracking ability – like you get from the Blue’s nude elliptical stylus – gives you, this amazing revelation of musical information which lesser cartridges leave hidden in the record’s groove, and it leads to a significantly more musical and satisfying listening experience, which is more realistic, more engaging and more beautiful – with good recordings and clean records in at least decent shape.
(Of course it shouldn’t go without saying that the opposite – a decidedly less pleasant listen, that is – is true if your records are bunged up with dirt, dust and residue – so please, I implore you, no matter what phono cartridge you end up with, get a good record cleaner!)
I can also easily hear the increased tracking ability of the 2M Blue’s needle in slight increases in deep bass information and high frequency extension and much more obvious increases in channel balance and stereo imaging – including height, width and depth of the soundstage and the precision and stability of sounds in that soundstage. Quite dramatic too were increases in both overall dynamic energy and ability to effortlessly reproduce huge increases in volume and high sustained volume without strain, as well as aplomb and real accuracy with the most subtle of microdynamic inflections.
Overall, the Ortofon 2M Blue has a more complete, musically accurate and convincing presentation, with more detail, more expressiveness, more openness and far less effort – in fact, going back to the Red, which had itself sounded pretty effortless, and is actually quite exceptional at its price point in this regard (in a lot of regards, in fact), revealed just how relaxed the Blue is, and how the Red – comparatively, at least – sounds a bit restricted in many ways.
Both the Ortofon Red and the Ortofon Blue are beautifully musical, high resolution cartridges which do pretty much everything right, and they are both wonderful to listen to. For my money the 2M Blue is way more than worth the increase in price, but I would be happy with either of them.
Conclusion: Is the Ortofon 2M Blue Worth the Higher Price?
Again, for me the answer is a pretty resounding yes – the Blue is substantially more open, detailed, coherent and expressive, and offers an experience that is both more accurate and believable and more musical.
It is brighter, yes, but in all the good ways, and I would almost say that it is, because of its strong musicality, transparency and overall accuracy, in some ways a warmer sounding cartridge – not darker, mind you, but somehow warmer.
I would also be willing to say that you will notice these positive differences pretty clearly with pretty much any turntable and even lower priced stereo systems.
That said, if you find the Ortofon Red too bright, you might find the Blue even brighter, and without making changes to other components it may be too much – I might think instead about something nicely warm and smooth, while still accurate and resolving, like the Sumiko Rainier phono cartridge (about the same price as the Red) or the Sumko Olympia (about the same as the Blue) – I personally like the expressive quality of the Ortofons – so brilliantly revealing and yet so relaxed – but the Sumiko sound really rich and lovely.
But if you too love the Ortofon sound, and if you are choosing between the two, I would strongly urge you toward the Blue, which is a more complete and satisfying listen. They are both just fantastic cartridges (and fantastic values) though, and in either case I can’t think right off of anything I’d rather have for the money.
One final note – if you have a Red and are considering upgrading – like, for instance, you love the sound but feel like maybe something is missing – you will get a huge charge out of the upgrade to the Blue, and will be absolutely thrilled you did it – BUT (!) there is no need to spend all that money on a whole new cartridge.
As we discussed at the beginning of this comparative review, of the Ortofon 2M Red and 2M Blue, they both have the exact same body and internal components, so if you don’t mind a blue needle housing on a red body, save yourself some money and just get the Ortofon 2M Blue Stylus Replacement.
Ok, it’s not much of a savings – that nude diamond stylus is by far the most pricey part of the whole prospect – but you’ll have exactly the same thing as a normal 2M Blue, and have a few bucks left over for a new record or two!