B&O cartridge options in the 21st Century!

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As promised, here is an independent review of the two competitors for your attention when looking for a new cartridge.

The rivals are an SMMC20EN from Soundsmith against an MMC5000 which has new suspension and stylus with a Shibata diamond from Axel. The SMMC20EN costs $279.95 at time of writing (June 2009) and you will need to factor in shipping and customs if in Europe. Prices start at $149.95 and go up to $1599.95.

A re-tipped 5000 with an original Shibata stylus as reviewed here will cost €265, which is the most expensive option offered. Prices start from €89 and work their way up. Remember that you need to factor in the price of a used MMC cartridge as well.

Pickup Review

A few years ago, when B&O discontinued the manufacture of their MMC series of pickups, Beogram owners faced a problem when replacements were required. Thankfully this problem is for now resolved as two independent organisations have made their services available to help keep these turntables working.

Soundsmith of the USA are well known for their range of replacement MMC-style pickups that have been available now for some years. A range of grades are offered and although they are considerably more expensive than the originals they have proved popular. The basic pickup is of the MMC 1 > 5 type but this can also be bought mounted in a plastic housing to fit into arms that were made for the MMC20 series.

Recently Axel Schurholz (www.schallplattennadeln.de) in Germany has added to the choices available by offering a reconditioning service for worn or broken B&O MMC pickups. Obviously this requires that the customer provides an exchange unit but once this condition has been met the pickup can be rebuilt to any one of a wide choice of specifications, regardless of the original grade of the worn unit.

As a test I’ve auditioned the Soundsmith SMMC20EN along side a rebuilt MMC5000 from Axel Schurholz. The MMC20 style of pickup can be used in a wide range of B&O’s better turntables, highlights being the Beogram 1700, the Beocenter 1800 and the Beogram 8000 of the Beolab 8000 system. It is the latter setup that was used for these listening tests, the stable nature of the turntable mechanism and the clean, insightful nature of the phono stage in the amplifier make together a very useful analytical tool as well as a fine audio system.

Starting with the MMC5000, it was clear that the characteristic B&O sound, that is smooth, relaxed, pleasant and highly detailed, was there in full measure. Tracking force was determined by the use of a test record rather than relying on the maker’s basic figures; this is the most accurate method and is the only way to extract maximum performance. The optimum setting for the MMC5000 was found to be 1.4 grams, a figure close to that recommended for the original. What was particularly impressive was the wide and deep soundstage that the rebuilt MMC5000 was able to construct, instruments and voices could be instantly placed with unerring precision, this, combined with the alluring tonal balance made for a highly enjoyable listening experience that encouraged the detailed re-exploration of familiar recordings. If one had to be critical it could be said that the focus of the MMC5000 was a little soft, the detail was certainly there but to appreciate it fully it was necessary to settle into the performance and pay careful attention to the most delicate of sounds.

The pickup itself was well finished and apart from some small traces of glue visible around the clear plastic stylus guard showed no signs of having been dismantled.

Moving onto the Soundsmith it was immediately obvious that the two pickups were very different in character. The SMMC20EN appears to have been retuned for the digital age, gone is the smoothness and niceness and in it’s place is a sharper, more aggressively detailed sound that is more akin to that of a CD player than a classic turntable. The SMMC20EN required slightly less down force (1.3 grams) to track correctly but because of its brighter sound the limits of the LP system were more audible, it was never sibilant but it certainly verged on it at times. Some recordings were also overlaid with a steely glare that could very occasionally blur the imaging. For highly produced, high energy music the SMMC20EN cut through the characteristic B&O sound and toughened up the 8000 system in general, if you want to rock and prefer LP to CD then it represents a very worthwhile audition. It was not a pickup that I found relaxing however. The SMMC20EN did however make an excellent pickup for transcription to computer-based compressed audio formats, these tend to throw away the very parts of the sound that the pickup emphasises so overall a reasonably well balanced sound results.

Whilst the SMMC20EN is undoubtedly a competent piece of equipment its appearance leaves much to be desired. The original B&O pickups are styled to precisely match the arms that they fit into but the plastic over body of the SMMC20EN is too big and slightly the wrong shape so it never looks quite right. On the Beogram 8000 this wasn’t too much of a problem as the arm is concealed most of the time and the dust cover is heavily tinted but on more exposed models such as the 4000 range the appearance would offend the connoisseur’s eye. Soundsmith must be congratulated however on tooling up to produce their MMC range, it has saved many a Beogram from disuse.

To summarise, the choice of pickup depends on what you want it for. If you have an immaculately restored system from which you want authentic appearance and the distinctive “B&O sound” then the reconditioning service offered by Axel is something that requires further investigation. If on the other hand your musical tastes require a harder edge than B&O typically caters for and you can live with the looks then the Soundsmith is an excellent product which will bring you a lot of pleasure.

Created: 2nd June 2009
Modified: 2nd June 2009

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