Ortofon Red/Pro-ject Carbon Debut combination; rolled off hi-frequencies. Solutions?

Hi there.

I just bought a Project Carbon Debut SB with a factory equipped Ortofon Red. After 30 hours break-in the mids are fine (smooth, rich and full), bass is a little fat but tolerable but the highs, as I expected were rolled off; but more than I expected and not acceptable to me. Obviously, there will be compromises in a "bargain" turntable but mechanically and sonically I think it's good basic platform to start with.
The TT is playing back through the inboard phono stage of my Musical Fidelity A3.2 integrated. I've swapped interconnects, starting with Audioquest Diamondback (nice mids, darker top end) and Wireworld Equinox 6's (brighter top but not much inprovement in air, and surprisingly a bit grainy and obscure in the mids).

I'm thinking my 1st step is upgrading the cartridge to either the Ortofon Blue, Shelter 201 of the new Audio Technica VM540ML; the replacement for the old AT400ML which was a bit too bright but otherwise highly musical and faithful in reproduction (I had one in my Music Hall MMF5.1) but there aren't any reviews of it to be found on the web or in hi-fi mags.

I am on a budget and before I start throwing hundreds of bucks around and burning months of experimentation on swapping out cables, outboard phono stages and cartridges I thought I'd throw this subject open to discussion to my brothers of the cloth who have the same high fidelity point of view as I.

Any recommendations or opinions are welcome. 

The 540 should help. Try a granite shelf on brass cones. I found MF amps a bit dull. I swear by a $10 Belkin IC. No longer made but available on Ebay. Highly detailed and balanced.

The Ortofon 2M red should not be the problem...Are you using a record mat? Felt and cork ones tend to diminish highs. What is the capacitance set at? MM’s are sensitive to this. The 2M wants 150-300 Pf. Also, long cables add to the capacitance as much as 50-250 Pf! Keep them short (2 ft) to prevent this being added to the total the cartridge sees. Finally check your SRA and make sure the back of the cartridge is not tilted down (sitting) towards the record surface (sitting up more forward is better to bring out highs).


Matt M
Your Ortofon 2M Red is the problem! It’s mediocre cartridge, what else do you expect on such cheap turntable? One of my friend has replaced his 2M (on the same turntable) with Stanton 881 MKIIs and he never looked back since that day.

Find yourself a better MM cartridge and stay away from the modern MM cartridges, buy the best MM from the 80s or 70s. Then you will undergstand why they are so good and why it was a choice for disc mastering engineers over the years. You will not find anything better than AT-ML170 VM OFC or OCC and btw Stanton 881 MKIIs is also great, read this article first.

Another great high compliance Audio-Technica cartridge is AT20SLa (it’s my link, but there you can read some info i just don’t want to copy paste here).

What else you can do to improve the sound quality ?
Change load resistors inside your phono stage to 100k Ohms (Vishay Naked Foil resistors available on ebay from texas components - this is the nanufacturer). You will get a better top end compared to 47k Ohm.

You can not make a mediocre cartridge sounds good by changing the cables or mat or anything, except the cartridge itself if you really looking for something better. Everything starts from the cartridge.

But load resistance is important for MM. 

I own the  Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit SB that shipped with the Ortofon 2M Red. Is this the table and cartridge you have?

I thought the table sounded pretty good right out of the box. I did notice a little less sparkle in the treble than I was expecting and I had hoped that break-in of the cartridge/stylus suspension would help it open up a bit. It did open up a bit after a few weeks of consistent play, however I still felt it should have a bit more sparkle in the treble. I starting trying a few things to see if I could get it to open up a bit more. Here's what I did......

Removed the felt mat - sounds more dynamic without the mat.

Set-up alignment - I went through a complete alignment of the cartridge. The factory alignment was off IMHO.

Cable - I replace the stock interconnect cable with an Audio Sensibility Impact SE phono cable. Immediately better.....

Replaced the 2M Red Stylus with a 2M Blue Stylus (the cartridge body is the same, so they are interchangeable). The blue is better across the board, including the treble. However, my cartridge moved when I installed the stylus and I need to go back through the alignment again.

That's my Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Esprit SB story. I'm pretty happy with the table at this point. I use it nearly daily and I enjoy the sound. I have a much more expensive digital rig, and I prefer the sound of the TT. It's just a more organic and engaging sound to me. With the replacement phone cable and stylus, I have about $900 new retail in the setup. Is it the best $900 combo setup you can buy? I have no idea. I would like to try other similarly priced setups, but I'm happy with my setup and not willing to spend any money searching for something different.

Thanks for your valued input, guys. Let me further detail my system setup...

My equipment is installed in a Soundesign metal rack on spikes. The turntable sits on the top of the rack on a 25 lb. slab of granite. I don't use a mat, the records are played resting directly on the acrylic platter. The stock Pro-ject feet are used. The both the Audioquest and Wireworld IC's used are 1meter in length. The capacitance of the inboard phono stage of the A3.2 is non adjustable and fixed at 47k Ohms.

Based on the feedback so far I'm in agreement with most everthing I've heard from the group. My original thought was to upgrade the cartridge (or stylus) first then consider an outboard phono stage with adjustable capacitance. First, I'll be recalibrating the alignment of the cartridge this afternoon, just to be sure.

Anymore input is appreciated. Thanks again.
2M Red is an excellent entry level cartridge. I had several of them and they did not lack detail. When I hear "lack of detail" the first thing that comes to mind is VTA.

Make sure your VTA is set correctly. With tracking force set at 1.8g (and verified with a gauge), set the arm down on an average thickness record and make sure the tonearm tube is parallel to the record's surface.

Sometimes this may may be hard to see. You can take cardstock paper, slightly narrower than the white line drawn in the center of your arm tube. Draw thin lines spread 1mm apart using a sharp pencil and ruller. Then gently and flatly place this piece of paper on the record's surface and prop it against the tonearm. 

Parallel should give you the best detail and bass and have an SRA of 90-92 degrees. Tonearm's tail too far down will result in muddy thick sound. Tail too far up can sound bright and sibilant. 

I don't believe your turntable has an easy VTA adjustment, so you'll have to get creative with shims, etc. 
I started out with the Pro-ject Debut Carbon and Ortofon Red.  It was ok, but not great.

Things to do -

1.  replace the original mat with a rubber mat.  I use the ones from the Technics 1200 series available from KAB USA
2.  change out the stylus to the one from the Ortofon blue
3.  change cartridges altogether.  The Shelter 201 is excellent. 

The pre-amp from the MF 3.2 is good.  No need to change.

This will make things appreciably better.  

Unfortunately, if you really get into records, you will find yourself upgrading the TT.   



The capacitance of the inboard phono stage of the A3.2 is non adjustable and fixed at 47k Ohms.

This is load resistance set at 47k Ohm, but you can change it by replacing restistors if you want to upgrade for very little cost (of the actual vishay 100k Ohm resistors). It’s a big upgrade for ANY MM phono stage.

The capacitance set up by cables. I hope your setting is not totally off. You can play with everything like VTA, MAT, Capasistance, Tracking force, but i bet you will not hear any difference in a mediocre system. The more inportant is the cartridge!

Change the cartridge and you will change everything. If you don’t like the sound of your cartridge then it’s not "your cartridge". I don’t like 2M series of Ortofon carts, but some people like them for some reason. But do not buy another mediocre cheap modern mm cartridge, buy something good and much better. This is how it works. Cartridges are very different. When it comes to MM cartridges it is worth to read this thread. The favorite cartridges for many are not the today’s made MM, but those great MM from the old days of analog (70s/80s).

People who claims they are able to hear 0,15g difference in tracking force or a minor difference in mats on this particular turntable must have a "golder ears". I do not belongs to the people with "golden ears" (probably), but i have a dosen of vintage MM cartridges and they are making a huge difference in any system, even in the cheapest system with average headphones or in high-end system. Cartridge is the most important.

This Ortofon is easy to sell used, you will find a better cartridge for sure. 

Good advice regarding upgrading the cartridge and proper VTA. After that, for improved sonics is to add some aftermarket footers or cones. Using vibration draining or absorbion footers will open up the sound. Better imaging and more detail in the bottom-end.
Cable - I replace the stock interconnect cable with an Audio Sensibility Impact SE phono cable. Immediately better.....

I compared this cable with the Belkin I suggested above. The Belkin blows it away with far greater treble. If you or the OP buy the Belkin I linked to and try it and don’t think it works, I will buy it from you. No relationship with seller.
As I said above MF amps tend to be a bit laid back. I just read the Stereophile review and indeed, they corroborate what I said. Quote: "but the slightly rich bass guitar and the laid-back presentation rendered the music a tad too relaxed."

Read more at https://www.stereophile.com/content/musical-fidelity-a32-integrated-amplifier-page-2#Ce8s3BcM4zASXyC...
It's funny how many useless things people are ready to do, before they are realizing the weak point is the cartridge. 

I've been experimenting with about 20 cartridges on average turntable like SL1200mkII (not my reference turntable) with relatively cheap phono stage. A good cartridge is ALWAYS better than average cartridge on stock turntable without any tweks with cables, footers, fancy headshells, mats, clamps etc. This is a nature of the cartridge - the only component that actually touch the vinyl media.   

You can not compensate the weak point of the cartridge by cable, footers, mat, clapm etc. You can slightly improve the details and clarity, but a better cartridge will be better without all that tweks on your stock turntable. I've noticed than many times. 

The tweaks are ok AFTER you got the right cartrige for yourself (for your ears, not for the ears of reviewer online).  
Chakster makes valid points. Adding a $150 cable to compensate for a $100 cartridge is daft. That is why I suggested a $10 cable of known quantity.

Thanks again for your valued input, guys. Just an update on my progress after re-calibration of the Pro-ject Carbon SB/Ortofon Red combo...

The VTA was rechecked and is as close to perfect as possible, azmuth is also 5x5, as is the stylus angle. The table balance was checked with a precision Starrett bubble level throughout the tonearm arc and it couldn't be better. The only tweak required was a very minor (less than a 10%) correction to the cartridge alignment using a Baerwald 66/120.89 scale.

I'm incomplete agreement with everyone that says that once the table is properly set up the cartridge is the core of the vinyl playback system. I've run both Supex and Dynavector MC's in my old AR EB101/SME with astonishing results, Signet, Ortofon and Talisman in my old Systemdek, and A/T and Sumiko BPS in my Music Hall MMF 5.1 and been quite satisfied with them. 

I also agree that most of  the new cartridges are not as musical as the older ones. However, time and engineering have raised the peformance of lower price turntables to an acceptable level and a good foundation for hot-rodding. My immediate project is to experiment with vibration isolation with cones and pods, althought the 25 lbs of granite the T'table is resting on isn't likely to yield to much.  My next step is to swap out the cartridge with a conservatively priced (less than $350) unit, based on what I hear (and don't hear) then fine tune the system with a complimentary cable upgrade and probably an outboard phono preamp down the road. My  life's priorities are changing. Being retired and more fiscally practical than in days of yore, dropping 3 Grand on a turntable isn't as enticing as it once was. Besides, my grandaughter is about to enter college and I've got my eye on a new set of Titleist irons and spring is just around the corner.

As to the performance of my Musical Fidelity A3.2...It's fair to say it's more laid back and tubelike in a Conrad Johnson sort of way but I like to listen to music in the manner of Deutche Grammophons' 15th row-center stage playback, but the amp's got buckets of power and could produce blinding sound pressure through my old KEF 104/2s and Mirage sub system. When I would crank up a live rock and roll concert the neighbors ran to their air raid shelters because their sidewalks started buckling. As we used to say back in Detroit..."There is no such thing as too much horsepower..".

My next step is to swap out the cartridge with a conservatively priced (less than $350) unit, based on what I hear (and don’t hear) then fine tune the system with a complimentary cable upgrade and probably an outboard phono preamp down the road.

Right, within your budget (or very close) i would strongly recommend a high compliance Audio-Technica AT-20SLa with genuine 20SL Nude Shibata Stylus (not a bootleg from LPgear). Simply search on audiogon and you will find more about this great MM cartridge from the golden age of Moving Magnets. This cartridge has so many followers here on audiogon. Another cartridge in this price is probably Grace F9E, but the AT20SLa (Shibata) is much better than Elliptical F9E.

Chakster, Ive heard the Ortofon 2M on a AT LP120 Turntable ($350) running through my Manley Chinook phono pre and Jumbo Shirmp linestage with Dynaudio Contour 3.0 speakers driven by a McIntosh MC352. My system is very sensitive to the source and while the 2M red is surely a budget cartridge, its very listenable and to compare the new MM's from Ortofon to a old Stanton.....really is not on the same level at all imo. What were doing now in 2018 with spinning vinyl is leaps and bounds ahead of what we heard in our homes 30-40 years ago, if its not, look to your system!

Matt M
@mattmiller Stanton 881s MKII was a choice of Doug Sax (RIP) if you know who it is and if you don’t know look at Sheffield Lab studio gear. This is his master disc monitoring cartridge for years. Doug Sax did the greatest Direct Cut recordings of all time. This cartridge cost under $250 today (used) or even cheaper if you’re lucky to find one in the USA. I’m not gonna say it’s the best MM cartridge, because there are better Stanton cartridges out there like the signature SC-100 WOS or 981 series, but the Stanton is clearly better than 2M Red and the price for that Stanton is pretty low. Here is the article about 3 top carts used by the greatest mastering engineers from the golden age of vinyl, those carts are Technics 100c MK4, Audio-Technica AT-ML170 and Stanton 881s MKII.

I hope you’re not trying to say that modern Ortofon MM cartridges are better?
Unfortunately Ortofon M20FL SUPER is no longer available - that was a good one with Fine Line stylus.

Not sure how many cartridge have you tried, but i have tried many of them and still trying/looking for something that can surpass the vintage MM, but i can not find anything that comes even close to some of my favorite MM carts, they are all from the 80s, but i was born in the 70s and i have not tried those carts until now.

In my system i use at the moment: AT-ML180 OCC, Grace F-14 LC-OFC, Grace LEVEL II MR/MR and Stanton CS-100 WOS ... and many others... they are all superior to the 881 MKII for sure, but the price for those carts are 3-5 times as much and they are easily competes (on the right tonearms) with 3-4k MC cartridges.

BTW I owned Dynaudio Contour 1.1 (bookshelf) with powerfull Dynaudio SUB-300. Dynaudio is definitely not my type of sound! Sold them long time ago.

I find my nirvana with super high efficient (101db) Zu Audio Druid MKV full range speakers instead (no crossover). It’s completely different sound and that’s why the source (aka cartridge) is important for me. I also drive them with new tube amp, so i’m not the one who stick to the old gear, except for the cartridges and turntables.
Before you toss the cart, have you measured how much the high freq are rolled off?

what about adjusting the cart loading on the phono stage.....

you may want to consider the following.
1. get a disc with test tones on it,.
2. play the disc back on your current set up.
3. connect a volt meter to your phono pre amp output stage.
4. record the AC voltage produced at each test frequency.
Once you have that, then you can determine how rolled off it is or isn't.


Hi there again.

After careful consideration of all your valued inputs I checked all the mechanical aspects of 'table and tonearm setup and bought a very slightly used Sumiko Blue Point #2, install and calibrated it, spun a couple dozen vinyl sides and noticed the following.

The Sumiko is dramatically smoother throughout the frequencies. The bloated bass of the Ortofon was gone, replaced by a much better defined and articulate bottom end that is rich in tone and timber. The hi-freq's opened up, and the missing air and spacial information became much more obvious. The midrange and voices are no longer highly prominent and are much more consistent with the entire musical spectrum. The musical presentation is better defined and voices are more natural and far less forceful. The image is deeper and instrument location is better defined.

While the Sumiko is not quite as dynamic and dramatic as the Ortofon but it is superior in it's obvious neutrality and overall fidelity. If I had to use a word to sum up, it is "graceful" by comparison.

For a hundred bucks, the Ortofon Red is a great value in it's price range. However, the Blue Point simply blows it away it with it's musicality. It's like comparing a pick-up truck to a Porsche.

Thanks again for all your input.
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As someone who has sold a thousand carts and owned a hundred I agree
that old school was better . Best quality I’ve seen in present stuff is Nagoka and Goldring . Looking at later looks like Nagoka to me .

Just where do you buy these 881’s, and the ones I really loved, the Pickering 3000 and the Empire RD9 ?
Does any Grado fan have an opinion whether their present stuff is worse
than their old school ?