The Ortofon 2M Black LVB 250 and Quintet Black

Can a moving-magnet match a moving-coil, head to head?

[Italian version here]

Product name: Ortofon LVB and Quintet Black
Manufacturer: Ortofon - USA
Approx. price: $1099 USD
Reviewer: M.L. Gneier - TNT USA
Reviewed: December, 2023

Over the years I have reviewed a great many products from new, small companies. And I've enjoyed it. New companies usually bring new (or what they believe to be new) ways of looking at product design. That said, there's a lot that a well-known company can bring to a high fidelity product. Ortofon is a great example. They've been at this or that in the realm of sound for over a century. When I mentioned to a non-audiophile friend of mine that I was reviewing a couple Ortofon cartridges he said, "Oh, I've heard of Ortofon!"

TNT-Audio reviewed the Quintet Blue back in 2015. I actually reviewed each of the cartridges under test separately. I could not compare one to another, back to back. After a time I decided to review them within a single review. Here's why: The Ortofon 2M Black LVB 250 (250th Ludwig van Beethoven Anniversary) is a sophisticated moving-magnet design that most would regard as fairly expensive, given its $1099 USD retail price. The LVB employs a highly polished Shibata stylus and a boron cantilever. At 7.2 grams, it's fairly lightweight. I observe that all of Ortofon's cartridges have fairly significant overall height. This can be an issue when it comes to achieving proper VTA. I experimented a little with both of the Ortofon's I reviewed. They're not overly fussy, thankfully. The shape of the LVB makes alignment a little bit tricky since the cartridge throws a lot of visual angles during installation and adjustment. Lastly, and I found this to be true on both of the Ortofon's I reviewed, the four pins that the cartridge leads attached to are quite close together. This is something I've never er experienced before. With all of the leads attached things look pretty crowded back there.

For me the most important factor separating the two Ortofons presented here is the fact that the LVB is a moving-magnet. As such, it puts out a more than healthy 5 mV. That much output means that pretty much any, no, I'll come right out and say it, any phono stage will have plenty of gain. In my case, I'll say that the gain may have actually detracted my enjoyment of the LVB, slightly. It's a tricky and controversial notion but I tend to believe that a phono system really can have too much gain. In a system with conventional volume control this often means that you're operating your volume potentiometer in a range where it's unlikely to sound it best. As I said, many others disagree so let me get on to how the Ortofon LVB sounds.

Both of the Ortofons sounded so essentially right from the time they were installed that I suspected they had been broken in either at the factory or by the distributor. I was so suspicious of this possibility that I mentioned my observation to my contact at Ortofon US. It turns out that neither cartridge had experienced any advanced break in. What I was hearing was the result of sophisticated polishing that the LVB and the Quintet Black receive. Having heard dozens of new cartridges over the last couple decades I must say that that none sounded as fundamentally correct and consistent over as the two Ortofons under review here. There's a big reason why this matters. If the sound of a new cartridge changes rapidly it tends to make a consumer or reviewer doubt what they're hearing. And, of course, the listener is getting used to the cartridge. And, of course, cartridges are transducers wherein the source of the initial energy comes from the diamond stylus riding along the grooves. As with vacuum tubes, no cartridge is ever the same from one playing to another. Each is aging constantly and, with the passage of enough time, audibly.

Back to the LVB. It sounded great right from the start. If I had to pick three words to describe it I would go with: Bold, Coherent and Musical. It's the kind of cartridge that brings music together in a way that makes you want to hear more rather than drawing you attention to how it's doing its magic act. It's rather like a good three way speaker. If it's really good you can't readily hear the crossover or how the midrange driver is being differentiated from the tweeter and the woofer. You know it's happening, but nothing in the music is drawing your attention to it. The LVB is like that and that's why I described it as coherent. It can unravel the simple as well as the complex. And, it's bold and dynamic, musically so, but also as a manifestation of its musical fingerprint. It's obvious that Ortofon put a lot of effort into the LVB. It's an ambitious design. It tries to do a lot and it succeeds. You know, I'd like to add a fourth word to describe the LVB and that's brave. The Ortofon sounds brave and as a fairly expensive moving-magnet design it has to be. The Ortofon LVB is a significant musical step upward from any other moving-magnet cartridge I have ever heard.

But, there is another Ortofon and in this other comes something that many will regard as a conundrum. In some ways the Ortofon Quintet Black is merely the other side of the same coin to the LVB. But, in other ways it is a totally different breed. The Quintet Black is a (relatively) low output moving-coil cartridge putting out 0.3 mV. So, even though the Black costs the very same $1099 as the LVB your system needs more gain to make it sing. And, you already know this, that extra gain is going to cost you. I reviewed both Ortofons with three different phono preamps. The first is a sub-$500 solid state design, the second is another well-known solid-state phono preamp that costs around $1200 USD and the third is a custom solid-state design I've owned for many years. It's not a formal reference because it's not something anyone else can buy but it is the best phono preamp I have ever heard. Each of the three had plenty of gain for the Ortofon but it was obvious that the more expensive preamps got more out of the Black than the sub-$500 preamp could extract. Still, I have every confidence that many listeners would find that the Black sounds just fine with what is, after all, a very inexpensive preamp.

The problem with moving-coil cartridges is that they sound better and better as the quality of preamp's gain improves. It's always funny how that works. I started the Black out on the bottom rung and it sounded excellent. Like the LVB it sounded great right out of the box. However, I did find that it was even smoother after just a handful of hours and some very minor adjustments. The Black is a heavier cartridge than the LVB at 9 grams and employs a nude Shibata on a sapphire cantilever. Very sexy. I didn't measure but the Black looks even taller than the LVB. At first I thought its somewhat boxy shape would help with alignment but it didn't. The Black's body is relatively short front to back and quite wide, nearly as wide as the arm's head shell area's mounting surface. The rough translation is that the Black like its relative the LVB took a little extra care to align to my satisfaction.

I know it seems like I digressed there a bit and perhaps I did so let me get back to the issue of how the Ortofon Black sounds. In a word, it's fantastic. It's true, musical rewards increased as I moved from the bargain phono preamp to the more expensive preamp and final to the preamp that's made from Unobtanium (that's an old piece of aerospace jargon that refers to materials you cannot possibly obtain). Since I came up with three words to sum up the LVB I think I should do more than say the Ortofon Black is fantastic, even though it is. The three words are: Refined, Unflappable and Elegant. No matter what music I selected I always had the feeling that the Black's refinement was providing a lens to the very essence of the music. Is that essence involved with detail? Sure. But, it's also related to the sheer elegance of the Black's presentation. On solo or massed strings there's never a hint of tizzyness or confusion. That's an expression of the Black's fundamental unflappability. The Ortofon Black speaks the language of music and it does so effortlessly. The midrange was especially pure but it was the extension and precision and drive of the bass that really surprised me. Like all good bass it's rendered naturally and as a part of the music that sometimes simply missed.

I'm sure you see where this is all leading. Yes, the Ortofon Black is a better cartridge than the LVB. But, the improvement comes at a cost that goes beyond the cost of the cartridge. Are you Ok with $1099 for the Black and then an extra $500, or $1000 or $2000 for a moving-coil phono stage that gives you a view of heaven? That's a question only you and your credit card can answer. If you've already made the investment into a really good phono stage I'd say you've already answered the question. But, if you haven't, can't, or don't want to go down the rabbit hole the Ortofon LVB will be ready when you are. I'll admit it. Hearing the Black second convinced me that it was head and shoulders beyond the LVB but as I go back through my notes I wonder if that's true.

Earlier I mentioned the idea of a conundrum and it's still on my mind. Part of the promise of high end audio is the idea of a relentless journey toward the highest realm of fidelity. I get that. I've been around a long time and I know that for the most part you get what you pay for. But, in another way I think that "pay more, get more" is simplistic. As I get older I've come to treasure a sense of balance even more than raw quality or fidelity. As a reviewer, I am lucky enough to listen to a lot of fantastic gear and to write about it. Both the Ortofon Quintet Black S and the 2M Black LVB 250 are fantastically musical cartridges but, as I close, I hesitate to say categorically that one is better than the other. It was a privilege to hear and write about both. What I hope for our readers is that same sense of balance I wrote about earlier. The fact is that you cannot go wrong with either of these Ortofons. Do they make me wonder what the company can accomplish with their more expensive and possibly better cartridges? A little. After all, reviewers are only human. Still, I have come to appreciate the musical balance the Quintet Black S and the 2M Black LVB 250 achieve. I could be happy with either of these cartridges for a long, long time and I will bet you could, too.

Listen well but listen happy, my friends.

A brief note from MLG about pricing: In my reviews, all prices are in US dollars and are as-provided by the US manufacturer or distributor.

DISCLAIMER . TNT-Audio is a 100% independent magazine that neither accepts advertising from companies nor requires readers to register or pay for subscriptions. If you wish, you can support our independent reviews via a PayPal donation . After publication of reviews, the authors do not retain samples other than on long-term loan for further evaluation or comparison with later-received gear. Hence, all contents are written free of any “editorial” or “advertising” influence, and all reviews in this publication, positive or negative, reflect the independent opinions of their respective authors . TNT-Audio will publish all manufacturer responses, subject to the reviewer's right to reply in turn.

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