There were times in the mid nineteen seventies when Ortofon cartridges were everywhere. Practically every new sub-£100 turntable seemed to come sold with an FF15E – a fine sounding £15 budget design – whereas your Rega Planar 3s, Ariston RD40s and Dunlop Systemdek IIs of this world often ended up with the VMS20E. This was an ideal match for high quality turntables that didn’t quite make the ‘superfi’ league, offering a taste of what a really good cartridge could do, for little more money than a mediocre one.
You might say it was Ortofon’s Ford Cortina. It would be the 2.0GL model of course, the fancy one but without the luxurious brown vinyl roof and chromed sports wheels, because the range-topping Ghia variant of the VMS series was the 30. The flagship VMS cartridge came with a lighter Fine Line Nude stylus, as opposed to the VMS20E’s Nude Elliptical. Actually, the latter’s diamond tip performed very nicely, thank you very much – at the recommended tracking force of just 1.0g, it had a tracking ability of 70µm, which wasn’t to be sneezed at back in 1977.
These figures tell a story; this was the nineteen seventies, and from practically the beginning to the end of this decade, the trajectory of phono cartridges and the tonearms that carried them, was from high mass and low compliance to precisely the reverse. Launched in the middle of that decade, the VMS20E was one of the leading lights in the move to lower mass tonearms tracking cartridges with highly compliant suspensions; the idea was to make the whole shebang ride warps better. Ortofon’s VMS series duly surfed the zeitgeist, and as ever more turntable and/or tonearm makers brought out low mass decks and arms, it worked ever better. From Dual’s ‘Ultra Low Mass’ CS506 turntable to SME’s ill-fated Series III pickup arm, this cartridge was a synergistic match.
The VMS20E was the first in the series of Ortofon’s Variable Magnetic Shunt cartridges, and sold for around £30 in 1978. It was later joined by the aforementioned VMS30 which was about £10 dearer, and then the range was widened to include the 10, 5 and 3 (at £20, £15 and £10 respectively). The 5g plastic body was the same across all versions, with the stylus getting increasingly exotic. By the time you reached the VMS3E it had a lowly, basic elliptical diamond tip; still at this time some would have regarded this as a thing to be proud of; pricier rivals such as A&R’s C77 actually ran less sophisticated spherical styli!
Ortofon’s patented Variable Magnetic Shunt generator offered reduced effective tip mass (moving mass) compared to normally designed magnetic cartridges. This in turn was claimed to bring faster transient response, lower distortion and improved depth and clarity. Normally, a magnetic cartridge has a solid magnet moving close to a set of coils, whereas VMS cartridges has their stylus cantilever attached to a light tubular armature moving between the coils in the field of a miniature ring magnet. This armature cuts the flux lines of the magnet when the stylus moves, working as a magnetic shunt. Because the field in front of the pole pins varies, voltage is generated.
When I first heard an Ortofon VMS20E around 1978, I was amazed. The cartridge had a wonderful clarity, poise and stability. It wasn’t shouty or overly emotional, but instead everything was very clean and tidy and ordered – rather like I imagined Denmark to be! It was couth, refined, civilised and had lots of detail. I remember marvelling at the shimmer from ride cymbals on Donna Summer’s epic disco cover of MacArthur Park! Listened to today, and the VMS20E is less endearing; it is safe but sterile. It’s still pleasingly together and controlled, but seems to straightjacket the music a little too much. In a word, the VMS20E sounds flat.
Still, in the context of its day, when standards were generally low and turntables often coloured with an overbearing bass, I can see the Ortofon making a lot of sense. It tracks really well, rides warps far better than rival Audio Technicas of that time, and generally sounds polished in a way that no other cartridge of its price did at that time. Adding a VMS30 stylus (long since discontinued), opened the cartridge up a bit, letting the music breath, making rhythms more animated and giving a wider and more detailed sound. But still the basic body of the VMS cartridges isn’t the most dynamic sounding around, and doesn’t have the bounce of rival Shure M95s. Tonally it is ever so slightly forward in the upper midband, and at the time often worked better with 210pF of added capacitance from Ortofon’s optional CAP210 double capacitor, because many phono stages weren’t happy with its 400pF standard.
Ortofon kept the VMS series running well into the nineteen eighties, but its star had begun to dim by 1981. Firstly, the company launched its new range of ‘Ultra Low Mass’ Concorde cartridges – which were VMS designs in a radically different body with integral SME headshell fixing, and these spawned into the OM series which also had newer bodies but conventional mounts. Secondly, the world began to fall out of love with the low mass idea and we saw the resurgence of higher mass designs at the high end, spearheaded by Japanese moving coils. Nowadays there are still plenty of VMS20Es around, and they’re worth picking up if in good condition and the price is right (£30 or so), but styli are long since discontinued and frankly there are better modern cartridges around – not least Ortofon’s current range.